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Malcolm Lowry, 11 Years Dead, Is Pawing Through the Ashes of His One Great Work

By William C. Bryson

I first read Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano on the all-night train trip from Central Mexico to the U.S. border at Nuevo Laredo. The trip, particularly in the second class compartment, easily beats a coast-to-coast Greyhound for discomfort. Mexican women with three children and a rooster buy one ticket, and then, once on the train, let their charges squirm their way over into the seat that you, God damn it, paid full fare for.

At every station, sixty people from your overcrowded car elbow their way off, and another seventy push in from the station to get on. Towards the end of the trip, as your back begins to stick to the disintegrating leather of the old upright seats, the sunrise lights up the outskirts of the miserable border town of Nuevo Laredo, sweltering colorlessly in the semi-desert of Northern Mexico.

I had been putting off reading Lowry's novel, partly because it was "about Mexico," and could be found prominently displayed on the paperback racks in all the Sanborn's in Mexico City. And, too, there was something irksomely cultish about the Lowry fans I had met. They talked of Malcolm and Margerie, rather than Lowry and his wife. They had visited all the places in the book. Hadn't Malcolm got that one just right, and now I know exactly how he felt, and drunk too! even though Lowry had lived in Mexico thirty years ago when nothing could possibly have been the same, when the chasm between the tourist and the environment must have been immensely easier to bridge.

The Lowry cultists could not discuss the novel intelligently. It had changed their lives, and that was that. Others, less sympathetic to Lowry, generally argued that the novel was "uneven." The first two hundred pages were deadly slow, they told me; only in the last chapters did things really begin to move. If you could get by the first two hundred, you were fine.

I began Under the Volcano as the train left the quiet, modern city of San Luis Potosi, read through the night, and finished it just outside of Nuevo Laredo. Even from the first deliberately subdued chapters, I found the novel completely engrossing. By the mid-point I was entirely under Lowry's spell. The distractions of each station-stop became intertwined with the awesome experience of discovering Malcolm Lowry. A small pig urinated on my duffle bag, right there in the car. Lowry's Consul awoke from a drunken stupor, trying to focus on the scorpion in front of him, stringing itself to death.

The novel recounts the last day in the life of Geoffrey Firmin, the British Consul in the Mexican town of Quauhnahuac (Cuernavaca). The Consul, a dipsomaniac, has hardly been sober since his wife left him a year before. On the Day of the Dead, 1938, she suddenly returns, but it becomes increasingly clear that there is no way that he can respond to her, no way that he can free himself even for a day from the lure of the quasi-hallucinogenic Mexican drink, mescal. Near the end of the day, the consul stumbles away from his wife into the bar which has harbored his deepest depressions and his most hopeless binges. There he meets a group of Mexican fascists who accuse him of spying for the Spanish Loyalists, and then shoot him moments later, half in sport.

Lowry is never completely in control of either his characters or his language. But the intensity and compelling honesty of his prose more than make up for his lapses. He creates only one character, the Consul--the other characters are interesting or relevant only to the extent that they reflect certain aspects of the Consul's personality. Still, that one character, obviously autobiographical, is drawn with such power that the others are rendered almost superfluous. Lowry's portrayal of the Consul's increasing inebriation throughout the day is in itself masterful--his distorted perceptions change subtly with each type of liquor he drinks.

Lowry matches Updike's portrayal of Rabbit Angstrom's wife drunkenly drowning her baby in his scene showing the besotted Consul desperately trying to place a telephone call. The beauty, the wordiness, the luxury and the humor of his prose find expression again and again in sentences such as:

The Consul, an inconceivable anguish or horripilating hangover thunderclapping about his skull and accompanied by a protective screen of demons gnattering in his ears, became aware that in the horrid event of his being observed by his neighbors, it could hardly be supposed he was just sauntering down his garden with some innocent horticultural object in view.

Perhaps Lowry's most forceful triumph in Under the Volcano, however, is his evocation of a totally isolated personality in the midst of people whose efforts to reach him seem quietly irrelevant. In the scene which switched me from an admirer to a believer, Lowry places the Consul between his wife and his half-brother on a crowded bus to Tomalin, the scene of the Consul's death. He then moves the wife and half-brother between a last hope of involving the Consul in conversation, of rescuing him from his suicidal self-absorption, and the recognition that he has already chosen to remain inaccessible to them.

Lowry wrote Under the Volcano over a ten year period, revising it repeatedly between 1938 and 1947, when it was finally accepted for publication. Before that, his only published work had been Ultramarine, an account of the year he spent at sea when he was 19.

In 1934, after the breakup of his first marriage, Lowry traveled to New York, began drinking heavily, and committed himself to a mental hospital, the scene of his novella, Lunar Caustic. The next year, he journeyed to Mexico hopeful of rejoining his wife, but instead plunged into the Maleboge of drinking and respair that "inspired" Under the Volcano. After languishing in Southern Mexico for two years Lowry left for the United States where he met Margerie Bonner, his second wife. In their squatter's shack on Vancouver Island, she nursed him through another seventeen years of alcoholism, depression and relentless bad luck, until his death from drinking at the age of 47.

During the last seventeen years, Lowry wrote voluminously, but published nothing. His longest manuscript and many of his notes were lost when his shack burned in 1945.

Since his death, his wife and two other editors have tried to piece together bits of the large bulk of unfinished work, in remotely intelligible form. The results, painfully slow in coming, have been enough to nourish the cultists, but insufficient to excite the doubters. At any event, nothing has come out to suggest that Under the Volcano would ever have been displaced as Lowry's major work.

In 1961, Mrs. Lowry brought out a collection of seven short stories which she had edited, and in some cases finished, under the title, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. The stories varied from very good to sloppy, roughly in accord with their state of completion at the time of Lowry's death. Then, in 1963, the Paris Review published his novella, Lunar Caustic which he had first written in 1936. Published in hardback for the first time this year, Lunar Caustic was to be the germ for Lowry's second major novel, the Purgatorio in his trilogy, The Voyage That Never Ends, for which Under the Volcano was to be his Inferno.

Finally, this year Margerie Lowry and Douglas Day collaborated to edit and publish Dark As the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid, Lowry's most baldly autobiographical novel.

Of the two published this year, Lunar Caustic is easily the better work. Reminiscent of both The Enormous Room and Naked Lunch, it easily surpasses both of these novels in control and precision of detail.

In Lunar Caustic, Lowry uses his secondary characters effectively to expand upon and control the main autobiographical figure, William Plantagenet, a young Englishman and a drunk, who is committed temporarily to Bellevue Hospital in New York. In the central conversation between Plantagenet and the Doctor, Lowry plays the Doctor's practical, mindlessly psychologistic comments against Plantagenet's solipsism. At the same time, however, the Doctor's words serve as a kind of objective warning against the distortions implicit in Lowry's habit of creating only autobiographical characters.

In one such exchange, Plantagenet raises the common Lowry theme of the struggle for regeneration:

"Can't you see the horror of man's uncomplaining acceptance of his own degeneration? Because many who are supposed to be mad here, as opposed to the ones who are drunks, are simply people who perhaps once saw, however confusedly, the necessity for change in themselves, for rebirth that's the word."

And the Doctor replies:

"If you're talking about yourself, all this is very helpful. If not, I don't think you have a grasp of the facts."

Dark As the Grave is much less polished. The editors carved the "novel" out of seven hundred pages of garbled and unfinished work. Intent on not adding a line that Malcolm didn't write they simply lined up the incidents of the book in chronological order and then shaved off any narrative duplication. The resulting document is occasionally rich enough to stand alone, but often outrageously thin and even tinny. The ending is particularly disheartening--a page and a half of a kind of maudlin twaddle suggesting a facile and most un-Lowrylike redemption.

Dark As the Grave is perhaps most useful as a new guide to Under the Volcano, more personal data for the cultists, more evidence with which to locate Lowry's favorite cantinas. The novel traces Lowry's return to Mexico with Margerie, just before Under the Volcano was finally accepted for publication. In Dark As the Grave, we meet some of the characters who appeared in different form in Under the Volcano, and we discover the often mundane source of what had seemed brilliant invention in the earlier novel. The Consul's mistranslation of the sign "Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan" as "We evict those who destroy" was, Lowry admits, his own careless error, not a conscious subtle distortion.

Some of the dialogue in Dark As the Grave is miserably stiff, more declamation than discussion. Much of it seems not even remotely directed towards the particular characters who are victimized by Lowry's alter-ego in these moments of prolixity.

Still, there are a few scenes in Dark As the Grave that recall the control of Under the Volcano and Lunar Caustic, the humor and self-mockery that save Lowry's protagonists in spite of themselves. When the imagery gets a little too mucky even for Lowry's strong-backed readers to bear, he pushes his always tenuous symbolism gently over the edge, and it tumbles to the bottom with the almost comic relief of self-parody:

Up, up they climbed, ever higher into the Sierra Madre, mountains beyond mountains beyond mountains where on these mountains the farmers sowed their seed crops and left them, upon seemingly inaccessible peaks. ... And what a lesson there was for a writer in this; it was an ascension into heaven itself.

There are portions of Dark As the Grave that recall Lowry's remarkable ability to capture an emotional moment, honestly and exactly. That ability, crafted and formed with care, made Under the Volcano a great work.

But I wonder, especially after reading Dark As the Grave, whether Lowry was in fact just another writer with one fine novel in him. To write Dark As the Grave, he trudged back through the country, the town, and even the buildings that had plagued him into writing Under the Volcano. Through most of the book, Lowry paws around, at times almost dispassionately, in the relics of the earlier novel. What had come off as supra-human desperation in Under the Volcano now emerges as an occasional fit of pique.

Dark As the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid may be the last of Lowry's incomplete works to be published, unless Mrs. Lowry squeezes the manuscripts for another "find." And of the lot, Under the Volcano remains the only major testament to Lowry's right to a place among the finest writers of the century. Despite his remarkable talent at self-portrayals, Lowry's power derives almost solely from the infernal torture of one two-year period in his life which he somehow survived. In the end, his contribution may come down simply to the fact that, as Ken Kesey put it, "He's been to the edge and looked over."

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