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The volcano builder

Nicholas Delbanco is the Robert Frost Distinguished University professor at the University of Michigan. His most recent novel is "Spring and Fall."

Malcolm Lowry was born in 1909 in Liverpool, England, to a family of prosperous and proper -- therefore disapproving -- cotton brokers. Sufficiently an embarrassment so that his father paid him to live abroad, Lowry spent time in Paris, New York, Mexico, Italy, Los Angeles and Canada; he ended his personal “Voyage That Never Ends” in a cottage in Ripe, Sussex, on June 27, 1957. Death was occasioned by a lethal combination of barbiturates and alcohol; he had been a prodigious drinker, and his predictive if tongue-in-cheek poem-epitaph tells the tale:

. . . Malcolm Lowry

late of the Bowery

whose prose was flowery

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if somewhat glowery

who worked nightly

and sometimes daily

and died, playing the ukulele.

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It has been 50 years since Lowry’s “death by misadventure” -- the verdict pronounced by the coroner. His work lives on. The author is best known and most admired for “Under the Volcano” (1949), a masterpiece of psychological and political mythopoeia detailing the final day of Geoffrey Firmin, a British consul in Mexico -- as well as those who remember him on the Day of the Dead one year later. The consul, his wife, Yvonne, and his half-brother, Hugh, together comprise a kind of Everyman as well as an eternal triangle; Lowry gives them other names in other books. This one’s structure borrows from Dante’s “Inferno,” Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” and Goethe’s “Faust,” with interspersed allusions to a grab-bag of texts such as the Hindu epic Mahabharata, the parable of the Good Samaritan, “Moby-Dick” and Donald Duck. A dazzling display of literary technique, it’s also very funny and, at the core, romantic -- a story of doomed lovers in the shadow of the paired volcanoes, Ixtaccihuatl and Popocatepetl, and a world on the brink of World War II. Some have dismissed it as merely a sustained description of a drunkard, but many writers -- this reviewer among them -- consider it one of the 20th century’s major novels.

Like Joyce’s “Ulysses” (a formative text for Lowry), the book demands close scrutiny. And it rewards careful study. Lowry layered his language with meaning, creating a kind of palimpsest in the process of revision, and his letter to his publisher, Jonathan Cape (dated Jan. 2, 1946, and occupying more than 40 pages of “The Voyage That Never Ends”) remains the single best defense of “Under the Volcano”; it should forever put to rest the condescending suggestion that an author cannot understand his or her own purpose. From a short story of the same name, completed in 1938 (and republished here), the work was enlarged into a dense but never daunting triumph of narrative achievement; it stands as an example of the “possessed” artist grown self-possessed.

During his lifetime, Lowry also published an early novel, “Ultramarine,” about a young man at sea. In part an hommage to his mentor Conrad Aiken’s “Blue Voyage” (Aiken called it “purple passage”), it’s an apprentice tale. A handful of stories and poems made their way into print. Then “Under the Volcano” appeared; its originality was recognized in the year of publication and its author’s reputation was made. As is the case with that other prodigious drinker and talent, Ernest Hemingway, Lowry seems to have been more productive after death than when alive; though there’s no line of furniture or “look-alike” contest in place, his adepts continue to clamor for work-desk leavings and scraps.

In the main, however, Lowry has been ill-served by the posthumous publication of such texts as “Lunar Caustic,” “Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid” and “October Ferry to Gabriola.” They bear the traces of haste that he excised from “Under the Volcano,” and though conceived of as components of a whole (to be titled, as is this collection, “The Voyage That Never Ends”), they are best read as works-in-progress. An exception to the rule is the volume of short stories “Hear Us O Lord From Heaven Thy Dwelling Place,” the first of such posthumous books to appear (from J.B. Lippincott in 1961) and the one that contains another masterpiece, “The Forest Path to the Spring.” As Lowry writes in and of that story, "[W]hat I had learned of nature, and the tides and the sunrises I tried to express. And I tried to write of human happiness in terms of enthusiasm and high seriousness usually reserved for catastrophe and tragedy.”

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Most of the texts referred to above are difficult to find today; this book serves a useful purpose if only as a way to promulgate them anew. For the less-than-total devotee, however, the collection may pose problems. It is, I suspect, a preachment to the congregation -- not an attempt to make new converts to Malcolm Lowry’s cause. Michael Hofmann, the poet and translator, was instrumental earlier in bringing yet another dipsomaniacal artist -- the doomed and brilliant Joseph Roth -- to our attention. He has selected these pages with care, and they are a pleasure to read. The sampling of short stories, poems and letters was judiciously made; the “drafts” of the several novels-in-progress, perhaps, make less sense (unless one knows the larger context and Lowry’s plan of composition.) No writer was ever more obsessive and self-referential or more self-aware. But absent the great central structure of “Under the Volcano,” this scaffolding of minor work contains an empty space.

There are neither captioned photographs nor footnotes nor any sort of index; unless one happens already to have read the texts from which this one was compiled, it’s difficult to separate the forest from the trees. Hofmann’s introductory essay makes the claim that “Under the Volcano” was on balance a debit, not a credit, for Lowry, denying him the chance to enlarge upon achievement -- as in the three or five or seven novels projected for “The Voyage That Never Ends,” and in which the “Volcano” was to have had the same function as the Commedia’s “Inferno.” But one could equally argue that, had he world enough and time, self-discipline would once again have come into ascendancy; the distance traversed from the mediocre short story “Under the Volcano” to the magnificent book itself is an inspiriting one. And every page of this omnibus volume represents delivery as well as promise; the temptation is to quote unstintingly from his by-blows and asides.

Here, for example, is the poem “Strange Type” (included in “The Poems of Malcolm Lowry,” which appeared from City Lights Press as far back as 1962 but is not reprinted by Hofmann). It deserves to be remembered -- since it concisely captures this author’s wry humor, underlying melancholy and love of verbal play -- and stands as emblematic of what, lost, can be retained:

I wrote: in the dark cavern of our birth.

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The printer had it tavern, which seems better:

But herein lies the subject of our mirth,

Since on the next page death appears as dearth.

So it may be that God’s word was distraction,

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Which to our strange type appears destruction.

Which is bitter.


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