Malcolm Lowry Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

“By the end of the century,” novelist Anthony Burgess wrote in 1984, “Under the Volcano may be seen as one of its few authentic masterpieces.” Only this masterwork and Malcolm Lowry’s self-conscious first novel, Ultramarine, were published during his lifetime: His is a story of waste, self-destruction, and critical neglect. Ironically, interest was first revived because of his premature death by “misadventure”—defined in the finale to Lowry’s autobiographical myth of the Faustian romantic outsider as one who risks damnation for mystical vision, using alcohol as a shortcut. Interest has since been fueled by the posthumous publication of many works, most of them carefully edited by his widow. Like his hero in Ultramarine, Lowry was “a man who believed himself to live in inverted, or introverted, commas”; his life and his fictions are, to a great degree, inseparable.

Clarence Malcolm Lowry (LOW-ree) was born into a comfortable and conventional bourgeois existence on July 28, 1909, the youngest of four sons of Arthur Osborne Lowry, a prosperous Liverpool cotton broker, and his wife, Evelyn Boden. Both parents were somewhat somber Methodist teetotalers; nevertheless, Lowry’s childhood seems (in contradiction to some of his later claims) to have been happy, with his enthusiasms for jazz records and silent films much indulged. At eight he started preparatory school, followed by a stint at a minor public school, where he wrote comic stories for the school magazine. Before he went to the University of Cambridge, however, several events occurred which were to be of great importance for Lowry’s life and writing. Determined to get “experience” of the world (which he could then turn into a first novel), he worked in May, 1927, as a deckhand on the SS Pyrrhus, which was en route to China; in 1928 he spent three years at a college in Bonn, coming under the spell of German expressionism; and he spent the summer of 1929 with American writer Conrad Aiken, whose 1927 “before the mast” novel Blue Voyage influenced Lowry significantly.

Lowry had rebelliously engaged in bouts of heavy drinking at school. He left Cambridge not only with an undistinguished third-class degree but also with a reputation as a great writer and a great drinker. Until the end of his life, he was financially supported by his father, who tried to keep the checks large enough to allow Lowry to write but small enough to save him from drunkenness. By 1934, however, Lowry had set the pattern of binging, marginalized expatriation, and intense but isolated...

(The entire section is 1063 words.)

Malcolm Lowry Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The youngest of four brothers, Clarence Malcolm Lowry was born at Warren Crest, North Drive, Liscard, Cheshire, England, on July 28, 1909. His father, Arthur O. Lowry, was a wealthy cotton broker of sturdy Victorian probity; his mother, Evelyn Boden, was the daughter of Captain Lyon Boden of Liverpool. A prominent shipowner and mariner, Captain Boden had died of cholera while homeward bound from Calcutta (now known as Kolkata), India, in 1880. This part of the family legacy, so unlike that of the paternal side, would provide Malcolm Lowry with the doom-tinged romantic yearning for the sea much in evidence in his fiction.

At fourteen, Lowry was sent to a public school, The Leys, from which he was expected to proceed to Cambridge University, as his brothers had done. It was during his four years at The Leys, however, that he began to engage in what amounted to a subtle subterfuge of the respectable middle-class life that his father had prescribed for him. He became infatuated with jazz and took up playing the “taropatch,” or tenor ukulele. Enthusiastic readings of Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, Jack London, and the early Eugene O’Neill fed his dreams of adventure at sea. Meanwhile, encouraged by one of his schoolmasters (the model for James Hilton’s “Mr. Chips”), he began to write his own stories for the school’s literary magazine. At this time, too, he began, surreptitiously at first, what would become another of his lifelong infatuations: alcohol.

By 1927, the conflict with his father had become overt, but Lowry finally agreed to go to Cambridge—after going to sea. In May, he shipped out as deckboy aboard the SS Pyrrhus, bound for the Far East. This experience, which lasted about six months and was to provide the raw material for Ultramarine, punctured at least some of his youthful illusions about the sea. It was followed, in the summer of 1928, by another pilgrimage, this time to New England, where he went to pay homage to Conrad Aiken. The American writer’s experimental novel of the sea, Blue Voyage (1927), was the catalyst of a kind of private tutorial (Lowry being already engaged in the writing of Ultramarine). The two got on famously, beginning a literary kinship—and, later a competition—as of father and son, which would last in one form or another for thirty years.

At Cambridge, Lowry scarcely applied himself to his formal studies. Instead, he plumped the role of the loutish yet brilliant sailor, took up jazz again, became a connoisseur of avant-garde German silent films, drank, ran with an “advanced” circle of friends, and continued to work on Ultramarine. In November, 1929, one of his friends, Paul Fitte, committed suicide. The circumstances remain uncertain, but it is clear from...

(The entire section is 1141 words.)

Malcolm Lowry Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Clarence Malcolm Lowry (LOW-ree) was the son of a rich British industrialist, Arthur Osborne Lowry, and was supported meagerly by his father throughout his life. After his early years, Lowry lived among the poor; however, he was partly distinguished from his neighbors by his receipt of monthly paternal stipends—an alienating situation that he could not leave behind as easily as he eventually deleted his first name. Indeed, his alienation also had various roots in his childhood, including his being largely or wholly blind from nine to thirteen, occasioning much bullying by the other boys in the private schools where his parents left him from the age of seven onward. At eighteen, he sailed to the Far East as a cabin boy, teased by the other sailors because of his father’s wealth. His most notable alienation, however, was that from the age of fourteen he remained a heavy drinker, to the horror of his Methodist father, a teetotaler. This alienation often expressed itself in physical and psychological wandering.

Lowry returned from his cabin-boy experience, first to German studies in Bonn, then to a writing apprenticeship with Conrad Aiken in the United States, and then for somewhat longer to Cambridge University, from which he vacationed by working on a Norwegian freighter in order to meet the pro-Communist novelist Nordahl Grieg, author of Skibet gaar videre (1924; The Ship Sails On, 1927).

The only relative success of Lowry’s university studies was his thesis, the novel Ultramarine, published in 1933, but to indifferent reviews. That year, he had a reunion with Aiken in Europe, where Lowry met and married Jan Gabrial, an American. This was a fairly productive period, with Lowry placing his short fiction in the American magazine Story. By 1935, however,...

(The entire section is 742 words.)

Malcolm Lowry Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The writing of Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry’s only significant literary accomplishment, was dominated by his ambivalence toward alcohol and most other aspects of his life, with the possible exception of his feelings for his second wife, Margerie Bonner. The novel evidences his love and hatred of Mexico, of his (burning) shack in Canada, of his first wife, Jan Gabrial, of the material beauties of life, and of himself. Even his chief love, writing, is parodied in Geoffrey’s futilely planning an occult book, as Lowry had been planning his own occult book for ten years. As a Kabbalist, Lowry might hope to draw his readers’ attention to God, thereby helping to unite the world, but opinions differ on how serious he was about that grand design.