Malcolm Lowry Essay - Critical Essays

Malcolm Lowry Long Fiction Analysis

Like most artists, Malcolm Lowry was always fascinated by the mystery of the creative process. Unlike many other modern writers, however, he was little inclined to the explicit formulation of aesthetic theories. Still, his attitudes toward art, particularly his own art, are frequently embodied in his fiction. In the opening chapter of Under the Volcano, for example, one of the main characters, a film director named Jacques Laruelle, sees a drunken horseman “sprawling all over his mount, his stirrups lost,barely managing to hold on by the reins, though not once[grasping] the pommel to steady himself.” Hurtling at breakneck speed through the narrow, winding streets of a Mexican village, the rider slips to one side, nearly falls, rights himself, almost slides off backward, and barely regains his balance, “just saving himself each time, but always with the reins, never the pommel.” A closer look reveals a machete in one of the rider’s hands, used to beat the horse’s flanks furiously. It is, as M. Laruelle reflects, a “maniacal vision of senseless frenzy, but controlled, not quite uncontrolled, somehow almost admirable.” This image serves, mutatis mutandis, as an epitome of Lowry’s art: full of high risk, willfully unstable, disdainful of conventional controls, precariously balanced—but balanced all the same.

Obviously, such balance is achieved, when it is achieved, with great difficulty. This was particularly true for Lowry, whose inclination was always to follow the minutest divagations of the mind. His is an art of excess, in several senses. The composition of a novel, for him, meant continual amplification and expansion, patiently adding layer after layer of meaningful reference and telling detail, until the structure of the whole fairly exploded with a rich profusion of reverberating meanings. Such “overloading,” to use Lowry’s own word describing his technique, is felt at every level. His prose style, for example, is characterized by wheeling complex sentences, rife with qualifications, suspensions, and parentheses. Brian O’Kill has aptly described this style as “expansive” and “centrifugal,” persistently “avoiding the closed unit of the periodic sentence in favor of an open form with an almost infinite capacity for addition and reduplication.”

Lowry’s range of tone is also unusually wide and varied. As Robert B. Heilman has observed, In recording a disaster of personality that is on the very edge of the tragic, [Lowry] has an extravagant comic sense that creates an almost unique tension among moods. Desperation, the ludicrous, nightmare, the vulgar, the appalling, the fantastic, the nonsensical, and the painfully pathetic coexist in an incongruous melange that is still a unity.

In a famous letter defending Under the Volcano against various suggestions for further revision, Lowry argued that the book could be regarded as a symphony, an opera, a jazz break, a poem, a tragedy, a comedy, a farce, a Churrigueresque cathedral, a wheel, a cryptogram, a prophecy, a film, and a kind of machine. If this claim sounds extravagant, it should be remembered that Lowry believed, with Charles Baudelaire, that “life is a forest of symbols.” Virtually everything in this novel—from a theater marquee to items on a menu, newspaper advertisements, an armadillo digging a hole, a cat chasing a dragonfly, amusement park rides, a travel brochure, a urinal—signifies. Appearing amid profuse allusions to the Bible, Christopher Marlowe, Dante, the Cabbala, John Bunyan, Sophocles, William Shakespeare, Herman Melville, and T. S. Eliot, among many others, these “found objects” in the setting gradually develop into a vast network of theprotagonist’s plight, elevating it to the level of a modern myth, indeed a tragedy for modern times.

In these respects, as in many others, Lowry resembles no one so much as Melville. Lowry once admitted, characteristically with irony at his own expense, that he identified himself with the American novelist for several reasons but “mostly because of his failure as a writer and his whole outlook generally.” Both novelists were acutely aware of the monstrous potencies of the human imagination, which could envision—and proceed resolutely to enact—apocalyptic destruction as readily as it could create life-serving works of art. Both knew well the dangers involved in unleashing those potencies, particularly in the service of a narcissistic quest for what Melville’s Ishmael calls “the ungraspable phantom of life,” the self.

Such a view of the imagination, overtly Romantic and possessed by the seductive demon of an artistic ego of leviathan, of volcanic, proportions, is clearly fraught with risk. Lowry, like Melville, accepted the risks involved, not the least of which was the gamble that the reader would go along, entertaining the terms of the risk. There are times when, inevitably, the gamble fails. “Overloading”—the Melvillian tendency in Lowry to pile on six portents or allusions or symbols to evoke something that another writer would either summarize in a simple declarative sentence or else not attempt to say at all—sometimes threatens to sink the vessel. Reading the work of both writers requires the granting of far more than the usual share of indulgences before the bountiful aesthetic rewards can be reaped.

Some readers, however, do not find such tolerance of unevenness to their taste, and Under the Volcano is on the way to becoming one of the least read of great novels, in company with Moby Dick (1851). Lowry’s other works (like Melville’s Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities, 1852, and The Confidence Man: His Masquerade, 1857) are so much the more neglected, despite the efforts of later critics to call attention to their worth. One can only regret this aesthetic stinginess, along with the more commonplace preference for readily accessible, streamlined fictions. In Lowry’s case, the reader who gives him- or herself to the experience proffered, accepting the terms of risk including the excesses involved, and the occasional failings, is likely to find that the gamble more than justifies itself. For, as Matthew Corrigan has aptly observed, when such “writing works for us, it does sobecause it entails a vision of a higher order of creative existence altogether than we ordinarily get in modern literature.”

Under the Volcano

Under the Volcano is a book of wonders, a grand testament to the undiminished plentitude of the English language and the prodigious powers—both creative and destructive—of the human imagination. Not the least of its wonders is that Malcolm Lowry began writing it while he was in Mexico suffering through the personal anguish of a failed marriage, chronic alcoholism, and a terror of life so pervasive that it is a minor miracle he survived at all, much less that he was able to write. The novel went through at least four complete drafts in nine years (the third draft having been rejected by thirteen publishers) and was finally completed in December, 1944. By that time, Lowry, from the far more stable perspective provided by living simply on the beach in Dollarton with his second wife, Margerie, had succeeded in sufficiently harnessing his inner demons so as to transform his earlier sufferings into art. He described the work in an important letter to his British publisher, Jonathan Cape, as a “drama ofman’s struggle between the powers of darkness and light,” but it would be more precise to call it a “Bible of Hell” written by one who had been a member of the Devil’s party and knew it well.

One index of Lowry’s ability to amplify his experience, transmuting it into a pattern with universal implications, is his management of setting. While the fictional village of Quauhnahuac is loosely modeled on Cuernavaca, where Lowry lived between 1936 and 1938, there is no attempt at documentary realism. To be sure, Lowry selects elements from the real town—the surrounding mountains dominated by the great volcano, Popocatepetl; the Cortes palace, with its revolutionary frescoes; the Hotel Casino de la Selva; the dilapidated Borda Gardens of Maximilian and Carlota; the winding cobbled streets; the quaintly named cantinas; the fetid barranca, or ravine, winding through the town—but his rendering of them emphasizes not mere local color but the power of the mind to metamorphose external reality into an interlocking set of correspondences to the inner life. One of Lowry’s strongest convictions was that life is, as Baudelaire said, a forest of symbols. Thus, Hernando Cortes’s palace and the Diego Rivera frescoes adorning it suggest the Spanish Conquest and the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, which in turn suggest both the endless internecine conflicts of history and the perpetual battle of the individual human soul against the powers of darkness. The Borda Gardens embody similar meanings, along with the aura of doomed love.

The volcano literally looms large over the entire novel, its snowy summit serving as a symbol of the characters’ spiritual aspiration toward ascent, while at its base winds the ubiquitous barranca, suggestive of an alternative destination awaiting the wayward soul. The proximity of the barranca to the totemic volcano and to the many gardens in the novel (most of them, like the Borda Gardens, overgrown, untended, and ruined) calls attention to one of Lowry’s central themes: the “infernal paradise” that is the essence of Mexico and, by extension, the modern world itself. This oxymoronic image owes something to D. H. Lawrence, whose novel The Plumed Serpent (1926) similarly links the contradictions endemic to revolutionary Mexico with the struggle of his protagonist to undergo a kind of rebirth of spirit. In Lowry, however, the allure of the infernal paradise does not liberate his protagonist from the despoiled garden of life and propel him toward redemption; rather, it arrests him in a state of prolonged inertia, a paralysis of will that renders him finally incapable of actively pursuing the spiritual ascent he so often imagines for himself. In Lowry’s version of the myth, at least in Under the Volcano, humans are condemned to inhabit a garden gone to seed, bereft of its creator: Paradise, surviving only as an image of longing, is irretrievably lost. Solipsistic dreams of ascent succeed only in preventing the upward progress of the soul and, indeed, in promoting its gradual descent into the infernal abyss.

Lowry’s narrative, like his setting, is designed to encourage the reader to view the events in broadly symbolic terms. Apart from the opening chapter, which is set one year to the day after the events recounted in the rest of the novel, the narrative’s present action is confined to the events of a single day, November 2, 1938, the last day in the life of the protagonist, Geoffrey Firmin, a former British consul and an alcoholic’s alcoholic. It is also the last day in the life of his wife, Yvonne. The Firmins have been divorced for nearly a year, but on this holiday, known to all in Mexico as the Day of the Dead (All Soul’s Day), Yvonne has returned to try to reconcile with Geoffrey. He realizes, however, that such a reconciliation—which he himself has desperately longed for during her absence—would require that he give up drinking, and this he cannot bring himself to do. They quarrel, fail at making...

(The entire section is 4672 words.)