(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The brief, tragic life of novelist Malcolm Lowry had a strong legendary quality. In his own writing Lowry projected fictional versions of his experiences repeatedly into contexts redolent with famous precursors from myth and literature. His lifelong struggles with alcoholism, chronic guilt and self-doubt, spiritual exile, and despair have provided ample material for biographers. Douglas Day’s award-winning Malcolm Lowry: A Biography (1973) and the highly acclaimed documentary film Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life of Malcolm Lowry (1977), written and directed by Donald Brittain and narrated by Richard Burton, helped to fix the popular image of Lowry as the paradigmatic doomed artist, a visionary drunkard possessed by inner demons that he managed as a writer to harness only once, in his 1947 masterpiece Under the Volcano. So entrenched is this image that the task of reinterpreting Lowry’s life in light of recently discovered information is formidable.

Biographer Gordon Bowker has expended prodigious time and energy in accepting this challenge. Having edited two previous volumes devoted to reminiscences of Lowry and critical essays about Under the Volcano, Bowker has been on Lowry’s trail for many years. He has traveled to all Lowry’s familiar haunts, interviewed surviving relatives and friends, consulted school and medical records, and examined private papers and unpublished manuscripts. Such industry and care have produced a wealth of detail and event that greatly enriches the picture of Lowry’s experiences. Yet as the main title of the book, Pursued by Furies, suggests, Bowker has not entirely demythologized Lowry. Rather, he has provided what amounts to a countermyth—grounded in exhaustive research—that will probably refocus perceptions of Lowry the man and writer for years to come.

Born July 28, 1909, in Liscard, Cheshire, Lowry was the youngest of four brothers. His father, Arthur O. Lowry, was a prosperous Liverpool cotton broker, a teetotaler, and a physical-fitness enthusiast. Evelyn Bowden Lowry, his mother, was distant and unaffectionate, content to allow her children to be reared by a succession of nannies. At fourteen Malcolm entered the Leys School in Cambridge, where he was active in sports and developed literary interests. He also became infatuated with jazz and took up playing blues on the “taropatch,” or tenor ukulele. Surreptitiously, he began to drink heavily. Encouraged by one of his schoolmasters (the model for James Hilton’s “Mr. Chips”), he wrote his first stories for the school’s literary magazine.

Lowry dreamed of going to sea, sustained by his reading of Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, Jack London, and the early Eugene O’Neill. In 1927, he left school to sail as a cabin boy on the S.S. Pyrrhus, bound for the Far East—a position arranged for him by his father. Lowry later attended the University of Cambridge and was graduated without distinction in 1932. He wrote his first novel, Ultramarine (1933), during college. Bowker’s research sheds new light on the suicide of Lowry’s classmate Paul Fitte, in which Lowry was implicated as an accomplice and for which he would feel guilty ever afterward. By early 1933, Lowry had decisively broken with his family, though remaining financially dependent on his father, and he began a wayward, rootless existence.

Lowry had already made pilgrimages to visit two contemporary writers whom he admired greatly: the American poet Conrad Aiken and Norwegian novelist Nordahl Grieg. Aiken’s novel Blue Voyage (1927) and Grieg’s Skibet gaar videre (1924, The Ship Sails On, 1927), were dominant influences on Ultramarine. A war correspondent during World War II, Grieg was killed when his airplane was shot down by the Nazis in 1943. To Lowry, Grieg exemplified the serious literary artist who was idealistic and socially responsible. In contrast to this “good angel,” Aiken was ultimately a sinister influence, as Bowker presents him. This view represents an important reinterpretation of the complex Aiken-Lowry relationship, which would last for twenty-five years. Bowker’s Aiken is a darkly self-absorbed, twisted manipulator, a confirmed misogynist whose motives were genuinely “evil.” Bowker goes as far as to claim that “if there was a threatening monster lurking not far below the skin of Malcolm Lowry, Conrad Aiken must take responsibility for consciously, for his own lurid experimental purposes, having been its Frankenstein.”

A few reviewers have challenged Bowker’s attribution of willful malice to Aiken and implication that Lowry was a mere passive victim. The chronic alcoholism, the ruined marriages, the trunkful of unfinished (and perhaps bogus) literary projects, the rootlessness and instability—these all stemmed from Lowry’s own character. Despite Bowker’s presentation of copious facts that document Lowry’s behavior, Bowker’s dualistic good angel–bad angel analysis at times participates in Lowry’s own mythmaking and seems to cloud basic ethical issues.

Bowker breaks new ground in his treatment of Lowry’s volatile and essentially unsatisfying relationships with women. Contributing to Lowry’s problems with women were...

(The entire section is 2150 words.)