Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Technically speaking, Ultramarine is a remarkable tour de force for an apprentice work. Its six-chapter structure is designed to reflect the struggle between Hilliot’s tendency to inward and backward-looking subjectivity and the urge to outward and forward-looking objectivity—a conflict later dramatized in Under the Volcano as a conflict between two characters (the cynical consul Geoffrey Firmin and his adventurer-journalist brother Hugh), something of which is suggested in this work in Hilliot’s conflict with the sensual social arbiter Andy. When contemplation dominates, monologue takes over; Hilliot’s acceptance in and of the active life is signaled in the sixth chapter by the virtual absorption of his voice into the anonymous gossip of the crew.

Thus, like Malcolm Lowry’s later works, Ultramarine is a hybrid form of prose fiction with many literary ancestors. It is to Conrad Aiken’s Blue Voyage (1927) that it owes the counterpointing of syncopated dialogue and interior monologue. Yet in its orchestration of personal and cultural fragments (snatches of song, quotations from the Greek), its mixture of the surreal and the banal (the anatomical museum, tickets to Birkenhead), and its mythologizing and symbolic aspects (the ship as Ark, voyage as a metaphor for human life—“wandering, harbourless, dispossessed”), the novel is strongly reminiscent of T. S. Eliot’s poetry.

Among the pleasures...

(The entire section is 411 words.)