“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 creative work that was to persist for the rest of his life. In 1933, in Paris, he met and married a young Jewish American writer, Jan Gabrial. Her left-wing political views influenced Lowry’s fictions of the 1930’s, particularly Lunar Caustic, a novella based on his experience of “drying out” at Bellevue Hospital in New York in 1935. The next move was to Hollywood, where Lowry (unsuccessfully) attempted screenwriting. Then came the decisive move to Mexico in 1936.
In Cuernavaca, Lowry became fascinated with the Mexican awareness of death: A short story about the roadside death of an Indian was to become a central episode of Under the Volcano. Also in Mexico, Lowry’s marriage disintegrated. His subsequent descent into the alcoholic abyss indirectly resulted in his imprisonment in Oaxaca and his deportation in July, 1938. Back in Los Angeles, Lowry met another aspiring American writer, former silent film child-star Margerie Bonner. In 1940, in Canada, she became his second wife. The couple lived in a primitive seaside squatters’ settlement in Dollarton, British Columbia, until 1954. It was Lowry’s happiest and most productive period. There he rewrote Under the Volcano , in which Dollarton figures as the Edenic “Eridanus.” There also he became fascinated with black magic and the occult—a powerful influence on the finished novel. During a second short visit to Mexico in the winter of...
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