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...
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