Malcolm Lowry Malcolm Lowry Long Fiction Analysis

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Malcolm Lowry Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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 entire section is 4,672 words.)