Malcolm Lowry Lowry, Malcolm

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(Short Story Criticism)

Malcolm Lowry 1909-1957

(Full name Clarence Malcolm Lowry) English short story writer, novelist, poet, and screenwriter.

Lowry is known as an experimental writer who produced a small but important body of writings. Influenced by the introspective, stream-of-consciousness literature of James Joyce, he is acclaimed for his intense and highly personal fiction. His work is also noted for its dense prose, as well as its themes of heaven and hell, failure, and redemption.

Biographical Information

Lowry was born in Liscard, Cheshire, in northwest England, the youngest of four sons. His father was a wealthy cotton broker, and Lowry had a conventional English upper-class upbringing. At the age of 17 he went to sea as a deckhand, an adventure which provided material for his first novel, Ultramarine. After his graduation from Cambridge, Lowry began a pattern of rootless exile. In 1935 he was confined to Bellevue Hospital's psychiatric ward in New York City for a short time for treatment of his alcoholism, an experience that inspired his novella Lunar Caustic. The next year Lowry traveled with his wife to Mexico. During this time he wrote a short story, "Under the Volcano," concerning three people—a alcoholic Consul, his daughter Yvonne, and her lover Hugh—and their discovery of a murdered peasant. The story, published in the winter of 1963-64, eventually became the basis for chapter eight of the novel of the same title. Lowry drank heavily throughout 1937 while working on the first draft of Under the Volcano, and his unruly drunkenness effectively ended his marriage. In 1939 Lowry met his second wife, Margerie Bonner, in Los Angeles. Together they moved to Vancouver, where they married in 1940. They lived in Dollarton, near Vancouver, for the next 14 years; the setting was inspirational to Lowry, and in his work he contrasted British Columbia's wild seasons with its serene beauty. It is said that these years in Canada were the happiest of Lowry's life. His masterpiece, Under the Volcano, was published in 1947. He never again published any major work during his lifetime. Lowry died in England from an overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol in 1957.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Lowry completed one collection of short fiction, Hear Us O Lord, which was published posthumously. While five of the stories in the collection garnered little attention, the remaining two—"Through the Panama" and "The Forest Path to the Spring"—are considered among his finest compositions. "Through the Panama" portrays a troubled writer's rise from the depths of self-consciousness. "The Forest Path to the Spring," the most poetic and spiritual of the volume's stories, traces the psychic development Lowry experienced during his years with his wife at Dollarton. In his autobiographical novella, Lunar Caustic, a disoriented alcoholic is confined to Bellevue Hospital's psychiatric wing. The protagonist, Bill Plantagenet, becomes acquainted with three other patients in the ward; through his relationship with these men, he comes to realize the severity of his alcoholism.

Critical Reception

Critics have generally provided positive reviews of Lowry's short fiction. Lunar Caustic has been praised as a spare, compelling, Dantesque tale. Reviewers contend that the novella is a frightening depiction of psychic limbo, a painful reminder of the horrors of earthly life, and a stunning view of human destruction and disillusionment. The stories of Hear Us O Lord have also been favorably received by critics, who maintain that the short fiction of the collection offers a rare vision of change and even growth in Lowry's otherwise bleak canon. In particular, "Through the Panama" and "The Forest Path to the Spring" are widely considered as brilliant and finely rendered as Under the Volcano.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place 1961

Lunar Caustic (novella) 1968

Other Major Works

Ultramarine (novel) 1933

Under the Volcano (novel) 1947

Selected Poems (poetry) 1962

Dark As the Grave Wherein My Friend...

(The entire section is 49,553 words.)