Malcolm Lowry Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

All but two of the volumes now attributed to Malcolm Lowry were published after his death at the age of forty-seven. During the last decade of his life, after the publication of Under the Volcano, Lowry worked more or less concurrently on numerous projects but was unable to finish any of them before his death. The one closest to completion when he died was Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (1961), a collection of seven interrelated tales. Additional short fiction has been collected in Malcolm Lowry: Psalms and Songs (1975), edited by Margerie Bonner Lowry. A selection of poems, edited by Earle Birney, appeared in 1962. Lunar Caustic, a novella edited from two earlier versions by Birney and Margerie Bonner Lowry, was published in 1968.

Throughout his career, Lowry elaborated and reelaborated a massive scheme of interlocking narratives called, collectively, “The Voyage That Never Ends,” which, had he lived to complete it, would have included all of his longer works, with Under the Volcano at the center of the “bolus,” as he called it. Selected Letters of Malcolm Lowry, edited by Harvey Breit and Margerie Bonner Lowry, appeared in 1965 and played a large part in the revival of interest in Lowry during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Lowry was also much interested in the cinema and, in collaboration with his second wife, Margerie Bonner (herself a published novelist), prepared a screenplay for an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night (1934); the film was never produced, but Lowrys’ notes for the film script were published in 1976. Malcolm Lowry’s life is the subject of the film Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry (1977), directed by Donald Brittain.

Given that so many of Lowry’s works were left unfinished at his death, and that even the works published posthumously are selections from numerous versions Lowry left behind, selections made and pieced together by editors, the authenticity of the texts published after 1957 is at least questionable. The special collection of Lowry manuscripts housed at the University of British Columbia Library in Vancouver is, therefore, very important.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The only Malcolm Lowry novel to attract any notable attention during the author’s lifetime was Under the Volcano, which was in general very warmly received (in France and the United States at any rate, though curiously it was all but ignored in England) upon its appearance in 1947. During the ten years following, however, no extended works of fiction by Lowry appeared in English, and by the time of his death, even Under the Volcano was out of print. Nevertheless, an underground following quietly persisted in admiration for what must then have seemed, to most, a cometlike blaze of genius revealed in that one novel, appearing out of nowhere and as suddenly disappearing from sight.

The situation altered with the posthumous publication of other Lowry works in the 1960’s, beginning with Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. By 1965, a selection of poems had appeared, Ultramarine and Under the Volcano had been reissued, The Paris Review offered a new edition (the first to appear in English) of Lunar Caustic, and Selected Letters of Malcolm Lowry was published to largely favorable reviews. Lowry was belatedly “discovered” in England, and Philip Toynbee hailed Under the Volcano as “one of the great English novels of this century.” With the appearance at the end of the decade of the heavily edited, fragmentary novels Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid and October Ferry to Gabriola, however, a reaction set in. Both books were widely regarded as failures, and Lowry’s tendency toward solipsism was judged to have gotten the better of him in his abortive later works. This view probably does an injustice to Lowry. First, works never brought to completion by Lowry cannot be justly measured against a fully realized work on which the author lavished almost ten years of concerted labor. Even so, Douglas Day’s long-awaited authorized biography, published to nearly universal acclaim in 1973, seemed to legitimate the view of Lowry as an artist manqué whose single triumph amounted to a kind of fluke accomplished despite its author’s compulsive tendencies to self-destruction and willed failure. In the late twentieth century, there were salutary signs of a reassessment of the Lowry canon as a whole, with such critics as Muriel C. Bradbrook, Ronald Binns, and Sherrill Grace arguing persuasively against the distortions of the “one-book author” label.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

How accurately does Malcolm Lowry depict the debilitating effects of alcoholism in Under the Volcano?

Does Lowry’s description of Yvonne rise above old-fashioned, unrealistic depictions of women as angels and/or demons?

Does Lowry’s style well represent the erudite, albeit wandering mind of the Consul?

Is Under the Volcano optimistic or pessimistic about humanity?

How seriously do you think Lowry intended his references to occultism?

How well does Lowry evoke Mexico?

To what extent is Yvonne a representation of Jan Gabrial (Lowry’s lost wife) and to what extent is she a portrait of Margerie Bonner, who was editing the manuscript while he wrote it?

How effectively does Lowry use foreshadowing?


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Asals, Frederick. The Making of Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997. Discusses Lowry’s themes in his major work. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Asals, Frederick, and Paul Tiessen, eds. A Darkness That Murmured: Essays on Malcolm Lowry and the Twentieth Century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. Essays are provided by the best-known Lowry scholars, people who knew him, and his first wife. They cover biographical material as well as criticism and interpretation of his work. Bibliography and index.

Binns, Ronald. Contemporary Writers: Malcolm Lowry. New York: Methuen, 1984. Discusses the Lowry “myth,” with emphasis given to Under the Volcano and the autobiographical elements in his writing. The chapter on metafictions is a particularly useful survey of Lowry’s late experimental novels and stories. A valuable guide for the beginning reader of Lowry.

Bowker, Gordon. Malcolm Lowry Remembered. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1985. A readable collection of reminiscences that attempt to “penetrate the myth and reach the man.” Some of the essays are published here for the first time. Also includes interviews with Lowry’s two wives and many of his friends and admirers.


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