Ultramarine Critical Context
by Malcolm Lowry

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Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Clearly it is impossible to discuss Ultramarine without reference to its literary and still less to its autobiographical context. On his 1927 voyage as deckhand on the SS Pyrrhus, Lowry took extensive notes in order not to miss anything of the “experience” that he intended from the first to be the basis of his novel. Like Hilliot, he was “a man who believed himself to live in inverted, or introverted, commas,” and a man keen to cut his ties to his bourgeois heritage; Ultramarine marks the beginning of Lowry’s invention of the Lowry myth of the bohemian expatriate writer—a myth he was to live.

“I can no more create than fly,” Hilliot tells Popplereuter. “What I could achieve would be that usual self-conscious first novel, to be reviewed in the mortuary of The Times Literary Supplement.” Worse, Lowry himself feared that Ultramarine might be regarded as plagiaristic—the very theme of the search for and argument with a father figure owes something to Lowry’s intense relationship with Aiken. The hero’s name itself is a compendium of influences and identities—Eugene for former seafarer O’Neill, Dana for the author of Two Years Before the Mast (1840), Hilliot (crew pronounce it “Illiot”) for Eliot; its first line is “What is your name?” In Ultramarine, the self-consciousness and acute awareness of literary tradition that was to mark all of Lowry’s work, as indeed so much of modern fiction, has its anxious beginnings.

Lowry envisioned Ultramarine as the first of his projected life’s masterwork “The Voyage That Never Ends,” which was to take in all of his works, including Under the Volcano. Its connections to Under the Volcano are numerous and close: the journey framework and vision of life as a spiritual quest, the intimations of doom and loss, the interest in the occult, the recurrence of haunting images, often of words in many languages, the alcoholic haze, the experimenting investigation of memory and time—after the drowning of the pigeon, “Norman’s words made a sort of incantation in his brain. ‘Time! Of course there would have been time. Time wouldn’t have mattered if you’d been a man.’” Changes in the revised edition were designed to underline such parallels: the ship’s name was changed from Nawab to Oedipus Tyrannus, the name of Hugh Firmin’s ship.