Friday, February 8, 2013

Malcolm Lowry

"I can't decide if he was a talent without genius or a genius without talent."

I was reminded of that observation, made by my former mentor James Magner, when I recently read a biography of Malcolm Lowry, a minor mid-century English poet who, in one of those curious moments of artistic clarity, managed to transcend mediocrity and write what is regarded by some as one of the best novels of the 20th century.  However, by the third chapter of the biography, I realized that he was an absolutely horrid human being and I couldn't wait to get to the final chapter where I knew he would end his life a suicide at the age of 47.  Well, let's just call it "death by misadventure", as they did at the coroner's inquest.

When I originally encountered Lowry's work in the late 1970's, it was before much was known about his personal life and history, save for what one could glean from his poetry and prose.  He was one of those poet/writers of whom I learned during my time as a graduate student/research assistant, a relative unknown who had produced some collections of poetry and a novel or two, one of which was beginning to be re-discovered by the taste makers in the New York publishing bubble. 

There is admittedly something romantic about the notion of the self-destructive writer, an image so common that it's practically an archetype.  Offhand, the names of alcoholic writers such as Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack London, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Parker, Norman Mailer, John Cheever, Frank O'Hara, Hart Crane, William Faulkner, and Edgar Allan Poe come to mind.  [I also know, as part of the useless minutiae that I seem to retain, that five of the seven American Nobel literature laureates died of alcohol abuse or related disease.] 

Except I'm not in my early 20's any longer and I have seen the ravages of alcohol and drug abuse on the users and, particularly, on the users' families and friends.  Any romantic notion has long since evaporated and, if it had not, even a casual reading of Lowry's life would cause one to reconsider.  In addition to his poetry and prose, most of which I find tepid, he also aided an annoying college classmate in committing suicide, raped his first wife, horribly beat a girlfriend, and plagiarized from his second wife and other friends and writers.  As far as I could tell, he was drunk just about every waking moment and detoxifying during the others.  He was as dissolute a person and as nightmarish a friend as one can imagine, save for approximately three years in his life when he and his second wife took up residence in a small cabin north of Vancouver where he produced the novel Under the Volcano.  That brief window of lucidity is why we still know his name.

Lowry was a rich man's son who was aided in every way by his father's money.  Naturally, Lowry hated his father for this, which was another unattractive aspect to the man.  He attended a charming little English public school [what we would call a private or "prep" school] named The Leys where he was taken under the wing of the senior master of the school, W. H. Balgarnie.  [One of The Leys former students had been James Hilton, the author of Lost Horizon and other novels of great popularity in their day.  Balgarnie served as the model for "Chips" in Hilton's Goodbye, Mr. Chips.]  From there he went to Cambridge where he made a right nuisance out of himself but did manage to graduate and to make himself known as a writer of some ability.  Then, aided by the allowance granted to him by the father whom he hated, he set out to be a poet and author; or the most colossal drunk and horse's rear-end yet known in history.  I'll let the reader make that determination.

He lived and worked in London during the 1930's, then moved to Hollywood in an attempt to secure screenwriting jobs in the movie industry.  Honestly, he may have been the only drunken writer not to have been employed in Hollywood in those days, which may be testimony to just how much of a drunk he was.  When thus rejected, he moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where the living was easy and the mescal was cheap.  It seems remarkable to me that he would, again, make such a nuisance of himself that he would eventually be judged as even too boracho for the Mexican authorities, a tolerance that I cannot imagine being tested to its limit, based on what I've witnessed in my many trips to that country, but he was eventually "invited" to leave.  What nightmarish adventures he both witnessed and in which he participated may be gleaned by reading his one lasting gift to world literature.

The most productive period of his life would be spent in during the next three years while he lived in a squatter's shack north of Vancouver, B.C.  It was here that his second wife kept his drinking under control, where there were few distractions, and where she could both type and edit his work as he produced it.  It was as close to a normal life as he would ever have, until his neighbors would burn down the shack, of course, but that's another depressing story.

I find Under the Volcano to be one of those novels, rather like William Burrough's Naked Lunch, that a fan of literature should read at least once.  More than once is another matter entirely.  Here's a synopsis:

Geoffrey Firmin, a former British consul, has come to Quauhnahuac, Mexico. Here the consul's debilitating malaise is drinking, and activity that has overshadowed his life. Under the Volcano is set during the most fateful day of the consul's life - the Day of the Dead, 1938. His wife, Yvonne, arrives in Quauhnahuac to rescue him and their failing marriage, inspired by a vision of life together away from Mexico and the circumstances that have driven their relationship to the brink of collapse. Yvonne's mission is to save the consul is further complicated by the presence of Hugh, the consul's half-brother, and Jacques, a childhood friend. The events of this one day unfold against a backdrop unforgettable for its evocation of a Mexico at once magical and diabolical. Under the Volcano remains one of the most powerful and lyrical statements on the human condition and one man's constant struggle against the elemental forces that threaten to destroy him.

As I noted above, it is on many lists of the top novels of the 20th century and is a harrowing read.  It ends in death, naturally, although that is hardly a surprise that I'm revealing.  John Huston made a film of it some thirty or so years ago, with Albert Finney in the lead, that well captured the tragedy and nightmarish imagery of the novel. 

Lowry's story reminds me of how often art, of any sort, is born of chaos and sometimes terrific pain.  Not just the artist's pain, either, but that of those who try to love them.  I suppose that, for the artist, trapped as they are in the cage of disease, the only redemptive outlet is that of intense self-expression, where whatever they have that is strong and sound is offered through lyricism and endeavor.  Perhaps, in retrospect, what some produce is what permits their redemption in the eyes of others.  Fortunately, Jesus redeems us despite of our sins, provided we are willing to amend our lives.  For those who cannot, though, I'm sure that redemption is also proffered.