#114 Malcolm Lowry
February 02nd, 2016
LOCATION: Harwood Bandstand, 1755 Beach Avenue @ Bidwell Street, Vancouver.
Malcolm Lowry was an alcoholic novelist whose relationship to Vancouver – and much else – was uncertain, though there is no doubt that he did his best work here. In Under the Volcano, arguably the most famous novel ever written in British Columbia, he offhandedly refers to Vancouver as a place “where they eat sausage meals from which you expect the Union Jack to appear at any minute.” During his fourteen years in the Lower Mainland, mainly in North Vancouver, Malcolm Lowry briefly resided at three West End locations giving rise to his poem, Lament in the Pacific Northwest, about the Harwood Bandstand, which was built in 1914 and restored in 1988.
They are taking down the beautiful houses once built with loving hands
But still the old bandstand stands where no band stands
With clawbars they have gone to work on the poor lovely houses above the sands
At their callous work of eviction that no human law countermands
Callously at their work of heartbreak that no civic heart understands
In this pompous and joyless city of police moral perfection and one man stands
Where you are brutally thrown out of beer parlors for standing where no man stands
Where the pigeons roam free and the police listen to each pigeon’s demands
And they are taking down the beautiful homes once with loving hands
But still the old bandstand stands where no band stands.
For most of the twentieth century the most famous book ever written mainly in British Columbia was Under the Volcano (1947) by Malcolm Lowry, ranked eleventh by the editors of Modern Library in their list of the best 100 novels written in English in the 20th century. Set in Mexico on the Day of the Dead, but including a reference to British Columbia as a “genteel Siberia,” Under the Volcano was continuously revised during many of Lowry’s 14 years of intermittent residence in Vancouver and North Vancouver, primarily at two squatter’s shacks at Dollarton, near Deep Cove. A sign saying Malcolm Lowry Walk, located at the beginning of a waterfront trail at the eastern end of Cates Park in North Vancouver, provides some modest recognition for his infamously alcoholic, self-tortured literary life. According to Lowry’s first wife, Jan Gabriel, “he would drink anything.”
Lowry first took occupancy of his beloved “little lonely hermitage” without plumbing or electricity in 1940 following his marriage to Margerie Bonner. In June of 1944 his shack burned, destroying some of the manuscript. Lowry rebuilt the shack. According to Bonner, the fourth and final draft of Under the Volcano was completed at Dollarton on Christmas Eve, 1944. He habitually despised Vancouver, referring to it in his fictions as Enochvilleport, meaning “city of the son of Cain.” Conversely, he referred to the tiny gathering of squatter’s shacks on the foreshore of Burrard Inlet as Eridanus, a name drawn from the river in Virgil’s Aeneid that waters the Elysian Fields of the Earthly Paradise.
Writing about Lowry is an industry unto itself. His literary archives are kept at UBC. Sherrill Grace of Vancouver has become one of the world’s foremost authorities on his life and works.
The most famous book ever written (mainly) in British Columbia is Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, ranked eleventh by the editors of Modern Library in their list of the best 100 novels of the 20th century in English.
Set in Mexico on the Day of the Dead, but including a favourable reference to British Columbia as a ‘genteel Siberia’, Under the Volcano was continuously revised during many of Lowry’s 14 years of intermittent residence in Vancouver and North Vancouver, primarily at two squatter’s shacks at Dollarton. A sign saying Malcolm Lowry Walk, located at the beginning of waterfront trail at the eastern end of Cates Park in North Vancouver, now provides some modest recognition for his infamously alcoholic, self-tortured literary life. A plaque has also been added.
Lowry first took occupancy of his beloved “little lonely hermitage” without plumbing or electricity in 1940 following his marriage to Margerie Bonner. In June of 1944 his shack burned down, destroying the manuscript of Under the Volcano in the process. Lowry rebuilt the shack. He habitually despised Vancouver, referring to it in his fictions as Enochvilleport, meaning “city of the son of Cain.” Conversely, he referred to the tiny gathering of squatter’s shacks on the foreshore of Burrard Inlet as Eridanus, a name drawn from the river in Virgil’s Aeneid which waters the Elysian Fields of the Earthly Paradise. “Although there was no questioning its hardship, at least in winter,” he wrote, “how beautiful it could be then, with the snow-covered cabins, the isolation, the driftwood like burnished silver—the wonderful excruciating absurd shouting ecstasy of swimming in freezing weather.”
Clarence Malcolm Lowry, Vancouver’s most internationally venerated and critically studied writer, was born on July 28, 1909 in Birkenhead, Cheshire, England. His father was Arthur Lowry, a wealthy and strong-willed cotton broker who owned plantations in Egypt, Peru, and Texas. His grandfather from his mother’s side was a Norwegian sea captain. Although Lowry became an athlete and graduated from Cambridge University in 1933, he felt guilty about his inability to conform to his family’s upper-middle-class, Methodist background and he was haunted by near-blindness that had afflicted him for four years. At 17, he left his hometown of Liverpool for a four-month trip to China as a cabin boy on a freighter. His wanderlust, sexual insecurity and alcoholism led to permanent estrangement from his father and England. Lowry initiated a student-mentor relationship with the American writer Conrad Aiken in Massachusetts; he then sailed to Oslo in 1930 to compliment Norwegian Nordahl Grieg on his novel, The Ship Sails On. In 1933 Lowry published a derivative, seafaring novel, Ultramarine, which he came to regard as ‘an inexcusable mess’. Initially inspired by readings of Eugene O’Neill’s early plays, Ultramarine is a self-conscious search for identity. Its protagonist asks rhetorically, “Could you still believe in… the notion that my voyage is something Columbian and magnificent?” Lowry later conceived a lifelong cycle of novels to be called The Voyage that Never Ends.
In 1933, after a trip to Spain, Lowry married Jan Gabrial in Paris, greatly impressed by the coincidence that she shared the same name with the heroine of his newly published first novel. This marriage was engineered by Conrad Aiken in the hopes that a wife would control Lowry’s drinking. Before this marriage came asunder, Jan accompanied him on a ship that sailed into Acapulco harbour on the Day of the Dead, 1936, for what Lowry described as his ‘last tooloose Lowrytrek.’ Entering this New World of Mexico prompted Lowry to declare, “Like Columbus I have torn through one reality and discovered another.” As an English Columbus exploring his own soul, Lowry would soon gravitate to British Columbia and Vancouver, a city often referred to at the turn of the century as the ‘Liverpool of the Pacific’. Mexico inspired and frightened him, and the booze was cheap. In Oaxaca he was thrown into a jail, suspected of being a Spanish spy. By the time he left Mexico, his first marriage was in ruins. Jan Gabrial later wrote, in her memoir Inside the Volcano (2000), “He would drink anything. I had thrown out the rubbing alcohol I’d used to massage his back, but he gulped the contents of a bottle he thought contained hair tonic but which Josefina had refilled with cooking oil…”
Lowry completed the first draft of his masterpiece, Under the Volcano, in 1937. In 1938, due to immigration difficulties, Lowry went north to the United States. In Hollywood he met an aspiring mystery writer named Margerie Bonner. In 1939, due to his difficulty in attaining an American visa, Malcolm Lowry came alone to Vancouver where he was rejected for military service. Begging for beer money on the streets, he wrote to John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir, a Governor General’s Award winning author of Twist of the Screw, asking for help. Tweedsmuir sent $50 but Lowry lost it on a horse bet. When Lowry was dejected and ill, Margerie Bonner came to Vancouver to nurse him back to health. According to Margerie Bonner, the final and fourth draft of Under the Volcano was completed in their makeshift dwelling on Dollarton Beach on Christmas Eve, 1944. It was submitted for publication mid-1945. When it was initially rejected, Lowry wrote a desperate, elaborate, brilliant and preposterous letter in its defence to publisher Jonathan Cape on January 2, 1946, “It can be regarded as a kind of symphony, or in another way as a kind of opera–or even a horse opera. It is hot music, a poem, a song, a comedy, a farce, and so forth. It is superficial, profound, entertaining, and boring, according to taste. It is a prophecy, a political warning, a cryptogram, a preposterous movie.”
Under the Volcano is the story of Geoffrey Firmin, a former British Consul, descending into a New World Inferno on the Mexican holiday of the Day of the Dead, November 2nd (All Souls Day), 1939. Set in Quauhnahuac, Mexico, it depicts the last twelve hours of Firmin’s life. The action occurs in the shadow of the volcano called Popocatepetl. The complex narrative traces the lives of the alcoholic Consul, his estranged wife Priscilla, his socialist half-brother who is preoccupied with the Spanish Civil War and a failed filmmaker and adulterer named Jacques Laruelle. With an apocalyptic puritanism Lowry intoned, “Yet no, it wasn’t the volcano, the world itself was bursting, bursting into black spouts of villages catapulted into space, with himself falling through it all, through the inconceivable pandemonium of a million tanks, through the blazing of ten million burning bodies.” Under the Volcano appeared in 1947. Although it became a bestseller when it was translated in France, Lowry maintained it sold only two copies in Canada. It was the first of his many works to make direct reference to British Columbia. Its protagonist is the owner of an island in B.C., a place described as a ‘genteel Siberia, that was neither genteel nor a Siberia, but an undiscovered, perhaps an undiscoverable Paradise.”
Lowry’s third novel, October Ferry to Gabriola, was edited by Margerie Bonner Lowry from 3,000 pages of notes and published in 1970. Although generally considered to be a dismal failure, it includes some memorable references to the West Coast locale. A poem of lament describes the English Bay Band Shell in Vancouver as eternally empty, alone and locked. Its concluding line, “but still the old bandstand stands where no band stands,” is also the title of a chapter that bemoans the scrupulous joylessness of a young city eager to harass harmless drunks, annihilate old buildings and tame the beauty of Canada’s wilderness. Living above an abortionist’s clinic, the central character observes, “It was a well-known fact the inhabitants of the West End were so pure that they preferred to think they had not natural functions at all.” The former head of the UBC Library School, Basil Stuart-Stubbs, has prepared a complete list of addresses where Lowry lived in Vancouver througout his 14-year tenure, including the West End. This list is stored at UBC Special Collections, the world’s main repository for Lowry archives. Lowry’s life and work have been the subject for innumerable books and academic studies. In 1984, Vancouver screenwriter Michael Mercer’s play about Lowry and Conrad Aiken, Goodnight Disgrace, premiered to critical acclaim in Nanaimo. In the same year Vancouver poet Sharon Thesen published Confabulations, Poems for Malcolm Lowry. A film version of Under the Volcano, starring Albert Finney and Jacqueline Bissett, appeared in 1985, directed by John Huston, with a screenplay by Guy Gallo. An superb, interpretive documentary portrait of Malcolm Lowry by Donald Britain, Under the Volcano, is available from the National Film Board.
Malcolm Lowry’s other major Vancouver-related fictions are a collection of short stories, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (1961), which posthumously earned him a Governor General’s Award; Lunar Caustic (1963), published in the Paris Review; and a sequel to Under the Volcano edited by Douglas Day and Margerie Lowry, Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid (1968). His poem about Hastings Street, ‘Christ Walks in This Infernal District Too,’ is frequently anthologized. Lost Lagoon features prominently in several stories. At the Vancouver Aquarium, a wolf eel “with it’s expression of sadness and the attenuated face of a prostitute by Edvard Munch, uncurled its slow damnation, or hid its grief beneath a stone.’ Lowry wanted Vancouver to either return to nature or grow up. “Are the people of British Columbia unique in that they have never passed through the fears and bewilderments of puberty?” he wrote. He particularly resented the antediluvian liquor laws which required beer parlours to be divided into sections for Men Only and Ladies & Escorts. “Nowhere in the world perhaps were there similar places whose raison d’etre is presumably social pleasure where this is much harder to obtain, nowhere else places such gigantic size, horror and total viewlessness… within their gloomy, music-bereft and often subterranean portals, you were obliged to drink nothing but that drink which of all alcoholic drinks perhaps most powerfully suggests gardens, song, merriment…”
Among the frequent visitors to Malcolm Lowry’s shack were writers Earle Birney, Dorothy Livesay and William McConnell, who served as Lowry’s lawyer. Having been served with an eviction notice, the Lowrys left Vancouver for the last time in 1954, hoping to return, but, symbolically (to Lowry), their beloved pier fell apart in the winter of 1956. Malcolm Lowry died, officially ‘by misadventure’, in Sussex, England on June 27th, 1957. The shack was quickly bulldozed in 1957 not long after Lowry’s death. Malcolm Lowry is perhaps best remembered by his self-penned epitaph:
Late of the Bowery
His prose was flowery
And often glowery
He lived nightly, and drank daily
And died playing the ukulele.
In Ballast to the White Sea. 1936
Under the Volcano. 1947
Hear Us O Lord Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. 1961
Lunar Caustic. 1961
Selected Poems. 1962
Selected Letters. 1965
Dark As the Grave Therein My Friend is Laid. 1968 [unfinished, but published in a version edited by Douglas Day and Margerie Lowry]
October Ferry to Gabriola. 1970
The Letters of Malcolm Lowry and Gerald Noxon, 1940-1952. 1988
The Letters of Conrad Aiken and Malcolm Lowry, 1929-1954. 1992 (ed. by Cynthia Sugars)
The Collected Poetry of Malcolm Lowry. 1992
Sursum Corda! The Collected Letters of Malcolm Lowry, Vol. 1, 1926-1946. 1995. (Edited by Sherrill Grace)
(The Second International Malcolm Lowry Symposium was held at University of British Columbia in May, 1987.)
SELECTED BOOKS ABOUT MALCOLM LOWRY:
Inside the Volcano: My Life With Malcolm Lowry by Jan Gabrial (2000)
A Darkness That Murmured: Essays on Malcolm Lowry and the Twentieth Century, ed. by Frederick Asals & Paul Tiessen (University of Toronto Press, 2000)
The Making of Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano” by Frederick Asals (1997)
Forest of Symbols by Patrick McCarthy (1994)
The 1940 “Under the Volcano”, ed. by Paul Tiessen and Miguel Mota (1994)
Pursued by Furies by G. Bowker (1993)
Malcolm Lowry: Vancouver Days by Sheryl Salloum (Harbour Publishing 1987)
A Companion to Under the Volcano (UBC Press, 1984) by Chris Ackerley and Lawrence J. Clipper
Lowry, a Biography by Douglas Day (1973)
Lowry by Tony Kilgallin (1973)
Malcolm Lowry by William H. New (1971)
Lowry: the Man and His Work by George Woodcock (1971)
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2015]
Ultramarine copy obtained by UBC
BEFORE T .E. LAWRENCE (LAWRENCE of Arabia) burned his personal library, he saved the books he liked. One of the volumes spared was an obscure seafaring novel called Ultramarine. The author of Ultramarine, Malcolm Lowry, loathed his first novel and tried to suppress its circulation for the rest of his life. He alleged that he was forced to re-write the entire work in a matter of weeks because the publishing house had lost his manuscript. Accused with plagiarism after Ultramarine was published, Lowry never allowed any academics or booksellers to have access to his personal copy, an extensively annotated edition he kept hidden, hoping to one day rewrite Ultramarine–and redeem himself.
But of course there was no redemption for Malcolm Lowry. The author of the most famous book ever written in British Columbia, Under the Volcano, was a paranoiac alcoholic who died ignominiously, guilt-ridden and obsessive to the end. Now UBC Special Collections has purchased Lowry’s personal copy of Ultramarine from its owner, a California woman who had befriended Lowry’s equally impossible alcoholic wife prior to her death. As soon as UBC’s Brenda Peterson learned of Ultramarine’s impending auction, she and scholar Sherrill E. Grace jumped into action. Because the library’s acquisitions have been drastically reduced, due to inflation and the low Canadian dollar, two UBC vice-presidents–both scientists–helped to finance UBC’s successful bid ($14,000 U.S.). The acquisition enhances the value of UBC’s already unprecedented stash of Lowry loot–including photos taken by Basil Stuart-Stubbs, for a lark, of every location around Vancouver where Lowry lived. Scholars from around the world will beat a path to UBC, eager for new glimpses into Lowry’s tortured soul and brilliant mind.