This biography contains a wealth of detail—but is it worth it?
I first heard the name “Malcolm Lowry” in about 1968, when I was 9 years old. Our family friend, Harvey Burt, had taken my little sister Mara and me for an outing to Cates Park here in North Vancouver. We were at the eastern part of the park, called “little Cates,” walking down the long slope of grass toward the beach. Harvey must have been telling us about the squatters’ shacks that used to stand on pilings on that beach, for that is the only way that Lowry’s name could have come up. Lowry, for about 13 years, had been one of those squatters, and Harvey himself had rented a shack near his. I remember trying to repeat the name, which was so unfamiliar to me: I’d heard Harvey’s careful pronunciation of it as “Malcom Munlowry,” and repeated that to myself a couple of times. Since there were no shacks on the beach anymore, I must have asked, “Where is he now?”
“He’s dead,” said Harvey.
“How did he die?”
Harvey paused for a moment, then said, as though unwillingly but forced by the demand for truth, “He choked to death on his own vomit.”
I cringed inwardly. What a way to die!
Thus did Malcolm Lowry make a powerful impression on a 9-year-old (and probably also his little sister), even after his death. As I was to learn by reading Pursued by Furies, this was entirely in character for the writer, who had made strong impressions on people throughout his life, which ended in 1957 when he was 47. Although at times almost pathologically shy, when fortified by drink he projected a quality of engaging charm and verbal brilliance, even as he also affected the rolling gait of the longtime seaman and presented a scruffy persona, with quirks such as using neckties as belts to hold up his pants. Time and again people who knew him recall the vivid impression he first made on them, with his vivid blue eyes looking at them from a ruddy face.
Gordon Bowker has written what is no doubt intended to be the definitive biography of this man. It’s a massive book, and it narrates Lowry’s life in great detail. And while Bowker does not make as much of an effort to understand Lowry’s psychology as does Douglas Day in his earlier biography, he doesn’t shy away from trying to understand the man, and he does present some intriguing and suggestive facts that may illuminate the mystery that finally shrouds Lowry’s life.
Lowry is best known for his novel Under the Volcano, published in 1947 and still widely regarded as one of the most important works of the 20th century. If it had not been for this book, Lowry would be long forgotten, for he published nothing else of note in his life, and the works published posthumously, due to the persistence of his widow Margerie, do not approach it in quality or significance. So if you’re considering reading this biography, it’s probably because you’re a fan, as I am, of Under the Volcano.
The biography describes in detail the genesis and development of Under the Volcano (as indeed it describes all Lowry’s other works as well), which I found fascinating. I was intrigued to learn how much Lowry sought out and used the input of other people. His friend Gerald Noxon spent a whole night working with him to craft the novel’s opening paragraph. His wife Margerie was so deeply involved that she was in many ways the coauthor of the book. Indeed, Lowry was so enchanted and enthralled by others’ work that he would lift it, holus bolus, and drop it into his own. Accusations of plagiarism haunted him continually through his life and tortured his own soul from within. Lowry tried to get people to forget about his first published novel, Ultramarine, because it contained so much material borrowed from his early idols, Conrad Aiken and Nordahl Grieg. Bowker observes that many of these fears of his were exaggerated, but they form a striking and strange theme for an author whose magnum opus is admired for its originality.
But by far the dominant fact of Lowry’s life was that he was an alcoholic. Many novelists are alcoholics, but I’m sure that few of them could stand comparison with Lowry for the prodigiousness of their drinking. He turned to alcohol in his teens in England, and, while he did manage to dry out from time to time, and lead a productive and healthy life while he did so, he never escaped it for very long. By the end of his short life he was also mixing barbiturates with his booze; indeed it was a combination of these that finished him off one June night. His life reads mostly as a series of drunken episodes and mishaps.
This fact creates a certain wearying quality in his biography, for drunken behavior is random and senseless, and much of Lowry’s life was spent in this condition. And similarly, the strange, symbiotic relationship he had with his second wife Margerie (his first wife, Jan Gabrial, got fed up with him before long) was really a study in the psychopathology of codependence. All the various episodes, the rages, the assaults, the scheming, are not meaningful in themselves, but only as so many symptoms of an underlying illness that was never addressed.
That is not to say that Lowry was never “treated” for his problems—he was, more than once. His brief stay at the Bellevue mental hospital in New York provided the basis for his novel Lunar Caustic. But in those days they had no real idea of how to treat alcoholism apart from getting the patient to promise not to drink. True, by the end Lowry underwent both electroconvulsive therapy and aversion therapy for his condition, but these things were apparently agreed to only because other people, especially Margerie, wanted them, and not because Lowry himself did. While he fully realized that he engaged in humiliating and self-destructive behavior while drunk, he always believed that drinking was somehow necessary to both his writing and his life. Like all alcoholics, he lived with the fundamental error, pointed out by Vernon E. Johnson, the creator of intervention therapy, of believing that drinking was the result of his problems, and not their cause. So long as an addict believes this, he cannot break his addiction. Certainly Lowry never came to this realization, and so he choked to death on his own vomit at age 47.
While reading this biography I got the feeling that the author himself didn’t realize this, and spent much time dutifully recording many drunken episodes and mishaps, in which the prime agent was not really Lowry himself, but rather the molecule ethanol. One shocking event after another is narrated baldly; there are too many of them for any one of them to matter much. Many times the author suggests, “perhaps he thought this” or “perhaps she was trying to do that,” when all these thoughts could simply be wrapped up with “he was an alcoholic; she was codependent.”
But this is the definitive biography of Malcolm Lowry. If you want to know about his life, you will if you read this book. It is meticulously researched and documented, and the author has achieved a broad and even-handed perspective. I’m just concerned that the sound and fury of Lowry’s life might, well, not signify that much.