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Inside the Volcano : A biography of an autobiographical novelist : PURSUED BY FURIES: A Life of Malcolm Lowry, By Gordon Bowker (St. Martin's Press: $29.95; 672 pp.)

January 07, 1996|John Espey | John Espey's latest book is "Minor Heresies, Major Departures: A China Mission Boyhood."

Ever since its publication in 1947, Malcolm Lowry's "Under the Volcano"--the story of the last day in the life of an alcoholic British ex-consul set in Mexico--has been a subject of dispute. While there is no question of its being Lowry's masterpiece, is it also the greatest novel in English written in the '40s?

Its most enthusiastic supporters in the beginning were American critics; English sales were lagging and the reviews mixed. But it may be that the tide--and images of the sea are surely appropriate--has turned. The current Canadian Books in Print lists six Lowry titles; the British also six, although one is an American edition; the American, three paperbacks.

But there is no question that Lowry is "collected"; the going price for a fine copy of his rare first book, "Ultramarine" (London: Jonathan Cape, 1933), stands at $6,500, an irony that Lowry would have appreciated, for he was short of funds and dependent on his father--almost a remittance man--most of his life.

Until now, the only biography of Lowry has been Douglas Day's "Malcolm Lowry: A Biography," published in 1973 and written with the help of Lowry's second wife, Margerie Bonner, an American writer of thrillers. Gordon Bowker has had access to further material and he has pursued it in detail, from the mass of papers at the University of British Columbia's library to the Los Angeles Public Library, with dozens of stops here and abroad in between.

Lowry's habit of writing down everything he observed daily, when he was sober enough to do so, gives Bowker the chance to go into precise detail. We know exactly what Lowry was drinking on what day and what hour--vodka, rum, mescal or just some plonk or a couple of beers.

Bowker gives equal value to everything in Lowry's life, not simply to the matter of what he was drinking and when, but also to such details as Lowry's discovery of why he had always suffered from constipation. And since Bonner--in Bowker's eyes, at least--was a baneful influence, the emphasis here is far different from Day's. Yet with all Lowry's writing essentially autobiographical, the method has its virtues, though it makes this book not one for beginners.

The son of a pious and prosperous cotton broker in Liverpool, young Malcolm began getting into trouble early. Jeered at by his schoolmates for his undersized penis, he got in the habit of stopping off at Liverpool's Paradise Street Anatomical Museum, which carried a warning about venereal disease that was always to haunt him.

His musical instrument was the ukulele, and he fancied himself a songwriter. Fascinated by the sea and by fire, he insisted at the age of 18 on sailing as a deckhand through the Red Sea and on to Shanghai and Yokohama, where his hostile crew mates got him drunk and took him to a brothel, sitting around to watch him perform. It is hardly a surprise to learn that he was rendered impotent--not quite what the young reader of Melville, Conrad, London and O'Neill had expected.

As a "boy with his nose always in a book," Lowry had begun at school to write. He was influenced by Henry James, Joyce, Faulkner and others, as well as by Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and the Cabbala, thus providing the layer upon layer that gives "Volcano" its special quality.

He wished also to retain something of the generality of the 19th century novel. Coming on Conrad Aiken's "Blue Voyage," he was enchanted by it and wrote to the author. Lowry suggested that before he entered Cambridge, where he had gained admission to St. Catherine's College, he would like to "apprentice" himself to Aiken for a fee. Rather than have this American stranger enter the staid Lowry household, Lowry's father agreed to his difficult son's sailing to Boston. Aiken, having left Harvard and soon to lose most of his money in the 1929 crash, was to live off his fees as an appointed "guardian" of Lowry for some years.

Back in Cambridge, Lowry, who had discovered alcohol early on, spent most of his time avoiding his studies. When he finally scraped through the exams and received a Third Class Honours degree, he persuaded his mother that this meant he had been third in his class. There followed a trip with Aiken to Spain, where Lowry met his first wife, an American, Jan Gabrial, who was the first model for Yvonne, the ex-consul's ex-wife in "Volcano." From 1936 to 1938 they lived in Mexico. Lowry's drinking and violence were ultimately to destroy their marriage, Gabrial walking out on him.

In 1940, together with Bonner, whom he had met on a blind date in Hollywood, he found refuge outside Vancouver. They were living in a shack by the water, finding satisfaction in building a pier and enjoying long hours of swimming. Bowker shows how Bonner's influence came to bear on the endless revisions of "Volcano" and changed the character of Yvonne from a portrait of Gabrial into a reflection of herself.

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