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The Voyage That Never Ends: Fictions, Poems, Fragments, Lettersby Malcolm Lowry
Synopses & Reviews
A NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS ORIGINAL
Notorious for a misspent life full of binges, blackouts, and unimaginable bad luck, Malcolm Lowry managed, against every odd, to complete and publish two novels, one of them, Under the Volcano, an indisputable masterpiece. At the time of his death in 1957, Lowry also left behind a great deal of uncollected and unpublished writing: stories, novellas, drafts of novels and revisions of drafts of novels (Lowry was a tireless revisiter and reviser—and interrupter—of his work), long, impassioned, haunting, beautiful letters overflowing with wordplay and lament, fraught short poems that display a sozzled off-the-cuff inspiration all Lowrys own. Over the years these writings have appeared in various volumes, all long out of print. Here, in The Voyage That Never Ends, the poet, translator, and critic Michael Hofmann has drawn on all this scattered and inaccessible material to assemble the first book that reflects the full range of Lowrys extraordinary and singular achievement.
The result is a revelation. In the letters—acknowledged to be among modern literatures greatest—we encounter a character who was, as contemporaries attested, as spellbinding and lovable as he was self-destructive and infuriating. In the late fiction—the long story “Through the Panama,” sections of unfinished novels such as Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid, and the little-known La Mordida—we discover a writer who is blazing a path into the unknown and, as he goes, improvising a whole new kind of writing. Lowry had set out to produce a great novel, something to top Under the Volcano, a multivolume epic and intimate tale of purgatorial suffering and ultimate redemption (called, among other things, “The Voyage That Never Ends”). That book was never to be. What he produced instead was an unprecedented and prophetic blend of fact and fiction, confession and confusion, essay and free play, that looks forward to the work of writers as different as Norman Mailer and William Gass, but is like nothing else. Almost in spite of himself, Lowry succeeded in transforming his disastrous life into an exhilarating art of disaster. The Voyage That Never Ends is a new and indispensable entry into the world of one of the masters of modern literature.
"British precursor of everyone from the Beats to Bruce Chatwin, Lowry (1909-1957) published the fierce, feverish Under the Volcano in 1947, and, haunted by that novel's kitchen-sink perfection, worked on other projects but never completed another book before his alcohol-related death. Here, poet and translator Hofmann selects from among the plethora of Lowry's fugitive output: seven prose fiction pieces, a sampling of poems, excerpts of drafts from three posthumously edited and published works and a selection of letters from Lowry's writings. 'Under the Volcano,' a short story that was eventually engulfed by the novel, appears early on here. The story 'Through the Panama,' one of two stories concerning Sigbjørn Wilderness and his journal, mentions his novel 'about a character... enmeshed in the plot of the novel he has written,' and proceeds through a thicket of allusion to British and American literature. The most memorable (and most reprinted) piece here is the heavily autobiographical 'The Forest Path to the Spring,' richly evocative of a northern British Columbia seascape and the outcasts who inhabit it. The specter of Fascism, the generations of writers in Lowry's head, and various figurative transformations ('something of vast importance to me had taken place, without my knowledge and outside time altogether,') play in throughout. The lack of annotations leaves one a bit at sea amidst the often startling flotsam and jetsam, but with Lowry it's almost appropriate." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Twenty-five years ago I finally read — on the second attempt — Malcolm Lowry's celebrated 'Under the Volcano' (1947). An intense, sometimes phantasmagoric novel set in Quauhnahuac, Mexico in the late 1930s, it describes the last day in the life of the alcoholic Geoffrey Firmin, known as the Consul. What I most remember about the book are its leitmotifs, especially the looming volcano Popocatepetl,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) the torn poster advertising the movie 'Las Manos de Orlac' (starring Peter Lorre) and the Spanish phrase 'No se puede vivir sin amar,' which means 'One cannot live without love.' Much like Arthur Miller's roughly contemporary play 'Death of a Salesman' (1949), Lowry's 'Under the Volcano' aims to modernize the ancient form of tragedy. Appropriately, it observes the classical unities, and virtually all the action takes place on Nov. 1, the Day of the Dead. Despite its reputation, Lowry's masterpiece surprised and troubled me: While I could see the book's power and beauty, I couldn't respond to it with real conviction. Most of all, Lowry's sentences often struck me as muddy and overwrought, even pretentious. Had I tried to read too quickly? Though in the end I came away impressed by the novel, I was disappointed in myself. So I was really looking forward to Michael Hofmann's 'The Voyage That Never Ends,' a selection of Lowry's best short stories, novel fragments, poems and letters. This would be a chance for redemption. I would love this new book and eagerly go back to reconnect with 'Under the Volcano,' indeed would become another of its champions. Sigh. Though critics as sensitive as Stephen Spender, as wise as William Gass and as enthusiastic as Richard Ford have praised Lowry and his writing, I found much of 'The Voyage That Never Ends' tedious and dull. The one item I liked completely was Lowry's poetic 'Epitaph' 261: Malcolm Lowry Late of the Bowery His prose was flowery And often glowery He lived, nightly, and drank, daily, And died playing the ukelele. Actually, Lowry (1909-1957) died at the age of 48, alone in a cottage in England, under mysterious circumstances. It might have been suicide. (Readers interested in Lowry's life — all his writing is highly autobiographical — should look for Gordon Bowker's magisterial biography 'Pursued by Furies.') As Javier Marias observed, the author of 'Under the Volcano' was probably the 'most calamitous writer in the whole history of literature.' Martin Amis reported that in his later years Lowry would grow so thirsty for anything alcohol-based that he once downed 'a whole bottle of olive oil thinking it was hair tonic.' Amis added that 'towards the end, even Lowry's freak accidents and cluster catastrophes' — his cabin and its contents burned to the ground, he fell off a dock and broke his back — assumed 'an air of the dankest monotony. An average hour, it seems, would include a jeroboam of Windowlene and Optrex, a sanguinary mishap with a chainsaw or a cement-mixer, and a routinely bungled attempt to guillotine his wife.' In fact, Lowry's second wife, Margerie, is, in most of these pages, the lodestone of his life. 'The Forest Path to the Spring' describes their idyllic years living as squatters in a cabin not far from Vancouver. Though too long (like nearly everything Lowry wrote), it evokes the couple's serene happiness: 'It seemed to me that until I knew her I had lived my whole life in darkness.' But even here, Lowry's prose frequently grates: 'The archetypal malodor on investigation proved partly to emanate from the inlet itself, which was sleeked as far as the eye could reach with an oil slick I quickly deduced to be the work of an oil tanker lying benignly at the wharf of the refinery I have mentioned opposite the lighthouse. ...' And so on. Yet just when the diction has grown almost insufferable, a vivid phrase will bob up — 'pools preened with peacock feathers of oil' — and so the reader turns the page, hoping for another. This anthology includes the story 'Under the Volcano' (the kernel for the novel), the 'notes' of a Haitian diary called 'La Mordida,' chapters from the incomplete novels 'Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid' and October Ferry to Gabriola, and letters to Conrad Aiken (Lowry's literary mentor) and David Markson (the future novelist and author of the first book-length study of Lowry). The high point of the letters section is a 50-pager to the publisher Jonathan Cape explaining the structure and meaning of Under the Volcano. At times, Lowry achieves considerable eloquence in this defense of his book: 'The novel can be read simply as a story which you can skip if you want. It can be read as a story you will get more out of if you don't skip. 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 tragedy, a comedy, a farce. . . .' And there you can see Lowry going, as usual, too far. He soon adds that Under the Volcano is also 'a prophecy, a political warning, a cryptogram, a preposterous movie, and a writing on the wall.' (To be fair, it actually is all these things.) Yet even as he slowly ticks off the items on his literary laundry list, he will suddenly bring you up short with a phrase that actually makes you want to run out and read his book: 'This novel then is concerned principally...with the forces in man which cause him to be terrified of himself.' Unfortunately, Lowry can never, never let well enough alone: 'It is also concerned with the guilt of man, with his remorse, with his ceaseless struggling toward the light under the weight of the past, and with his doom. The allegory is that of the Garden of Eden. ... The drunkenness of the Consul is used on one plane to symbolize the universal drunkenness of mankind during the war, or during the period immediately preceding it, which is almost the same thing, and what profundity and final meaning there is in his fate should be seen also in its universal relationship to the ultimate fate of mankind.' Such portentous blather is matched only by William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech. After 'The Forest Path to the Spring,' the best known pieces in 'The Voyage That Never Ends' are 'Through the Panama' and 'Strange Comfort Afforded by the Profession.' In the former, Lowry describes a writer named Sigbjorn Wilderness obsessed with a novel about 'a character who has become enmeshed in the plot of the novel he has written,' adding 'as I did in Mexico. But now I am becoming enmeshed in the plot of a novel I have scarcely begun.' Such narrative tricksiness foresees post-modernism, I suppose, but Lowry doesn't do that much with it. He does thicken his travelogue with marginal notes a la Coleridge's 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner,' as well as lists, snatches of folksong and what I hope is deliberately humorous over-writing: 'The inerrable inconceivably desolate sense of having no right to be where you are; the billows of inexhaustible anguish haunted by the insatiable albatross of self.' I do rather like 'the insatiable albatross of self' and Lowry's nice touch immediately following: 'There is an albatross, really.' In 'Strange Comfort Afforded by the Profession,' Wilderness reappears in Italy, where he free-associates on the early deaths of Keats and Poe. It's all very literary, with the occasional fillip of humor: 'No, no, go not to Virginia Dare ... Neither twist Pepso — tight-rooted! — for its poisonous bane.' (Virginia Dare was the first European child born in America; the phrasing mirrors the opening of Keats' ode 'To Melancholy.') Still, this isn't particularly funny and seems more like surrealist wordplay than anything truly insightful about the brevity of life. As a reviewer, I have to admit that Malcolm Lowry appears destined to remain one of my blind spots. Yet I confess this with unfeigned sorrow. 'Under the Volcano' is unarguably a modern classic, and anyone seriously interested in 20th-century fiction needs to read it. Someday, perhaps, I will try the novel again and — who knows? — the scales may finally drop from my eyes. That's the way of reading, after all: The great books measure us, not we them. For now, though — to cite another Biblical phrase — I have again been tried in the balance and found wanting. Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda(at symbol)gmail.com. His latest book, 'Classics for Pleasure,' has just been published." Reviewed by Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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About the Author
Malcolm Lowry (1909-1957) was born in New Brighton, England, the youngest of four sons of Arthur O. Lowry, a rich Liverpool businessman and devout Methodist. Brought up largely by nannies, he attended the Leys School in Cambridge before shipping out “to see the world” on the merchant steamer Pyrrhus, an ordeal that supplied him with the material for his first novel, Ultramarine. Already a heavy drinker, Lowry studied writing privately with the poet and novelist Conrad Aiken in America before taking a degree at Cambridge. Ultramarine was published in 1933, and that same year Lowry married Jan Gabrial. They were never happy, and often apart; in 1940 they divorced, after which Lowry married Margerie Bonner, a minor Hollywood star whom he had met some years before. Starting in 1936 and while moving restlessly back and forth between Mexico, the US, and Canada, Lowry worked on his great novel Under the Volcano, which went through multiple drafts and was rejected by twelve publishers before coming out in 1947. During the last decade of his life, Lowrys drinking left him in ever worse health. He and Margerie lived for the most part in a fishing shack in Dollarton, British Columbia, but also traveled widely, and in 1955 they moved to Ripe in Sussex. Lowrys death two years later, among a litter of bottles and pills, was attributed by the coroner to “misadventure.”
Michael Hofmann is a poet and translator. He has translated nine books by Joseph Roth and was awarded the PEN translation prize for String of Pearls. He lives in London.
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