Within the volcano

Sursum Corda! The Collected Letters of Malcolm Lowry - Sursum Corda! The Collected Letters of Malcolm Lowry
June 20, 1997

Malcolm Lowry's life has been superbly documented by Gordon Bowker, and yet there are many major questions which will always be left open, whole years which are to posterity like Lowry's own alcoholic blanks, and relationships which cannot be pinned down. While this new Collected Letters in two volumes adds intensity to what is already known about Lowry and his work, it cannot, and does not attempt to, explain away the enigma surrounding this most complex of authors.

Most of Lowry's fiction was published posthumously, with the hands of editors imposing order on thousands of pages of unfinished manuscripts. Collected Letters is a similar enterprise - not because it was editorial policy to reshape the texts, but because the word collected is so very apt. Sherril E. Grace has tracked down hundreds of hitherto unknown letters, and the result is more than 1,600 pages long, with an excellent apparatus of information on dates, previous publication and provenance. In correcting the mistakes and filling in many of the gaps of the Selected Letters of 1965, and in bringing together all the letters published less accessibly, Grace has done Lowry's readers a great service. But collected does not mean complete, and, for Malcolm Lowry, it means it much less.

Lowry seems to have kept little of his outgoing or incoming correspondence, and certainly very little of the former in what may be seen as finished form. Many of the letters printed here are taken from pencil drafts found among Lowry's manuscripts, and they often break off unsigned, and probably unsent. Frequently it is not clear whether the text is primarily a letter or a fragment from the author's literary work. Collected Letters represents a further attempt to create order, but Lowry's chaos is the stronger force. Collected Letters is as unfinished as were all of Lowry's literary projects except Under the Volcano, and like those it gives us a picture of Lowry as a writer struggling for form, while as a man he was struggling for survival.

Of the more than 700 letters included here, only ten are to members of Lowry's English family. Although there are two remarkable examples of Lowry's habit of justifying his work, lifestyle and even existence in order to beg for money, these letters tell us little more about Lowry's childhood or adult relations with his parents and brothers. As Grace says, they must represent but a fraction of Lowry's letters "home". Writing to his father in 1940, Lowry began: "There is always a side of the moon which is turned away from the earth, and this is like an attempt to get in touch from that quarter." This gulf between Lowry and his family cannot be bridged by today's readers of Lowry's correspondence. Similarly, although Grace has 23 previously unpublished letters from Lowry to his first wife, Jan Gabrial, it is the letters Gabrial withheld which would be of greater interest. Lowry the drunk and insecure lover is here, but when the adventure turns sour and crisis takes over, most of the letters seem to be missing.

As the years pass, Lowry's writing becomes more and more the main subject of his correspondence. The influence of Lowry's early surrogate father, Conrad Aiken, recedes, and new literary figures enter his life and "family". Lowry's correspondence with his editor and "brother" Albert Erskine, his agent Harold Matson, and his literary "son" David Markson, dominates the last decade of his life, and volume two of Collected Letters. These letters, along with scores of others to European, American and Canadian contacts, amount to the most remarkable and full commentary on the writer's work, and, arguably, an ongoing work in themselves.

Writing from his isolated shack on a beach at Dollarton near Vancouver, Lowry rarely saw his correspondents, and his letters betray the same obsession that dogged and ultimately thwarted his attempts to finish any of his novels after Under the Volcano. In spite of his declaration in a 1951 letter to Downie Kirk that he was "trying to learn more economy of style", Lowry remained true to the last to the maxim that "it's better to get too much in than to get too little out".

Lowry's editors, above all Erskine, had him under contract for books, and they must have dreaded receiving Lowry's long, nearly illegible letters of prevarication, in which he explained why his work had again taken a new direction. For Lowry, though, these correspondents were not just colleagues in the business of producing books, but became as good as therapists. "Auxiliary circumstances" repeatedly result in plans being changed and dropped, and in letters which, besides asking for money, show a writer desperately trying to define his themes and yet please his editors at the same time. The paradox is that these letters on work which was definitely not in progress make the "beautiful sound" that Lowry expected of his books. Lowry persevered on his "voyage that never ends", and here we get as full a picture as will ever be available of his struggle with his art.

It has become commonplace to note that Lowry was unable to keep art and life distinct from one another, and that he therefore could not define the limits of his writing. The letters of his last years add a new dimension to the dilemma. With Under the Volcano, Lowry had written one of the great tragic novels of this century. He then turned to plotting out happy endings, and the unsatisfactory triteness of the positive notes on which the two posthumously published novels close suggests that he meant this all too seriously.

In the 1950s Lowry was fighting continuously against alcoholism and what he called his "unique suffering". After leaving Dollarton for Europe in 1954, he never recovered equilibrium and died in 1957. As he tried to gain control over his life, writing became the only way forward. This resulted in him undermining his own beautifully optimistic suggestion "that all life is destined to have a happy ending, and we have not been deprived of the sense of tragedy purely out of aesthetic consideration by God". Lowry was "fighting for a happy ending", but first and foremost in his art. Ultimately he was unable either to achieve that convincingly, or to prevent tragedy consuming his life.

Grace's editorial decisions are based on the hope that Collected Letters will have a wide readership, and so the letters are thoroughly, and sometimes unevenly, annotated, and there are biographical notes on Lowry and on each of his correspondents. With the author's fiction so central to his letters, however, knowledge of this will often make Lowry's loquacious and convoluted self-analysis easier to appreciate. With or without that knowledge, it is fascinating and uplifting to encounter the author's incorrigible cheerfulness against the odds. Malcolm Lowry most certainly did "keep somewhere a nucleus of peace where the heart's velleities are clean, its cormorants dry their heraldic wings, and its seagulls, in sunlight, fly".

Greg Bond is coordinator for English,Technische Fachhochschule, Wildau, Germany.

Sursum Corda! The Collected Letters of Malcolm Lowry: Volume 1, 1926-46

Editor - Sherril E. Grace
ISBN - 0 224 03290 9
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Price - £35.00
Pages - 690

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