Dispatches from the volcano

CJ Fox on the tempestuous correspondence and appalling misadventures of the novelist Malcolm Lowry
Sursum Corda!: The Collected Letters of Malcolm Lowry Volume I: 1926-46

ed. Sherrill Grace

Jonathan Cape £35

At Christmas 1937, Malcolm Lowry made a Mayday call from the Mexican hellhole where he was undergoing the persecutory and alcoholic horrors he later transmuted into the fictional damnation and death of Consul Geoffrey Firmin in Under the Volcano:

"S.O.S. Sinking fast by both bow and stern.

S.O.S. Worse than both the Morro Castle.

S.O.S. And the Titanic . . ."

The call (to his old Cambridge chum John Davenport) crackles once more across the 730 pages which comprise the first tome of Sherrill Grace's projected two-volume edition of Malcolm Lowry's letters. So do many other histrionic outbursts from this ill-starred son of Merseyside, notably his breathtaking declaration concerning the Volcano: "As the last scream of anguish of the consciousness of a dying continent, an owl of Minerva flying at evening, the last book of its kind, written by someone whose type and species is dead, even as a final contribution to English literature itself, the final flaring up and howling, for all I know - other things pretentious - this book, written against death and in an atmosphere of total bankruptcy of spirit, might have some significance beyond the ordinary."

The manuscript of Under the Volcano, agonised over by Lowry for years before its final publication in 1947, was barely snatched from destruction during one of the numerous disasters to befall him. This was the fire which in 1944 levelled the beach shack near Vancouver where he and his valiant second wife Margerie Bonner lived as squatters. But of a second novel-in-progress, nothing survived except charred fragments - a replay, with flames, of his loss of the autobiographical saga Ultramarine in its manuscript stage 12 years before. Lowry had managed to reconstruct Ultramarine; the second loss, however, left him "slightly cuckoo." Contemplating the picture of a house located near his place of refuge, the fire-addled Lowry - psychic at the best of times-kept thinking it too was bursting into flames. "Sure enough, about a week later, that's precisely what the house did," he tells Conrad Aitken.

To another correspondent, he describes sitting in a pub next to the tavern idiot. Friendly overtures brought only snarled responses from the madman. "He doesn't know it," gloats Lowry, "but he's going into the Volcano." The idiot and his snarls adorn Chapter 10, featured in one of Consul Firmin's mescal-fuelled flashbacks. For, as Lowry writes elsewhere in these 270 letters, he lived "a kind of intra-dimensional life" in his books.

The letters graphically illustrate the way Lowry's real-life situations often degenerated into a lethal chaos worthy of his imagination at full demonic tilt. But the horror is often flecked with humour in the telling, as with his description, again to Aitken, of an early Lowry-den in Vancouver. There Malcolm and "Margie" cohabited with a family of six including "a howling wind which rages through the house all day, twins and a nurse, who sleeps with the youngest boy, aged 14." There's more: "I forgot the dog, the canary, and a Hindoo timber merchant, educated at Corpus Christi, Oxford - you can't get away from Oxford - who sleeps in the woodpile in the basement, hoping, with his fine Oriental calm, that one day he'll be paid for the wood."

Professor Grace's volume scarcely provides t1he liturgical "heart-lift" of its Latin title, since it represents the full gamut of Lowry's appalling misadventures up to 1946 (they got worse in his 11 remaining years and should bulk larger in the forthcoming Volume Two). There are grovelling letters to his exasperated, mercantile father back in Liverpool, aimed at prying open his well-stocked coffers. An abundance of letters to the since-deceased Margerie, to her wifely predecessor Jan Gabrial and to an adolescent crush, all show how Lowry could shamelessly "put it on" for the girls. His first, brazen letter to Aitken is a highlight - a precocious 19-year-old canvassing an established master from a peer's perspective. Even more extraordinary is the marathon epistle to publisher Jonathan Cape minutely defending the still-unpublished Volcano against a sceptical evaluator.

A rich erudition flows through the surfeit of woe. A 1931 letter to Nordahl Grieg, the inspirer of Ultra-marine, turns into a penetrating treatise on Rupert Brooke. Lowry could be writing of himself when he remarks: "With Brooke, the `Dark Self that Wants to Die' was always present even when he himself was most happy and vigorous." Later, he reveals a wide knowledge of classic cinema - Murnau, Pabst, Von Stroheim, even Grierson - when urging more quality films for Vancouver enthusiasts.

In the current biographical scheme of things, Lowry's learning is upstaged by his alcoholic and other torments, as is his industry. From his millions of words came not only his single masterwork, the Volcano, but ancillary fiction ranging in spirit from the purgatorial to the paradisaical and in some cases collated by the dedicated Margerie after her 47-year-old husband's unseemly death in 1957. Professor Grace has had to perform heroic feats of scholarly assemblage in coaxing cohesive texts from scrawled and scattered remnants of letters.

At the outset, she argues plausibly for her comprehensive new edition of the correspondence, given the way Lowry's fiction derives from the tempestuous life recorded in these letters. She also cites the defects in the 1965 Selected Letters which reflected Margerie's editorial shortcomings and her bias against the first Mrs Lowry. Yet, oddly, we still must go to the Selected for a telegram crucial to one of Lowry's most impressive letter- writing campaigns - one arraigning Scribner's for publishing a crime novel by Margerie, minus its last chapter.

A number of the letters are too concerned with technicalities of fiction- editing to be of general interest. Still, Canada, in the person of a Vancouver professor - the very Canada which in Lowry's day, so he indicates in his letters, had little time for writers - has outdone itself in attending the life of its 14-year beach-squatter. ("I like Canada anyway. Who knows but I might not become a Canadian Ibsen or Dostoevsky? They certainly need one.") Sherrill Grace's emerging letter-trove, explored along with the Bowker Life, should be a boon to Lowry devotees.