Hartebeeste, mio, with love from Dearduck

Charles Nicholl wonders whether Malcolm Lowry should have written more books and fewer letters: Sursum Corda! The Collected Letters of Malcolm Lowry, Vol II: 1946-57 edited by Sherrill E Grace, Cape, pounds 40
A writer's collected letters are a curious monument, occupying an ill-defined space between the Life and the Works. They are not quite biography and not quite literature but sometimes seem like a giant, ongoing rough draft.

Malcolm Lowry's voluminous letters are fascinating in this way: rapid, specific, full of raw detail. They can seem totally unguarded, but are probably not. Lowry was an instinctive performer, and his personal letters were written with an ear half-cocked to posterity. A letter to his wife here begins "Hartebeeste mio" and ends "All Love, Dearduck": are we eavesdropping on marital intimacy, or did he know that even his pet-names would one day be read and judged as text?

Sherrill E Grace's edition of his letters, Sursum Corda!, now completed with this second volume, is almost literally a monument. With 1700 pages, it contains about 1000 letters and manuscripts written from 1926 to 1957. It is certainly exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting. One does not quite get "Two pints Gold Top please", but had such a note survived it would duly be here, with a brief biographical sketch of the milkman.

This isn't just the good bits; it's everything. The collection conveys a sense of huge, squandered verbal energy. As Professor Grace points out, Lowry should have written more books and fewer letters. It also permits a growing familiarity. One is regaled by an almost palpable conversational style: fluent, allusive, button-holing, a desperate gin-fuelled geniality one step away from despair."Sursum corda" (lift up your hearts), was a favourite sign-off line of Lowry's, and there is something strangely uplifting about these letters, even if the uplift is more adrenal than spiritual.

On the surface this is a less picturesque period of Lowry's brief life. The first volume had a certain louche flair - Lowry the black sheep, the drifter, the literary barfly, the womaniser - and some vivid glimpses of his life in Mexico in the mid-1930s, the background of his masterpiece, Under the Volcano. We begin in 1946, with Under the Volcano completed and about to be published. Lowry is in his mid-thirties, settled happily if tempestuously with his second wife, the former Hollywood starlet Margerie Bonner. They are briefly in Haiti, but most of the time at the "beach shack" they owned at Dollarton on the coast of British Columbia.

These Canadian years are full of literary struggle, financial difficulties, black-outs, injuries. Lowry found it increasingly difficult to crystallise his writing into printable form. Eddying drifts of half-formed ideas, synopses and treatment fill the letters. They will become the brooding, posthumous works like Dark as the Grave Wherein My friend is Laid. We catch them here still raw, attached to his own life. He maps out the mood of the story that became October Ferry to Gabriola: "I want to convey that it isn't alcoholism in the true sense but a kind of death, or half life". What he is conveying is his own life, not yet transliterated into fiction.

In 1954, Lowry left the Americasfor the last time. He was in bad shape physically and mentally. The following year, in London, he was hospitalised and wrote to his New York publisher, Albert Erskine: "the reaper is omnipresent but it is by no means grim for all that, in fact I spend most of my time shirtless on the cricket pitch in the dew".

He delayed the reaper on this occasion too: this is a saga of self-destruction, but also brute strength. He died, aged 48, in a rented house in Sussex - "by misadventure" as the coroner found, by the ravages of chronic alcoholism in reality - in June 1957. His last letter is to the playwright Harvey Burt, enthusing about a recent trip to Grasmere. It ends with a plangent quotation from Wordsworth's Prelude: "Ye lowly cottages wherein we dwelt/A ministration of your own was ours".

This seems to be a marvellous summation of Lowry's richly errant life, among Mexican dives and Canadian shacks and all the other "lowly cottages" which he chose in preference to the comfortable mansions of his birth and class.