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
Saturday 14 December 1996
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.
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Frank Lampard's face drops when Holly Willoughby introduces him as a 'Man City legend'
- 2 Sofyen Belamouadden murder: The inside story of a crime that horrified Britain
- 3 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 4 The Visit: Trailer for M Night Shyamalan's latest horror film is terrifying
- 5 9/11: Iranian General accuses US of organising September 11 terror attacks
Fast & Furious 7 overtakes Frozen to become 5th highest grossing movie of all time
Poldark, series 1 finale, review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
The Visit: Trailer for M Night Shyamalan's latest horror film is terrifying
Apprentice series 11: Claude Littner to replace Nick Hewer as Lord Sugar's aide
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 3, review: Sansa and manhood-lopping torturer Ramsay Bolton - really?
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
Andrew Lloyd Webber: Phantom of the Opera writer mocked after issuing a warning about Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon
General election 2015: Labour will toughen hate crimes legislation surrounding Islamophobia
HSBC review into moving headquarters from UK 'underway'