BOOK REVIEW / Mapping the labyrinth under the volcano: 'Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry' - Gordon Bowker: HarperCollins, 25 pounds

Nick Caistor
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:28

ANY WRITER born in New Brighton deserves every sympathy. Situated at the far end of the sewage discharge from Liverpool and the other Mersey towns, it masquerades as a resort and genteel suburb across the estuary for the richer denizens of the 'pool of life'. Malcolm Lowry was born there in 1909, the third son of a successful cotton broker, and hated it. He spent his whole life running from this background, escaping in drink and literature through country after country until his 'death by misadventure' in Sussex in 1957, with the inevitable bottle of gin and pills by his side.

At the same time, Lowry's moments of peace and creative activity - on the west coast of Canada in his wooden fisherman's shack, or in Mexico overlooking the ravine which is at the centre of his greatest novel, Under the Volcano - strangely echoed his position in New Brighton, looking out across empty space towards unattainable life on the far side.

Few English writers have pursued their own demons as obsessively as Lowry. He felt compelled to write, but became so terrified of his attempts to bring back 'something new about hell fire' that he destroyed himself.

It is on the strength of Under the Volcano, plus his description of New York's Bellevue mental hospital in Lunar Caustic, and one or two late short stories, that Lowry has been hailed as a genius. But he has always enjoyed more of a reputation abroad than in England, as though his work somehow read more convincingly in translation. Reading Under The Volcano again, it still seems strangely unfinished, even though Lowry dedicated over a decade of his life to it and threw into it just about everything that ever happened to him, even the kitchen sink into which he so often drunkenly vomited.

This is part of Gordon Bowker's problem as he constructs his painstaking version of Lowry's life. Lowry was so self-obsessed he said it all himself in his literature, and gave countless versions of each event outside his fiction as well. This is why Bowker begins his book with a warning: 'Trying to follow Malcolm Lowry's life is like venturing without a map into a maze inside a labyrinth lost in a wilderness.'

A pronouncement of this kind at the beginning of a book over 600 pages long is scarcely an inducement to continue, yet after that the narrative flows on smoothly, following the writer through school and university and then his drunken zigzags across a variety of continents, two wives, and the constant struggle to produce something entirely original that would justify his existence.

Bowker seems scrupulously fair, giving Lowry credit for much humour and earnestness in his attempts to break with the demon booze. What is most lacking is a sense of his own identity, so that despite the tens of thousands of words dispensed with admirable equanimity, it seems as though Bowker does not have any opinions of his own. And on the occasions he does express one, this veers dangerously close to gobbledegook: 'What he could not have known was that in absorbing the poet's creative consciousness he would also absorb a damaged psychology obsessed with the dark, corrupt, feculent world of the unconscious which he felt himself destined to explore.'

Bowker is also somewhat reluctant to proffer any reasoned judgment on Lowry's literary merits. In his conclusion, he finds that Lowry is one of the geniuses of this century, and places him alongside Joyce, asserting that, like him, 'he has played a seminal role in the growth of many younger novelists'. This is plainly not true, and is a somewhat skimpy reward for the reader after such a long haul.

On the book flap we are told that the author taught courses in biography for six years. With luck, he instilled in his students two things that are unfortunately missing from his own book: the awareness that it is only a short step from being exhaustive to being exhausting, and that as well as being a life, a biography should have a life of its own.

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