The Voyage That Never Ends by Malcolm Lowry
Michael Hofmann’s plump anthology of miscellaneous work by Malcolm Lowry provides an essential companion to the novel which made him famous. It even includes an early draft, in the form of the eponymous story from which Under the Volcano developed. Equally, it supplies an admirable introduction to Malcolm Lowry, for anyone who has heard of him but found it hard to get hold of his work.
Lowry conceived of ‘the voyage that never ends’ as a frame for his major fiction – a sequence of narratives about the mythic struggles of a man wrestling with his personal demons. In the later work this is often represented through the figure of a writer tormented by creative crisis. Lowry felt that this concept gave his work a wider coherence. When he died in 1957 this grand epic plan was unrealised. Most of his work remained unpublished, yet, as this anthology shows, it’s applicable to everything he ever wrote, including his poems and letters. The voyage was nothing less than the journey through life itself, often purgatorial, sometimes hellish. Hofmann includes Lowry’s lesser known "Paradise" story, The Forest Path to the Spring, a lyrical celebration of love and happiness in rural Canada.
Lowry’s fiction usually takes the form of a literal journey which expands into a searing metaphysical ordeal. Under the Volcano is about the last day in the life of a drunkard stumbling around an exotic zone in the shadow of Popocatepetl. Two posthumously published novels, both sampled by Hofmann, take the journey further. Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid follows a writer who returns to Mexico to revisit the scenes and people who inspired an earlier novel. October Ferry to Gabriola takes place on a Greyhound bus and a ferry, carrying a desperate man towards the dream of personal redemption.
This anthology provides snapshots of Lowry’s career, ranging from some of his earliest published stories to his more complex and challenging later work. It includes Strange Comfort Afforded by the Profession, a key short text. An American writer in Rome wanders round the Keats museum on the Spanish Steps, then heads for a bar to scrutinise his notes. On the surface very little happens but the story turns into a compelling account of the reification of writers and their work. Keats’s letters, Lowry suggests, are not innocent. They consciously promote a personal myth. Their words mislead. The true reality – comically absurd, tragic, sinister – is elusive. It can only be rendered in fragmentary forms which resist the spurious satisfactions of pleasing pattern and final explanation.
Lowry’s sceptical scrutiny of literary and social archetype sprang from his own embrace of it. As a young writer he ardently immersed himself in ‘the heroic working class’ only to find ‘petty squabbles, jealousies’. Hofmann chooses twenty poems which both underline Lowry’s accomplishments in verse as both lyricist and ironist. They are matched by a generous selection of letters, including early correspondence with the American poet and novelist Conrad Aiken, the long, legendary letter to Jonathan Cape explaining why his reader’s report was wrong and why Under the Volcano should be published, and a final letter, written just before his death, to his young fan David Markson (now best known as an accomplished and highly original novelist).
The meat of this anthology lies in its selection of Lowry’s published short fiction, which is now otherwise hard to get hold of, and extracts from three posthumously published novels. These last works are included under the category of ‘drafts’, which is a little misleading. Dark as the Grave and October Ferry were posthumously cut and edited by Lowry’s widow from much bulkier material. Much closer to Lowry’s original manuscript is La Mordida and the extract included here, about a voyage to Haiti, is half-way between a writer’s journal and fiction.
Best of all is ‘Through The Panama’, an account of a voyage cast in the form of a writer’s notebook. It exposes a writer’s crisis of identity and takes us to heart of Lowry’s dilemma. The multiple narratives of his later career remind me of what Slavoj Žižek said about the twin editions of Tender is the Night. Their artistic truth lies in both versions and ‘the traumatic core around which they circulate’. Lowry had no faith in conventional naturalistic fiction and the sturdy comforts of ‘character’, the consolations of wraparound plot. He preferred narratives embedded in consciousness, mocking the creaky artifice of conventional fiction. In place of naturalism he offers the joy of text. For the right sort of reader, the pleasures of this anthology are considerable.