Monday, August 9, 2010
Malcolm Lowry and "Volcano"
By Eric Jessen August 9, 2010
The London Times said of Malcolm Lowry's first book Ultramarine (1933) that “if the art of writing is imitation, then the author has mastered it.”
Since his death in 1957 countless theses have been written on Lowry's life: some claim he was a homosexual, others claim he was impotent, all search for an explanation for his drinking, his masterpiece Under the Volcano (1947), and his subsequent failures as an author. Though not an authority on Lowry's life – having only read Under the Volcano and seen the award nominated biographical documentary “Volcano” by Donald Brittain - I would hypothesize that perhaps his true sorrow came from knowing he was an impostor.
It seems from an early age Lowry had already decided he was a failure. According to the documentary, his childhood could be summed up by a series of complaints: his mother was not loving enough, he was constantly ill, and despite his father being a body builder he was considered a sissy in school. (The Hollywood depiction of his life would immediately cut to a flashback in black and white of an overweight woman threateningly wielding a frying pan around the kitchen as little Malcolm cowered in the corner, then a shot of several kids pointing their fingers at Malcolm laughing deprecatingly.)
It seems his pain and suffering became his obsession. He drank continuously until he convinced himself he was an alcoholic. He brooded and sulked until he convinced himself he was depressed. At one point he wandered endlessly outside Bellevue Hospital, drunk and spouting gibberish, until he convinced himself and the doctors he was insane. He desperately sought his own suffering. His actions indicate not as much a cry for help but a cry for attention.
By the time Lowry was writing Under the Volcano in Mexico his obsession with his own suffering had reached a type of arrogance. He saw a sort of divine significance in his own drunken misery. When at first his novel had trouble finding a publisher, he could cope. But once Under the Volcano became a huge success, hailed worldwide as a masterpiece and a work of a genius, his life truly started to fall apart.
Afterword he drank in between struggling to come up with new ideas for novels. Not another was finished the rest of his life. He once again visited therapists and mental hospitals. After years of disappointing fans and publishers he became somewhat of a disgrace. His misery became a reality. Finally, and sadly fittingly, he died in a pool of his own vomit having downed a half bottle of gin. Too bad it wasn't Mescal.