When reading these fiercely vivacious, death-by-heartbreak letters, remember a comment about their author by one of his long-suffering friends: "Just one look at the old bastard makes me happy for a week." (This felicity is mentioned by Douglas Day in his preface to Lowry's posthumously published novel Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid .)
These are remarkably brave communications, at times tender, at times manic, at times despairing. Behind them, in sorrowful glimpses afforded by their indefatigably scrupulous editor, lies the rest of the story of Malcolm Lowry's last, downward decade. The letters show and imply almost enough of the man: too often unbearably self-absorbed, self-important, impractical, and uncompassionate; so much so, I think, that not even his terrible alcoholism could account for all of his faults.
But the paradox is that his winsomeness, his critical insight and generosity and his erudition were enormous, right to the end. No absolute son-of-a-bitch could interest so many obviously sane correspondents in keeping in touch with him over so long a time. During this last ten years of his life, Lowry despaired at the loss of health, contracts, his Dollarton home, the death of friends (new ones made were not sufficient to help him soar out of the graveyard spiral, not sufficient to help him focus more on his fiction and less on his correspondence). The almost five hundred letters here unselfpityingly, bravely, humorously, even, at times, dispassionately, chronicle much of the bad news, and what good news there was. Their tone is almost always amazingly free of despondency. So free of it, at times, you would think he was writing about somebody else.
And there's a clue to understanding the epistles, the fiction, and the life: Lowry possessed an eloquently obsessional ability to distance himself from, or at least to withstand, and thereby to watch over his daily horror-and the horrors-for a while.
One of the last missives was addressed to the poet Ralph Gustafson. It contains an autobiographical note for the Penguin Book of Canadian Verse. The letter ends in quiet triumph, without vainglory or false modesty: "Under the Volcano is shortly to be reissued in an edition of classics by Knopf. It was almost entirely written in Canada, inspired by life in Canada, and by Canada, in my nearest then home town of Vancouver, thoroughly panned. It has since been translated into 6 languages."
Ted Whittaker, a reviewer of books and a Lowry fan for over thirty-five years, lives in Toronto.