Pursued by Furies

ISBN: 0394220641

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Dark Days Always Pressing
by Birk Sproxton

GORDON BOWKER's biography of Malcolm Lowry features a steadiness of purpose, a concern for truth as conventionally understood, and a quiet, understated style - virtues seemingly unknown to the fiery and mercurial Lowry, who once described his own prose as "flowery and often glowery." Through 26 chapters, each about 25 pages long and dealing usually with two years in Lowry's life, Bowker traces the novelist's strange career. The structure of the book, starting with the circumstances of Lowry's birth and ending with his death, implies a commonplace metaphor: life as a road or journey. Bowker takes from Lowry the metaphor of the title, "pursued by furies," which I at first thought overly dramatic but at the end found to be apt. For Lowry indeed ran all his life, his crucial stops in Mexico and in Dollarton, British Columbia, lasting just long enough for him to produce many uncompleted fragments and his masterpiece, Under the Volcano. Lowry often wrote standing up, as if ready to take off for the nearest stash of booze or the darkness of the ocean.

As befits one of his generation and habits, Lowry also produced cartloads of letters (many hoarded and never sent). These provide essential material for Bowker, and his extensive paraphrasing of letters and notebooks emphasizes Lowry's inner life. Lowry himself, an alcoholic with all the charm and guile of one who enjoys drunkenness, spoke of living in "introverted comas." Bowker's soundings are enriched by psychiatric and medical reports and anchored to the larger world by details of contracts, contacts, and negotiations, including the whining and wheedling attendant upon Lowry's existence as a remittance man.

The supporting cast in this life-drama includes many stars of modem letters: Earle Birney and Fletcher Markle, Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood, Malcolm Cowley and Conrad Aiken. There are angels and devils, as Lowry would have wanted, and the most influential persons -his dour father and remote mother, the American writer Conrad Aiken, and Lowry's second wife, Margerie - play both roles, though all tend to be shaded darkly. Aiken, for example, encouraged Lowry's writing, but Bowker believes the older man, a "tutor" and guide when Malcolm was a very impressionable 20 year old, eventually undermined Lowry's sanity. Margerie encouraged Lowry to believe in his genius, edited his work, forgave him his sometimes brutal treatment of her, set aside her writing to type his, and became the keeper of the Lowry myth and legacy after his death. She also encouraged his dependence upon her, even for the simple tasks of dressing, and when he was hopelessly drunk she would shove handfuls of pills down his throat. To this cast we add, as pursuing shades, Malcolm's fear of syphilis, his prodigious memory, and one Paul Fitte, in whose suicide Lowry was implicated as a young man.

Lowry's habit of disappearing, usually to find booze, gives Pursued by Furies the flavour of a detective mystery: where has Malcolm gone now? Accidents often piled upon coincidence for Lowry, and all his life he sought to make ordinary happenings propitious, delaying travel dates or meetings, for example, to coincide with birthdays. But he was both clumsy and foolish. His boozing led on one occasion to a broken back, on another to a broken leg. Though Lowry's essential good humour took him through much - he once feared that he could find employment only "as a scab lavatory attendant in Saskatchewan" the dark days were always pressing, and death days, as Under the Volcano testifies, became his specialty. With good cause, Bowker treats Lowry's life as an adventure story, a writer's travels down a road with forks, twists, backpedalling, and much groping in the dark.

The close of the story is very compelling, partly because of the biographer's understated manner. He tells of a drunken quarrel between Lowry and Margerie, of an empty pill bottle found in her dresser, of the results of the autopsy. The verdict on the death certificate was "death by misadventure," but more than one friend felt Lowry's death was a "foul accident." Bowker leaves the question open. In his penultimate paragraph he recites a litany of curious coincidences: how 27 June was the day when Lowry broke his leg, and the day when a friend wrote to him about the destruction of Lowry's beloved pier at Dollarton, and "more strangely still, 27 June was the birthday of Paul Fitte." In Pursued by Furies, Bowker gives us a book both dramatic and analytical, with few false notes to interrupt the haunting tale of a haunted writer.


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