Inside the Volcano: My Life with Malcolm Lowry

by Jan Gabrial
204 pages,
ISBN: 0312232772

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Vanity Keeps Breaking In
by Cynthia Sugars

IfMalcolm Lowry's first love was alcohol, his second love was surely the allure of uncanny coincidence. On his initial meeting with the woman who was to become his first wifełand the model for Yvonne in his 1947 masterpiece Under the VolcanołLowry was convinced he stood face to face with destiny. Didn't Jan bear the same name as the sweetheart of the lovestruck hero of his first novel Ultramarine? Did this not mean that Lowry had somehow divined his own future? Were they not destined to be together for eternity? Jan Gabrial certainly thought so.

After years of relative silence about her life with Malcolm Lowry, aficionados had almost given up hope of Gabrial ever unlocking her Pandora's box of Lowryan lore. To be sure, we had already enjoyed sporadic glimpses of Gabrial's insights into the notorious "legend of the Lowry". Biographies of Lowry by Douglas Day and Gordon Bowker contain snippets of information; the Collected Letters of Lowry includes numerous letters to both his wives; Bowker's Malcolm Lowry Remembered features interviews with Jan; Jan herself published a short story, "Not With a Bang," about her final break-up with Lowry. But these only succeeded in tantalizing the more voracious of Lowry addicts. Summoning the first wife as a kind of sibylline visionary, one could only fantasize that she might one day step forward to bring the spirit of Malcolm Lowry and Mexico back to life. Would she be able to shed some light on the genesis of Under the Volcano? For she was there at the beginning: living, and sometimes drinking, with Lowry in late-night cantinas; experiencing with him the highs and lows, volcanoes and barrancas, of his Mexican dark night of the soul.

Readers who crave such an epiphanic revelation are bound to be disappointed by this memoir. Those interested in the minutia of a doomed marriage, including lengthy details about Lowry's sexual inadequacies, besotted proclamations, and alcoholic bumblings, will find it more to their taste. What one finds oneself asking as one reads through this account is, who is this book really about: Jan or Malcolm? Surely we read this book because we are first interested in Malcolm Lowry; what we get is perhaps a too intimate glimpse of Gabrial herself.

Mesmerized by the copy of Ultramarine Lowry had given her to read the night after their first meeting in Granada, Spain, in May 1933, Jan wrote in her diary: "Whatever qualms I may have about the man himself I am falling in love with the writer." And yet, the reasons for her marriage to Lowry are never very clear, since from the outset he proves himself to be alcoholic, jealous, unreliable, egotistical, insecure, paranoid, and unmanageable. Surely to rub elbows with Lowry during this period was to mingle with the radical English literati, to engage in rounds of drinking and philosophizing which for Jan, with her own dreams of becoming a writer, were spiritually intoxicating. Jan insists that she fell in love with Lowry's "genius"łthough, in retrospect, perhaps she insists too much: "Malcolm's talent excuses many of his excesses; he is bound to become a noted writer because writing to him is actually a calling. His work is his religion; all else will remain secondaryłand should."

From the outset, however, she was unwilling to assume that secondary role. Before and after their marriage, they argued constantly, often with one or the other disappearing for days. Malcolm would escape into the welcoming embrace of alcohol, sometimes leaving "suicide notes" for Jan to find in his absence. Jan would set out on one of her many trips, thus feeding her own private addiction to novelty and adventure. Even though Jan assured herself that sharing her life "with that extraordinary intellect must surely overbalance our periodic outbursts", towards the end of their stay in Mexico, the romance of being the wife of a tortured genius was wearing thin. By November 1937, just over a year after their arrival in Mexico, and ten years before the publication of Lowry's raison d'Otre, Jan was on her way to Los Angeles, having extricated herself from a life of relentless self-sacrifice and crushing dipsomania.

Jan's goal in this memoir is twofold: First, she seeks to set the record straight about the numerous biographical fallacies which concern her personally (she takes issue especially with the portraits of her as a pitiless vixen promulgated by Day's biography and Conrad Aiken's fictional autobiography Ushant). Second, she wishes to highlight her role in the genesis and vision of Under the Volcano. Thus, she goes to some length to describe hers and Lowry's arrival in Acapulco in November 1936 on the Day of the Dead; her account of Mexico contains frequent references to macabre horsemen who "nearly ran us down"; she recounts the scene of the dying Indian on the dusty roadside on one of their many bus-trips in the Mexican countryside; she describes a night-time carnival complete with an infernal ferris wheel; she tells of frequent bar chases, as she and others track Lowry from one dingy cantina to another; finally, she insists that it was her idea that they go to Mexico in the first place, and she relates how she took notes on her impressions to give to Lowry for inclusion in the novel.

Perhaps this is itself a way of setting the record straight, especially since it is Lowry's second wife, Margerie Bonner, who is generally attributed with having sustained the Volcano through its long gestation. However, Gabrial's attempt at self-validation is dubious at best. Despite her desire to counter Aiken's and Day's portraits of her as a flirtatious adulteress, she does little to counter their claims when she outlines the trail of heart-broken paramours she leaves in her peripatetic wake. As though wishing to convince the reader that she herself, equal to Lowry, was worthy of adulation, Gabrial cannot refrain from featuring herself as the star of the drama: "To be young and pretty and light-hearted and American in Paris in 1932 was to possess the world." Thus we hear of er, and Peak, and countless others, most of whom seem to follow Gabrial through Europe as she is herself at times evading or rendezvous-ing with Lowry. While staying with Lowry in London, she receives a letter from one such disappointed lover, who "deduced that he was 'just another cog' in my wheel of life, and told me I had destroyed his faith in womankind." In Mexico, while proclaiming her continuing devotion to Lowry, she is exchanging heartfelt letters with "Peak," a man she encountered while working as a dancing-girl in a New York nightclub when Lowry was undergoing treatment in Bellevue Hospital. Aiken's account of Jan abandoning Lowry in Cuernavaca to meet up with a mysterious lover in the Mexican hills is mocked by Jan, only to be confirmed when she tells how on her travels she went on a sight-seeing tour with a man she met in the hotel bar and later woke up in his bed. When Malcolm is devastated after reading her diaries, one can only empathize with the poor man, for Jan's account remains steadfastly self-glorifying: "In a further notebook, had I not described Werner, met while in Barcelona, dwelt on our unfulfilled desires . . . and added something to the effect that he, Werner, could probably satisfy a woman to the point of unconsciousness? Could Malcolm have gorged himself on that as well? And what about Berlin? I had filled six notebooks in all, romantic, opinionated, callow, unedited, andłGod help mełdetailed. Had Malcolm found time to read all six of them?"

Yes, Malcolm Lowry was impossible. Yes, he was a literary genius. Certainly, he was bent on self-destruction. Jan's need for independence and self-esteem made it impossible for her to continue with the marriage, and few can blame her. Still, one might have wished for a little more humility. In the end, the memoir is marred because of this. To adapt one of Lowry's favourite expressions: vanity keeps breaking in. Poor Malcolm. ņ

Cynthia Sugars teaches English at the University of Ottawa. She is the editor of The Letters of Conrad Aiken and Malcolm Lowry, 1929-1954 (ECW Press, 1992).


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