Sursum Corda!:
The Collected Letters of Malcom Lowry

734 pages,
ISBN: 0802007481

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Epistles & Epiders
by Ted Whittaker

An epigraph by A. S. Byatt to this tome heads straight toward the bull's eye, but falls a bit short. "There are always letters that were destroyed. The letters, usually." Some of Malcolm Lowry's letters are missing from this big bouquet, by accident or design. Many of them are important, but the plenty that Sherrill Grace has gathered and annotated-in this book, 270 of the almost eight hundred available: epistolary essays, notes, scribbles-enable her readers to do something extraordinary. They become partial biographers of the best writer in English to live and work in Canada during the first half of this century.
There is much to be gained from reading even an unannotated swatch of correspondence. But the intimate knowledge that is available from such a work as Grace's is enormous. She is staggeringly thorough. The provenance of each letter is given, thumbnail biographies of each correspondent are supplied in endnotes, and each letter is bibliographically described. (This makes for many very busy-looking pages.) The whole beast is not flayed and pegged here, but, thanks to Grace's indefatigable and minute annotations, most of him is. And because, as editor, she quite sensibly doesn't judge her subject's wisdom and folly, we're left-or, implicitly, challenged-to do so, if we wish.
Lowry's impeccable ear for English prose is there in the letters right from the first, as is his genial self-absorption. Grace begins with a clutch of Woosterish love letters he wrote as a teen. The object of this puppy-like behaviour cools him eventually, but we see the start of a pattern in these early gushes. More than many people, perhaps, he needs completion by others. Not feeling sufficiently close to, or understood by, his family, he searches for a lover, friends, and a mentor-father-surrogate-for years, the American poet and novelist Conrad Aiken plays this last role. (It is wrong to write off Lowry as merely sick and needy, a booze-macerated narcissist who writes like an angel peering at a shining mirror; the letters show a generous side to the man, free with the critical help he can give and unafraid to ask for it in return; and honestly unstinting in compassion, empathy, and courtesy.)
As Lowry grows older, his need for emotional support becomes more complex and stays just as intense. His courtships are in great part epistolary, but are none the less touching to read and genuinely amorous (if at times embarrassingly repetitive). He convinces two women to marry him. The first leaves him in Mexico in 1937 because, at the time, he is, to put it baldly, a crazy penniless drunk. The letters she released to Grace show him in a light only slightly softer than would the bleak lamp of biography.
His second wife, the American actor-turned-novelist Margerie Bonner, outlives him by three decades. They are symbiotic. His letters to and about her demonstrate constantly his faithful adoration and respect. They detail the couple's support for each other's work (though Lowry may have received more than he gave).
The Lowrys' life as squatters up-inlet from Vancouver in the forties and early fifties doesn't come up all wild roses. For some years, there is intermittent but intense anxiety about money. An insane editor at Scribner's allows Margerie's second thriller to be published without the last chapter. The Lowrys are physically and culturally isolated. Their second house burns down, cremating all their books and a 1,000-page draft of Lowry's novel In Ballast to the White Sea, which is never rewritten. Then, after a recuperative trip east, when they return and begin to rebuild, they find-this is the down-side of squatting; the rights aren't always there when you need them-that meanwhile someone else has built on half their space.
As these letters show, Malcolm Lowry is on the dole most of his life from his rich, bewildered father. Lowry fils isn't delighted by this dependence, but accepts the remittance pro tem, gratefully, and with some mortification-and the conventional inheritance that succeeds it-since it enables him to write.
Though he is not always in control of his finances during the years covered here, he is very clear about his talent. In 1940, with no apologies, he hopes Under the Volcano "might compare not unfavourably with Kafka's The Trial." His style and critical abilities mature correspondingly early. In 1931, he writes to Nordahl Grieg, the Norwegian novelist, recommending gracefully the Elizabethan insights of Rupert Brooke. The most striking example of Lowry's critical excellence comes in 1946, however, in the 15,000-word defence of Under the Volcano to his English publisher, Jonathan Cape. (At the same time that Cape tentatively accepts the six-times-rewritten masterpiece, Lowry's American publisher, Reynal and Hitchcock, takes it without requiring cuts or major changes.) The letter begins by answering Cape's reader's disparaging and dismissive notes and queries minutely, then confidently, and with casual, convincing erudition opens a path through the work's "forest of symbols" (Lowry quotes Baudelaire).
His criticism of his own and of friends' work-he consistently encourages other writers-is the best reason for reading Sursum Corda! The author-publisher housekeeping is routine, with the exceptions noted. The money letters to his father and his intermediaries are at times excruciating, especially when they detail Lowry's attempts to extricate himself from the bizarre personal guardianship he collapses into (a situation ignorantly sanctioned by the O.M.-his abbreviation for Old Man in letters to friends) upon the dissolution of his first marriage. The letters to friends, publishers, agents, editors are mainly interesting as they instance his good humour, loving-kindness, and critical insight. In these accounts of his works and days, the firewater is mostly considered to be under control, though frequently the prim can whiff its menace.
Malcolm Lowry in 1946 is well and truly under way, on an even keel, though he has rasped across a number of murderous shoals. He and Margerie have recently had a truly surreal experience with corrupt police in Mexico and have escaped with their lives, narrowly (occasioning a 10,000-word letter, and later an unfinished novel, La Mordida). By this time his epistolary styles, probably like his personality, cannot be categorized as plebeian or patrician, English or American. Bits of telling syntax, stray slang phrases from both sides of the pond (rather more from over here, perhaps) characterize them as sturdy hybrids. (For what it's worth, Lowry considers himself an Englishman and, at least until 1946, hasn't bothered changing his citizenship.)
Despite all the rough weather Lowry sails through (and there is a lot, whether he steers into it or whether it just blows up at him from an unseen quarter, without his willing it), he is almost always able, in these letters, to muster a laugh at the awfulness of the world. Here, to close, is his brief account, con brio, to his friend James Stern, of his hallucinatory experiences in Mexico a few years before (some were metamorphosed into Under the Volcano):
"I was thrown for a time,...into durance vile, by some fascistas in Oaxaca-(by mistake, they were after another guy....) On Christmas day they let out all the prisoners except me. Myself, I had the Oaxaquenian third degree for turkey. Hissed they (as Time would say): `you say you a wrider but we read all your wridings and dey don't make sense. You no a wrider, you an espider, and we shoota de espiders in Mejico.' But it was an improving experience...They tried to castrate me too, one fine night, unsuccessfully, I regret (sometimes) to report. It ended up with a sort of Toulouse-Lautrec scene, myself, gaolers and all, simply walking, roaring with mescal, out into the night. They are looking for me yet."

Ted Whittaker snuffled about in the Malcolm Lowry archive at UBC in 1963.


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