Late of the Bowery
His prose was flowery
And often glowery
He lived, nightly, and drank daily
And died playing the ukulele.
(Malcolm Lowry's self-composed epitaph)
The continual eruptions of Popocatepetl above Mexico City that seem to come with the regularity of the sun always serve to remind me of an incredibly powerful book called "Under the Volcano," which was about that very same volcano. Malcolm Lowry's masterpiece is a nightmarish, hallucinogenic vision of a man's descent in purgatory.
The book's main character is a self-destructive drunk in Cuernevaca, Mexico, who is flung into the abyss, literally under Popocatepetl. Lowry's protagonist -- a figure who is almost entirely autobiographical -- is simply called "the Consul." The counsul has been serving as a British diplomat in Cuernevaca, but by the Day of the Dead in 1939, England had broken off relations with Mexico. The inevitability of the World War pervades the book, and the story is not only of one man drinking himself to death, it is about a whole world plunging into the abyss.
Malcolm Lowry lived in Los Angeles during that fateful year of 1939. And while most of the action was written in Vancouver, Canada, and the action takes place in Mexico, there is a strong Los Angeles connection in "Under the Volcano."
When Lowry died in his native England in 1957 at forty-eight years of age, little of his work had been published since "Under the Volcano" in 1947. "Dark As the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid" is a thinly fictionalized version of a trip Lowry took from Canada back to Mexico in the last days of the second War. Lowry's alter ego in "Dark As the Grave" is taking his wife Priscilla back to Cuernevaca. (Priscilla's real-life model was Margerie Bonner, Lowry's second wife, whom he met in 1938 during his longest stay in Los Angeles, where he landed after being ejected by the Mexican authorities on his first visit).
During a longish stopover at the Los Angeles airport in "Dark As the Grave" we find Lowry's alter ego thinking about Los Angeles and his thoughts are not flattering. He thinks of the "barren deathscape of Los Angeles, and yet it was in this hell they met." He's impressed by how Los Angeles has changed through the war years, while he has been away in Canada with Priscilla. Other cities had big new airports, but "it was that the mode of travel on this great new scale was new itself, and no airport could have absolutely expressed this newness better than Los Angeles, than this huge gray-sounding place with its tremendous sense of junction, to north, east and west."
At another point in his musings, the Lowry figure admits to having hated Los Angeles "so violently" that on occasion "all he could think was that it was a hell, the sort of hell his spirit would have wandered to had he killed himself." To Lowry, L.A. was a junction between heaven and hell -- although more hell than heaven.
Lowry was at his greatest, of course, in writing about hell, since his life was lived in one. To UCLA English professor Richard K. Cross, whose "Malcolm Lowry: A Preface to His Fiction" was published by the University of Chicago Press, "Lowry saw Los Angeles as the dissolving edge of civilization. He did not like Los Angeles."
Cross says that Lowry, whose reputation has been growing since his death, wrote one of the eight or perhaps ten best novels of the century with "Under the Volcano." Cross says that Lowry's book puts him on a level with such twentieth-century masters as Thomas Mann, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad and Franz Kafka. "Lowry was an important writer," Cross told me, "who just couldn't do it again."
Lowry was born in Cheshire, England, in 1909. His father was a prosperous international trader, but Lowry felt more identity with his Norwegian sea captain grandfather on his mother's side. Jack London's writings inspired Lowry to join the merchant marine. He was driven to his ship's side in a Rolls Royce limousine, which, of course, made it difficult for him to be accepted by the other seamen.
Lowry recorded these adventures in his first novel, "Ultramarine," which was published in London in 1933. The book had an indifferent success. The rest of his life, Lowry labored in obscurity, except for the brief flurry of attention that came his way because of "Under the Volcano," the only other book of his to be published in his lifetime.
He gained a reputation as a genius and a drunk early on, especially among his peers at Cambridge. Nearly everyone who came into contact with this short, barrel-chested man - a man who couldn't find his way in a city, who was given to constant mishaps and misadventures sensed they were in the presence of genius.
Lowry met his first wife Jan Gabrial in Paris in 1933, in the home of his mentor, the writer Conrad Aiken. Like the second wife he was to find later in Los Angeles, the first was an American. But Gabrial was not at all like the faithful and adoring Margerie, who helped her helpless husband function. Rather Gabrial complained about the poverty of their life, and wondered why they were so poor if everyone was convinced that Lowry was such a genius.
It was a stormy marriage from the beginning. Lowry kept drinking, and Gabrial left for days and even weeks on trips with other lovers, which only drove Lowry to more drinking. Jan obviously became the "bad" part of Yvonne, the Consul's former wife in "Under the Volcano," who came back to Mexico to save her husband but also makes love with Hugh, the Consul's communist half-brother, and M. Laruelle, a friend of the Consul and a washed-up filmmaker.
Much of what is known about Jan Gabrial came from Aiken, who said she had a "strong social conscience" but was, on the whole, a rotten woman. Aiken, however, was hardly an objective third party - he too had been her lover and in "Ushant" portrayed her as both men's lover.
It fell to an old Cambridge buddy of Lowry's, the critic John Davenport, to tell Lowry that Gabrial was involved with a lot of old writer friends. (Davenport, incidentally, was the one who went to Los Angeles and convinced Lowry he ought to go there too. But that was later). "Malc simply couldn't cope with a woman like Jan," Davenport said. "His deep sense of sexual inadequacy - a characteristic of the Consul too - probably stems from the situation with Jan."
Finally in Paris she left Lowry and went back to her native New York. But Lowry, who seemed really to love her, soon followed. It must have been preordained that Lowry would inevitably have come to the New World. His biggest loves, after drink, were jazz (he played the ukulele, as his epitaph noted, and had even published some songs in London) and Herman Melville.
Had other things been equal, Melville alone might have attracted him to the New World. Melville and Lowry not only labored in obscurity to produce one great masterpiece, both attached greater symbolic importance to things: In Lowry's case it was a volcano, in Melville's a whale.
Lowry successfully reunited with Gabrial in New York, but was also treated in Bellevue for his worsening alcoholism. After Bellevue, they decided to make a new start elsewhere-- so they took a bus to Los Angeles.
At the same time Davenport was going to Los Angeles by train to take a studio writing assignment. He sent telegrams across the country to strategic bus stops, telling Malcolm and Jan they could stay with him when they got to Los Angeles - which they did for a couple of months.
Lowry's ending up in Los Angeles was not as unexpected as it might first appear. "Under the Volcano" has been called the most cinematic novel ever written. Lowry was fascinated by films, and badly wanted to work in Hollywood, according to Davenport. But there was no work in 1936. Years later Margerie would insist that Malcolm had indeed worked on a number of scripts during his first stay in Los Angeles, but was unhappy with the mediocrity that was expected, and abhorred team writing. Davenport said that the only work he knew of Lowry doing was work he himself gave to Lowry. So perhaps it was economics that drove Malcolm and Jan to leave San Pedro and arrive in Acapulco on the Day of the Dead in 1936. Living was cheaper in Mexico than in Los Angeles, which meant that father Arthur O. Lowry's dole would go a little further there.
Whatever the circumstances of Lowry's first departure from Los Angeles, his going to Mexico proved to be fatal for him. "Like Columbus I have torn through one reality and discovered another," Lowry wrote in a letter to a friend toward the end of his of his infamous two-year stay in Cuernevaca, under Popocatepetl and its twin volcano far to the east, Ixtacihuatl. As Professor Cross says in his book on Lowry, "It was by no means the last of Lowry's perilous voyages, but it was undoubtedly the most decisive, as crucial for him as the journey up the Congo had been for Conrad."
Malcolm and Jan were undoubtedly attracted to Cuernevaca partly because there were lots of foreigners there already, and many were literary types. But another attraction had to be the abundance of tequila and mescal. A Lowry biographer described Cuernevaca as both a "drunkard's paradise and hell." After two years there, Jan was gone, and Lowry himself was not-so-gently escorted from the country -- although it is not clear if he was officially deported, since he made a second trip back after the war with equally disastrous results.
Although Lowry saw Mexico as an "age-old arena of racial and political conflicts," and even mentioned how the great California bohemian writer Ambrose Bierce found his death there, the Mexico Lowry wrote about was as much his own "inner landscape" as the reality. Alcohol undoubtedly added to his paranoid visions. Still, the reality of Mexico then was that it had a leftist president named Cardenas who had kicked out the foreign oil corporation and was trying to help the poor, while at the same time the military and police were being infiltrated by Nazi agents from Germany who sought a means of threatening the United States.
Plainly Lowry was finding echoes of the Spanish Civil War in Mexican politics of the time as well. Lowry had lost some of his Cambridge friends who went to Spain to fight Franco. It was not just coincidence that at the end of the Day of the Dead, the Consul is killed by the local military police because they think he is a Jew, a communist and a spy. He was, of course, none of those things.
It was obvious later to various of his friends who saw Lowry in Mexico that he was living the life of the Consul. Jan disappeared with her lovers for days on end and finally she packed up and went back to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Lowry was drinking -- once he drank for twenty-four hours a day for three days and two nights without sleeping. Yet somehow he also got a start on the manuscript of "Under the Volcano," and had a forty-thousand word manuscript completed before he returned to Los Angeles in July, 1938. In his alcoholic perambulations, however, the first draft was lost before he got back to L.A. Lowry would lose more than one manuscript in his life through various and sundry mishaps -- indeed he would eventually lose his life through mishap. The original draft of his first novel, "Ultramarine," had been lost by an editor, so he had to recreate it in a hurry and was never happy with the result. In fact, Lowry barely recovered one of the last drafts of "Under the Volcano" from a house fire. The book was finally published in 1947.
Aiken was one of those who saw Lowry in Mexico and he noted Jan's cold indifference to Lowry's plight. Lowry, said Aiken, was becoming less and less the lighthearted mystic and more and more a fanatic one. He was obsessed with cabalistic structure and his novel is clearly built around the cabalistic tree of life. He kept his trousers up with a necktie knotted around his waist; his face was becoming red and rounder. Toward the end of his stay in Mexico, Lowry was forever being thrown into dingy jails in the interior in order to dry out, only to be released to drag himself to the closest cantina to order his beloved, hallucinogenic mescal.
Finally the Mexican authorities decided to get him out of the country. At one point, as he was being held in prison before his deportation, he was asked by prison authorities who he was, and the answer he got became a famous line in "Under the Volcano." "You say you are a wrider," Lowry quoted the authorities as saying to him, "but we read all your wridings and dey don't make sense. You no wrider, you an espider, and we shoota de espiders in Mexico." Lowry said he took the word espider to mean spy.
Toward the end of his stay Lowry wrote his father, trying to make the worse appear the better. "We had a good deal of bother lately," he wrote in a cheerfully vague manner, "what with our house being robbed and leaving Mexico ... so we decided each to get jobs, Jan going to Los Angeles for a bit, I on assignment here of an innocent nature." His "assignment" was his drinking himself to death.
Arthur Lowry's lawyers took charge. Malcolm was put on a train in Mexico City by his father's agents and changed trains at Nogales, Arizona, for Los Angeles. He was met on his arrival in L.A. by his father's attorney, Benjamin Parks, and immediately taken to the Hotel Normandie near Wilshire Boulevard. He was declared an incompetent by the state of California. Parks paid his hotel bill and gave him a tiny bit of money for food and cigarettes.
At the same time, Jan accepted a "sizable cash settlement" in lieu of divorce alimony, according to Douglas Day in his biography "Malcolm Lowry." She took the money and ran, with a lover, to Santa Barbara. But she turned up in Lowry's life a few more times before disappearing from view forever. Once she wrote a letter to Lowry, after he had moved to Canada with Margerie, saying she'd like to get together for old times' sake. Lowry tore up her letter and never answered it. She also wrote a thinly-veiled fictional account of with had happened in Mexico; it was published and apparently hit home with Lowry, who was depressed by it.
But that was all later. For the moment, Lowry had settled down to writing at the Hotel Normandie -- writing poems about Mexico, and possibly working on a new draft of "Under the Volcano." A woman down the hall was said to be typing the new version. It has long been a mystery just when and where Lowry began his second draft, which is really the first extant draft of "Under the Volcano" and was finished in Canada in 1941. "No one really knows," says Professor Cross, "where it was begun. It's anybody's guess."
What is known for sure is that he was lonely most of the year he spent in Los Angeles. His old English friends Davenport and Arthur Calder-Marshall had left Hollywood. He wrote long letters to people around the world.
To Nordahl Grieg, the Norwegian novelist who was almost as much a mentor as Aiken, he wrote from the Hotel Normandie: "I have been married, lost my wife, and been importuned by fascists. I had a terrible sojourn in Mexico. I am but a skeleton -- thank God -- of my former self."
To Aiken he wrote that Jan had left him a sort of Lear of the Sierra, dying by the glass in the Brown Derby, in Hollywood. "I don't blame her, I was better off in the Brown Derby."
One of his only friends during that period was another tenant of the Hotel Normandie, one Jack King. It was King who changed Lowry's life by introducing him to Margerie Bonner, of whom Lowry would later say that he "had unlocked her from the prison of Los Angeles."
Margerie Bonner was a true child of Hollywood -- her mother brought her and her sister Priscilla to Tinseltown from Michigan. Priscilla was just starting to play starring film roles (opposite comedian Harry Langdon, for example) when her eyes were partially blinded by Klieg lights, cutting short her career. Margerie then began to find some success in playing young horsewomen in westerns, and when she was not working as an actress, she was churning out scripts either for radio or for Disney cartoons. She also had some of her detective novels published. So she was indeed a professional writer.
There's long been a raging debate over how much of "Under the Volcano" she wrote. She certainly rewrote and edited Lowry's later works which were issued after his death. At one point in Canada Malcolm wrote Priscilla a letter describing how "we're working on a book" -- the book he was referring to was "Under the Volcano."
Both Margerie and Priscilla lived in Beverly Hills. At seventy-five, Margerie had a severe stroke, which left her unable to talk. I was able to talk with Priscilla who said about Margerie: "I think she blocked out the horrors and kept the good parts. There's been a great deal said about his drunkenness, but there were long periods, especially when they lived in Vancouver, when he was industrious and sober. Those were the happiest years of her life." Priscilla said that Lowry's friend at the hotel, Jack King, a salesman for a pharmaceutical house, had known Lowry from China during the latter's sailing days.
One day he called Margerie, who was a friend, and announced that he could recommend this gentleman most highly, he was an Englishman and so forth, would she have dinner with him? According to King, as reported in the biography "Malcolm Lowry," it was a case of love at first sight. Malcolm called Margerie on the phone first, and they agreed to meet at the corner of Western and Hollywood. Lowry took a bus to the meeting. King was a few seconds late. By the time he arrived, they were embracing -- and still embracing several moments later.
Two weeks later, in what was surely not a coincidence, Lowry was ushered from the Hotel Normandie by attorney Parks, no doubt on Arthur Lowry's insistence. Parks told Lowry he had to get ready to leave Los Angeles right away, that he had to go to Canada to renew his visa. He wouldn't even allow Lowry to go down the hall to the typist who was working on "Under the Volcano," although he promised that he would fetch it and mail it to Lowry, which he did do. Day says that Lowry really didn't have to go to Canada -- most likely the senior Lowry was unhappy at the money he had to settle on Jan Gabrial, and wasn't anxious to have his son become involved again.
Margerie was in Lowry's room when Parks arrived. As Lowry was driven away
from the hotel, he hung out the rear window of Park's car, yelling to her that
he would be back. And he did try to get back.
Lowry was not an easy person to live with-- he had frequent rages, black moods, childish tantrums, and later, when he went back to serious boozing, he became violent and threatening. Because of his experience with Jan, he would never fully trust even Margerie.
At first Lowry hated Canada; he wanted to take Margerie back to Los Angeles. "Margerie is American, helpless and utterly without money," he complained in a letter to Aiken, "and were she deported to Hollywood she would have nothing to live on, and moreover she would be, for many reasons, in an untenable position and also could not stand being without me." But they persevered in Vancouver. They found an uninsulated, poorly heated squatter's shack in the country outside of Vancouver. The nearest bar was ten miles away.
By 1941, the "second draft" of "Under the Volcano" was completed and was, in turn, rejected by a host of publishers. Lowry went back to improving it, and by 1946, he found both an English and an American publisher. Critics compared Lowry to James Joyce and Thomas Wolfe when the book was published the following year. He even made the cover of the Saturday Review. Lowry responded to the adulation by drinking more.
The book sold thirty thousand copies which was good but not stupendous. The last ten years of his life became more and more difficult -- at one point Margerie had a nervous breakdown. Still, she stuck by him, even after a doctor warned her that if she didn't leave him he would kill her.
During his last days in England, Lowry dreamed of going back to Canada, which had begun to claim him as its greatest writer. There had been good times in Canada for both the Lowrys. Once in Vancouver, for instance, there was a telling meeting between Lowry and his old friend, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. "How is ruddy old Malc?" Thomas had asked before the meeting. Then when they met it was a simple warm clasping of hands. "Hullo Dylan," Malcolm said, and Thomas replied the same shy way. Not much later, of course, Thomas would die from his alcoholism, just as Lowry would. The poet and the novelist were men who lived under the same volcano, but nonetheless were possessed of an incredible creative ferment. Perhaps it was the combination of the transcendent qualities of mystical inebriation and their natively outsized talents that produced the great works of each.
Both were hopeless drunks -- in Lowry's case not even the love of Margerie could save him. He went through apomorphine aversion treatment in London before the doctors simply gave up on him. He was locked in a tiny cell illuminated only by a red bulb, given injections of apomorphine, and allowed all the alcohol he wanted to drink. The combination produced nausea and vomiting, which supposedly built a conditioned response against ever drinking again. Most patients couldn't survive five days of this torture, but Lowry was going strong after twenty days. And within forty-eight hours of his release, he was back in a pub.
After his death in 1957, Margerie worked to complete his manuscripts, although much of the paradise part of Lowry's intended "Divine Comedy" was lost in a fire that destroyed their Canadian shack-- the same fire that almost consumed "Under the Volcano." She never remarried. "She would have never remarried," her sister told me, "for she was married to Malcolm for eternity, at least as far as she was concerned."
Just how much of "Under the Volcano" is L.A.? If you were counting even only Margerie, the answer would be quite a bit. But another big ingredient was Hollywood, for despite his disdain for Tinseltown, "Under the Volcano" was more influenced by cinema than any single novel. In Vancouver, the Lowrys had worked on a movie script of Fitzgerald's "Tender is the Night," with the hope that it might be used by MGM. It wasn't used, but it is said to have been a brilliant script.
A more direct line to Los Angeles was the influence on "Under the Volcano" of Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein's "Thunder Over Mexico." That film was the result of Charlie Chaplin's introduction of Eisenstein, who was then looking for work in Hollywood, to Upton Sinclair, who agreed to produce the movie. "Under the Volcano" obviously owes a great debt to "Thunder Over Mexico," particularly the powerful imagery of the Day of the Dead.
There are scenes toward the end of "Under the Volcano" in which Yvonne remembers her early days as a starlet in Hollywood. She attempts a comeback after being a child star. "She received promises, and that was all. In the end she walked down Virgil Avenue or Mariposa beneath the dusty dead shallow-plant palms of the dark and accursed City of the Angels without even the consolation that her tragedy was no less valid for being so stale."
No, Lowry knew something about Los Angeles in the late thirties, something that may not have been all pretty, something that may have been his own private hell as much as it was the real city -- but still something real. Although Lowry hated Los Angeles, it was inevitable that he come to Los Angeles, as inevitable as everything in the Consul's life. Death was the bottom of the cabalistic down cycle that had to come before life. The plunge into darkness taken by both the Consul and the world in 1939 is best summed up in the last words of "Under the Volcano." They are: "Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine."