Malcolm Lowry's mysterious demise
By D.T. Max
The New Yorker - life and letters - December 17, 2007
Malcolm Lowry died in his cottage in the village of Ripe, in Sussex, late at night on June 26, 1957, or early the next morning. He was forty-seven years old. His wife, Margerie, found his body upstairs, on the floor of their bedroom. An autopsy revealed that Lowry, an alcoholic, had been drunk, and the doctor who examined the body found that he had swallowed a large number of barbiturates and had inhaled some half-digested food from his stomach. An inquest was held, at which a police officer, the Lowrys' landlady, and Margerie testified. The coroner ruled the fatality a ''misadventure'' - that is, an accident. Lowry had choked to death on his own vomit.
Lowry is known for his 1947 novel, ''Under the Volcano'', which chronicles the final hours of Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic Englishman living in Mexico, in the shadow of the Ixacihuatl and Popocatepetl volcanoes. On November 1st, the Day of the Dead, Firmin, the former British consul, finds that his estranged wife, Yvonne, has come back to town, Paralyzed by his alcoholism, he drifts from cantina to cantina, considering ways to reclaim her; but he never acts. By nightfall, Firmin is dead in a ditch, shot by Mexican paramilitaries. ''Volcano'' fuses modernist and romantic sensibilities: the story is told from shifting points of view, and Firmin's daylong odyssey is borrowed from ''Ulysses''; at the same time, Lowry's prose is fervent, laid down in unstable, looping sentences. Shortly before his death, the consul sees on a house an inscription that reads “No se puede vivir sin amar”—“One cannot live without love.” Lowry, in a 1946 letter to Margerie’s family, wrote, “ ‘Volcano’ ’s theme: ‘only against death does man cry out in vain.’ ” Dawn Powell wrote soon after the book’s publication, “In ‘Under the Volcano’ you love the author for the pain of his overwhelming understanding.”
Lowry began writing “Volcano” in his late twenties. The writing took four drafts and almost a decade. In his early attempts, he was more interested in seeing how many images and symbols he could embed in the text than in creating lifelike characters. It was only in 1939, when Lowry met Margerie, who was herself an aspiring writer, that the novel began assuming a coherent shape. Margerie suggested characters and plot turns, added sentences, and cut back Lowry’s wordiness. She was a good editor, and the only person who could manage her husband’s reckless temperament.
''Volcano'' was published to broad acclaim. The critic Mark Schorer, reviewing the book in the New York Herald Tribune,wrote that few novels “convey so feelingly the agony of alienation, the infernal suffering of disintegration.” Lowry was hailed as a successor to Joyce, who had died six years earlier. “Volcano” was a popular success, too—for a time, Lowry bragged, the book outsold “Forever Amber”.
He soon fell apart. “Success”, he wrote to Margerie’s mother, “may be the worst possible thing that could happen to any serious author”. According to Lowry’s biographers—there have been six—his drinking, always prodigious, became incapacitating. He had persecution fantasies. At times, his delirium tremens was so severe that he could not hold a pencil. Lowry worked on many books in these years—he had in mind a multipart novel called “The Voyage That Never Ends”, which would parallel the Divine Comedy, with “Volcano” in the position of the Inferno—but the manuscript that he cared most about was “October Ferry to Gabriola”, a novel about the happiest phase of his marriage, in the nineteen-forties, when he and Margerie lived in a squatter’s shack on an inlet north of Vancouver. Lowry could not make the novel come together; Margerie edited and suggested, Malcolm rewrote and rewrote, and the book slid sideways. They began fighting, in part because of their failure to tell the story of their happiness. They countered their frustrations with heavy doses of alcohol, prescription sedatives, tranquillizers, and stimulants—sodium amytal, phenobarbital, Benzedrine, Allonal, Nembutal, Soneryl. (Lowry joked that he and his wife should be known as “Alcoholics Synonymous”.) But they could not inure themselves to the pain of their creative failure. Twice, during a trip to Europe, Lowry tried to strangle Margerie. Though she was a fraction of his size, she attacked him, too. Shortly before Lowry died, he told a psychiatrist whom he was seeing that either Margerie was going to kill him or he was going to kill her.
To read more go to: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/12/17/day-of-the-dead