This book took quite a bit of searching to find. I first read about it in Jonathan Coe’s Like A Fiery Elephant, where he describes it as a key influence on BS Johnson’s Trawl, which is one of my favourite novels. After a small amount of research on Malcolm Lowry (Wikipedia), I decided that this alcoholic, depressive, experimental novelist transcribing real conversations and writing autobiographical prose towards the middle of the twentieth century, might just be my kind of writer.
And by god he is.
Ultramarine is his first novel, completed whilst still an undergraduate, and is a fictionalised account of the quasi Gap Year he took before University. Son of a wealthy man, privately educated, about to study at Cambridge… He ditched everything and used a family connection to get a job working on an international freighter, travelling to the Far East. In the novel, Dana Hilliot (the protagonist) is onboard for a year, has just been thrown out of University and arrives at Liverpool Port in a nice car, rather than the LIMOUSINE that Lowry was actually dropped off in…
The text deals with the search for acceptance, for a sense of belonging, with the notion of masculinity. Hilliot is intrinsically different from the rest of the crew due to his education, the way he got the job, and the fact that he won’t have sex with prostitutes due to “the girl he has at home”. His particular enemy on board is Andy, the cook, who repeatedly says both in public and private (Dana is a compulsive eavesdropper), that Hilliot is “doing some good lad out of a job”. They know he is wealthy, they know he is there not because he needs to be, but because he wants to be, and he is marginalised from the off. As he tries to ingratiate himself by using coarser language, telling bawdy jokes, making up anecdotes, getting abominably pissed at every opportunity, he begins to understand that it is the idea of him that is objectionable, much more than the reality of him as a worker and as a man.
The text alternates between the internal, exploratory monologues of Dana (sometimes third person, sometimes first), and snippets of the overlapping, digression and distraction-filled dialogue of the men aboard the ship. Whilst on his real voyage, Lowry apparently made extensive notes, copying down conversations verbatim, and in the text Dana is often listening when he shouldn’t be. The way these sections are written feel very honest, very real – a gruff, bluntless and love of life that is hard to imagine coming directly from the imagination of the drunk sad man Lowry actually was. It is funny, it is serious, and it feels quite movingly true in many places. I will certainly be keeping my book scouring eyes out for the rest of Lowry’s now rather obscure oeuvre.
One last point. The third chapter of Ultramarine contains what must be the best literary bender I have read since the Euro-trip of Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction (wonderfully evoked in the film adaptation here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsgcsPW34VE). Dana convinces himself that he must, if he ever wants acceptance from the men of the ship, shag a prostitute. In order to do so he disappears off into a Japanese port, befriends a lonely German and has a fantastic night of adventures that I shan’t ruin by trying to anecdotalise. It captures drunken internal monologuing perfectly, it renders a night in a sleazy sailor’s district in hilarious, believable detail. Even if the rest of the book had been crap, I’d’ve recommended it for that section alone.
An excellent novel. Class, masculinity, social acceptance, loneliness, wanderlust, internationalism, travel, expectations of sexuality, literary experimentalism coupled with high readability… Ticked all my boxes, every last one. If you ever see it for sale (which you probably won’t) buy it up. My flabby Penguin paperback cost me ten pounds. Worth every penny.