I took a week to read this harrowing, depressing, heart-wrenchingly awful* biography of one of the most troubled, confused and conflicted literary greats of the 20th century.
I write about Malcolm Lowry on here a lot. He is a writer who has grabbed me in the year or so since I first began this blog, and he is probably the singular writer I have read the most books by in that time**. What draws me to Lowry? And have I been pushed away from his work now that George Bowker’s Pursued by Furies has forced me to openly engage with the violence, the raping, the lying, the procrastination, the self-importance and the sense of entitlement that Lowry exuded?
To the second: no. To the first (and the why to the “no”):
Lowry’s prose is beautiful. It is thick and rich and poetic and heart-breaking. He evokes despair and desperation and alcoholism and self-destruction and decline and the horrifically rare moments of joy in life with every word. His work elevates the darkest and most desperate places of the mind into into into horrible, cruel poetry. Under The Volcano I read in a rhapsodic dream, falling apart as the Consul did, riding the emotional earthquake like a concrete tower block torn apart and crushing the foundation-self. His short stories (collected in Hear Us O Lord From Heaven Thy Dwelling Place) are great, his novella Lunar Caustic is harrowing, and his youthful undergraduate novel Ultramarine boasts an excitement and an optimism about life that he would quickly lose. That we all must quickly lose.
I was aware, before reading this, that Lowry had problems. That he was unhappy and unable to complete most work he began I knew… But here, reading through the avoidance of labour and the drinking and the attempted stranglings and the (there were at least two) rapes; the confused sexuality; the unhappy marriage that he became dependent on yet trapped inside; the beautiful prose when he sat down to write, the millions of reasons he found to not do so… Pursued by Furies made me frustrated – frustrated by Malcolm’s behaviour, by his inability to just sit down and fucking finish his fucking books.
Yet, as I read it, I felt myself reflected far too many times in the pages. I seek perfection when I write, I would rather edit and edit and edit, show work once then hide it away again for fear of dismissal… Lowry had written one of the finest novels of the century, it is no surprise that he had a lot to live up to in the last decade of his life. Yet all I have to live up to is the copious amount of beautiful literature I have read, not written. I want to create something a tenth as good as as as ANYTHING, and I’m scared of failure even though I have no reputation to keep up. Lowry at least managed to make his reputation before his demons began to utterly overwhelm him.
Like Lowry, I have multiple projects on the go, most of which are, all of which are, destined to never be published. Though there are works I consider complete, hidden here within my laptop, I know they’re not good enough to launch a literary career. Like Lowry, when I’m working I can pour out of stream of words and when I’m properly switched on they’re good. They CAN BE good. But too often I sit, crying, screaming, breaking things, in front of the screen, sometimes I curl up shaking under the desk, sometimes I drink so much tea I make myself sick (to be fair, that only happened once). I stare at my cat and smile. I read too much. I cannot sit down and work because I am already broken. I don’t even have any worthy fucking furies to pursue me. I’ve never goaded anyone into suicide (Lowry did that whilst a student), I’ve never raped anyone, any suffering I have is worth less because it’s not even bounded in any real sense of guilt.
Lowry wrote beautifully but was fucked up, was a mess. Bowker’s biography details the awful things he did, the beautiful things he wrote, the mistakes and the successes and the and the and the travel and the troubles and the… Bowker’s biography doesn’t really judge, doesn’t make suppositions. It is highly detailed and very well annotated.
But the whole thing was depressing. The real, raw, truth was that Lowry, a writer whose work I deeply admire, was so unhappy, was-
They’re all unhappy, all the writers I love. Dead, too. Alcoholic depressives who kill themselves.*** I want to extricate myself from this spiral I’m in, yet I am drawn to these awful writers who evoke these awful impressions of the way that life bloody fucking feels.
It’s awful. Everything is fucking awful.
No belief in myself, the future or other people. La la la, clinical definitions.
Pursued by Furies, and the implicit exploration of inspiration and emptiness it includes – the resounding fucking noise that PRODUCING AN INCREDIBLY CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED BOOK ISN’T ENOUGH TO TAKE THESE FEELINGS AWAY is… That’s the message. That’s the message.
So when I sit in front of my computer and force myself into concentration, it is for this end. To find worth, to find the goal, to find the grail. But all these others, all these better writers than me who saw literary success as the everything never felt happy when they got it. And I don’t just mean men – Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf – it’s not just a male thing. It’s a life thing. Life is worthless.
Writing Under The Volcano was not enough to help Malcolm Lowry feel happy and give up the bottle. In that case, what hope do I, Mr Scott Manley Hadley, ever have of feeling like a normal human being?
Urgh. PRETENTIOUS DEPRESSIVE DRIVEL.
I’m going all teenage again, aren’t I? Some uplifting books soon. That’s what’s going wrong.
* The life of Lowry was awful. The biography’s good, if you’re interested in the depths of awfulness. As I am.
** Just beating Kerouac and David Foster Wallace. All a bit mopey and pretentious, really, isn’t it?
*** Except Karl Ove Knausgaard, I think I’d actually cry if he killed himself too.