Dark As The Grave Wherein my Friend is Laid is a strange book, and the first of the three (I believe) posthumously-published novels written by Malcolm Lowry.
So what this means is that he didn’t consider it finished. It was edited by his wife (Margerie Lowry) and an academic (Douglas Day), and published twelve years after his death. During that time many letters, poems, short stories and the novella Lunar Caustic had reached the public. Malcolm Lowry was being appreciated like never before. Well, like he was in the year or two immediately after the publication of Under The Volcano. In the brief window before the publishing industry realised he was too neurotic to ever hand in work as finished.
This book, Dark As The Grave wherein my Friend is Laid, was collated from a huge volume of notes, Douglas Day explaining in the introduction that almost every chapter existed in three or four different forms. What has been created, though, is a work that is (broadly) a success.
The narrative of the book is, really, what makes it odd. Though its chronology is linear, though its symbolic moments are closer to the surface and often openly explained, and though it is an easier read than Ultramarine, UtV, LC and the stories of Hear Us O Lord From Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, it is dense in theme.
The thinly-veiled Lowry character, Sigbjørn Wilderness, is returning to Mexico after a long absence. Since that trip, where his alcoholism caused the collapse of his first marriage, he has remarried and written an as-yet unpublished novel about alcohol and Mexico (called The Valley of the Shadow of Death). He IS Lowry, the book IS Under The Volcano. He revisits the scenes of horrors that inspired his beautiful, tortured, horrible novel, searches for the people he liked (but only finds the people he didn’t), tries and fails to avoid his old habits of drinking, and all the while attempts to help his new, second, wife, enjoy a holiday exploring the places she has read so much about in her husband’s novel.
This is why it is strange – the writer is a failure – he believes in his book but the publishers do not, he and the people he speaks to about it constantly compare it to Drunkard’s Rigadoon (in real life Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend). It is an odd phase for Lowry to be writing about, particularly given the reader’s knowledge of the genuine worth of his text.*
But Lowry explores and describes landscapes and places and travel and bodily pain and regret and horror and dreamlike states with his characteristic negative flair. He paints himself as a sad, lonely, hopeful but simultaneously hopeless figure who is unaware of the forthcoming success in his life. Which would, ironically, lead him into an even worse state than he was in before.
This book is funny, is poetic, is readable, and is a fascinating insight into how Lowry felt about Under The Volcano, how Lowry felt about writing, how Lowry felt about himself and how Lowry felt about Mexico.
This is much more readable than everything else I’ve read of his. That could be me getting used to his style, or it could be something else. Either way, read that comment how you will…
(I really liked it.)
* I find it very unlikely that anyone will come to this having not read Under The Volcano, and as much as I enjoyed this, I don’t think I would have if I hadn’t read Under The Volcano.