As I continue to read through the (surprisingly) ever-expanding oeuvre of the alcoholic, depressive, late-Modernist writer, Malcolm Lowry, I am getting to know the man, his afflictions and his world-view better. Having read, now, all of the novels he considered finished or almost finished in his lifetime, it is clear to see the recurrent features and occurrences that were based on events from his life, and the long shadows cast by things that happened in his youth.
His first (and, in his lifetime, penultimate) novel was Ultramarine, a short book about a rich young Englishman travelling around the world on a freight ship before he goes to university. It was, essentially, the first “Gap Year” novel, but is far more a meditation on the excitement of the new, on the beginnings of a relationship with alcohol that is rapidly problematic and of a sharp awareness of class as an international issue. This journey, this trip, is appropriated to many of his fictional characters in the rest of his work. In some books it is the past of the protagonist, in others it is something that happened to a brother or friend. In addition to amorphous personal histories, often the autobiographical Lowry-foil in one novel will turn up in another, an acquaintance of that novel’s Lowry-foil. Lowry never travels far from himself and his life in his fictions, but as his life was international, tragic and rather intriguing, this doesn’t mean that his output is insular, it is instead infected with an urgency and homelessness, that is (for me) rather charming.
Lowry’s only other published novel was Under the Volcano, a beautiful, awful, tragedy. That novel featured an alcoholic protagonist locked in the Mexican countryside, emotionally and physically dying in a mescal-sodden funk. It is haunting. In real life, after the Mexican period in his life, Lowry moved to Canada, to British Columbia, where he lived in a shack beside a saltwater cove near Vancouver, before being eventually evicted. In October Ferry to Gabriola, the protagonist is a lawyer (rather than a writer) who has run away to this waterside shack, and the novel traces he and his wife’s journey to a close-by island, Gabriola, where they plan to move due to their eviction order.
The novel follows a single day, a bus and a ferry ride, but with many flashbacks to the couple’s life in Canada. It explores how they met, what happened when their house burnt down (again, something similar happened to Lowry) and it also includes their terrible relationship with their son, who spends all of his time at boarding school or his friends’ parents’ houses. This child is, alas, the worst written thing I’ve encountered in all of Lowry’s work.
Malcolm never had a child. In all his other novels, all his protagonists are childless. He doesn’t mention other people’s children very much, and there is (to my knowledge) only one short story that even tries to evoke childhood. For Lowry, it seemed, life didn’t really begin until he found the bottle, life didn’t really begin until the start of his decline. Here, the character of Tommy, the child, is absent. He is absent physically, but the parents do not mind and seem to care little for him. But this isn’t judged or discussed, this is just the way it is. Lowry also didn’t have pets (I think), and even I (as a cat owner but non-parent) can see that Lowry’s representation of a relationship with a dependent is deeply warped, deeply off. For both the male and the female parent there is no thought for the child, and no remorse for feeling nothing, which, given the anxiety-ridden protagonist, is a visible lack. October Ferry to Gabriola, as well as being a rather beautiful novel about Canadian landscapes, is also a text about regret and shame, primarily the shame of goading a university friend into suicide. Well, not goading, but helping the friend convince himself that suicide was a good idea then leaving, bladdered, and being surprised the next day when the friend was found hanging from the ceiling in a gas-filled room.
This happened to Lowry, and this was one of the many big regrets he never managed to write or drink out of his system. For the Lowry-foil here, this suicide is something he thinks of every day, reminded by mention of death, of rope, of hanging, of students, of cross-beams, of gin, which was what they were drinking that night. The obsession over this past action (or inaction) comes through vividly in this book, more than it does in the other places in recurs in Lowry’s work. The protagonist is a man, twenty years older, who still hasn’t dealt with a terrible event. And this is absolutely Lowry and Lowry’s writing. An awareness of a fault, a problem, a huge and unquashable awareness of what is wrong and broken in the world, but an inability to put the bottle down long enough to sort it out. Lowry, it becomes clearer the more of him I read, was a coward. Scared of finishing his novels, scared of having children, scared of living around other people, scared of working and scared of dealing with the issues that kept him scared. He was hospitalised and psychologically treated for his depression and his alcoholism (see Lunar Caustic), but saw nothing through, completed nothing, drifted back into the booze and eventually took a (probably not accidental) overdose.
Lowry was tragic, and October Ferry to Gabriola contains a lot of barely fictionalised detail about some of the most tragic points in Lowry’s life. As a work of fiction, it is clearly unfinished, it needs a lot of polishing, but within it there are passages of beautiful nature description, and of achingly depressing descriptions of intoxication, regret, shame and self-hatred. For a Lowry fan, this is a far more interesting biographical document than it is work of fiction. This novel, manuscript, is an insight into his obsessions, into what he felt was wrong with his life.
And, perhaps most tragic of all, is the idea of him writing himself as a terrible parent. Regretting, once too old to have children (his wife was a few years older than him and, as implied a couple of times in this text, post-menopause), the fact that he never had children, here he writes himself a child but doesn’t know what to do with it. As a man who’d had no dogs, no cats and no kids, he doesn’t seem to have connected with anything, locked as he was inside his alcohol bubble with only his wife, Margerie (herself an alcoholic) for company. Lowry was lonely, and Lowry didn’t know other people, which was why he could only write versions of himself.
Luckily, for me and others who like reading of tragic alcohol addiction, Lowry wrote of himself very, very well.
I will continue plumbing his depths…