Psalms and Songs is an odd book, a collection of short stories by Malcolm Lowry (some previously published, others unfinished), alongside several memoiristic essays by friends/acquaintances of the writer, and an academic essay taken from a PhD thesis someone once wrote about him.
The book was published in 1975 – towards the end of the slew of posthumous Lowry books being boshed out at the time – and edited by Margerie Lowry, the wife of the author and, to some extent, his literary collaborator. Of the stories that are in here, there are a few that I have read before in different versions in other places: a different version of his novella Lunar Caustic (not as tight as the one I knew), and several short stories that evolved into chapters within the novels Ultramarine and Under the Volcano. In addition to this, in the stories that remain there are familial settings, characters, events and themes. The ones I enjoyed the most were those that contained the most distinct material: ‘June the 30th, 1934’, ‘Hotel Room in Chartres’, ‘Enter One in Sumptuous Armour’ and ‘Kristbjorg’s Story: In the Black Hills.’
What is very clear to a reader is the development of Lowry’s style, for the stories within the book are ordered chronologically. The peak, however, is not at the end, but the material written either side of Under the Volcano. The earliest work is all a little like juvenilia – unpolished through incomplete professional development – whilst some of the later pieces are clearly unfinished. One is barely at a level beyond notes, which is an interesting thing to be able to read (to see how Lowry began the process of constructing a text) but it isn’t a satisfying read, merely an intellectual curiosity.
‘Hotel Room in Chartres’ is a moving, gently bleak, portrayal of the start of marriage that is already showing major strain; ‘June the 30th, 1934’ is a great piece about two men, a few years apart in age, tying to bond on a train journey despite the unbridgeable gap that one was old enough to fight in the First World War and the other was not. This-
Oh fucking fuck bollocks. I’d just typed pretty much an entire and in depth review of the whole book, piece by piece, but my phone managed to delete it. What a waste of half an hour.
Right, let’s go again. My thoughts should be more ordered, though I am increasingly tired (travelling home late Tuesday night from 28 hours at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe*).
Right. ‘June the 30th’ is the first piece to truly start to play with Lowry’s themes of alcoholism and depression and they careening idea of overwhelming aloneness that I look for in his work. It is tight, it is knowing and it’s more mature. ‘Enter One in Sumptuous Armour’ is a late piece, but about childhood. It’s a pretty classic ‘public school story’, but one that is well written and features a Knausgaard-like pull to the future that is of sufficient potency to elevate the whole. ‘Kristbjorg’s Story’ is a four page Western, and though in chronological and geographical setting, as well as plot, it is far from Lowry’s usual work, in its descriptive strength and knowledge of humanity, it’s a bit of a belter.
Also of interest (to me and the four other fucking people who’ve read it) is the short story entitled ‘Under the Volcano’, which was an early draft of a key chapter in the novel of the same name. For those of you who know the novel – and you all should – it’s the chapter where the Consul finds a corpse at the side of the road, but can do nothing about it due to bureaucracy. The main difference between this piece and how the novel ended up is that Firmin is not in the shadow of the fire mountain with his estranged wife and his brother, but instead with his estranged daughter and her husband. This is quite a big change, but one that provides a far more interesting relationship and narrative. The impetus is less base, less confused, if the estranged woman is a daughter. Lowry’s decision to change this was definitely worthwhile. This, again, is a fascinating insight into Lowry’s process, but it is, let’s be frank, something I’ve already read, better, elsewhere.
But the real soul of Psalms and Songs is the section of memoirs. Some of these are by famous writers (well, writers I’ve encountered before in relation to Lowry) and others are by people he knew socially, including neighbours and a doctor. These show the man to be the doomed, self-destructive figure that he self-mythologised he was.
Actually, digression: Lowry thought he was “doomed”? But aren’t we all? We all die, shit, piss, feel sexual desire, hunger and thirst, get bereaved, lied to, ill, injured, disappointed: all of which individually are terrible tragedies in themselves, but in combination they make life almost unbearable. We are doomed to an animal existence by the fact that we are alive, and this is the doom each of us faces on a daily basis – to hurt, to ache, to regret: we can never be free of our base natures, no matter how elevated our minds become. Every time one must put down a novel to go take a shit, every time someone important to the self dies, the animality of human existence is emphasised. By being alive, we are doomed. It is almost a contradiction that we have the capacity for intellectual thought, for artistic appreciation and creativity, when we wank using the same techniques as monkeys. What’s the point?
Lowry’s idea of doom was related to his alcoholism, his growing awareness of it as a problem and his inability to change. He tried numerous methods, many cures, but whenever he thought he was better, he would relapse. The memoirs in this book show that, show that although Lowry was able to produce literature of a superlative quality, he was unable to maintain a healthy relationship with alcohol. He was the antagonist in his own life – his creative output was limited by his alcoholic intake, and the disappointment at his lack of creative output fed into the drinking and-
Lowry is relateable. Lowry’s drinking is understandable, his hopes and dreams are common with myself and many of my acquaintances. Lowry got his, and it didn’t make him happy. The alcoholism wasn’t cured by writing a hugely successful novel about alcoholism, it instead made him grow more neuroses about the external pressures on the quality of his future output.
Is this life? Is this doom? Is this despair eternal? Is it possible to rediscover hope, or is it something that one will never truly get back, once it has gone?
Lowry’s masterpiece is phenomenal, as are many of the first wave of posthumous works. With the few exceptions mentioned above, the Lowry writing in Psalms and Songs is pointless, just a curiosity. But the illuminating depictions of his life – of different periods of his life from widely different perspectives – is moving, for this is where we experience in depths the narratives and themes of his finest works.
Lowry’s tragic life was the subject of his finest fictions, and it is when we read about Lowry’s life that the book is most intriguing.
This is a more enjoyable book that the posthumous acadamicised texts published in recent years, but it has nothing on Hear Us O Lord From Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. An interesting read, but far from essential.
Oh, and the academic essay is middling.
* Go see Pappy’s Secret Dudes, Lazy Susan, Brute. Don’t see Adam Riches (he’s barely in his own show, a real disappointment), and do not see Feast. Despite several people telling me to do so, I’ve never seen anything at the Fringe I’ve enjoyed so little. Artsy physical theatre. Eurgh. I also saw a surprisingly enjoyable musical about female sexual emancipation in the 1960s called Shout.
Yes, this is a very good though sometimes patchy anthology of bits and pieces. You don’t mention the weird sepia cover, with a glum, sozzled-looking Lowry swaying backwards. The memoirs by Clarissa Lorenz and David Markson, plus the stories, in themselves make it well worth acquiring.
Personally, ‘Ghostkeeper’ is my favourite. A story that discusses itself as it goes along seems to me just as interesting as a polished completed one in the Updike mode. Also ‘Ghostkeeper’ plays with a lot of core Lowry obsessions. In the end its incompletion seems part of its final meaning.
And it has the sentence ‘Then they emerged on the right side of Lost Lagoon.’ Which, biographically, Lowry and his second wife didn’t.
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