Malcolm Lowry is one of my favourite writers, and a couple of weeks ago I went to a two day academic conference all about him, up in Liverpool1. For reading material on my northbound train and to get my mid-breakdown self back into the Lowry headspace, I got hold of a copy of The Voyage That Never Ends, a collection of texts by Lowry edited into a book by poet, translator and editor Michael Hofmann and published in 2007 by New York Review Books. Hofman’s connection to the works of Lowry is being a long term fan, so arguably similar to mine2. In this tasty hardback collection, Hofmann includes several short stories, lots of poems, extracts from some of Lowry’s unfinished novels as well as about 100 pages of Lowry’s personal correspondence. As a deeper introduction to Lowry’s writing it is wide-ranging and powerful, but it poses – for me – a rather strange problem: surely the only obvious sales demographic is people, like me, who have already read most of the included works?
Malcolm Lowry wrote a lot of text. When he died he left behind in-progress manuscripts of numerous novels, lots of short stories he broadly considered “done”, many poems and a large amount of letters. To explain Hofmann’s title, The Voyage That Never Ends was the provisional title Lowry gave the cycle of interlinking novels that he never got round to finishing. [Maybe writing this novel cycle was the unending voyage itself?] In this book, Hofmann attempts to create an idea of what Lowry’s The Voyage That Never Ends could have looked like, pulling out examples from across Lowry’s output.
All the short stories included, I had read before. Some – such as ‘The Forest Path to the Spring’ and the original ‘Under the Volcano’ story – are marvellous and I will probably read and reread them until I wither into death. Other stories include some great travelly type bits, and either the deeply experimental or (tbh I think more likely) unfinished ‘Through the Panama’. They were previously published in Hear Us O Lord From Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (which I highly, highly, recommend, ideally in the edition that also includes Lunar Caustic) or the – tbf – more obscure Malcolm Lowry: Psalms and Songs.
All but three of the poems come from the gorgeous City Lights edition of Lowry’s Selected Poems (the others from the much larger Collected Poems, one of the few books counting Lowry as author I am yet to read), but they are – for me – not especially exciting. The poems of Lowry’s with the most impact, I always find, feel like dry runs for scenes and ideas that he replicates with more success in prose, especially the stories of Hear Us O Lord From Heaven Thy Dwelling Place and Under the Volcano.
The extracts from posthumous novels (denoted as “Fragments” here, which I liked) include some magnificent chapters from Dark As The Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid (the other Lowry book that’s definitely worth reading before diving into obscuria), October Ferry to Gabriola (which I really enjoyed here, in contrast to my memories of reading the book as a whole, maybe I’ll reread), as well as some of La Mordida, a novel about Haiti and Mexico and madness and confusion and the text – published in a truncated, incomplete form in the nineties – that’s set to be my Christmas treat-read this year. Woop woop woop.
What follows and completes the collection is a selection of letters, harvested (like the poems) from an earlier (though, obvs, posthumous) Selected Letters and a more recent, more academic, Collected Letters (this second one edited by one of the speakers at the conference I went to, woop woop woop wuhey!).
I hadn’t read Lowry’s letters before, but he is a writer whose fiction contains vast swathes of content lifted from life. I assess and approach books not as works of art that stand separate from their creator, but instead as statements, revealing or hiding certain thoughts and feelings of the writer, and Lowry is someone – like Knausgaard, like B.S. Johnson, like Sylvia Plath – whose works described as “fiction” are deeply engaged with self. Reading Lowry’s fiction and poetry in the same volume as his letters clarifies the links between his life and his works, and offers a sharper snapshot of the man he was. His letters, like his fiction, are concerned with text and with physicality and with life. There is tragedy in the letters, loss and regret and fear and disappointment, as well as fleeting joy in response to travel and the success that followed the publication of Under the Volcano, success that didn’t last long.
As someone who is interested in the life of Lowry and also loves his writing, this was an enjoyable collection, but almost every sentence I already possess in another volume. I enjoyed it, it was a great read and an interesting way to present these pieces, but as something aimed at aficionados that doesn’t contain any “new” material, it’s probably the most pointless cultural product I’ve purchased since I bought the Best of the Libertines, a BAND THAT ONLY RELEASED TWO FUCKING ALBUMS. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed having ‘Death on the Stairs’, ‘What A Waster’ and ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ on the same CD, just as I enjoyed reading some of Lowry’s poems, some of Lowry’s letters and some of Lowry’s stories in the same book. But both of these were purchases I didn’t need, but bought because I wanted them in spite of already (basically) owning them.
If, like me, you’re a big Lowry reader, this is a pointless purchase, but as a weird cross between a Greatest Hits and a B Sides collection, it’s difficult to know who it’s for. More casual readers working into Lowry’s output would get more out of Hear Us O Lord From Heaven Thy Dwelling Place or Dark As The Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid, and readers who enjoy revisiting the texts here probably already had access to them. I dunno. I bought it and enjoyed it, but I’m a weirdo.
It’s a nice idea, an interesting book, but I’m confused by its purpose Maybe I should get editing my Accessible James Joyce, or maybe I just don’t understand the power that New York Review Books and Michael Hofmann have: maybe this publication did spur more people on to read other Lowry texts, maybe this is an enjoyable collection to a non-Lowryphile. I don’t know, confused.
I’d buy it again, but who else would?
1. I’ve written about this event at length in an essay that will hopefully be published somewhere more prestigious than my own blog, so don’t expect to hear much about it today. ↩
2. ASIDE: For many years I have wanted to edit a book almost exactly the same as this but called – and the title holds the elevator pitch – The Accessible James Joyce. Clearly, people publish books like that, and I’m willing to bet there’s a bigger market for a collection of Joyce’s least wanky passages (all of Dubliners, NONE of Finnegans Wake) than there is for this Lowry tome. Interestingly – to some people – I think Ultramarine is back in print in the UK, either that or the official book store of the Lowry conference had imported some books. That’s good news for Lowryboys, innit!? (Or “firminists”, as I’m apparently meant to call them/us.) ↩