Book Review

Sursum Corda! The Collected Letters of Malcolm Lowry Volume One: 1926 – 46

700 pages of Lowryian bliss...

Malcolm Lowry is a writer whose work I often return to. He is someone whose books, following the Faustian model, often chart a terrifying decline.

Under the Volcano, his masterpiece, was published in 1947 to rapturous applause and international acclaim. The route to get there, however, had been long and fraught, and his initial early success – getting a publishable novel written while an undergraduate – turned to stressful dust as he spent almost two decades writing against:

  • alcoholism;
  • depression;
  • a bad marriage;
  • displacement;
  • a house fire; AND
  • his own crushing need to prove to his money-obsessed father that he was able to earn independently and thus justify that his art (his writing) was of financial and artistic value.

The only gently tragic note at the end of Sursum Corda! The Collected Letters of Malcolm Lowry Volume One: 1926 – 46 (edited by Sherrill E. Grace) is the fact that Lowry’s father doesn’t hang on for long enough to see the rapturous publishing industry and optimistic press that would herald the release of Under the Volcano. Sherrill E. Grace – who I once met, at the 2017 International Malcolm Lowry Conference in Liverpool – gives a reader something rare within a volume written by Lowry, and lets us have a happy ending. This volume, containing letters from 1926 (when Lowry was a 16-year old schoolboy) through to the end of 1946, shows a man who fights and faces (though sometimes instigates) adversity, who finally – after years of hard work and self-belief – has chiselled out a work of literary significance. 1946 ends, just before Under the Volcano is published, with Lowry optimistic, his second marriage going well and all signs pointing towards positivity. Lowry would drink himself to death in just over a decade and would never produce another novel. His life was not to be a good one. But, for the weeks that will pass before I crack open the equally massive Volume 2, I can pretend that his narrative, for a bit, did have a happy conclusion.

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The letters included here are tonally varied, with tone obviously matching the addressee and the subject matter. There are charming letters addressed to his mother and to the in-laws following his second marriage; there are general catching-up letters sent to friends. There are romantic letters, all the undergraduate and adolescent ones pretty embarrassing, but the later letters sent to Margerie Bonner, his second wife, whenever they are geographically separated are often intense and beautiful. They’re not Joycean1, alas, but they’re sweet, they’re romantic, they’re nice. There are also fawning fanboy letters to writers he admired, one of whom – Conrad Aiken – would become a friend; there are letters to publishers and magazines seeking exposure, there are telegrams, there are letters to his dad and to his dad’s legal representatives trying to get more free money, and there are also the classic, slightly desperate, letters I am sure we’ve all sent at some point to slightly more successful friends, trying to – as casually as possible – ask for favours. Towards the end of this chronological set of 270 letters, there are also lots of letters exchanged with Albert Erskine, the man who edited Under the Volcano. These offer – to the Lowry fanboy like myself – fascinating insights into the motives and the allusions/subtleties of the novel, as well as great descriptions of the artistic process and how the novel evolved over the long time in which it was written.

In 1944, after finding a place to settle and live where he seemed, for the first time, happy, Lowry was struck by tragedy when his house – containing huge amounts of collated writings – burned down. Though he lost a nearly-completed novel (In Ballast To The White Sea – see my comments on the recently published MUCH earlier (and underwhelming) draft here), Under the Volcano was saved, and with it an added incentive to get it complete and turned into a book: the world was against him, Lowry felt: he had to act.

As a reader of Lowry, I find a difficulty with his oscillating engagement with the circumstances of his familial wealth – he is often cut off, often allowed to flounder with the hope that this will jump start him into earning. But it never does, though – unlike many trust fund kids – he does have a firm forward motion with his creative pursuit, at least. Lowry continues and continues and continues to write, continues to work, and he lives cheaply- the money a luxurious, cushioned, safety net. It is, I suppose, difficult to feel a sense of threat or worry when there is that sense of safety, so Lowry’s ability to genuinely make his own life difficult is almost impressive. I think this is a common thing for those with family money, but Lowry was better at it than the enthusiastic-but-dull cokeheads of central London: Lowry didn’t just go to Mexico and have a massive bender, he spent time in Mexican jails, ended up getting people he cared about in Mexican jails, he got deported from multiple countries, banned from entering others, and, actually no, this isn’t exceptional, is it? This is proper trust fund gap year behaviour, innit, it’s just Lowry didn’t stop doing it aged 22. Hmmm. Maybe that means Lowry was bad. Maybe that means Lowry was less original than he seems. Hmm. We’ll return to this. But not here.

The highlights in Sursum Corda! Volume One are the longer pieces, and there are two – rightly heralded by Grace in the introduction- that stand out like a dog in a cat shop2. One of these is a letter I had read about multiple times in biographical details about Lowry, and it is the novella-length letter sent to Jonathan Cape explaining, in great detail, the reasons for the structure and imagery of every chapter of Under the Volcano. It is gorgeous, literary prose, and basically the kind of critical commentary that every creative writing course asks for. This letter should be a set text at universities: its tone is confident without being arrogant, it is in-depth without losing a sense of the novel as a whole. It is persuasive and literary without being pretentious, it’s essentially a triumph of English literature and should be read by more people than just those with Lowry [near-]obsessions. The second notable letter is far more narrative driven, and details Lowry’s disastrous 1946 trip to Mexico, which was the basis for La Mordida, one of the few posthumously-published Lowry manuscripts I am yet to read. This letter, written in matter-of-fact-descriptive-prose to a friend-of-a-friend-lawyer, is self-effacing while also managing to convey the Kafkaesque absurdity of Malc ‘n’ Marg’s run-ins with the Mexican immigration authorities. It’s a blast.

Sursum Corda! Volume One is sometimes funny, sometimes sad and – rarely for a collected letters – not boring. Choosing to end with Lowry at his happiest is a pleasant gesture by Grace, but does mean that Volume Two – which I will also read before the end of the year – is going to be a gut-wrenching narrative of collapse. Yaaay…


1. I mean like James Joyce’s letters to his wife, which are lewd, rude and by far the best things he ever wrote. Few things piss me off more than when, on the regular occasions when these letters do the social media rounds, people say “Oh these should be destroyed, they’re private.” No. It is not embarrassing to love your lover’s body, it is not embarrassing to find heaven in the taste of your lover’s cunt, in the touch of your lover’s tongue, in the press of your lover’s nails as they slowly break your skin, in the moment of fuck. Imagine being ashamed of not just being in love with your lover, but being in love with fucking your lover!? I think the people who object are people in sexless and/or loveless relationships who believe everyone else should be too, even dead people who are James Joyce. It’s not embarrassing to know James Joyce got off on fucking his wife. It is enervating, it is exciting, it is proof that you can be a boring fucking intellectual bookish twat but still get to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh. “Oooh but what about his privacy?” He’s dead, that’s as private as life gets. What, are you scared he’ll give you ideas you’ll never live out? It’s fine to be repressed, it’s not fine to try and censor James Joyce’s greatest writing because you wouldn’t like it if your sexts were shared. “Yes woman id like to finger ur pussy but with my willy not my hand” etc. That’s the kind of sext I bet you write. “I would have a stiffy if I saw ur titties.” Get a life.

2. This idiom is, I believe, original, and the kind of reason why am the one with a poetry book available for sale at this link. I’m going to self-plagiarise and use this in something that pays me. It’s a lovely phrase, evocative of meaning and also conjures up adorable mental images of one sneaky mischievous puppy among loads and loads of kittens.

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