I fell in love with Malcolm Lowry’s fiction after reading the novella ‘Through the Panama’ in his collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (1961). While I’d been aware of his Under the Volcano (1947), a novel generally acknowledged to be a classic of twentieth century English-language literature, number 11 in the Modern Library 100 Best Novels in fact (ignore the readers’ list: only blatant ballot-stuffing or rank stupidity could put four books by Ayn Rand and three by L Ron Hubbard in the top ten), I had never actually read anything by him. But my father had three of his books – the aforementioned pair and Lowry’s debut, Ultramarine (1933); the two novels are in fact the only books Lowry saw published during his lifetime – and I took them for myself as I fancied giving them a try…
And now I have everything he wrote – a lot of which was published posthumously – some of it even in first edition (but not Under the Volcano, since first editions of it cost around £800).
But. ‘Through the Panama’, which first appeared in Paris Review in Spring 1960 – it’s unlikely Malcolm Lowry, who died in 1957, submitted it himself; it was more probably his wife, Margerie Bonner Lowry – features Malcolm Lowry’s fictional alter-ego Sigbjørn Wilderness, and is a complex mix of fiction, autobiography and meta-fiction. It’s an astonishing piece of work but, as I soon discovered when I read Ultramarine, Under the Volcano and the posthumous Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid (1968), it’s actually more like a concentrated form of Malcolm Lowry’s approach to writing. Ultramarine was based on his experiences aboard a tramp freighter, aboard which he spent five months at age eighteen before starting at Cambridge University. Some of his experiences which appeared in Ultramarine also make an appearance – off-stage – in Under the Volcano, although reading the prior book is by no means a requirement for reading Under the Volcano.
But it’s in Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid where really interesting things start to happen… You’ll have to bear with me for a bit as this is somewhat complicated… Malcolm Lowry started work on Under the Volcano while staying in Mexico in 1936, and finished it two years later. He left Mexico for Los Angeles, where he met his second wife, Margerie; and then spent the next eight years editing and rewriting the novel. It’s set in the Mexican town of Quauhnahuac, and covers the events of single day in the life of the Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic, whose divorced wife has just returned to him. In 1945, Malcolm and Margerie Lowry returned to Mexico (a return for him, anyway), and settled in the town of Cuernavaca. During this time, Under the Volcano was under consideration with a British publisher, and Malcolm was worried it might be seen as too similar to Charles Jackson’s 1944 novel, The Lost Weekend, the film adaptation of which, starring Ray Milland and Jane Wyman, and directed Billy Wilder, was proving a hit in the cinemas as Malcolm and Margerie travelled south from their home in Canada. The trip to Mexico proved successful both personally and professional – although Malcolm’s drinking did reach similar levels to those of his earlier visit to Mexico and those attributed to the Consul in Under the Volcano… However, while in Cuernavaca, Malcolm heard back from Jonathan Cape, who asked for substantial changes to be made to Under the Volcano before they would publish it… but Malcolm successfully defended his novel with a long and detailed analysis of it. Malcolm also took copious notes throughout the Mexico trip and, once back in Canada, he realised these were effectively a novel. So he set about turning them into one, and he worked on it on-and-off, until his death in 1957. The book was eventually edited by Margerie and published in 1968 as Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid.
In Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid, Sigbjørn Wilderness and his wife Primrose have returned to Mexico eight years after Sigbjørn left. He is awaiting news from a British publisher about his novel, The Valley of the Shadow of Death (which was actually the original title for Under the Volcano), and is worried that it might be rejected due to similarities to the novel and film Drunkard’s Rigadoon. The couple travel from Mexico City to Cuernavaca, which Sigbjørn now discovers has chosen to publicise that its name in Nahuatl is Cuauhnahuac, a fact he’d eight years previously taken great pains to uncover and had thought would “disguise” the setting of his novel. While in Cuernavaca, Sigbjørn explains the town’s relationship to the setting of The Valley of the Shadow of Death to his wife – she is familiar with the story as she typed up the manuscript – and begins drinking heavily, much like Geoffrey Firmin in Under the Volcano.
So what we have is Malcolm Lowry writing a novel in which he appears as Sigbjørn Wilderness, who is the author of a book Malcolm Lowry himself wrote, which is set in the Mexican town which is the setting of both Under the Volcano and Sigbjørn’s The Valley of the Shadow of Death, and this novel Malcolm Lowry has written is based upon Malcolm Lowry’s own return visit to the town where he wrote, and in which he set, his most famous work, Under the Volcano. Sigbjørn and Primrose also visit some of the nearby towns and villages, such as Oaxaca, Tlaxcala and Yautepec, and each place is seen in light of Sigbjørn’s previous time in Mexico and his fictionalisation of it in The Valley of the Shadow of Death. The same is also true of the people they meet, and their relationship to the characters in The Valley of the Shadow of Death. Some two-thirds of the way into Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid, Sigbjørn hears back form his publishers – they want him to make substantial changes. Primrose persuades him to stick to his guns and defend his novel, which he does.
“Your book is regarded here as having potential importance and integrity.” His heart leaped, he almost shouted out to Primrose, who was as excited as he and waiting for the verdict in the bedroom, but – at this point, another letter fell out. It was the reader’s report, and he seized upon it. “The author has overrreached himself. This book will naturally call to mind the recently successful novel and film Drunkard’s Rigadoon…” (p179)
Structurally, Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid is not so adventurous – it’s a linear narrative, beginning as Sigbjørn and Primrose fly south across the United States, and ending with Sigbjørn finally laying to rest the ghost of The Valley of the Shadow of Death, or perhaps of its inspirations and writing, which has haunted him throughout this visit to Mexico. But it’s the melding of real-life and fiction which I find so fascinating about the book. Under the Volcano was at least, on the surface, a straightforward act of literary creativity. While its settings and cast may have been inspired by Malcolm Lowry’s own time in Mexico during its writing from 1936 to 1938, it was still first and foremost a novel. (Which is not to say that it’s not partly autobiographical, as Malcolm Lowry had certainly done that before in Ultramarine.) But in Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid Malcolm Lowry has fictionalised the autobiographical elements of his fiction, folding what was real in the invented back into an invented perspective of the real. And that I find a very interesting thing to do. It allows for a whole host of meta-fictional games to be played within the text – and Malcolm Lowry plays most of them: not just Sigbjørn commenting on The Valley of the Shadow of Death, which is effectively Malcolm Lowry himself commenting on Under the Volcano, but also Malcolm Lowry as author commenting on Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid and on Sigbjørn Wilderness. Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid can be enjoyed as a work of fiction without having read Under the Volcano, but it’s plain that reading Malcolm Lowry’s magnum opus first deeply enriches the Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid reading experience.
Malcolm Lowry’s reputation waned after the publication of Under the Volcano, chiefly because he had nothing else published in the years following (and Under the Volcano had taken him nine years and two months to write). He became known as an “underground” writer, one admired only by the cognoscenti. After his death, Margerie Lowry kept his literary legacy alive, and saw to it that works he had never quite actually finished were edited and published… such as Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid. There’s no doubt in my mind that he was one of the greatest English-language writers of the twentieth century.