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After Lowry published “Under the Volcano,” in 1947, he was hailed as a successor to Joyce. His wife,

After Lowry published “Under the Volcano,” in 1947, he was hailed as a successor to Joyce. His wife, Margerie, edited the book.

After Lowry published “Under the Volcano,” in 1947, he was hailed as a successor to Joyce. His wife, Margerie, edited the book.

Malcolm Lowry died in his cottage in the village of Ripe, in Sussex, late at night on June 26, 1957, or early the next morning. He was forty-seven years old. His wife, Margerie, found his body upstairs, on the floor of their bedroom. An autopsy revealed that Lowry, an alcoholic, had been drunk, and the doctor who examined the body found that he had swallowed a large number of barbiturates and had inhaled some half-digested food from his stomach. An inquest was held, at which a police officer, the Lowrys’ landlady, and Margerie testified. The coroner ruled the fatality a “misadventure”—that is, an accident. Lowry had choked to death on his own vomit.

Lowry is known for his 1947 novel, “Under the Volcano,” which chronicles the final hours of Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic Englishman living in Mexico, in the shadow of the Ixtacihuatl and Popocatepetl volcanoes. On November 1st, the Day of the Dead, Firmin, the former British consul, finds that his estranged wife, Yvonne, has come back to town. Paralyzed by his alcoholism, he drifts from cantina to cantina, considering ways to reclaim her; but he never acts. By nightfall, Firmin is dead in a ditch, shot by Mexican paramilitaries. “Volcano” fuses modernist and romantic sensibilities: the story is told from shifting points of view, and Firmin’s daylong odyssey is borrowed from “Ulysses”; at the same time, Lowry’s prose is fervent, laid down in unstable, looping sentences. Shortly before his death, the consul sees on a house an inscription that reads “No se puede vivir sin amar”—“One cannot live without love.” Lowry, in a 1946 letter to Margerie’s family, wrote, “ ‘Volcano’ ’s theme: ‘only against death does man cry out in vain.’ ” Dawn Powell wrote soon after the book’s publication, “In ‘Under the Volcano’ you love the author for the pain of his overwhelming understanding.”

Lowry began writing “Volcano” in his late twenties. The writing took four drafts and almost a decade. In his early attempts, he was more interested in seeing how many images and symbols he could embed in the text than in creating lifelike characters. It was only in 1939, when Lowry met Margerie, who was herself an aspiring writer, that the novel began assuming a coherent shape. Margerie suggested characters and plot turns, added sentences, and cut back Lowry’s wordiness. She was a good editor, and the only person who could manage her husband’s reckless temperament.

“Volcano” was published to broad acclaim. The critic Mark Schorer, reviewing the book in the New York Herald Tribune, wrote that few novels “convey so feelingly the agony of alienation, the infernal suffering of disintegration.” Lowry was hailed as a successor to Joyce, who had died six years earlier. “Volcano” was a popular success, too—for a time, Lowry bragged, the book outsold “Forever Amber.”

He soon fell apart. “Success,” he wrote to Margerie’s mother, “may be the worst possible thing that could happen to any serious author.” According to Lowry’s biographers—there have been six—his drinking, always prodigious, became incapacitating. He had persecution fantasies. At times, his delirium tremens was so severe that he could not hold a pencil. Lowry worked on many books in these years—he had in mind a multipart novel called “The Voyage That Never Ends,” which would parallel the Divine Comedy, with “Volcano” in the position of the Inferno—but the manuscript that he cared most about was “October Ferry to Gabriola,” a novel about the happiest phase of his marriage, in the nineteen-forties, when he and Margerie lived in a squatter’s shack on an inlet north of Vancouver. Lowry could not make the novel come together; Margerie edited and suggested, Malcolm rewrote and rewrote, and the book slid sideways. They began fighting, in part because of their failure to tell the story of their happiness. They countered their frustrations with heavy doses of alcohol, prescription sedatives, tranquillizers, and stimulants—sodium amytal, phenobarbital, Benzedrine, Allonal, Nembutal, Soneryl. (Lowry joked that he and his wife should be known as “Alcoholics Synonymous.”) But they could not inure themselves to the pain of their creative failure. Twice, during a trip to Europe, Lowry tried to strangle Margerie. Though she was a fraction of his size, she attacked him, too. Shortly before Lowry died, he told a psychiatrist whom he was seeing that either Margerie was going to kill him or he was going to kill her.

Margerie, who died in a Los Angeles nursing home in 1988, at the age of eighty-three, did not like to talk about the details of Lowry’s death, but when she did she said that Lowry committed suicide. To most of their friends, that explanation seemed more likely than the official one, that he had accidentally swallowed too many pills. A lot had been going on in Lowry’s life at the time. There was the agony of “October Ferry,” which in its various drafts amounted to more than four thousand pages. In the months before his death, he had largely stopped drinking, under the care of his psychiatrist, who was encouraging him to be more independent from Margerie; for years, she had been lighting his cigarettes and even tying his shoelaces. He began to do things that he hadn’t done in a long time, from taking the bus by himself to carrying his own money. These changes may or may not have destabilized him: it is not easy to make surmises about a man as grandly dysfunctional as Lowry. Fifty years ago, on July 3rd, he was buried in a corner of Ripe’s thirteenth-century churchyard, which overlooks the South Downs. About a dozen mourners accompanied his wife. Margerie hoped to be buried by his side, but by the time she died the spot next to him had long since been taken; her body was interred forty yards away, at the other end of the churchyard.

In June, 1939, Clarence Malcolm Lowry met, by his own description, “a grand gal named Margerie” on Hollywood Boulevard, in Los Angeles. A friend of his had set them up. He took the bus; she drove. Lowry was twenty-nine years old, and separated from his first wife, Jan Gabrial—the inspiration for Yvonne in “Volcano.” He and Gabrial had lived in Mexico for a year, trying to hold together their volatile marriage. Lowry, an Englishman with a Cambridge degree and a handsome allowance—his father was a wealthy cotton broker in Liverpool—believed his destiny was to be a great writer. But he had published only one book, six years earlier: “Ultramarine,” a minor novel whose overexcited style owed a great deal to other writers, especially Conrad Aiken, his mentor. Many of Lowry’s friends saw him as a figure of entertainment rather than as a serious artist—they enjoyed him most when he serenaded them with his ukulele. He had been working for nearly three years on “Volcano,” which was based on his troubles in Mexico with Gabrial. The project clearly exceeded his skills, or at least his limited focus. Lowry was such a heavy drinker that, in a letter to Aiken, he described himself as a “Lear of the Sierras, dying by the glass in the Brown Derby.”

Margerie Bonner had tried her hand at murder mysteries but had not published any work. In the meantime, she had bit parts in several silent Westerns, and worked as the personal assistant to Penny Singleton, who played Blondie in movies based on the comic strip. Margerie’s rapport with Lowry was immediate. Several years older, she had a toughness that he lacked; she wore furs and high heels and exuded glamour. (According to Gordon Bowker, the author of “Pursued by Furies,” an incisive 1993 biography of Lowry, she had already been married, but she apparently did not tell Lowry.) Margerie saw Lowry as an exotic aristocrat. He was insecure sexually—he had an unusually small penis—but Margerie gave him confidence. He started calling himself El Leon (“the Lion”) and gave her the pet name Miss Hartebeeste. Less than two months after they met, he wrote to declare his love: “The sensation of underground bleeding, of being torn up by the roots like a tree by a big wind—do you feel that? God, I do!”

Lowry was impractical in most ways, but he never met a woman without sizing her up as a typist and as an editor. In Margerie, he found both. Six weeks after they met, Lowry moved to Canada—his American visa had expired—and he asked her to follow him. She agreed. Margerie wanted Lowry to be a great writer almost as much as he did, and even in what he described as a “freezing bison-smelling attic in Vancouver” she got him to work. Lowry’s sordid habits did not daunt her; she could drink nearly as much gin as he could. She told another Lowry biographer, Douglas Day, that she had once found him passed out in a Vancouver whorehouse, having sold all his clothes for liquor except his underwear. She demanded that the proprietor give Lowry something to wear; after he got dressed, she stood by him as he begged on the street for money to buy beer.

In 1940, Lowry and Margerie married, and she took his name. Lowry began working more intensely on “Volcano.” His original manuscript, a short draft, had emerged from an incident that Lowry and Jan Gabrial had seen in Mexico. On a bus trip, they had come upon an Indian peasant lying by the road, apparently dying; the bus driver stopped, and one of the passengers got out and robbed the Indian. Lowry began to expand the story with Margerie’s guidance. He wrote to Aiken, “We work together on it day and night.” After Lowry wrote fresh material in longhand, Margerie typed it and offered criticism, a document they called the “margerieversion”; he then made revisions, and the cycle began again. Within six months, Lowry had produced a second draft.

The new version of the novel was his most sustained and inventive fiction to date. His portrait of an unravelling drunk was unnervingly intimate. The manuscript had better pacing, thanks to Margerie, and it had an extensive overlay of symbolism, thanks to Lowry, who was an admirer of Baudelaire. “I felt that it is the first real book I’ve written,” Lowry wrote to Aiken at the time. He credited his relationship with Margerie for the difference: “I’m more than glad I never got a chance to finish it without her.”

The manuscript remained flawed. Much of the dialogue was wooden—“Get this so you can hear it,” Lowry lectured himself in the margins—and the plotting was often heavy-handed. “I wonder what’s happened to that peón we had to leave beside the road,” one character comments in the first chapter. “Gosh, that was an ugly business.” When Lowry’s agent, Harold Matson, submitted the new version of “Volcano” to publishers, twelve in all, not one accepted it. Lowry collapsed, but with Margerie at his side he pulled through. Together, they wrote to Matson, admitting that the manuscript still needed work. “Youth plus booze plus hysterical identifications plus vanity plus self-deception” was Lowry’s explanation of what had gone wrong.

In August, 1940, they learned of a coastal village north of Vancouver, on the Burrard Inlet, called Dollarton, and rented a ramshackle cottage there. (Lowry was rich on paper, by the terms of a family trust set up in 1938, but the family gave him access only to the interest.) Built on land owned by the city, the house had no heat, electricity, or running water. Eight months later, they bought a nearby shack. After building a swimming pier with their own hands, they resumed work on “Volcano.” They largely gave up drinking, and each morning, when Margerie typed Lowry’s latest additions, he swam in the inlet, surrounded by seagulls and mergansers. They fetched their drinking water from a nearby stream, and local fishermen dropped buckets of crabs on their pier. Margerie was writing, too—she told Douglas Day that she had begun her first mystery novel, “The Shapes That Creep,” to give Lowry something literary to assist on after “Volcano” was rejected.

According to Day, she finished the mystery in a few months, then quickly wrote another, a noirish tale called “The Last Twist of the Knife.” At one point, an ingénue named Dora, who is falsely accused of murder, declares, “If you and your high-class friends think you can pin this on me because I’m poor and helpless and you’re rich and important, you can just think again.” Another character, Delight Dryden, braves a murder inquest, returning “the Coroner’s benevolent gaze with artistically mingled fear and innocence.” Scribners accepted both of Margerie’s books for publication.

After Lowry’s death, Margerie sold his papers to the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. The “Volcano” manuscripts reveal the process of refinement that took place in Dollarton. The two rewrote many sentences over and over, as Margerie kept an eye out for Lowry’s tics. On one page, she writes, “ ‘Terrifying’—watch this word Malc!,” and crosses it out in the two places where it appears. On another page, Yvonne states, “We won’t have the moon tonight.” Margerie writes, “Watch this moon—you’ve got one in Chapter xii.” In the margin of one version of the consul’s last monologue, Lowry asks, “Is all this a bit muddled?” Margerie’s response is not recorded, but the next draft is tighter. “A good, thorough agonizing cut,” Lowry writes after Margerie has deleted a hokey moment in which a character imagines that he hears the consul lamenting his failure to reconcile with his wife: “If only I had not been so sure I were the stronger.” In a 1950 letter to a fan, Lowry said of the revising process, “After a while it began to make a noise like music.”

To the novel’s tremendous benefit, Margerie helped Lowry reconsider its dismissive portrait of his first wife. Originally, Yvonne was the consul’s daughter, a trifling character fixated on the needs of her equally callow boyfriend. “She looked at herself in the mirror,” Lowry writes, soon after she arrives in Mexico to see her father. “She was a white satin nightgown. She was a robe, but where was the person?” In subsequent manuscripts, Margerie’s handwriting can be seen changing Yvonne from daughter to wife; Margerie also helps shape the character, refining Yvonne’s feelings about a past lover and amplifying her background, which is similar to her own—Yvonne is an actress who has appeared in “Western pictures.” In the published version, Yvonne is closer to how Margerie saw herself: more woman than girl, more giving and forgiving. She is also able to think independently—parts of the novel are written from her point of view. Significantly, she is perhaps the only Lowry character who doesn’t drink to excess.

The archive also indicates that Lowry and Margerie borrowed freely from each other’s work. After they agreed that Yvonne should die, Margerie later recalled to biographers, she suggested that Yvonne could be trampled by a runaway horse. She was at work on a third novel, “Horse in the Sky,” which contained such a death: “The horse suddenly . . . screamed in terror. He reared, reared again, then plunged wildly, in uncontrollable panic.” Lowry liked the idea; near the end of “Volcano,” Yvonne now “saw, by a brilliant flash of lightning, the riderless horse. . . . She heard herself scream as the animal turned towards her and upon her.” Lowry, in a letter to his friend the novelist David Markson, explained, “We swop horses and archetypes to each other all the time.”

At the end of 1944, Lowry finished the novel. In February, 1946, while he and Margerie were in Mexico, revisiting some of the locales of the book, he received acceptance letters from Jonathan Cape, a publisher in England, and from Reynal & Hitchcock, an American publisher, on the same day. To Jonathan Cape, he wrote, “We are wallowing in success, feeling in fact like starving men whose eyes are being stuffed with potatoes.”

In February of 1947, as “Volcano” began receiving excellent reviews, Lowry and Margerie made a celebratory visit to New York. (“The city buzzes with your name,” a friend wrote.) But for Lowry the trip was a horror. He had begun drinking again, and, when literary celebrities crowded to congratulate him at a party in his honor, he was too inebriated to respond. Dawn Powell, who was there, noted his distress in her diary. “He is the original Consul in the book,” she wrote, “a curious kind of person—handsome, vigorous, drunk—with an aura of genius about him and a personal electricity almost dangerous, sense of demon-possessed.” In another entry, she noted of Lowry, “Wife Marjorie [sic] in control.”

For many of Lowry’s literary friends, the publication rounds were their introduction to Margerie, and though they applauded her effect on him, they found her pretentious and overly invested in her association with an English genius. David Markson, one of Lowry’s last surviving friends, told me, “She had a strange manner of speech. She was always saying things like ‘May I have a little more milk in my Scotch, duckie?’ Aiken came over one evening and afterward wrote me, ‘Please don’t invite me when she is here.’ ”


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