Already Lowry was worrying that he might never write another book as good as “Volcano.” After the New York trip, he and Margerie briefly returned to Dollarton, where they worked on a story about a couple looking for a new home, based on a visit they had made in 1946 to an island in British Columbia called Gabriola. They submitted the story, “October Ferry to Gabriola,” to their agent under a double byline; it did not sell, however. In November, 1947, they began a yearlong grand tour of Europe. Margerie had wanted the trip—she craved a larger stage than Dollarton provided. Lowry knew that abandoning his austere life was not good for him. “The French have enormous vitality,” he wrote to Margerie’s sister after visiting Paris. “But it’s a quality I don’t always admire. I like things rather sleepy.”
A friend, spotting him drunk in London, asked him what was next, and Lowry joked that he was writing “Under Under the Volcano.” He and Margerie began to quarrel. Lowry was by turns depressed and threatening: one night in the South of France, during a fight, he grabbed her by the neck; later, she found him a sanitarium outside Rome and took an adjoining room. Sneaking past a guard, he tried to strangle her again. At one point, he boasted in a letter to his French translator, he capped off nine whiskeys—six of them doubles—with the sedative Soneryl. During their European tour, Margerie wrote a letter to Albert Erskine, Lowry’s American editor, claiming that Lowry was “becoming actively dangerous: first to himself & me but now more savage towards everyone who crosses him in any way.” She got into the habit of giving him phenobarbital at night, to calm him.
Her journal entries, which are also at the University of British Columbia, reveal her anger. In an entry from December, 1947, she writes, “Altho he makes a great pretense of working . . . & of exercising & tries to fool me it is too obvious he is drinking all afternoon. . . . I had thought when I adored him as tho he were a god that love could survive anything but I begin to think that there are certain insults to human dignity that one should not survive.” She had also begun wondering about the effect of their folie à deux on her own creativity: “I have stopped thinking of myself as an artist because the last years my whole consciousness has been so completely absorbed by Malc & his immediate desires & storms.” Around the same time, she asked in her journal, “Is it conceivable that a man’s weakness can be so strong, that such evil can overpower me & exhaust me to the point that I become evil too?”
In 1950, Lowry returned to the “October Ferry” manuscript that he and Margerie had written. Around this time, the city government of Vancouver intensified an effort to evict the squatters of Dollarton, and Lowry’s mood darkened. He expanded the draft of “October Ferry” into a short novel, and folded in an eviction motif. He wrote quickly, without the false starts that were typical of his writing. He thought that he had a clear vision for a novel. “I have completely rewritten it by myself and finally I’m extremely pleased with it,” he wrote to Matson.
It was the last positive thing he would write about the book for seven years. In April, 1952, Erskine, who had moved to Random House, put him on retainer; but by August Lowry had become, as he wrote to Erskine, “half dead with discouragement.” In the summer of 1953, in a letter to Erskine, he said that the challenge of writing the book was “a matter of life or death, or rebirth, as it were, for its author, not to say sanity or otherwise.” The story kept rocking to and fro; the voyage to Gabriola went from real to metaphorical, then back again. “At my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot changing gear,” Lowry joked to Erskine.
Lowry and Margerie kept up their routine of swimming, eating crabs, and working on the book. They exchanged comments first in written form, then in conversation. But Lowry couldn’t stop drinking, and the book’s focus was changing daily—each new event in their lives was crammed into its pages. After Margerie gave him the omnibus edition of a writer named Charles Fort, whose work charted inexplicable coincidences, Lowry added to his book a chapter called “The Elements Follow You Around Sir,” in which his alter ego stumbles upon Fort’s book in a library. And, after they moved to a hotel in Vancouver during a cold winter, the hotel showed up in the draft. Between drafts three and seven, two time schemes emerged, and Lowry had trouble keeping them straight. The birth date of the couple’s child, Tommy, fluctuates by four years. Lowry scribbled in the margin, “How old is Tommy? Check.”
The collaborators began to despair. “The work has suffered,” Lowry wrote to Erskine. “And so has she. And so, by God, have I. . . . This damned thing . . . has cost me more pains than all the ‘Volcano’ put together.” As the Lowry archive reveals, his output had become a torrent of words flowing nowhere. Deletions grew more frequent. He was now rewriting sentences almost spastically. Vik Doyen, a Belgian academic who has made a definitive study of the “October Ferry” drafts, told me, “You feel sadness, the waste of possibilities and of genius.”
At one point in the text of “October Ferry,” the husband sees a prostitute at a newsstand. Lowry tries to capture her: “A woman seemingly out of the blue . . . with beautiful legs, eyed him, swaying her hips with aimless lust.” He crosses this out, and substitutes, “A heavily painted young woman, evidently a premature noctambulist, wearing clothes & shoes so new they seemed just to have been stolen, eyed him, half humming.” He crosses this out, too. Above such pages, Lowry often writes invocations, in small lettering, to the patron saint of lost causes: “St. Jude S.O.S.”; “St. Jude Help me to think through this impossibility.” At other times, he pleads to Turgenev, God, and “E. A. Poe.”
Margerie could not be as helpful to Lowry as she had been with “Volcano.” The portrayal of Jacqueline, the wife, in “October Ferry” was two-dimensional, just as the initial conception of Yvonne in “Volcano” had been, but, this time, Margerie could not offer an outsider’s perspective—Jacqueline was based on her. As Lowry grew angrier with himself, his protagonist grew angrier at his wife. In one draft, the wife complains about the “goddam shack” that is obsessing her husband, and pettily points out that, “for a woman,” its primitive stove was terribly inconvenient. In the back-and-forth notes that accompany the passage, Margerie reminded Lowry that her initial response to Dollarton was more complicated. She proposes adding this nuance: “He recalled the tumble-down dirt & disorder of the ‘Goddam shack’ when they’d first seen it, & how under her hands it had become . . . beautiful; he recalled the vision, the enthusiasm, the love with which she had labored.” Lowry ignored her; above this suggestion he writes, “phony, sentimental, bourgeois.”
Around the same time, Lowry and Margerie were working on another autobiographical novel, “La Mordida.” In one editorial exchange, their marital tension becomes overt. “I absolutely refuse to be made out such a fool,” Margerie writes in a comment. “This is not true; why not tell the truth?” And, in a testy exchange over “October Ferry,” Lowry writes to Margerie, “Try to imagine yourself reading the story in bed etc. etc.—occasionally at least as a reader rather than a writer.” To which Margerie replies, with underscoring, “SEE MY NOTES.” Lowry begins to respond to her criticisms with posturing. Of one scene from “October Ferry,” in which a character dreams that he is venturing inside a dark cave, he writes, “With a little discipline, one of the high spots in English literature.”
These disputes found no resolution in print or in life. Even in the relative calm of Dollarton, Margerie was worn out. She wrote to David Markson, Lowry’s friend, that “October Ferry” had become a “blood sucking monster.” (These words, which are in the archive, appear on a letter begun by Lowry that describes his struggle with “October Ferry,” but he was apparently too drunk to finish it; Margerie did.) Soon, Dollarton would be gone, too. Bulldozers had knocked down most of the shacks. Albert Erskine had cancelled Lowry’s contract with Random House, because, as he told the biographer Gordon Bowker, the draft of “October Ferry” sent to him by Lowry was “just about as tedious as anything I’d ever read.” Margerie was growing tired of living twenty-five hundred miles away from New York—having published three novels, she felt that she and Lowry ought to have a more normal life, one that might help her career. (Her books had not sold especially well.) She felt that her health was also suffering in the damp and cold of Dollarton. And Lowry’s drinking made him entirely dependent on her.
In 1954, Margerie persuaded Lowry that they had to leave Dollarton. They decided to move to Taormina, in Sicily—in the shadow of Mt. Etna, an idea that gave Lowry pleasure. On the way to Europe, they passed through New York and stayed with David Markson. Margerie and Markson left Lowry for a time in Markson’s apartment, in Morningside Heights, with just a six-pack of beer. Upon their return, Lowry met them with what Markson remembers as a “sheepish” look: Lowry had drunk Markson’s aftershave. Markson noticed that Margerie, in an attempt to take the edge off Lowry’s hangovers, shoved vitamins down his throat before sending him to bed.
Margerie and Lowry sailed for Sicily. Lowry disliked Taormina and missed Dollarton. In Italy, he did not write a word of fiction; he barely wrote a letter. Margerie toured the sights, while Lowry drank and menaced her. At night, Margerie locked up the liquor in her room while Lowry begged for a drink outside. Sometimes she gave him Cognac and pentobarbital tablets to get to sleep. And she continued giving him vitamin pills when he got drunk. Their friends thought that the couple should break up—no one could understand how Margerie tolerated the relationship. Eventually, Italy proved too much even for Margerie. She complained of gallbladder problems. After eight months, they went to London. Margerie, suffering from nervous exhaustion, checked herself in to a hospital.
Lowry, in turn, was persuaded by friends to see a doctor for his alcoholism. At a hospital in Wimbledon, in November, 1955, he met a psychiatrist named Michael Raymond, whom he grew to trust. Raymond gave Lowry a course of “aversion therapy,” which consisted of an injection of apomorphine followed by heavy drinking. The goal was for the patient to associate alcohol with the nausea brought on by the medicine. Raymond wanted Lowry to be near him after he was discharged, and in 1956 Margerie rented a house, known as the White Cottage, in the village of Ripe. After a relapse—caused, in part, by Margerie’s continued drinking in front of her husband—and another, more intense course of aversion therapy that summer, Lowry returned to the cottage, determined to give up liquor for good.
In Ripe, Lowry sustained himself on Cydrax, a non-alcoholic cider that Raymond had recommended. He was able to work in earnest on “October Ferry” for the first time in three years, and soon boasted to Markson that he was back in the “Sacred or Budding Groove.” In a genial mood, he described his rebirth to Dr. Raymond with some doggerel:
When to your brothel-monastery I came
I could not dress myself or open my own mail . . .
When you suggested I should live at Ripe
I thought it very funny, it appealed to me
Recalling the initials R.I.P.
Requiescat in pace if you choose
Or rise if possible you challenged me.
Well I have risen, I am high and dry.
High on achievement, and as we rehearsed
Dry cider’s little sibling slakes my thirst.
Its family resemblance keeps it near
Yet free from all the menaces accursed. . . .
I rise quite early and as you advised
I work to schedule and to my relief
I find Phrases will still come tumbling through my mind
Though man’s predicaments engage my thoughts.
To Lowry’s surprise, his improvement did not thrill Margerie. She began drinking more heavily, and spent most days sitting in the house, shaking and crying. In October of 1956, she checked herself back in to a hospital for a long course of heavy sedation meant to calm her nerves. Lowry called her therapy “her Rip Van Winkle snooze.”
Before entering the hospital, Margerie had told their friend Dorothy Templeton that she’d had enough: she was putting aside all the money she could for the day she would leave Lowry. “She is absolutely callous towards ML,” Templeton wrote her companion, Harvey Burt, in July, 1956. “Her idea of love is not mine or the average woman’s.”
During Margerie’s hospital stay, Lowry wrote her letters about how happy he was in Ripe now; of working steadily again; of being the object of competition between their landlady and the vicar’s housekeeper, who gave him his meals. He knew that his words did not make Margerie smile. He writes in his poem to Raymond, “As with the see-saw in the childhood rhyme / Now I am riding high poor Margerie is low.” Lowry speculated to Markson that Margerie felt “robbed of the potential in-a-sense nurseable object.” He did not know what to do about the change, and as a novelist part of him wanted simply to observe it. He wrote Markson, “The trouble is it is part of the plot of the book.”
The village of Ripe has changed little in fifty years. A dozen houses, a roundabout, and a pub named the Lamb Inn remain its center. The narrow lanes out of the village still give way to the farmland of Sussex. At Lowry’s grave, a terra-cotta marker bearing the last lines of “Volcano” now rests in front of his weathered headstone. The White Cottage, where Lowry died, is down a short pebble lane from the pub; a few months after the Lowrys arrived, in 1956, the proprietor banned them because Lowry was unruly.
In 2004, the Times Literary Supplement published a provocative article by Gordon Bowker, Lowry’s most capable biographer, which revived some longunanswered questions about Lowry’s final days in Ripe. How trustworthy was the coroner’s verdict of death by “misadventure,” or Margerie’s insistence that her husband had committed suicide? Why would Lowry, in good spirits and finally writing again, kill himself? “Volcano” was about to be reissued as a Vintage Classics paperback. And Hollywood directors were awakening to the book’s cinematic potential; José Quintero had expressed particular interest. Jan Gabrial, Lowry’s first wife, told an interviewer shortly before she died, in 2001, “Malcolm’s death, to me, isn’t quite explained.”
In England, coroners’ reports are usually sealed for seventy-five years. But Bowker had persuaded the Sussex coroner to give him Lowry’s. The document contained some news: after Lowry’s death, Margerie could not at first find the bottle for the pills that Lowry had swallowed, and only produced it for the police several hours later. The bottle had been stashed in one of his drawers. The coroner’s report also recorded Margerie’s claim that she had found the bottle with its top screwed on—meticulous behavior for a man as sloppy as Lowry. Even at the time of his death, friends had wondered about the challenge that unscrewing a top would have posed for Lowry. Harvey Burt, in a letter written four months after Lowry died, expressed doubt that he could have done it: “I can’t understand. . . . His powers of coördination at such times were very low.”
In the article, Bowker noted Margerie’s habit of dosing Lowry with vitamin pills. He then offered a speculation: Lowry would not have noticed if what she fed him that night were not vitamins but sodium amytal, the barbiturate that helped kill him. He suggested that Margerie had developed a crush on a writer friend, Peter Churchill, a viscount and a recent widower. Finally, Bowker laid out an accusation of murder: “Margerie had the motive (hankering after Churchill), the means (the pill-feeding ritual) and the opportunity (the cottage after dark).”
Bowker also reported that Margerie and Winnie Mason, the landlady, had both testified to the police that they had spent the evening chatting in Mason’s cottage, next door. Later, however, they both said that Margerie had been at home with Lowry. (Margerie made this claim in a letter to Lowry’s French translator, Mason in a 1966 BBC interview.) For Bowker, these statements suggested collusion.
Lowry scholars did not take offense at the murder theory when the T.L.S. published it. Many of them have been drawn to Lowry as much by the drama of his life as by his writing. On his birthday, they gather at Dollarton and drink gin. The possibility of foul play has only added zest to their work. Bowker’s notion of a romantic motive did not strike them as convincing, though. By the fatal night, Margerie was so run-down by Lowry that she could barely get out of bed; she was in no state to take a lover. For some Lowry scholars, this became the point: the idea of murdering Lowry was not just conceivable but almost justifiable. Lowry had not only used Margerie’s talent; he had taken over her life. Then, after abusing and exploiting her for eighteen years, he had grown weary of her. Recently, I asked a leading Lowry scholar, Sherrill Grace, a professor at the University of British Columbia, who edited the two-volume edition of Lowry’s collected letters, if Margerie murdered Lowry. “Gordon’s right,” she told me, then said of Margerie, “She should have done it sooner!”
The White Cottage is now owned by a farmer and his wife. When I knocked on their door this summer, they invited me to walk around the house. The cottage is dark and oppressively small, though a previous owner had installed a skylight in the kitchen. The owners had not read “Under the Volcano,” but they knew about Lowry. We walked through a room with exposed wood beams and a hearth. “This was Lowry’s study,” the husband told me, showing me the room in which Lowry had wrestled with “October Ferry.” The murder rumor had recently reached them—some visiting Japanese academics had mentioned it.
By the time the police arrived at the White Cottage on the morning of June 27th, Lowry had likely been dead for hours. He lay on his back by the side of Margerie’s bed, the rug rumpled beneath him. According to the coroner’s report, a transcript of which Bowker shared with me, a “quantity of sliced cold cooked meat” was by Lowry’s arm. On the other side of the bed was a broken orange-squash bottle and a broken gin bottle. There were glass splinters on Lowry’s chest and blood on his left palm. Two chairs had been thrown: an easy chair lay on its side by the window; a kitchen chair had been smashed to pieces.
After Margerie found Lowry’s body, a constable named William Lord, from the nearby town of Selmeston, took her statement and that of Mason, the landlady. Margerie also spoke of what happened that night to Douglas Day. Lowry, she said, had once again fallen off the wagon. With the Lamb Inn off limits, they had walked to the Yew Tree pub in Chalvington, a mile away, where they drank beer. (The bartender recalled Margerie crying.) Lowry then bought a bottle of gin, over her objections, saying that it would cheer her up—he told the bartender that she was sad over their lost Dollarton home—and they walked back to Ripe on the country lane. They were planning to listen to the radio. Lowry began drinking from the bottle, getting wilder. Margerie said that after a BBC concert—Leopold Stokowski conducting Stravinsky—Lowry began “raving.” He turned up the radio. Margerie, who had been downstairs making supper, came up and turned it down, not wanting to disturb Winnie Mason next door.
According to the police report, Lowry struck Margerie. She grabbed the gin bottle and broke it to keep him from drinking it. Lowry then brandished the broken bottle and chased Margerie downstairs; she recalled to Douglas Day that her husband had “a fiendish look on his face.” She took refuge in Mason’s house. She told Day that she then took a sleeping pill—she did not explain how she came to have one with her—and went to sleep. (Both she and Lowry were heavy users of sleeping pills; Lowry called them his “pink things.” They both had prescriptions for sodium amytal. In October, 1956, Lowry wrote Margerie of Dr. Raymond’s appearing at his door in Ripe, “bearing, in hand like a malt-shovel, a half-dozen sodium amytals to tide me over.”)
Lowry’s death made the regional paper, the Brighton Argus, with the headline “SHE BROKE GIN BOTTLE—FOUND HUSBAND DEAD.” All the same, the Sussex police did not press an investigation. Lowry had no connections in the area. No one knew who he was. (The Argus called him “Clarence Lowry,” and no other British paper recorded his death.) Locals did not like him; Roy Medhurst, the last living Ripe resident who knew Lowry, told me that Lowry was a “drunken yob” and said that his death left “some people relieved.”
The inquest was routine. Constable Lord told the coroner what he saw. Winnie Mason, in her deposition, recalled Margerie showing up at her door, distraught, and claimed that Margerie had not gone out after retiring to a camp bed that she had made for her. If she had, Mason insisted, “I would most certainly have heard her, being a light sleeper, and also my dog would have barked.”
Margerie at first told friends that there had been a suicide note but then said that there wasn’t. The lack of a note surprised them. Alcohol would hardly have stopped his pen—he wrote while drunk all the time. And he was someone for whom written words accompanied nearly every moment of life; he even scrawled observations as he sat drunk in bars. Some four hundred jotted notes to Margerie are in the British Columbia archive—messages from El Leon to Miss Hartebeeste. “Lowry was always saying, ‘Make notes,’ ” Markson told me. Lowry’s despair was always part theatre; and, for such a person, self-destruction practically demanded documentation.
The coroner did not call Lowry’s psychiatrist, Dr. Raymond, who, far from considering Lowry “incurable,” as Margerie told the police, thought that he was getting better. Angry that Margerie had kept drinking in Lowry’s presence, he later refused to treat her for her emotional exhaustion. He also thought that Lowry’s spiritual beliefs precluded suicide. The coroner failed to call members of Lowry’s family—he had three older brothers. Had he done so, they might have told him that they were suspicious of Margerie; in an unpublished reminiscence, one of the brothers called her “the very material Margerie,” adding that the Lowrys, who thought she wore too much jewelry, referred to her as Bangles. Nor did the coroner speak to Dorothy Templeton and Harvey Burt, the couple who knew the Lowrys best. They had spent their summers near them in Dollarton for years; more recently, Templeton had visited them in Sicily, where Lowry had confided to her that Margerie had complained until he named her as his sole beneficiary. (In 1945, Lowry’s father died, leaving a fortune that was the equivalent of ten million dollars.) In a letter, Templeton wrote of the couple, “I’m sure if she knew he would never write again she would hope for widowhood.” In another letter, she recalled watching them argue one night in Taormina, when “all of a sudden Marg turned into a ferocious maniac” and beat up the enormous, cowering, and incapacitated Lowry. And on another occasion, she wrote, Margerie broke Lowry’s nose in a fight in “the corso, with hundreds looking on.” (Margerie told Douglas Day that this incident never occurred.)
“They think I murdered him,” Margerie told Burt and Templeton when they came to Ripe to help her, shortly after Lowry’s death. Fairly or not, Burt and Templeton began to suspect Margerie, too. Publicly, she seemed devastated, but they found her oddly energized in private. According to Bowker, to whom they spoke extensively, they thought that Margerie was playing the distraught widow.
In Ripe, I saw that Winnie Mason’s cottage was so close to the Lowrys’ that they almost formed one building. Margerie could easily have fled Lowry in his drunken rage, then returned home later for a pill. Perhaps, as she looked around for the sodium amytal, a decade of frustration caught up with her. Maybe she went to Lowry and told him that he’d better start preparing for his hangover with some vitamins. Her conciliatory manner would not have surprised him; their battles were often followed by more tender exchanges. Margerie, herself soothed by the barbiturate, could have returned to bed at Mason’s several minutes before the pills would have knocked Lowry to the floor. The next day, Margerie would have discovered the body, just as she said she had.
Lowry’s death will always remain a mystery. Even if his body were exhumed, it would offer no insight into how the barbiturates had entered his system. Maybe Margerie meant only to make Lowry sleep, as she had many times before—she had been drinking, too, and might have given too many pills by mistake. David Markson said of the murder theory, “What do I think? What I think is he was a drunk and then he died.”
New York Review Books has just published a compilation of Lowry’s work, including portions of the posthumous books, which have long been out of print. “The Voyage That Never Ends,” as the volume is called, shows Lowry’s extraordinary imagination and his ability to pull the English language in whatever direction he wanted to go. A typical aphorism: “The lightning, a good writer, did not repeat itself.” And this description of a storm at sea: “One could see, as the ship lurched . . . great doctor of divinity’s gowns of seas furling to leeward, the foam like lamb’s wool.” But the anthology does not change the impression that Lowry was a writer who brought only one significant book to fruition.
“Under the Volcano”—his “ultima thule of the spirit,” as he called it—contains a remarkable death scene, and some of the language evokes Lowry’s own. The Mexican paramilitaries close in on the consul. One pulls out a pistol and shoots him, then shoots him twice more, and the world becomes a giant symbol of despair: “Suddenly he screamed, and it was as though this scream were being tossed from one tree to another, as its echo returned, then, as though the trees themselves were crowding nearer, huddled together, closing over him, pitying.” This is pure Baudelaire. But, at the moment when the consul sees the gun firing, Lowry sees things more plainly: “At first the Consul felt a queer relief. Now he realized he had been shot. He fell on one knee, then, with a groan, flat on his face in the grass. ‘Christ,’ he remarked, puzzled, ‘this is a dingy way to die.’ ”
After Lowry’s death, Margerie never married again, and never published another of her own books. She moved back to Taormina, while Lowry’s family dragged its feet over her inheritance. After she threatened to move in with them, they released a small sum. “For all they care, I can starve in Sicily,” she wrote Dorothy Templeton, four months after Lowry’s death. “I am dead or wish I were,” she wrote in another postcard. She had already begun to look for publishable work in the trunk of manuscripts that Lowry left behind.
Soon, most of Lowry’s friends and family dropped her. “I haven’t heard one bloody word from anybody in England since I left,” she wrote Templeton and Burt in 1959. (When I met Lowry’s great-nephew Jeremy Lowry in England this summer and asked about the family’s opinion of Margerie, he said, “She was never referred to.”) Margerie settled in Los Angeles and dedicated herself to her husband’s legacy. Her agent, Peter Matson, Harold Matson’s son, remembers her as a small, intense, heavy-drinking woman who “seemed to live very much in the past.” She wrote Burt in 1971, “Malc is hotter than ever in Paris and Le Monde gave two full pages to him last fall,” but noted a few months later that she warded off her “grief and troubles with vodka, mixed with ice and plain water.”
The reputation of “Under the Volcano” kept rising with the years. Critics extolled it as the last great modernist novel, and scholars worked to unweave its web of symbols. “The doctorates are piling up all over the U.S. and Canada,” Margerie wrote to Burt and Templeton in 1965. In 1998, the board of the Modern Library ranked it No. 11 of the best hundred books of the twentieth century. Gabriel García Márquez has said that it was probably the novel that he had read the most often in his life.
Every four or five years until her death, Margerie published a novel or story collection that she had retrieved from the unpublished part of the “bolus,” as Lowry called his writing. Most scholars did not think that these works were anywhere near the level of “Volcano,” and wondered if Margerie was truly fulfilling Lowry’s wishes in offering them to the public. “I told Margerie not to publish them,” David Markson remembers. Margerie told Douglas Day that she found such criticisms ridiculous. In a letter, she said, “I certainly wrote plenty of lines, and scenes, when I was editing ‘The Forest Path’ and ‘Through the Panama’ ”—stories that Lowry completed—“both of which have received high praise and people write me about them all the time.” She was keeping alive her side of their collaboration—the selecting and the shaping—even though the man who sometimes rejected and improved upon her ideas was silent.
In 1970, Margerie finally published “October Ferry to Gabriola.” A short afterword, titled “About the Author,” claimed that Margerie had based her edit on “an almost complete revision” that Lowry had been working on just before his death. This was wishful thinking: there had been no such revision, just thousands of pages of a half-dozen versions, none close to complete. Margerie pulled sections from different drafts and gave the book the happy ending that she had been pressing for: the Lowry stand-in realizes that his nostalgia for the squatter’s shack is damaging his marriage. He cuts his ties to the past and the couple moves to Gabriola to begin life again. Margerie did not include any of the material from Lowry’s final burst of inspiration—the pages written in Ripe, largely without her, which might have marked a creative renewal for him.
During this time, Lowry produced fascinating additions to “October Ferry”—almost a hundred pages, written in his tiny hand, in which he began to examine what he called the “alcoholocaust” of his life, and the way that drinking had affected his art. He wrote about his aversion treatment, and clearly expected to integrate this experience into the story of Ethan Llewelyn, the protagonist of “October Ferry.” His talent for imagery is apparent when he merges the nautical and the medical to describe “a psychiatric ward at noon, waiting for the doctors to pass through, with two tall nurses at anchor.” He had also put wholesale into the draft various letters of apology that he had written to Margerie over the years. None of this ambitious work was finished, but it pointed to a novel very different from the ones that Lowry had written before, one that might have taken him not under “Under the Volcano” but beyond it.
When Margerie consigned these manuscripts to the University of British Columbia, she added notes in her looping script. “Rambling notes,” one said. “Seems like a dissertation on alcohol.” Another said, “Nothing useful here.”