top of page

Over the Volcano and Under the Waves

Updated: Aug 3, 2022

Then will I headlong run into the earth:

Earth, gape! O, no, it will not harbour me!

— Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus

Earl Fowler

Not everything has changed. The 90-year-old Burnaby Refinery that Malcom Lowry detested is still visible on the other side of Indian Arm, a branch of the Burrard Inlet that cuts eastward into the continent before sharply jutting north.

But the ramshackle cottages south of Deep Cove, where Lowry and his second wife lived for most of their 15 years in what has now been subsumed by Metro Vancouver, are long gone.

A weathered plaque in North Vancouver’s Cates Park in honour of the English novelist, short story writer, poet and ukulele-strumming alcoholic, near the sign at the entrance to Malcolm Lowry Trail, reads:























Compelled to leave is putting it politely. The squatters were about to be unceremoniously evicted by local authorities to make way for the creation of Cates Park, which now affords a scenic stroll along gravel paths along the shoreline and through a forest of Douglas fir and Bigleaf maples.

The maples, some of which are already shedding yellow leaves with a ghostly white patina of powdery mildew caused by a fungal disease, are suffering from heat, drought and other effects of climate change. The seemingly stable world we all knew as children is slowly being erased before our eyes. But for Lowry — who died in England in 1957 under suspicious circumstances — it was a paradise lost forever.

What an idyll it had been! On glorious mornings, while wife Margerie Bonner typed Lowry’s latest additions to various manuscripts and worked on her own novels, he would swim in the cold water of the inlet, as ring-billed gulls flew overhead and double-crested cormorants dived below.

Black oystercatchers would use their flamboyant orange beaks to pry open the tightly sealed shells of limpets and snails. Shrugging, stealthy, long-legged herons stood still as statues before spearing tiny passing fish. Spotted sandpipers would continuously teeter and bob their tails along the beach before zooming just above the water with stiff, shallow, rapid wingbeats, as local fishermen dropped buckets filled with crabs onto the pier the couple had built, not far from the stream where they fetched their drinking water.

Here’s Lowry from a story he called The Forest Path to Spring, a nostalgic look at the beach and surrounding Eden he called Eridanus, which amateur astronomers will recognize as the constellation of an imaginary river in the southern celestial hemisphere:

My wife taught me to know the stars in their courses and seasons, and to know their names, and how she always laughed like a peal of merry little bells telling me again about the first time she made me really look at them. I reflected how little I had known of the depths and tides of a woman until now, her tenderness, her compassion, her capacity for delight, her wistfulness, her joy and strength, and her beauty, that happened through my wild luck to be the beauty of my wife.

Often I had the feeling that she had some mysterious correspondence with all nature around her unknown to me, and I thought that perhaps she was herself the eidolon of everything we loved in Eridanus, of all its shifting moods and tides and darks and suns and stars. Nor could the forest itself have longed for spring more than she. She longed for it like a Christian for heaven, and through her I myself became susceptible to these moods and changes and currents of nature, as to its ceaseless rooting into humus of its fallen leaves and buds — nothing in nature suggested you died yourself more than that, I began to think — and burgeoning toward life.

We found we could rarely do any outside work together, like splitting wood, or making repairs, or especially when we built the pier, without singing; the jobs begat the songs, so that it was as if we had discovered the primitive beginnings of music again for ourselves; we began to make up our own songs, and I began to write them down.

Eidolon? An idealized person or thing. A spectre or a phantom. And as for that “beloved shack” — or “goddamn shack,” as Margerie referred to it in less-than-idyllic arguments, for no postlapsarian Eden can be perfect — North Vancouver blogger Eve Lazarus has helpfully provided some context:

In the 1930s, the now Cates Park hosted a bunch of squatter’s shacks, occupied by Dollar Mill workers and others devastated by the Depression. By the time Lowry moved there in 1940, the shacks were mainly used as summer holiday cabins.

The Lowrys paid $15 a month in the summer, $7.50 in the winter. In 1941 they bought another of the shacks, painted the door red and the window frames yellow. It burned down in 1944 taking some of Lowry’s unfinished manuscripts with it, and they re-rented their original shack and started to rebuild.

The third shack, was, according to friend and frequent visitor Earle Birney, without plumbing and electricity, but was “a 20 square-foot dwelling” with two rooms heated by a wood stove and an outhouse.

Birney won two Governor General’s poetry awards himself and taught at the University of British Columbia, where he founded the first Canadian creative writing program. He and the Lowrys were kindred souls and neighbours who shared an affinity for debating Marxist ideals (though Lowry was never a communist) and drinking hard liquor. Selected Poems of Malcolm Lowry, a compilation edited by Birney, is available online.

So are some cool photos of Lowry and Birney at Dollarton in 1947 — Dollarton being the beach, slope and suburb that takes its name from the Robert Dollar shipping line, which owned and operated a sawmill there from 1918-41. I toyed with appending one to this essay, but decided to go with a collage of Lowry and Margerie photos instead.

Roughing it can be rough. According to Margerie’s “Biographical Note on Malcolm Lowry,” he suffered burns while just managing to rescue the manuscript of Under the Volcano from the fire mentioned by Lazarus. On winter days when shack living became too cold and wet to bear, the couple would sometimes decamp to various places in the city. As the years went by, Margerie began to worry that the cold and damp were taking a toll on her health.

Theoretically, they could have afforded better digs. Lowry’s father was a wealthy cotton broker and the owner of cotton fields in Texas, Egypt and Peru. Under the terms of a family trust set up in 1938, Lowry, too, was rich on paper. Alarmed by his drinking, however, the family allowed him access only to the interest earned by the trust.

And so it was here — in simple shanties on municipally owned land lacking oil furnaces, electricity or running water — that Lowry completed the third and fourth drafts of Under the Volcano, an accomplishment now celebrated locally in the annual Under the Volcano music and poetry festival. It was the best time of his life.

In 2018, the digital art program of North Vancouver’s non-profit Polygon Gallery created a 360° virtual recreation of one the cottages on display at the park, which — in case you’re ever in the neighbourhood — is at 4141 Dollarton Highway.

Like James Joyce’s Ulysses or Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, Under the Volcano is one of those books you either love or can’t finish. Quite a lot happens, but the action unspools slowly, cinematically, packed with tipsy allusion and serpentine symbolism.

If you’re one of those increasingly rare readers who knows your Baudelaire and your Dante (does “dolente … dolore!” ring a bell?) and gets a kick out of that sort of thing, you’re likely to be enthralled. If you’re a reader who needs a lot from a plot to keep your interest and isn’t interested in a bunch of literary hooey, you might find it a slog.

Either way, the book is likely to be the most harrowing inside look at alcoholism you’ll ever encounter. Protagonist Geoffrey Firmin is pissed as a newt at least three quarters of the time.

English novelist/poet/essayist Stephen Spender called Under the Volcano “perhaps the best account of a ‘drunk’ in fiction,” and I’m not aware of any reason to revise that judgment. Interesting, though, that Charles Bukowski, who knew something about epic drinking himself as what Time magazine once called the “laureate of American lowlife,” considered Lowry’s masterpiece a snooze: “I yawned myself to shit.”

(This is slightly off topic, but for a gut-wrenching account of the effects of one partner’s rampant booziness on the life of the other, may I suggest co-blogger David Sherman’s 2017 debut novel, The Alcoholic’s Daughter.)

Spoiler alert: Here’s a quick description of Under the Volcano from the 2007 article “Day of the Dead” by D.T. Max in The New Yorker:

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.’ ” …

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.

Until reading The New Yorker article, I was unaware of the extent to which Under the Volcano is not so much the work of a single tortured, pixelated genius as the strange fruit of a folie à deux:

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.”

Apart from her sound editorial advice, Margerie became the model for Yvonne. Left to his own devices, as some his other stories show, Lowry was pretty much hopeless at portraying women. Max again:

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.”

Under the Volcano was published to immediate acclaim. Writes Max:

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.

Forever Amber has fallen off the charts, but the racy 1944 historical romance thumper by Kathleen Windsor about a 17th-century orphan who rises in society by sleeping with and/or marrying successively richer men (all the while pining for Mr. Right, tantalizingly out of reach) was banned as pornographic in 14 states, barred from Australia and condemned by the Catholic Church.

Needless to say, it became the bestselling U.S. novel of the 1940s and the basis for an Otto Preminger blockbuster, while greatly popularizing the name “Amber” as a given name for girls throughout the mid 20th century. “Anastasia,” I can’t help noticing — the name of the adorably handcuffed heroine of the Fifty Shades of Grey series — enjoyed a popularity bump, winsome tickle and a saucy bite during the 20-teens in North America, according to sites that track such things. But I digress. Sorry about that, chief.

Back to Max (not that Max) regarding Lowry’s all-too-predictable reaction to becoming a celebrity. It’s the same reaction he would have had, in all probability, if Under the Volcano had been deemed a failure. Alcoholism covers all the bases:

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.

His drinking became so bad that he was too inebriated to respond to the acclaim that awaited him on a trip to New York. Soon, Margerie would have to tie his shoes and help him dress. Things went south — literally — in a hurry. Max writes:

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, ducky?’ Aiken came over one evening and afterward wrote me, ‘Please don’t invite me when she is here.’ ”

That’s Aiken as in American writer Conrad Aiken, one of Lowry’s idols and a mentor dating back to before Margerie’s appearance on the scene. Aiken would become the U.S. poet laureate from 1950-52. Are you sensing a No Girls Allowed sign on the old boys’ clubhouse?

Max continues:

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.

Eventually “sorted out” from numerous Lowry drafts — that is to say, largely written by Margerie — October Ferry to Gabriola would become a book published in 1970 about the never-consummated ferry trip of a Lowry-like character and a Margerie-like character to the rustic Gulf island in the 1940s. A Wikipedia entry summarizes the convoluted themes: “living, loving, drinking, travel, mysticism, and literature in the 1940s.”

Thus, the Beats before the Beats. West Coast hippiedom avant la lettre. Sample looping October Ferry sentence:

It was as if they had exchanged sunlight on water for photographs of sunlight on water, cool commotion of blowing grasses and pennyroyal, or reeds and the rippling waters, the soaring love with which they followed migrating birds, for the tragic incidental music that always accompanies documentaries involving blowing grasses, rippling waters and migrating birds, and soon they would not be able to have told the difference, perhaps prefer the incidental music for which they had to be as thankful for as the films.

So yeah. You either dig disjointed, stream-of-consciousness, Joycean, Virginia Woolfian-style meditations on God knows what or you consider them insufferable drivel. Regardless, you don’t read this one for the gritty sex scenes or the car chases, and Lowry’s fear that he would never again stand astride a vaunted literary volcano of his own making was entirely borne out.

Still. Maybe he could have with a clearer head. Would that the couple had found a second refuge on the Sunshine Coast or one of the beckoning islands just across the Strait of Georgia.


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.”

The germ of Under the Volcano developed in the mid 1930s, as Lowry was living in what he called the hell of Mexico, frequently drunk and out of control while his first marriage was breaking up. “The most Christ-awful place in the world,” he once wrote to a friend, “in which to be in any form of distress, a sort of Moloch that feasts on suffering souls.”

To be fair, his outlook on the country was irreparably tainted by events in his personal life for which the land of tequila and compañeros, jaguars and sugar skulls could hardly be held responsible.


After Cambridge, Lowry lived briefly in London, existing on the fringes of the vibrant Thirties literary scene and meeting Dylan Thomas. He met his first wife, Jan Gabrial, in Spain. They were married in France in 1934. Theirs was a turbulent union, especially due to his drinking, and because she resented homosexuals attracted to her husband.

After an estrangement, Lowry followed Jan to New York City where, almost incoherent after an alcohol-induced breakdown, he checked into Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in 1936 – experiences which later became the basis of his novella Lunar Caustic.

When the authorities began to take notice of him, he fled to avoid deportation and then went to Hollywood, where he tried screenwriting. At about that time he began writing Under the Volcano.

Lowry and Jan moved to Mexico, arriving in the city of Cuernavaca on 2 November 1936, the Day of the Dead, in a final attempt to salvage their marriage. Lowry continued to drink heavily though he also devoted more energy to his writing.

The effort to save their marriage failed. Jan saw that he wanted a mother figure, and she did not want to mother him. She then ran off with another man in late 1937. Alone in Oaxaca, Lowry entered into another period of dark alcoholic excess, culminating in his deportation from Mexico in the summer of 1938.

The Mexican setting is of course pivotal to Under the Volcano and survived the extensive rewrites. But Lowry still managed to find room early on for a vision of “a new life together” that Firmin, upon receiving notice of her intention to divorce him, imagines living with Yvonne.

Having drunk himself into sobriety, El Consúl spins a fantasy of an idealized Dollarton. I’ll quote it at length here to give you a sense of just how spellbinding Lowry — with the help of a deft editor — could be. I reread it this morning while sitting on a smooth cedar log next to my wife as two-foot waves crashed into the shore just close enough to wet our toes. It was one of those rare aesthetic raptures occasionally granted to readers in which you can easily visualize yourself inside a novel:

I seem to see now, between mescals, this path (through the Mexican hell), and beyond it strange vistas, like visions of a new life together we might somewhere lead. I seem to see us living in some northern country, of mountains and hills and blue water; our house is built on an inlet and one evening we are standing, happy in one another, on the balcony of this house, looking over the water. There are sawmills half hidden by trees beyond and under the hills on the other side of the inlet, what looks like an oil refinery, only softened and rendered beautiful by distance.

It is a light blue moonless summer evening, but late, perhaps ten o’clock, with Venus burning hard in daylight, so we are certainly somewhere far north, and standing on this balcony, when from beyond the coast comes the gathering thunder of a long many-engineered freight train, thunder because though we are separated by this wide strip of water from it, the train is rolling eastward and the changing wind veers for the moment from an easterly quarter, and we face east, like Swedenborg’s angels, under a sky clear save where far to the northeast over distant mountains whose purple has faded, lies a mass of almost pure white clouds, suddenly, as by a light in an alabaster lamp, illuminated from within by gold lightning, yet you can hear no thunder, only the roar of the great train with its engines and wide shunting echoes as it advances from the hills into the mountains: and then all at once a fishing boat with tall gear comes running round the point like a white giraffe, very swift and stately, leaving directly behind it a long silver scalloped rim of wake, not visibly moving inshore, but now stealing ponderously beachward toward us, this scrolled silver rim of wash striking the shore first in the distance, then spreading all along the curve of beach, its growing thunder and commotion now joined to the diminishing thunder of the train, and now breaking reboant on our beach, while the floats, for there are timber diving floats, are swayed together, everything jostled and beautifully ruffled and stirred and tormented in this rolling sleeked silver, then little by little calm again, and you see the reflection of the remote white thunderclouds in the water, and now the lightning within the white clouds in deep water, as the fishing boat itself with a golden scroll of travelling light in its silver wake beside it reflected from the cabin vanishes round the headland, silence, and then again, within the white white distant alabaster thunderclouds beyond the mountains, the thunderless gold lightning in the blue evening, unearthly … And as we stand looking all at once comes the wash of another unseen ship, like a great wheel, the vast spokes of the wheel whirling across the bay —

Reboant (I had to look it up) means resounding or reverberating loudly. And reboant on the beach even today, as the words wash over us like waves, are the ghosts of the squatter shacks, which were bulldozed about the time Lowry — ill and impoverished, still cut off from serious family money — was found dead by Margerie in a rented English cottage in the village of Ripe, Sussex. It was 1957. He was 47.

With the causes of death listed variously as excessive consumption of alcohol, barbiturate poisoning and inhalation of half-digested stomach content — meaning he choked to death on his own vomit — the verdict rendered by the attending coroner was “death by misadventure.”

A longstanding suspicion that Lowry committed suicide, nurtured by Margerie in conversations with friends, endures. But as highlighted in a 2004 article by Lowry biographer Gordon Bowker in The Times Literary Supplement titled Foul Play at White Cottage, inconsistencies in her accounts have also given rise to a suspicion that she murdered him with said barbiturates.

In The Voyage that Never Ends: Malcolm Lowry in His Own Words, a 2007 collection of Lowry texts, editor Michael Hoffman also concludes that “he either committed suicide or was in fact murdered by his wife.”

So, to indulge Lowry’s penchant for incorporating symbolic myth along with classical and Elizabethan authors — not to mention, as critic David Marks has pointed out, the subjective idealism of philosopher George Berkeley and “concepts from Jung, Spengler, Freud, Frazer, Spinoza, Jessie Weston, Oriental metaphysics” — was Margerie Bonner a faithful, patient Penelope or a scheming, vengeful Clytemnestra? Ambition-driven Lady Macbeth or a dutiful Marge Simpson?

The correct answer appears to be: Neither.

If you’re a classic movie buff, you might have caught her act(s) — spelling her name as Marjorie Bonner, just as a famous Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl had done two decades before — in such silent films as Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927), The Sign of the Cross (1932), and one memorable pre-Elizabethan (as in Taylor) talkie: Cleopatra (1934).

Margerie, whose older sister Priscilla had been a star of the Silent Screen like the earlier Marjorie Bonner, had pretty much bottomed out as an actor and was working as an assistant to Penny Singleton (the voice for the popular Blondie Bumstead on 1940s radio and later the mom in the The Jetsons cartoons) by 1939, when she and Lowry were set up on a date by a mutual friend.

They met in L.A. on the corner of Hollywood Western avenues, and the rest is history. The two married in 1940, and she followed him to their first B.C. beach shack that year after his U.S. work visa expired. Good thing she did, because he’d left the Under the Volcano manuscript behind en route to Dollarton, that far-flung outpost of a dying British Empire.


Bonner wrote scripts for CBC Radio and worked with Lowry on a screenplay for the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel Tender is the Night. She wrote three novels during the 1940s. Two were mystery novels, The Shapes That Creep (1944) and The Last Twist of the Knife (1946) (both “in the vein of Agatha Christie”); a third was “a more ambitious novel about human passions, dreams, and failure,” Horse in the Sky (1947). A fourth novel, The Castle of Malatesta, was a psychological novel that remained in manuscript.

None of those novels is particularly good and they didn’t sell, which had to rankle. Margerie lacked Lowry’s capacity for creating grand autobiographic consciousnesses with rich interior worlds like that of the Consul and other male characters in Under the Volcano. He was by far the greater artist, she the disciplined editor without whom his gift would have languished.

It’s not surprising that her tidying and publication of scattered, disorganized Lowry writings would continue after his death — similar to the way relatives or record producers mine the second-rate, unfinished work of dead pop stars today. Some of Lowry’s admirers suggested to Margerie that she wasn’t doing his reputation any favours. She ignored them.

Margerie returned to Los Angeles and was joined by Douglas Day in co-editing Lowry’s unfinished novel Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid, published in 1968, and his Psalms and Songs in 1975.

Lowry’s posthumous Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, a collection of seven interrelated stories and novellas set partly on the B.C. Coast, is no tour de force, but it was nevertheless awarded the 1961 Governor General’s Award for fiction. You have to think that this was based largely on his reputation for earlier work, as these things often are. The title, which invokes God’s help for “little barks” on a raging sea, is from a Manx fisherman’s hymn.

Day, an American novelist and critic, shared the 1974 U.S. National Book Award in Biography for 1973’s Malcolm Lowry: A Biography, which recounts — among many sodden, sordid, sorry anecdotes — Margerie’s story of once finding Lowry passed out in a Vancouver whorehouse, having sold all his clothes for liquor except his underwear.

There’s a Tom Waits song in there somewhere, and absolutely no question that Lowry put Margerie through a private hell — what he jokingly referred to as an alcoholocaust — beyond anything he experienced in Mexico. But with the eviction pending in 1954, she finally scored what looked like a victory in persuading him to leave Dollarton.

Once more to the Max:

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.

Mmmm. Is that Aqua Velva on your breath or are you just happy to shave me?

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.

Now plays out an interesting dynamic, similar to what you might have witnessed in couples you know. I’ve seen something like it myself in my own circle of friends:

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.”

Only Bonner, who was 83 when she died in 1988, would have known for sure what really went down the night Lowry died. Just before her own passing from the scene 13 years later, Jan Gabrial, Lowry’s first wife, told an interviewer: “Malcolm’s death, to me, isn’t quite explained.”

Max picks up where Bowker left off in that piece in The Times Literary Supplement:

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 … in a 1966 BBC interview.) For Bowker, these statements suggested collusion.

Murder, he wrote. And who doesn’t thrill to a literary conspiracy theory? Max:

Lowry scholars did not take offence 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!”

Put your little grey cells to work on what little evidence remains. I’m taking objectionable liberties in quoting him so extensively, but Max did such a terrific job pulling diverse strands together that I can’t help myself. Besides, Margerie isn’t here with a blue pencil to rein me in:

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.” …

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.

Well, quite enough on that, Watson. Not much of a whodunnit, but ironically, Bowker and Max have sketched out a far better murder mystery than Margerie ever managed to commit to paper.

What I find interesting is how, if you think about, life kind of imitated art.

One of the central symbolic scenes in the novel Under the Volcano, based on a real-life incident Lowry and his first wife had witnessed, is incorporated from a short story written in 1936 and titled — wait for it — Under the Volcano. The main difference is that in the story, as Max noted up near the top of this unwieldy treatise, Yvonne is the Consul’s daughter rather than his wife (thereby creating a field day for Freudian English majors). In the novel, Hugh becomes the Consul’s half-brother and Yvonne’s former lover. Here’s Spender’s summary of the story in the introduction to my 1971 Plume/Penguin copy of the novel:

It is the account of the excursion to the Fiesta at Chapultepec of a man called only the Consul, accompanied by his daughter, Yvonne, and her fiancé, Hugh. The outing is brutally interrupted by a scene of murder. The body of an Indian — his hat pulled over his eyes to conceal a wound, from which blood flows over his face — is discovered lying under a hedge on the roadside. The bus in which the three are travelling is stopped, the passengers get out, and, owing to the Mexican laws which can make those who go to the assistance of the victim of violence accessories after the fact, they are unable to do anything to help the Indian. Before the disaster, the Consul, who is a drunkard, has noticed, conspiratorially, a fellow passenger, a pelado (“pela-dos,” he thought, “the peeled ones, were those who did not have to be rich to prey on the really poor”). The pelado was “very drunk indeed, and he felt a queer envy of him, albeit it was perhaps a stir of fellowship.” After the encounter with the corpse, the Consul is the one to notice that the pelado has stolen the dying man’s money, with which, indeed, he basely and impertinently pays his fare. The bus arrives at the Fiesta, and the Consul and Hugh notice the pelado swagger into a pulquería, “stepping high and with a fatuous smile of triumph on his face.”

A pulquería is one of those old Mexican taverns that specialized in selling pulque, an alcoholic beverage extending back to before the Spanish Conquest. Had to look that one up, too.

The murky circumstances of Lowry’s death cloud the analogy. Maybe allegory would be a better description. But if Margerie was unhappy that he was finally being weaned from Demon Alcohol, if he was growing less dependent and tiring of her, if he was unwilling to act to repair their fraying relationship — à la the Consul’s paralyzing, maddening, impotent inability to save his marriage in the novel — it’s not much of a stretch to cast her in the role of the pelado and him in the place of the Indian.

The novel, as Spender notes, “integrates the tragic fatalism of Mexico (the dying Indian unaided, the despoiler of the corpse triumphant) with the Consul’s own situation.”

Aside from being a thoroughgoing piss-tank, that situation included praying to be reconciled with Yvonne — and then, when she does everything in her power to make that invocation come true, praying to be left alone.

“The ambivalence goes deeper than the portrayal of the Consul,” Spender adds. “It is a cleavage in the heart of the writer, who is doomed to almost the same death as his hero.”

I would venture that virtually all artists, craving time to work on their creations, struggle with that cleavage to a greater or lesser extent. Certainly, the ones I know do. Add toxic alcoholism or a drug addiction to the mix and you’ve got trouble, folks, right here in Eridanus City.

The Consul is unmistakably Lowry; of that we may be sure. American writer Dawn Powell, who met the Lowrys while they were in New York to celebrate the sensation created by Under the Volcano, wrote in her diary: “He is the original Consul in the book, 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. … Wife Marjorie (sic) in control.”

Here’s the take of New York Times reviewer and Lowry biographer Conrad Knickerbocker:

What Lowry/Wilderness (Sigbjørn Wilderness being the fictional writer of Lowry’s semi-fictional journal Through the Panama; sorry, this gets about as meta as a Russian Matryoshka doll) recognized in a moment of terror was the self-consuming quality of his work. The Consul had taken more than his share; like an insolent familiar, he was never too far away. Lowry could not perform the vital surgery of separating himself from his characters. He suspected at times that he was not a writer so much as being written, and with panic he realized self-identity was as elusive as ever.

According to Knickerbocker, Lowry once explained to him: “The real cause of alcoholism is the complete baffling sterility of existence as sold to you.”

Knickerbocker committed suicide in 1966, so at a certain point he wasn’t buying.

The Consul is explicitly a modern Faust, who in Marlowe’s 1592-93 play bargains away his soul to become a master magician. Did I mention that Marlowe’s violent death is also shrouded in mystery?

Lowry alludes as well to Goethe’s Faust, who drops dead crying, “I now enjoy my highest moment,” while his soul is rescued from the clutches of a lusty Mephistopheles by a flood of floating roses and angelic boy buttocks (I wish I were making this up).

In Gin and Goldenrod, the penultimate story of Hear Us O Lord, a couple living on the B.C. coast gets lost in the forest but eventually finds a bootlegger’s house, where the man pays $20 for the eight bottles of gin he had drunk the previous Sunday. Revisiting a familiar theme also explored in October Ferry to Gabriola, the payment is in recompense for an unremembered incident blanked out by alcohol.

On the way back to their home on the beach, the wife tells the husband that she has retrieved a bottle of gin he thought was lost, and when she does, “a kind of hope began to bloom again.”

But away from Dollarton, away from their shacks and their cats and what Lowry calls “the cool silver rainy twilight of the forest,” the bloom was off the rose and hope was lost. There was no going back, not for the couple or — as he foresaw in an ecologically prescient warning — their adopted land:

Canada was indeed a pretty large country to despoil. But her legends, nearly all her most valuable and heroic history was the history of spoliation, in one form or another. But man was not a bird, or a wild animal, however much he might live in the wilderness. The conquering of wilderness, whether in fact or in his mind, was part of his own process of self-determination. The plight was an old-fashioned one, that had become true again: progress was the enemy, it was not making man more happy or secure. Ruination and vulgarisation had become a habit. Nor — though they had found a sort of peace, a sort of heaven, and were now losing it again, had they, very consciously, been looking for peace.

No se puede vivir sin paz.

Numbers were important to Lowry. As he explained in a letter to London publishing firm Jonathan Cape, there are 12 hours in a day (most of Under the Volcano — which has 12 chapters happens in a single day); 12 months in a year (one year elapses between chapter one and the end of chapter 12); and 12 is of symbolic importance in the Kabbalah, a method, discipline and school of thought in Jewish mysticism that represents, according to Lowry, “man’s spiritual aspirations.” Finally, he added, “I have to have my 12,” since he hears in it “a clock slowly striking midnight for Faust.”

Here’s the Wikipedia summary of Under the Volcano’s final chapter, which culminates in the final month of the year with the final number 12 on the clock, and is told from the Consul’s point of view:

He is in the main barroom of the Farolito, which is located at the foot of and seemingly under the volcano Popocatepetl. He does not realize that Hugh and Yvonne are looking for him. Diosdado, also called The Elephant, hands the Consul a stack of letters he has had, which were written by Yvonne and sent to the Consul throughout the past year. The Consul gets into a disagreement with the local police chiefs. They push him outside of the bar and out of the light, where they shoot the Consul and throw him off the edge of the ravine that the Farolito is built atop of. The shot startles a horse which runs off.

Circle back to the previous chapter, where Yvonne imagines seeing her dream house by the sea — yet another vision of a lost Dollarton — as she dies after being trampled by a riderless horse with the number seven branded on its rump:

But the house was on fire, she saw it now from the forest, from the steps above, she heard the crackling, it was on fire, everything was burning, the dream was burning, the house was burning, yet here they stood an instant, Geoffrey and she, inside it, inside the house, wringing their hands, and everything seemed all right, in its right place, the house was still there, everything dear and natural and familiar, save that the roof was on fire and there was this noise as of dry leaves blowing along the roof, this mechanical crackling, and now the fire was spreading even while they watched, the cupboard, the saucepans, the old kettle, the new kettle, the guardian figure on the deep cool well, the trowels, the rake, the sloping shingled woodshed on whose roof the white dogwood blossoms fell but would fall no more, for the tree was burning, the fire was spreading faster and faster, the walls with their millwheel reflections of sunlight on water were burning, the flowers in the garden were blackened and burning, they writhed, they twisted, they fell, the garden was burning, the porch where they sat on spring mornings was burning, the red door, the casement windows, the curtains she’d made were burning, Geoffrey’s old chair was burning, his desk, and now his book, his book was burning, the pages were burning, burning, burning, whirling up from the fire they were scattered, burning, along the beach, and now it was growing darker and the tide coming in, the tide washed under the ruined house, the pleasure boats that had ferried song upstream sailed home silently over the dark waters of Eridanus. Their house was dying, only an agony went there now.

It always comes back to the dark waters of Eridanus, which you can make out, if you’re interested, running from just above the bright blue-white star Rigel in Orion, then meandering below Taurus and down toward the horizon and below (from Canadian latitudes).

I’ll throw out some more numbers. 2022 marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of Under the Volcano and the 65th of Lowry’s death. The book was voted No. 11 in Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th century list. Under the Volcano was also included in Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century, Time’s All-Time 100 Novels, and Anthony Burgess’s 1984 essay Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939. Gabriel García Márquez called it likely the novel he had returned to the most often in his life.

Directed by John Huston and starring Albert Finney as the Consul and Jacqueline Bisset as Yvonne, the 1984 movie adaptation of Under the Volcano was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and scored multiple Oscar and Golden Globe noms. Critic David Denby ripped it in New York magazine for capturing only a fraction of the symbolism and interior monologues that animate the novel, but short of making a 24-hour film, it’s hard to see how anyone could accomplish such a thing.

Lowry and Margerie were both would-be screenwriters entranced with filmmaking and she, like Yvonne, had been a failed movie actress. Spender makes this incisive observation in his introduction:

But the most direct influence on this extraordinary book is not, I would suggest, from other novelists, but from films, most of all perhaps those of (Soviet director and film theorist Sergei) Eisenstein. The movies — that is, the old, silent, caption-accompanied movies — are felt throughout the novel.

Eisenstein, as it happens, was himself no stranger to Mexican odysseys. But let’s cut from all this heady, kinetic energy to slowly pan across the stillest of landscapes.

You can find the simple headstones of Lowry and Margerie today in the churchyard of St. John the Baptist’s Church in Ripe, East Sussex. Margerie, who breathed her last in a Los Angeles nursing home, had wanted to be buried next to her husband. But by 1988 that spot had long been spoken for, and so she had to settle for an obscure grave at the other end of the cemetery, 40 yards away. (So far as Lowry was concerned, it was never about the plot anyway.)

Did she kill him? Max finally admits defeat:

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.” … At Lowry’s grave, a terra-cotta marker bearing the last lines of Volcano now rests in front of his weathered headstone.

Both the Consul and the novel come to a Byronic ending, followed by the words on a Mexican sign:

Suddenly, he screamed, and it was as though this scream were being tossed from one tree to another, as its echoes returned, then, as though the trees themselves were crowding nearer, huddled together, closing over him, pitying …

Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine.




My Spanish is all but non-existent, but I’d render that as: “You like this garden that is yours? See that your children do not destroy it.”

A pretty good admonition for both the graveyard and Cates Park, where sere maple leaves that should have lasted till October continue to tumble.

Sadly, the epitaph Lowry had reportedly written for himself — “Here lies Malcolm Lowry, late of the Bowery, whose prose was flowery, and often glowery. He lived nightly, and drank daily, and died playing the ukulele” — does not appear on the gravestone.

But sitting on our log by the push and pull of the ocean, amid the bestrewn litter of driftwood and bull kelp, sugar wrap and rockweed, listening to the clatter of seabirds and the sea’s rhythmic exhalations and inhalations, a “scrolled silver rim of wash striking the shore first in the distance then spreading all along the curve of the beach,” it’s not hard to hear the chords of tragic, incidental music. A noise like music.

Run softly, softly, horses of the night.

152 views4 comments

4 commentaires

06 août 2022

Hmmm! What resounds loudly is that my local drunk from Lowell, a Mr. Kerouac, also died at 47, not divisible by 12. Reboant.

EarlM Fowler
EarlM Fowler
06 août 2022
En réponse à

Not to mention equally plastered Frida Kahlo, Judy Garland, Jim Jones, Joseph Goebbels, Grigori Rasputin (or not), and three people who were 46 when they started reading this potboiler.


Remarkable piece. Earl, a seamless tapestry of nature, a man and literature, beautifully crafted. I can see the shacks, the birds and the sea and the troubled mind of a man drowning in a bottle.

EarlM Fowler
EarlM Fowler
03 août 2022
En réponse à

Thanks, but I've been trying to cut back to five mescals a day and ... oh, you mean Lowry.

bottom of page