People / Malcolm Lowry

Writer. Malcolm Lowry was born on July 28, 1909 in New Brighton, England, the youngest of four sons of a prosperous cotton broker. Lowry was educated at the strict Methodist boarding school, The Leys at Cambridge, Weber’s School of Modern German (Bonn, Germany), and back to Cambridge University, where he graduated from St. Catherine’s College. Lowry took a year out of his schooling to work as a deckhand on the SS Pyrrhus. The year at sea divested him of his romantic notions of such a life, but he did return home with notes for his first novel, Ultramarine (1933), and the character of Hugh, featured in his seminal work, Under the Volcano (1947). Lowry’s alcoholism, itinerancy, and sexual proclivities estranged him from his family and from England. He married Jan Gabriel in Paris, after a trip to Spain where they were introduced through their mutual friend Conrad Aiken. Aiken hoped that a wife would temper Lowry’s destructive habits. Before the dissolution of their marriage, Lowry and Gabriel traveled to Mexico, entering Acapulco harbor on Day of the Dead, 1936.

His experiences in Mexico would form the basis of Under the Volcano, the novel for which Lowry is remembered. It is the story of the last twelve hours in the life of Geoffrey Firmin, a former British Consul, as he descends into alcoholic decrepitude. The action of the complex narrative takes place under the shadow of a volcano called Popocatepetl. With the aid of his second wife, Margerie Bonner, Lowry continually revised Under the Volcano during many of his fourteen years of intermittent residence in British Columbia. The Lowrys lived in Vancouver and North Vancouver, principally at two squatter’s shacks in Maplewood Mudflats between the Second Narrows Bridge and the Burrard Reserve at Dollarton. The novel’s protagonist is the owner of an island in British Columbia, which he refers to as a “genteel Siberia, that was neither genteel nor a Siberia, but an undiscovered, perhaps an undiscoverable Paradise.” The forth and final draft was completed in their makeshift dwelling on Dollarton beach on Christmas Eve, 1944. Published in 1947, Lowry would never again match the critical and commercial success of Under the Volcano. After being served with an eviction notice in 1954, the Lowrys left Vancouver permanently. Three years later, Malcolm Lowry died ignominiously—officially, “by misadventure”—in England on June 27, 1957.