Another Room in Hell

Another Room in Hell by John Wain 84

Education Answers for Everybody by Amos T. Wilder 87

The Descent of the Huxleys by Gertrude Himmelfarb 88

The Peripatetic Reviewer by Edward Weeks 91

Toward the National Treasure by Frank Getlein 93

Short Reviews: Records by Herbert Kupferberg 95

Short Reviews: Books by Phoebe Adams 96

by John Wain

More than a decade after Malcolm Lowry’s death, here comes his third (or have I lost count?) posthumous book; fourth, if you count the Selected Letters published in 1965. That so much of Lowry’s work should appear posthumously is explained by his peculiarly agonizing methods of work: immense projects slowly worked over for years; a haunting sense that everything he wrote was part of one vast opus, the story of his sojourn on earth, and that no one branch of it should logically have precedence over any other, so that he was always skipping backward and forward, adding a panel to this room, a wing to that building, and the total edifice never got any nearer to being finished. Douglas Day, who with Lowry’s widow has tackled the appalling editorial difficulties of getting this latest book together, says in his preface that for every published page of Lowry there are probably two hundred unpublished. This, when you come to think of it, is staggering, and also rather depressing. Every writer does a lot of work that doesn’t show; every book rests on a foundation of discarded work, and the foundation is often bigger than the building. But that much bigger! A proportion of two hundred to one! Clearly, in Lowry’s case, the difficulties of writing presented themselves with unusual obstinacy, on an unusual scale.
This new book, Dark As the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid, is rather open in texture compared with most of Lowry’s work. It is full of movement; it begins with a long airplane flight and goes on to include several bus journeys through wild Mexican country, alternately uplifting and terrifying, all of which is described
very well. This constant change of locale is needed to balance the fact that from another point of view it is an entirely stationary book, immovably fixed in one spot: the consciousness of the hero. It is about what happens inside the mind of the principal character; most novels are, but seldom in so wholehearted a way as this.
Dark As the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid
by Malcolm Lowry (New American Library, $5.95)
Briefly, what happens is this: Sigbjϕrn Wilderness, an English writer, takes his American wife, Primrose, on a trip from Canada, where they have been living for some years, to Mexico. It is their first holiday together; the Second World War has ended only a few weeks previously and the frontiers are only just reopened, but quite apart from this, their decision to go to Mexico has a special significance. Sigbjϕrn spent some years there before the war, writing an immense novel in which he believes passionately but which he has not so far managed to get published. In Mexico, dreadful things happened to him: he parted from his first wife, plunged into drink, lost the thread of his life entirely, and finished up being denied admission to the United States because he was considered a person likely to become a charge on the public; he was also in highly unpleasant trouble with the Mexican authorities. All these sufferings are reflected — and, it may be, transcended, distanced, and conquered by art — in the book, which he has slowly written and rewritten in the intervening years. But if the book represents a triumph, that triumph has not yet been acknowledged by the world, since it has met with nothing but rejections and in fact gets a new and particularly crushing rejection during this very trip.
However, Mexico it is and must be. To Primrose, whose mind works sanely and constructively if a trifle oversimply, so that at moments she seems like one of those girls in American magazine ads who are sculptured out of pink toothpaste, the trip is a positive moral act, a means of reliving that particular circle of hell and this time comingout of it victoriously; that Sigbjϕrn, this time armored by her, should take himself around the scenes of his disintegration and see that they are not so terrible alter all, savoring their beauty while immune to their fatality, seems to her a necessary act of cleansing affirmation. As for Sigbjϕrn, his motives are more complex. With part of his mind he assents to Primrose’s scheme for salvation, since he loves her and feels genuine gratitude for her; with other parts of his mind — but the whole book is about what lurks in other parts of Sigbjϕrn’s mind, and it is too much to be summarized.
The couple duly take themselves to the various towns, the various streets and hotels and rooms and bars, where the scenes described in the unpublished masterpiece were acted out. They meet people who figured in Sigbjϕrn’s life in those days, most of them trivial little characters. But one of them, Fernando, is remembered with admiration and love: an Oaxaquenan, a man of strength and gentleness, no less a drunk than Sigbjϕrn but transcending his drunkenness, resisting its tragic conclusions and limitations, living a life full of hope and gaiety, working for some cooperative banking organization whose object is to And a little capital for the peasants to improve their land and equipment.
All through the years Sigbjϕrn has thought sustainingly of Fernando, has written letters to him which have gone unanswered, and now, after a series of defeats which have shaken his confidence and made him feel that it was a fatal mistake to expose himself again to this place and its influences, Sigbjϕrn and Primrose penetrate to the town where Fernando was last heard of. There they learn that he has been dead for years, but the grief they feel is releasing; Fernando lives, his personality is still a force in their lives, they feel an impulse to find his grave and say a prayer over it, they do in fact light a big candle for him in a church. These two casual nonreligious people experience a definite sense of numinous communion with the dead man that is liberating, since it puts their lives into a larger and more serious dimension; and they take their places in the bus, to begin the first stage of the longjourney home, with something green in their hearts, matched by the green outside the windows, the new fertility of land that has been opened up with the aid of Fernando’s bank, so that his memorial is a better life for the simple people he loved.
As a basic story, this is a good one; a strong, clear-cut situation giving plenty of scope for development in any way the writer wishes. As it stands, Lowry has got around to developing it only in two ways. One is the evocation of Mexico and the atmosphere of the various journeys; the other is the spiritual barometer of the hero, Sigbjϕrn. (These two, naturally, are intertwined so that they are almost one.) All the rest is left sketchy. Primrose is not much more than an outline, and the various characters from Sigbjϕrn’s past life are merely roughed in; except, perhaps, for Fernando, who, though he never appears in the book, is brought before us as a palpable presence through the hero’s memories of him.
Does this matter? “Dark as the Grave” says Mr. Day, “would, in fact, have been given the same treatment as Under the Volcano got: Lowry would have applied to it layer upon symbolic layer, tied together all his images in a tremendously complicated network of correspondences, and brought Sigbjϕrn Wilderness’s quest into much sharper focus. But he never got very far along in his project, and our loss is not a small one.”
Well, perhaps. One is entitled to a personal opinion here. I think it is quite possible that Lowry would simply have spoiled the story by knotting its symbols into a more and more elaborate cat’s cradle, pressing it down under “layer upon symbolic layer,” and all the rest of it. He was a strange writer, tremendously developed in some respects and entirely undeveloped in others. Of the necessary equipment of the novelist, he had about half, and his fatal tendency was to work too hard with the half he did have. (Mr. Day begins by admitting that Lowry was “not really a novelist,” though he admits that it is difficult to know what else to call him. One can’t call him a poet; the quality of his published verse simply forbids it.) A few pages further on, Mr. Day gets as far as finding a category for Lowry: he was an autobiographer.
It would be a cliché to say that he wrote “thinly veiled autobiographies”; but it would be the truth. Very rarely he tried to invent characters, but he did not know enough about any other human being to do this —which, incidentally, is why his secondary characters, especially his women, seem shadowy and ill-defined — and so he would return to his only true interest: Malcolm Lowry. But he could never bring himself to face Malcolm Lowry completely, and so was unable to finish any of his selfportraits.
This is a pretty startling admission from one who is acting as one of Lowry’s official vendors. If Lowry drew no character but himself, and yet was unable even to “face completely” that one character, why should we be interested in his work? The answer comes a little later on.
What sustains all [Lowry’s] works is not plot, nor dialogue, nor movement, but the spinning up and down of a mind which is genuinely amazing, in all the senses of the word. The pace of this mind is such that it generates great tension and excitement, so that the “plot” of a Lowry novel is the movement of the mind of the author — or, shall we say, the mind of the protagonist. Whenever he lets his protagonist think Lowry is a great writer.
Moderately stated and persuasive as this estimate is, I disagree with it. I don’t believe Lowry was so powerless in the ordinary skills of the writer, nor so powerful in this generating of mental high tension, this “spinning up and down,” as Mr. Day makes out. His tendency to cerebrate, to foam out ideas, hasn’t the power to convince in specific passages, to impose conviction locally; it spreads over the whole book as a kind of luminous mist, impressive at a distance like the clouds around some mountain peak, but insubstantial at close quarters; Lowry’s mind, to put it bluntly, was persistently ordinary, his thoughts and perceptions were often commonplace, and the reason he so insistently went on spinning them out was that, having none of the essential novelist’s gift of invention, he was terribly limited in his subject matter. He wrote about nothing, but absolutely nothing, that had not happened to him.
That Lowry never made anything up, that he was first and last an autobiographer, is not a disabling charge against him. Nevertheless, it acted as a bias on his work to an extent that current literary taste has some difficulty in perceiving. The cult of subjectivism in literature, as it derives primarily from Rousseau and thence in a broadening stream through European and American romanticism, has left us a curious legacy. It seems to have become deeply rooted, as one of those unargued assumptions that always lie at the foundations of a culture, that the first duty of an imaginative writer is to analyze himself, to present a portrait of his own character, and in doing so to project his “world.” In fact, so far as one can gather from listening to casual conversations, most people today regard the artist as someone who sets up a little fairground booth called his “world,” a private world with its own landscape and its own natural laws, which the consumer is invited to visit and spend some time in before coming out and going into the next world. Painters, writers, composers, they stand in a row with their gaily striped booths, usually with a leather-lunged barker or two on duty outside to draw the customers in, and the whole business of appreciating any art, of getting to know about it and allowing it a certain play in one’s life, is a matter of entering the booth, sampling its atmosphere, and adding the experience to one’s collection of adventures.
This is where the romantic cult of the individual, in its modern deliquescence, has landed us. As a theory of art — an unformulated, unargued, tacit theory — it is not complete nonsense; it is merely limited and inadequate. The artist always has used his individuality as one of his means of exploring the mystery of life. He has always understood that the complex recesses of the human mind are difficult to see into — difficult enough in one’s own case, and almost prohibitively difficult in the case of another person, owing to the impossibility of getting them to hold still longenough to be studied. So that the artist has always relied on introspection, on analysis of the self, for much of his understanding of humanity.
What is different about the modern situation is that for the first time the artist is content to gather his evidence from the self and leave it at that. In stronger and richer ages of art, he obviously did just as much self-examination, but the results, once established, were built into works of imagination that offered, at least, to make statements of universal validity. Shakespeare could understand Hamlet without being a prince, Cleopatra without being a woman, Falstaff without being fat, I ago without being wicked, and the reason why he understood such a wide range of emotions was that his own personality must have had an enormous range and he must have taken advantage of this range without losing the opportunity to study other people. But Shakespeare used the insights he gathered from introspection to build an art that looked outward upon life.
If Shakespeare is felt to be too premodern, too rooted in a world not yet transfigured by romanticism, think of a modern artist like Baudelaire, who drew his own interior landscape, analyzed his own struggles and agonies, yet never seems merely to be inviting us into a stifling little booth at a fairground. Partly by the intensity with which he contemplated his own horror, partly by die formal majesty of the language in which he clothed his delirium, Baudelaire never fails to convince us that what he is showing us is the dark area of our own souls. His art triumphantly makes good the claim that the reader is “mon semblable, mon frère” — that the respectable frock-coated reader shares the poet’s damnation because he partakes of the same human condition. But since then we have narrowed the function of art to a series of case histories. The reader of modern literature is supposed to collect individualities like bric-abrac: curiosities, shrunken heads on the mantelpiece, not intended to go beyond themselves into any larger truth.
Given this perspective, Malcolm Lowry is bound to stand out as a giant. He has all the powers and skills that this expectation demands, and none of those it ignores. Undeniably, Lowry has a “world.” Undeniably, he presents his own portrait. When we think of the contemporary writers who have won a very large following while still retaining some reputation for seriousness, from Sartre to Norman Mailer, from Henry Miller to Graham Greene, we might say that they have one thing in common, an obsessive concern with their own selves, an unshakable confidence that the major work of literature in our time will take the form of a completely truthful autobiography. I am dubious about this view myself; it seems to me probable that the twentieth century, tragically wrong about so many things, will prove to have been wrong here also, and that the writers who will live will be those who show some imaginative concern for other people, some ability to experience the world intensely through characters very different from their own.
Be this as it may, I cannot feel altogether sorry that Lowry did not get a chance to subject the simple and effective story of Dark As the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid to the process of elaboration that one sees at work in Under the Volcano. It seems to me to do very well without; it makes its essential points, and presents a credible picture both of the central character and of the relationship which he clings to and finds sustaining and saving. It is human and open; it has humor, and the casualness of some of the sketched-in passages, hardly more than notebook entries, acts as a substitute for the lightness of touch which would have disappeared so completely under the remorseless pressure of that “layer upon symbolic layer,” that “tremendously complicated network of correspondences,” of which Mr. Day so chillingly speaks.
Lowry was a gifted and dedicated man who was prepared to make sacrifices for his art, who knew there was no easy way to be a good writer and was willing to do it the hard way, who was unmodish and genuine and had the courage to be lonely. For all these things I honor his memory, and that makes me glad to have one book, at any rate, which got out of his hands before he had a chance to inflate and overelaborate it, and which now comes before us with its own true, natural, and simple outlines.