Notorious for a misspent life full of binges, blackouts, and unimaginable bad luck, Malcolm Lowry managed, against every odd, to complete and publish two novels, one of them, Under the Volcano, an indisputable masterpiece. At the time of his death in 1957, Lowry also left behind a great deal of uncollected and unpublished writing: stories, novellas, drafts of novels and revisions of drafts of novels (Lowry was a tireless revisiter and reviser—and interrupter—of his work), long, impassioned, haunting, beautiful letters overflowing with wordplay and lament, fraught short poems that display a sozzled off-the-cuff inspiration all Lowry’s own. Over the years these writings have appeared in various volumes, all long out of print. Here, in The Voyage That Never Ends, the poet, translator, and critic Michael Hofmann has drawn on all this scattered and inaccessible material to assemble the first book that reflects the full range of Lowry’s extraordinary and singular achievement.
The result is a revelation. In the letters—acknowledged to be among modern literature’s greatest—we encounter a character who was, as contemporaries attested, as spellbinding and lovable as he was self-destructive and infuriating. In the late fiction—the long story “Through the Panama,” sections of unfinished novels such as Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid, and the little-known La Mordida—we discover a writer who is blazing a path into the unknown and, as he goes, improvising a whole new kind of writing. Lowry had set out to produce a great novel, something to top Under the Volcano, a multivolume epic and intimate tale of purgatorial suffering and ultimate redemption (called, among other things, “The Voyage That Never Ends”). That book was never to be. What he produced instead was an unprecedented and prophetic blend of fact and fiction, confession and confusion, essay and free play, that looks forward to the work of writers as different as Norman Mailer and William Gass, but is like nothing else. Almost in spite of himself, Lowry succeeded in transforming his disastrous life into an exhilarating art of disaster. The Voyage That Never Ends is a new and indispensable entry into the world of one of the masters of modern literature.
About the Author
Michael Hofmann is a poet and translator. He has translated nine books by Joseph Roth and was awarded the PEN translation prize for String of Pearls. He lives in London.
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THE VOYAGE THAT NEVER ENDSfictions, poems, fragments, letters
By MALCOLM LOWRY
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKSCopyright © 2007 the Estate of Malcolm Lowry
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJUNE THE 30th, 1934
Silently the train for Boulogne drew out of the Gare de l'Est.
This was surprising. One had expected an excruciating din, a series of spastic propulsions, to be thrown from one's feet. The Reverend Bill Goodyear, of West Kirby, Cheshire, England, threw his suitcase on the rack and sat down behind L'Oeuvre. But there was nothing comprehensible in The Work so he looked out of the window.
Advertisements swam past, for Oxygénée, for Pernod Fils, for Jean Cocteau's Machine Infernale, at the Theatre des Champs Elysées, for Charles Boyer in La Bataille, playing at the Rex.
He gazed out beyond the hoardings, perforated to counterset wind pressure, over the leaden acres of rooftops with their aerials and lines of washing dancing in the sun, to see if he could catch sight of his favorite church, at Alesia. But obviously, it was too far away. He returned to his paper in which he tried to follow an article devoted to the Stavisky case. He did not understand it at all. And what were those references to the great riots in the Place de la Concorde, and elsewhere, in February? His dog collar, glimpsed in the window, seemed like a disguise, so that he felt a bit like Stavisky himself. It appeared that nothing less than another French Revolution had recently taken place without his knowing it. Nor did he quite understand why in order to promote peace it should be necessary for the French inner market to be stimulated by closer contact with the German steel cartels. But his French was bad and perhaps the writer was trying to convey something quite different.
After a while Bill Goodyear realised that he was not reading, so much as hiding himself, behind the paper. Ah, what a nuisance it was always to be so ill at ease in trains, on ships, in drawing rooms! Just as in the pulpit it took him such a long time to reestablish himself, to be aware of a new community. Perhaps it was because, believing passionately in mankind, he was afraid of superficial contacts, of the mere brushing of wings with a fellow creature. He folded his paper and looked out of the window again.
The signals saluted like clockwork, a wooden man in a box marked Paris 5 hauled on a lever and a score of rails rippled away and became one; and as if brushing away trucks bearing old wartime inscriptions, 40 hommes, 8 chevaux, buildings, elevated railways, even the Eiffel Tower itself, from its course, the train, free of the ambiguity of suburbs and junctions, swerved ahead whistling towards Boulogne and England. The black powerful engine, the determination of the thing, pleased him.
Goodyear produced his pipe and some hateful Scarfelati tobacco he had bought in Chartres. But the pipe too might at least conceal his uneasiness, which was now more like panic, a fear that at any moment the summons would come from the dark of things and his little universe be overthrown. Soon he was hidden behind a flood of vile grey air, a smoke-screen between himself and a toppling world.
But the Scarfelati was mere tinder, the pipe grew uncomfortably hot and the man opposite him proffered Goodyear his pouch.
In the pouch were little yellow ringlets of aromatic English tobacco.
While Goodyear was relighting his pipe he looked at his companion out of the corner of his eye. He was a short, bronzed man a good deal older than himself, he thought, badly but expensively dressed, with a jutting chin and steady grey eyes. He held one leg out stiffly.
But more than of any physical impression Goodyear was strikingly aware of a feeling of kinship, even in the other's silence. His uneasiness fell away.
"Thanks," he said. "This is a good deal better."
"Name's Firmin. Been in France long?"
"Goodyear. No. I was just visiting a confrère of mine at the American church in Paris. On the Quai d'Orsay."
"I don't like the French," said the other. "Too vindictive. Not enough sincerity."
"I wouldn't like to say that. I like them; a great people."
"Too much bureaucracy."
The men did not speak again until they reached Amiens, then he said:
"This was a very busy place during the war. You'd scarcely recognize it." He paused. "But you were too young for the war, I suppose."
Goodyear said nothing, ashamed that he had been too young.
"Well, how do you do."
"How do you do."
The two men shook hands. Firmin looked out.
"This is the Somme," he said.
They were silent until they had passed Etaples, when Firmin said:
"There was a lot of fighting here."
The train hurled swiftly on through peace; fields of campion, or cornflowers. The haystacks stood together in the meekness of love, like loaves. Now a boy and a girl were fishing in a canal.
Goodyear produced a notecase, from which he withdrew a photograph. He handed it to Firmin. In the photograph three children grouped themselves in a garden about a herbaceous border.
"That's Dick, there. He'll be twelve next July."
"Fine looking children. I'll bet you're anxious to see them again."
The man handed back the photograph which Goodyear replaced in his notecase. As he pocketed it he said:
"Ah well, I'm being returned empty anyhow."
Firmin nodded. Not seeming to have noticed the other's last words, he remarked:
"I once thought of marrying. But I smashed my hip to hell in the war. Doesn't interfere with my walking any longer. Still, in my job, I mustn't let it interfere ..."
The two men sat smoking, looking out of the window. There were more boys fishing.
"Fishing," Firmin said. "You cast all round the fish. Sometimes after you've followed them a long way you find it's no good."
Goodyear chuckled. "That last goes for the fish too."
"There was a lot of fighting here," repeated Firmin.
Suddenly and embarrassingly Goodyear felt one of the fits of hysteria coming on which had been tormenting him on the voyage home. His lips trembled around the pipe stem. Turning his face further to the window so that Firmin would not see, he forced his eyelids against his quickening tear ducts. With his eyes queerly screwed up he was watching a labourer straightening his back as he gazed up at the roaring passage of the express. Next Goodyear tried to fix his eyes on the telegraph wires, undulating and diving after the train. This did not succeed either and he was about to give in to his emotion when he saw, among the woods they were passing, a bare-legged boy. He was running furiously and the curious thing about this boy was that he seemed to be keeping up with the train. Goodyear was so astonished that he quite forgot his embarrassment. Now the boy had fallen down. Extraordinary! He turned away and turned his thoughts away from the delusion, only for them to fasten on Firmin. He looked out of the window and there was the boy, but now-could it be? Good Lord no, impossible-there was no mistaking him, the boy was Dick.
It was preposterous. They were passing a river and it was Dick and no other who plunged into it joyously. And it was Dick, unmistakeably Dick, who was swimming that river. And Dick too who was scrambling up the opposite bank and running on faster than ever.
He did not say anything about it but every time he looked out of the window there was the boy.
"There was a place here called the bullring," Firmin was saying, "All sand-that was why they called it the bullring. You wouldn't think sand gets frozen. But my word, it was cold in winter."
Goodyear only looked out twice more but both times he saw his boy charging along, keeping up with the train.
Villages and war cemeteries plunged past them and were gone. They made conversation but the swaying of the train dragged their sentences apart. The wheels cried out against the iron.
Passing Neufchatel the track became smoother. Firmin said:
"This was a very busy place in the war. You'd scarcely think it now. Whew!"
Goodyear watched the sunset. A solitary street lamp was alight. A far plane flew over high-banked clouds. It looked like rain. Smoke was curling gently from peaked houses. There was a strange sadness about this journey in the train through the sunset, and a longing for comfort.
Now they were getting into Boulogne.
"The train goes right over the main street," said Firmin. As they slowed down the character of their motion altered, the train was becoming the appurtenance of a wharf, of the sea.
"That place was a terrible place over there during the war," said Firmin. "The Café Cristol."
And Goodyear peered out into the rain, which had just started to fall, over towards the once notorious café. Then they were at the wharf.
They were changing elements, but the idea struck him; no, it is more than this, something greater is being changed-
Shortly after the ship was clear of the quays the two Englishmen stood together at the rail looking into the wilderness of clay and rain which was France disappearing.
Presently there was nothing but darkness and the roar of the sea.
"It's desolate, desolate," said Goodyear.
"I never felt so desolate. I don't know why," Goodyear laughed.
"Come on and have a drink, man, and cheer yourself up."
"A sound scheme."
Firmin limped before Goodyear down to the bar. It was heavy smelling and warm; the thrum of the engine was loud. They decided on Bass.
"Every time I have a few drinks I imagine I'm getting demobbed again," said Firmin, drinking.
Goodyear drank, then for some reason said a peculiar thing.
"So do I!"
This was, by implication, a flat lie and he was astonished at himself.
"What! Were you in the war? Why didn't you tell me? Here I've been talking as though I fought the whole war by myself."
"I don't know. As a matter of fact I had an only brother killed." Goodyear was lying again. "We used to like to think that he's buried in France. His body was never identified and we don't care to speak of it."
Firmin was silent. Goodyear's heart beat with the beating of the engine. He wondered what had made him tell this curious falsehood. Of course he had no brother at all. Could this be himself talking? And had that been himself before who had seen the boy running? And now, coming on top of it, was this stupid lie about an imaginary brother.
He took another drink and saw, in his mind's eye, the boy running again, but now the boy was Firmin. Firmin as he had been some years before the last war, when he was about the same age that Dick was now.
But Goodyear didn't understand why he had told his untruth. Had he wanted to be this man's comrade; to make up to him somehow, for his wounds, and had thought by his falsehood about the war, to bring himself nearer to him, and so to humanity, towards which was his responsibility, and in whose eyes-and were not these also Firmin's eyes?-his failure would seem the more excusable?
And with another part of his mind Goodyear was uneasily anticipating the questions Firmin might ask. What regiment? what platoon? do you remember Captain so and so? which he would never be able to answer.
But Firmin changed the subject.
"Mean, did I call them, the French? Perhaps I did them an injustice. They had to battle to get the crops out, they say. And for poor prices. A country of hard bargains."
"My American friend at the Quai d'Orsay was talking this morning about his country. All around them is electricity and they can't use it. Wheat fields, but nobody has bread. Clothing everywhere, they can't buy it. A terrible situation."
Through the porthole Goodyear watched the moving sea which close in under the glare of the lights was as green and fluctuant as the landscape from the train window.
"Fruit rotting, can't eat it. What they want they can't have."
"What can they do?"
"What can any of us do?"
After a pause Firmin said, "A ship's bar always reminds me of a play called Outward Bound. If I'm not mistaken there was a chap like you in it."
Goodyear checked himself from replying.
"I remember the play very well indeed," Firmin went on. "All the characters were supposed to be dead. It took place in a ship without a crew but it had a bar. Oh yes, it had a bar! I even remember the barman's name: Scrubby. The characters were dead, were voyaging out to what you might call their Last Judgement. It wasn't the sort of play you forget in a hurry. Saw it done in Singapore by an amateur company."
"Singapore, did you say?"
"Was it in July, 1927?"
"Yes, it would be, July, 1927."
"Then I produced the play," Goodyear said.
"You produced it? That's funny. Seven years ago. Let me see, now, would that be after Lindbergh had flown the Atlantic?"
The two men stood looking at each other. Strange, Goodyear was thinking: the lie had begotten the truth.
"I may have met you then."
"I was doing mission work."
"I was a prospector out there."
"We may have met."
"Well, that's funny. Well, we'd better have another drink on it. No bird ever flew with one wing."
Goodyear ordered another Bass. "This one on me," he said.
"Here's," said Firmin.
"Ah, but the world isn't what it used to be," said Firmin. "Don't you feel something in the air yourself. If you don't mind my saying so, don't you find it difficult to keep your faith? Of course I'm not a religious man myself, but isn't it difficult?"
"I must admit," said Goodyear, "I have to admit that the Church has failed in many important respects." He looked helpless, obviously speaking about himself. "But it is difficult to start again."
"Yes, I know it is. Before the war I was training to be an engineer at Bradford Tech. After the war, after I'd got out of the hospital, I found I couldn't work at the Tech any more. In the first place we weren't allowed to smoke. Wasn't that funny? After the trenches-Good God! We complained to the Principal and he said, 'Well, as a matter of fact, I find it damned difficult too.' Then I absolutely broke away from it, became a prospector."
"You're on leave now: didn't you get very homesick? I did."
"That's what you read in books. No. Only the youngsters really felt that way." Firmin covered this by adding, "Anyway, I'll be glad to get back out East again. Can't stand the traffic here. It take me ten minutes to cross a street."
"Only the youngsters, eh? What about me? I'll be glad enough to get home," said Goodyear. He looked at his Bass. "And that is a fact."
"I work for a German company," said Firmin. "I'm going to London first, then to Hamburg for instructions. Then out East again. Yes, prospecting's meat and drink to me. Metal. All sorts of metal, every sort. Well, it's like fishing. You cast all round the place. Sometimes you may find it after you've followed it a long way and it's no good. It may be only a hundred yards. The great thing is you have to sell your dud ground."
From the other's words a sermon was forming itself in Goodyear's mind. "Brethren, aren't we all prospectors in life? You find the vein, you cast all round it. The fishermen among you will know what I mean." He would pause here for smiling ... "Follow me," he said, "and I will make you fishers of men."
Still only half aware of what Firmin was saying but catching a familiar word here and there, Goodyear watched the pendulum of the clock over the bar above the bottle of Bass, Worthington, Johnny Walker; the pendulum that swung enormously over the world, that was swinging him back to West Kirby, Cheshire, and Firmin out again to Ambat and Batu, to Changkat and Jelapang, to Kuala Langkat, or to the Klang River. Changkat ... Jelapang ... Kampong ... Klang, the engines said. Metal. Metal that streamed through land and sea: metal from the earth, moulded in fire, conqueror of air and water.
"Then of course they salt it," Firmin was concluding. "Three pickle earth. Why sometimes you can go on walking until you're dead. Well, I'm happy. I've been places you can't go without a gun, it isn't safe. And I've shot all sorts of animals. After you've been out there a while, you forget there ever was a place called England. But I daresay you've done all this sort of thing yourself?"
Goodyear watched the pendulum and now he thought of the restless moving finger of God. Systems were formed, were destroyed. At one moment a creature was set on earth to become self-evolving, at another wars were written of, and wars took place. Here a people were created, there erased.
Was there really a sort of determinism about the fate of nations? Could it be true that, in the end, they got what too they deserved? What had a given people done or not done that they should be obliterated? It struck Goodyear as odd at that moment that while he and Firmin had patronized France, while they had been dismayed over America, while they had "handed" it, sportingly, to the defeated nation, Germany, they had not said one word about England. What about England? They had not asked each other that. Nor had they considered openly that there might be anything wrong with themselves. What is wrong with us? They had been virtually silent on that point. And what is wrong with me? He had not asked Firmin that, and even while Goodyear put the question half-heartedly to himself he was being bothered by a sinister contradiction in Firmin's existence. Wasn't it a little ominous that Firmin, badly wounded in the war, should spend the rest of his life searching for the very metals with which Man might indeed construct a new world, a stellite paradise of inconceivable strength and delicacy, that would enable him, through vast windows of new alloys, to let the light of the future pour in, but with which, or so L'Oeuvre had assured him, Man was doing nothing of the sort, but on the contrary, with diabolical genius, merely using to prepare the subtler weapons of his own destruction? He imagined their quarreling about this obviousness and Firmin's inevitable answer, that religion had been the origin of numerous wars, and that when it was not, in some particular case, the war always masqueraded as a crusade, with God, or the Right, firmly supporting both sides, and so forth-all the wooled, unreal but inescapable facts that by repetition and repetition and repetition were enough to create a chaos in themselves-and all this while the two men stood facing each other still as death, as though an actual quarrel had taken place between them.
Excerpted from THE VOYAGE THAT NEVER ENDS by MALCOLM LOWRY Copyright © 2007 by the Estate of Malcolm Lowry. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Fictions June the 30th, 1934....................3
Under the Volcano....................29
Kristbjorg's Story: In the Black Hills....................49
Through the Panama....................53
Strange Comfort Afforded by the Profession....................138
The Forest Path to the Spring....................158
From Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid....................269
From La Mordida....................309
From October Ferry to Gabriola....................357