Hidden Treasures: A life in a day of Malcolm Lowry

I’m sitting in Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC), in the basement of Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, and I hold in my hands a piece of literary history.

File of the second draft of Under the Volcano
File of the second draft of Under the Volcano Tristan Wheeler

I’m sitting in Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC), in the basement of Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, and I hold in my hands a piece of literary history. It’s browned and faded around the edges of the page, scrawled with faded pencil markings and stained with brown splotches that could be remnants of the author’s dinner. I’m holding the second draft manuscript of a novel called Under the Volcano by English writer Malcolm Lowry.

Considered one of the best of the 20th century, the novel recounts the story of the last days of a disgraced British consul in Mexico as he poisons himself — and his relationships — with alcohol. The book, published in 1947, was Lowry’s greatest achievement in a life marred, similarly by alcoholism, painful relationships and non-fulfillment.

But the most interesting aspect of this novel — and why its author’s notes, letters and manuscripts are safe-kept in RBSC — is that it was largely written in Dollarton in the Burrard Inlet, just a few kilometres from Vancouver.

The Malcolm Lowry collection at RBSC is expansive.

It not only contains just a collection of Lowry’s letters, notes, manuscripts and photographs, but also those of his wife, friends and professional colleagues. The finding aid, the document that lists all the items in the collection, is over 130 pages long. There are so many things that it feels as if you’re holding the man’s entire life in your hands — and in a way, you are.

Lowry's letters to Isherwood derailing his cat trouble.
Lowry's letters to Isherwood derailing his cat trouble. Tristan Wheeler

The collection spans from the 1930s to his eventual “death by misadventure” — meaning a potentially accidental death by alcohol and sleeping pills — in 1957.

The wonder of this collection is that it brings the tactile and material aspect of literature and a writer’s life to the reader. We sometimes see literature as something that is removed from any sort of materiality — words on a page conjuring images in the mind. This collection subverts that: we forget that writing takes lots of paper, pencil and fruitless writing that never sees the light of day, stuff the Malcolm Lowry Collection has in dozens of folders.

Despite the awe of holding the second draft of Under The Volcano, there was also an awe of looking at the little things of a great talent’s life, such as postcards to friends, written reminders and notebooks recounting vacations. Some of the highlights include letters with the poet, Ubyssey-alum and UBC’s creative writing program founder Earle Birney and famed British poet and writer Christopher Isherwood. One of the most amazing finds was a postcard from the poet Dylan Thomas asking Lowry to meet up when Thomas was next in Vancouver.

Lowry’s life was fraught and booze soaked. It’s hard to have a conversation about the man without considering that he was in fact a legendary alcoholic. It makes it hard to look at some of the undecipherable notes as something not quickly scrawled in a drunken haze never to be understood by anyone else.

It is yet another reminder that this is a collection of a man’s life, a man who never got accolades he wanted in life and a man who was seldom sober.

Some of the banalities in this collection are enchanting. Simple reminders to himself remind you that, as silly as it sounds, that Lowry was just another person who had a day to day life. For example, within a folder is a note reminding himself to draft up his letter to Isherwood. The folders are full of these fascinating details — there are dozens of cards and pieces of scrap paper with numbers, dates and other beautifully banal notes.

In a way, we are given the complete works of a great writer.

First page of the second draft of Under the Volcano
First page of the second draft of Under the Volcano Tristan Wheeler
First page of current edition of Under the Volcano
First page of current edition of Under the Volcano Tristan Wheeler

It’s easy to see this as an extension of Lowry’s literary output during his stay in Dollarton, but it might be something else. It begs the question: are the notes, random thoughts and drafts of a brilliant writer part of their work? Who knows, but it still remains that there is something magical about holding these pieces of history in your hands.

By and large, most people likely don’t know the name Malcolm Lowry, don’t know why I’m so excited to be looking at patently boring notes with random dates and times and won’t understand why I felt emotional looking at some of these documents. And honestly, that’s fine. Under the Volcano and Lowry are both pretty unknown to the average reader, so it’s understandable for someone to be unaware of an alcoholic writer who completed two published works in his lifetime and died over half a century ago. But, in the case of The Malcolm Lowry Collection, sometimes it feels beautiful just to sit in and absorb the life of a fellow human being, no matter who they are.