Celebrating Lowry

  • Bryan Biggs (Author) and Helen Tookey (Author)
    Malcolm Lowry: From the Mersey to the World. University of Liverpool Press
Reviewed by Paul G. Tiessen

For Malcolm Lowry (1909-57)—as this portrait of a novelist ever in passage keeps reminding us—“cheerfulness was always breaking in” no matter how distressing the evidence. This book signals that now, one hundred years after his birth, the time is right for a cheerful celebration of his life and language, and that a perfect place to begin is near Liverpool, especially its environs west of the River Mersey. There, on the Wirral Peninsula, we are invited into the starting point of Lowry’s world-wide voyaging during which joy and anguish offered each other figure and ground. But in this book, joy, however slyly expressed, emerges as the dominant trope.
Malcolm Lowry: From the Mersey to the World is a visually arresting hard-cover volume beautifully and brashly produced by Liverpool University Press. The editors and over twenty other contributors provide a lucid meandering—a sharp-eyed “drifting,” both meditative and documentary, through space and from place to place—that resonates with Lowry’s resistances to rigidly linear narrative lines and revels in his investigations of spatial depths and circular structures. They evoke his encounters with particular worlds. They adapt his method of weaving together place and subjectivity to explore life and work along a spatio-aesthetic “Lowrytrek” haunted by the originary bifurcated space of the Wirral and Liverpool, and taking us (as in essays by Michele Gemelos and Annick Drösdal-Levillain) to fresh ways of seeing the lunatic city of Lowry’s New York and the Dollarton idyll of his Burrard Inlet.
Visual images—some rooted in Lowry’s Mexico—dominate close to half of the book’s 160 pages. Pieces by more than a dozen artists include surrealist works by Edward Burra that bookend the collection: Skeleton Party (watercolour) at the start and Dancing Skeletons (gouache and ink wash) at the end. Comical but macabre works by Adrian Henri that include his Day of the Dead, Hope Street (acrylic) also cluster near the front, signaling that a birthday party of sorts is underway. Imagistic photographs and moody film stills by Cian Quayle and vivid photo documents by Colin Dilnot (along with essays exploring the Isle of Man and the Wirral Peninsula by these two artists) map worlds that once left their stamp on the young Lowry.
Anchored theoretically by Mark Goodall’s essay, “‘Lowrytrek’: towards a psychogeography of Malcolm Lowry’s Wirral,” the writers in this collection enact echoes of Lowry’s sojourns and wanderings, and the richness of his language. Lowry “let his poetic sensibilities flow, creating a mesmerizing terrain of linguistic play,” Goodall observes, suggesting also the method of this book. Rotating around Goodall’s essay are twelve meditations and statements in a variety of genres, some by fresh voices arriving in Lowry studies, offering delicate reflections from the personal to the poetic to the scholarly, ending with seasoned Lowry biographer Gordon Bowker’s cryptic summation of Lowry and also his characters: “usually in motion, usually in search of salvation of some kind—sobriety, sanity or love.”

This review “Celebrating Lowry” originally appeared in Prison Writing. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 208 (Spring 2011): 134-134.

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