Having just read Lowry’s biography as well as his first wife’s memoir In the Volcano, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the former ought to have been subtitled Portrait of the Artist as a Buffoon. Lowry was without a doubt one of the silliest men ever to be turned loose on the world. He spent most of his life with a bottle in his mouth, lurching from one crisis to the next, being rescued from his ineptness and the ludicrous situations it led him into by a succession of long-suffering friends won over by his boyish charm, and driving to the brink of physical and emotional collapse the two women fool enough to marry him. He was, in Freudian terms, irremediably mired in the stage of oral fixation, a great helpless baby strutting around in ill-fitting long pants usually held up, just barely, by a piece of rope or an old tie rather than a belt. Marjorie, his second wife, once tracked him down to a brothel where she found him cowering in bed clad in his underwear, having actually sold his clothes for the price of a drink. Photographs of him depict a fat-faced boy with a fatuous grin, arms held firmly at his sides (except for that classic shot in which he cradles a book in one hand and a bottle in the other), and feet held tightly together in a pose that bears a striking resemblance to the John Tenniel illustration of Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
Yet this foolish sot managed to produce (with Marjorie’s considerable help) that astounding piece of fiction called Under the Volcano.
Lowry was pathologically afraid of a lot of things, one of which was that someone would realize that he was not so much a writer as a plagiarist. In a sense, he did not create, but only re-wrote things he had read or heard of or lived through. He couldn’t trip over his shoelaces without thinking it would be a great idea for a story.
Under the Volcano was no different. Both Geoffrey and Hugh Firmin are based on himself, and Yvonne is a pastiche of his wives. The story is pieced together from bits of his own experience of being a drunken pest in Mexico. The comical tragedy of it all is that somehow Lowry managed to be aware enough of his own foolishness (Geoffrey Firmin may be a tragic hero but he is also ridiculed as a fool) that he could turn his experience into art while being unable to use this awareness to pull himself out of the nightmare of his personal life.
I once heard an interview with a poet who made it into one of Kerouac’s novels; he spoke with rueful amazement of how he and Kerouac’s other friends would warn him of the dangers of his headlong plunge into more and more serious drinking. This advice never had the slightest effect, but then the poet would see a word-for-word transcription of these failed warnings in Kerouac’s next book.
Does plagiarism of the sort that Lowry was afraid someone would discover really matter? I would argue: not necessarily. There is, as I have argued earlier, nothing to write about but the world, in which all the elements an artist needs are scattered. The artist selects, alters, and rearranges those elements into patterns that make sense of the chaos. By this measure, Lowry, a lifelong failure as a human being, was, precisely once, a consummate artist.