Last Friday I watched a great documentary on Malcolm Lowry, the American novelist most well known for his novel Under The Volcano, which was made into a film in 1984 by John Huston, starring Albert Finney and Jacqueline Bisset. The documentary is called Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry and is viewable in its entirety here (although I had some problems when I paused it for any length of time as it seemed to play again from the start rather than resume where you paused it). It was made in 1976, nineteen years after Lowry’s death, with the help of the Canadian Film Board and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Lowry was born in 1909 near Liverpool in England. His childhood was typical of the English upper middle class at the time and his parents were for the most part aloof and uninvolved with Malcolm and his three brothers. Lowry read English at Cambridge University and graduated in 1931. From there he lived a nomadic existence, spending time in New York, Los Angeles, Mexico, Canada and France. He was an alcoholic and also suffered greatly from ill health, both physical and mental. He had eye problems as a child, blood poisoning and broken bones, and later in life spent time in Bellevue Hospital in New York having suffered a breakdown as a result of his drinking. There was even discussion of a lobotomy which thankfully never happened.
Through all this Lowry managed to publish two novels and some articles and short stories in his lifetime. Under the Volcano is by far his most accomplished work and is widely regarded as one of the most important novels of the last century. The book tells the story of the last day in the life of Geoffrey Fermin, an alcoholic consul living in Mexico. It is praised for its lyrical qualities, layers of symbolism and rich complex language. Under the Volcano made Lowry’s reputation, but unfortunately by the time it was published his alcoholism had him in a stranglehold from which he could not escape and he found writing too difficult as the years went by.
The documentary explores Lowry’s life, starting with the coroner’s verdict of death by misadventure. (On the 25th June 1957 Lowry had drunk half a bottle of gin and ingested a great quantity of sleeping tablets and was found dead by his wife the following morning.) It then traces Lowry’s life through his childhood, time in boarding school and Cambridge, two marriages, and travels around the globe. It is interspersed with excerpts from Lowry’s novels and letters which are read by Richard Burton. The music, composed by Alain Clavier, is unsettling and discordant, adding an eerie undertone to the photographs and especially the footage shot in Mexico. Many of Lowry’s closest friends are interviewed, as is his wife Marjorie Bonner, and the portrait painted is of a flawed, complex and deeply unhappy man, who almost despite himself managed to create an outstanding work of art and be hailed as a genius of his time.