Seven stories and novellas by the author of Under the Volcano, a master of twentieth-century fiction.
For fans of the novel Under the Volcano, this collection of stories—many of them published for the first time posthumously—provides great insight into the author’s genius. The stories range from heartfelt tragedy to exuberant triumph. In the novella “Through the Panama,” a burned-out, alcoholic writer tries to make sense of the literature that has kept him afloat while the pulse of his life grows harder to distinguish. In “The Forest Path to Spring,” a couple that has survived hell finds new life in the seclusion of a vast forest. And in “The Bravest Boat,” a young boy sends a message across the ocean to an unknown recipient. Together, these stories reveal a writer who traveled widely, observed keenly, and maintained an engrossing literary style that still reverberates today.
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Hear Us O Lord From Heaven Thy Dwelling Place
By Malcolm Lowry, Nicholas Bradley
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2009 Oxford University Press Canada
All rights reserved.
Introduction: Malcolm Lowry's Pacific Hymnal
"Well ... What's to stop us going to Canada, for instance?"
"... Canada? ... Are you serious? Well, why not, but—"
—Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano
1. "But, ah, the storms they had come through!": A Vision of Paradise
"The Bravest Boat," the first of the seven stories in Malcolm Lowry's posthumous collection, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, begins and ends with a description of the mountains that surround the city of Vancouver. The "freezing summits" of the Canadian mountains, Lowry writes, "jaggedly traversed the country northward as far as the eye could reach"; several hundred miles to the south in Oregon, "the snowy volcanic peak of Mount Hood stood on high." In writing these passages, Lowry must have also had in mind two mountains far beyond Mount Hood—Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, the volcanoes, connected by the Paso de Cortés, that loom over the town of Quauhnahuac in Lowry's masterpiece, Under the Volcano (1947). That novel starts with a description of mountains that finds an echo in "The Bravest Boat": "Two mountain chains traverse the republic roughly from north to south, forming between them a number of valleys and plateaus." Cuernavaca, the model for Quauhnahuac, and Vancouver are linked, in a geographic sense, by a spine of volcanoes that extends from Mexico along the Pacific coast of the United States and Canada. The final story in Hear Us O Lord, "The Forest Path to the Spring," confirms what "The Bravest Boat" suggests, when the unnamed narrator recalls that he and his wife "saw range beyond range of the Cascades—the great Cordilleras that ribbed the continent from Alaska to Cape Horn—and of which Mount Hood was no less a part than Popocatépetl." The mountains that connect Dollarton and Quauhnahuac in the Lowryan imagination embody the other links, biographical and metaphysical, between the otherwise distant places. In the cosmology of Lowry's life and writing—which are intimately related—British Columbia represents an earthly paradise that offers the possibility of redemption to those who have suffered Mexico's earthly hell.
In Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Lowry affords the reader brief glimpses of this paradise in "The Bravest Boat" and "Gin and Goldenrod" and provides an extended depiction of it in "The Forest Path to the Spring," a novella that is surely one of the most notable accomplishments of the English writer's career beyond Under the Volcano. In addition, Hear Us O Lord includes three stories set in Italy and one that portrays in remarkable detail a passage through the Panama Canal; these stories, despite their settings, often invoke British Columbia and the hope of spiritual happiness. The stories in Hear Us O Lord are a counterpart to the tortured vision of Under the Volcano. They thus occupy an essential place in Lowry's grand plan for the sequence into which all his works would fit, which would be called The Voyage That Never Ends. Yet the reader of Under the Volcano who comes to the stories for the first time may be struck by their failure to achieve the strange success of Lowry's major novel; the reader who here encounters Lowry for the first time may simply be perplexed. Lowry's reputation rests unquestionably on Under the Volcano, a novel that, despite its indebtedness to Dante and to James Joyce, among other influences, is a singular work of fiction. A tragic (but also grimly comic) love story and a harrowing depiction of alcoholism, Under the Volcano has often been acclaimed as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, an estimation that belies the resistance that Lowry encountered in his efforts to have it published: the novel was rejected by publishers a dozen times before it was accepted by Jonathan Cape in 1946. In comparison, all of Lowry's other works, including Ultramarine (1933), the only other book published during his lifetime, and the several works published posthumously, appear less accomplished. Certainly the fact that Hear Us O Lord was written by the author of Under the Volcano makes it noteworthy. But this fact is not the sole reason for the stories' value. Hear Us O Lord is a fascinating work of fiction in its own right, the merits of which both require and reward careful reading. Often beautiful, at times cryptic, and frequently very funny, the seven stories in Lowry's collection combine depictions of artistic crisis and psychological despair with a romantic optimism about the existence of love and a common human decency.
Both optimism and despair characterized the author's life, although perhaps not in equal measure. Lowry is famous for Under the Volcano but infamous for his staggering capacity for drink (although, as he once chastised a friend, "An Englishman never staggers"). By his own reckoning he consumed, in 1948, an average of nearly three litres of wine a day; this account seems unusual for Lowry only because he preferred gin and beer to wine. Alcohol either caused or exacerbated his paranoia, neuroses, obstreperousness, and occasionally violent behaviour. He greatly feared both syphilis and border crossings. He worried that he might smell. He believed himself to be hopelessly unlucky—he lost manuscripts in a house fire, for example—and he was a tremendous bungler, often managing to cause for himself problems that the universe had somehow neglected to devise for him. As a consequence of his addiction and other problems, he was profoundly dependent on others, particularly, his second wife, Margerie Bonner Lowry, for even the most basic tasks. One of Lowry's doctors recalled that the patient had difficulty even putting his shoes on after having been examined:
While we had been talking Malcolm had dressed himself. All except his shoes and socks. These he now proceeded to put on. Sitting on the low stool that I had used in examining his legs, he reached out for his shoe and started to slip it over his toes.
"No dear," said his wife, "put your sock on first." He dropped his gaze momentarily, grunted, and put on his right sock. Then his shoe. Then he reached out to the left side, groping, still talking to me. I was watching fascinatedly and by golly he did it. He picked up the other shoe and started to put it on his bare left foot.
"No dear," said Margerie, "you must put on the sock first." Malcolm looked down, grunted, and did as he was told. Margerie and I looked at one another and both of us shook our heads. This was a man who needed a lot of looking after.
Despite his agonies, however Lowry retained a sense of humour. For example, he wrote for himself a mock epitaph that casts a portrait of the author as jester or fool:
late of the Bowery
whose prose was flowery
if somewhat glowery
who worked nightly
and sometimes daily
and died, playing the ukulele ...
Perhaps more accurate, however, is the self-portrait provided by another doggerel verse:
Down at the bottom of a well
I lie and know I am in hell
It stinks so badly I can tell
This is the end of Malcolm L.
Here, too, Lowry writes with typically ironic humour, but the lines suggest something of his conviction that he led a profoundly troubled life and of his knowledge that his position—material and spiritual—was nearly always precarious.
Lowry spent much of his life searching for a way out of the well of alcoholism, but he met with little success. He found some kind of peace, however, in Dollarton, just north of Vancouver, where he and Margerie resided, on and off, from 1940 until 1954. This location was where Lowry wrote a considerable portion of his body of work; British Columbia also provided the setting for several works, not only three of the stories in Hear Us O Lord but also October Ferry to Gabriola, an unfinished novel that was edited by Margerie Lowry and published in 1970. "The Forest Path to the Spring," epiphanic and highly autobiographical, describes a couple's happy existence in the once-wild forests around Dollarton. Lowry adopts the biblical myth of Eden to create a vision of a peaceful, contemplative life in nature. The narrator of the story strives to achieve a state of grace, which the glorious forests and coastline seem to make possible. Lowry does not disguise the apparent divinity of the place: "There was everywhere an intimation of Paradise," his narrator claims. Imbued with Christian symbolism, the story describes a pastoral fantasy, an idyll that, at least for a time, is as peaceful as any Arcadia: "We were still on earth ... but if someone had charged us with the notion that we had gone to heaven and that this was the after life we would not have said him nay for long."
When Lowry writes in the passage of his poem "Doggerel" that he lies "in hell," he does use "hell" casually to mean physical or emotional distress. His "hell" is not simply despair but instead the nadir of a metaphysical journey that culminates in the approach to heaven. Lowry's works, taken together, chart a Dantean trajectory from inferno to paradise. As the critic and novelist Malcolm Bradbury observes, Lowry
came to see himself as a writer apart from his own generation, and from English culture, and, by the end, he had written of the adventures, the divine comedy, of the suffering modern artist—himself, or a version of himself—in all three of his different American wildernesses. The Last Address (later Lunar Caustic) was the Manhattan Inferno (or perhaps Purgatorio); Under the Volcano ... was the Mexican Purgatorio (or perhaps Inferno); the various books that were to follow, mostly left unfinished and then published posthumously, were the Canadian Paradiso.
The appeal to God in the title of Hear Us O Lord strongly suggests the religious nature of the collection. By alluding to the distance between heaven and earth, it also reminds the reader, as perhaps it reminded Lowry himself, that "the Canadian Paradiso" was in fact part of the present world; for all the happiness that it granted Malcolm and Margerie, it was only like Paradise and not Paradise itself.
Lowry found the title of Hear Us O Lord in a Methodist hymn that the narrator of "The Forest Path to the Spring" calls "a poem of God's mercy." In the story itself, Lowry quotes the opening lines of the hymn:
Hear us, O Lord, from heaven Thy dwelling place,
Like them of old in vain we toil all night,
Unless with us Thou go who art the Light,
Come then, O Lord, that we may see Thy face.
Thou, Lord, dost rule the raging of the sea
When loud the storm and furious is the gale,
Strong is Thine arm, our little barks are frail,
Send us Thy help, remember Galilee ...
The hymn was written by William Henry Gill and published as "The Manx Fishermen's Evening Hymn" in Manx National Songs in 1896. The Manx connection stems in part from Lowry's childhood and in part from friendships he made later in life. Lowry's family home outside Liverpool was not far from the Isle of Man and certainly "Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place," in the Methodist hymnbook, was familiar to Lowry from childhood. In the Notes to Hear Us O Lord, Lowry included a handwritten fragment of the score and noted that "It is important that the music be printed, and that it should be Peel Castle, because there are two tunes and the other one is feeble. But Peel Castle is one of the greatest of hymn tunes." Friends such as Jimmy Craige, a Manx boatbuilder who lived in Dollarton, would have made the relation between the hymn and the stories more meaningful still; Manx characters figure in "Elephant and Colosseum" and "The Forest Path to the Spring," in which Quaggan, the boat builder "whose boat shed was large as a small church," is based on Craige. The rest of the hymn, which Lowry does not include in his story, further praises God and looks ahead to a time of salvation:
Our wives and children we commend to thee:
For them we plough the land and plough the deep,
For them by day the golden corn we reap,
By night the silver harvest of the sea.
We thank thee, Lord, for sunshine, dew, and rain,
Broadcast from heaven by thine almighty hand,
Source of all life, unnumbered as the sand,
Bird, beast, and fish, fruit and golden grain.
O Bread of Life, thou in thy word hast said:
"Who feeds in faith on me shall never die."
In mercy hear thy hungry children's cry:
"Father, give us this day our daily bread!"
Sow in our hearts the seeds of thy dear love,
That we may reap contentment, joy, and peace;
And when at last our earthly labours cease,
Grant us to join thy harvest home above.
The pastoral hope for "contentment, joy, and peace" runs throughout Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. If Lowry himself found only fleeting contentment, the stories are evidence of his undiminishing faith that happiness could indeed be found on earth.
2. The Structure of Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place
As Richard K. Cross observes, "If one excepts Kafka, the position of Malcolm Lowry as an author of posthumously published works of fiction is without parallel." Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place was the first of Malcolm Lowry's books that Margerie Lowry published after her husband's death. Margerie, herself a novelist, began editing the stories for the collection in 1957, not long after he had died. Without her, certainly, there would be no such book. Lowry planned a collection with the title Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, but he was no more able to complete the manuscript than he was able to finish any other work after Under the Volcano. Lowry's tremendous ambition was matched by a remarkable inability to see his writing projects through to a state of completion. His letters suggest, however, that he was highly enthusiastic about the attempt to conclude the manuscript of Hear Us O Lord. In early January 1952 he noted in a blustery letter to Clarisse Francillon, a Swiss novelist who translated his works into French, that the manuscript was nearly ready for publication:
The new book I told you about is a collection of short stories entitled Hear us O Lord from Heaven thy Dwelling Place. I think you will really love some of the stories. Though Hal [Harold Matson, Lowry's agent] so far never managed to sell any to any magazine whatsoever—whence our poverty. On the other hand, Harcourt & Brace in New York declare that they can be rated among the best ones they have ever read and they would like to publish them in one volume. So I still may write one of those famous prefaces for America. I'll say: No one of these damned stories ever appeared in any of your Godawful magazines in this sickening country. So I really can't see why you should want to read them now. Good night. Malcolm.
A few months before he wrote the letter to Francillon, Lowry had shown an incomplete manuscript for Hear Us O Lord (and other works) to Matson, indicating that the stories formed part of a larger work in progress. According to the author's plan, the aptly named The Voyage That Never Ends would include virtually everything that Lowry had written. The correspondence provides evidence of the shape that Lowry had hoped that Hear Us O Lord would take, but he continued to make revisions to the stories, and died without having completed them. There is no version of Hear Us O Lord that Lowry considered final and the only "finished" version, then, is the one that Margerie published in 1961.
In that version and in its present form, Hear Us O Lord consists of seven stories: "The Bravest Boat," "Through the Panama," "Elephant and Colosseum," "Strange Comfort Afforded by the Profession," "Present Estate of Pompeii," "Gin and Goldenrod," and, "The Forest Path to the Spring." The second, fourth, and last of the stories are long enough to be considered novellas, as Lowry himself referred to them in his notes and letters. "In the Black Hills," a story that Lowry had planned to include in Hear Us O Lord, was never published. Three of the stories—"Elephant and Colosseum," "Strange Comfort Afforded by the Profession," and "Present Estate of Pompeii"—are set in Rome and in Pompeii, where there is, of course, a volcano; the opening conversation in "Present Estate of Pompeii" takes place inside the "Restaurant Vesuvius." These stories thus form a distinct unit within the book as a whole. "Through the Panama" describes a voyage, as the title suggests, through the Panama Canal. "The Bravest Boat," "Gin and Goldenrod," and "The Forest Path to the Spring" are all set in British Columbia and therefore constitute another clear grouping, although the Italian stories frequently refer to BC. In "The Present Estate of Pompeii," for example, Roderick Fairhaven remembers Dollarton fondly:
Now, in July, the forest, behind the pretty shacks built on stilts grouped around the bay with his father-in-law's boatbuilding shed in the middle, would be in full leaf, celestially green and sunfilled, the winding path leading you through scent of mushrooms and ferns and dark firs to airy spaces where golden light sifted down through vine-leaved maples and young swaying hazel trees.
Excerpted from Hear Us O Lord From Heaven Thy Dwelling Place by Malcolm Lowry, Nicholas Bradley. Copyright © 2009 Oxford University Press Canada. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction: Malcolm Lowry's Pacific Hymnal,
Note on the Text,
A Chronology of Malcolm Lowry,
Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place,
The Bravest Boat,
Through the Panama,
Strange Comfort Afforded by the Profession,
Elephant and Colosseum,
Present Estate of Pompeii,
Gin and Goldenrod,
The Forest Path to the Spring,
A Biography of Malcolm Lowry,