Monday, 4 July 2011

lunar caustic [malcolm lowry]

A few months ago I decided to join Twitter. Fittingly for the purposes of this review the decision was taken within the middle of a sleepless night. I came across a quotation from someone called Malcolm Lowry and using small childlike steps of the ingenue, I 'favourited' it. This is the quotation:

When they smashed into the hurricane the jaguars moaned in terror like frightened children.

A few days later I discovered that Malcolm Lowry was 'following' me.

This was both somehow flattering, but also disconcerting. Because, to the best of my knowledge, Malcolm Lowry has been dead since before I was born. I decided to 'follow' Mr Lowry, and it seems he is alive and well and tweeting. Which can only be a good thing.

Because Lowry must be one of the most under-appreciated British writers of the twentieth century. There's a tendency to gloss over his existence. You can sort of see why. He never, to the best of my knowledge, wrote about stately homes. Or even class. There's a quasi-autobiographical streak to his writing which (until Amis fils came along) was considered a bit bad taste, or French. He writes about life at the global margins and never puts in any neatly intellectual perspective as a sop to his British audience. Lunar Caustic, a novella which describes life in a New York mental hospital, feels like the work of someone who's got down and dirty with the margins of society. I found myself thinking about the endlessly venerated Orwell, whose work seems twee and contrived in comparison (like the sweet cottage he lived in at the top of Portobello Road). Lowry, it seems, listened to the stories of a marginal world, wrote them down, and then found out his country didn't want to hear them.

Lunar Caustic is a brisk, brilliant 90 pages long. It's an observational, slyly humorous account of a British drunk, suffering from hallucinations, who somehow finds himself assigned to this New York madhouse, which overlooks the river. It's probably now prime real estate, but the book conjures up a New York where poverty is still a keynote in the city, a city which belongs to sailors and madmen as much as bankers and artists. The book's protagonist casts his jaundiced eye over a world he's found himself briefly trapped in, observing the human instinct for storytelling and the way in which (pace Foucault) definitions of madness have always had a socio-economic basis. The book's failing is that it is too short; we want to know more about Plantagenet, his drinking, his piano playing and his ex. Nevertheless the prose is always fluent; Lowry's anti-heroic voice singing out from this hidden corner of the world.

In an earlier life, Plantagenet has been a sailor. One of his journeys involved, (with a neat symmetry from my reading point of view), transporting wild animals through a typhoon off the Bay of Bengal. At which point the writer informs us, and I think it bears repeating:

When they smashed into the hurricane the jaguars moaned in terror like frightened children.

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