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Letters from America
Great Art of Suffering — Degenerate Life of Genius, Vagabond Writer, Malcolm Lowry
By Greg Evans
Special Correspondent
Malcolm Lowry (1909–1957)
The story starts in the city of Cuernavaca, once an ancient collection of dusty cantinas, brothels, gambling dens, and Catholic churches sitting perilously between the alternating shadows of two dormant volcanoes. If ever there was a place for a legendary alcoholic to drink himself into oblivion, Cuernavaca was it. In the late 1930s there was just such a man—a tormented literary genius expatriate from England named Malcolm Lowry.

Lowry arrived in the old conquistador stronghold presumably to drink himself to death in lieu of enduring the dying embers of a marriage, the onset of melancholy, and a disassociation from his conservative English roots. His father owned a successful business where his brother worked and where there was a position waiting for him.

However, while holding on for dear life to each tragedy taking pace in his life in Mexico, he instead recorded the beginnings of one of the world’s greatest novels. His travel itinerary is fairly well documented—England to Mexico to Los Angeles to Canada—eventually finding his way back to England where he would die as he lived, drunk, distressed, ribald and theatrical. Lowry lived by his own code, his own set of standards, whatever they might have been.

He was the first modern anti-authority rebel, the father of the counter-culture that sprang up so prevalently in places like Greenwich Village and Haight-Ashbury. Lowry was a bedeviled soul and when he was lucid enough to put pen to paper, created some of the world’s most beloved literature. His magnum opus was Under the Volcano, a semi-autobiographical novel published in 1947. This writing was begun while Lowry was living in squalor in Mexico drinking copious amounts of booze, and living on the fringes of society. He was the F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hunter S. Thompson of his day. He set the bar for self-loathing, depravity and self-abuse and it resonated with the reading public. It was romantic and frightening, savage and unpredictable.

The novel told the story of Geoffry Firmin, a British consul and alcoholic, on the Day of the Dead, November 2, 1938, a holiday of prayer celebrated by the family and friends of people who have died. The novel is twelve chapters, representing the twelve hours of the waking day, the story beginning in the morning and culminating with the finale in the evening. It takes place in the Mexican pueblo of Quauhnahuac.

His early attempts to find a publisher for the novel in the early 1940s were met with crude rejection. It wasn’t his first novel but it was the one that mattered, and Lowry knew it even if the editors and publishers didn’t. Instead of starting something new he rewrote and rewrote. He was searching for what all geniuses search for and that is personal perfection and success on his terms, by way of a self-belief, that hung heavy on his shoulders for his entire life.

Cuernavaca gave him the backdrop and provided him with scenes and unlimited characters and details. It was all there and he recognized it. Somehow, despite the haze of vice, he put it all into an order so astounding that today the novel is hailed as a seminal work and listed as one of the top 100 novels of all-time.

One may surmise that the evolution of a tormented rock-star, literary guru, even athlete can be directly or indirectly attributed to the same characteristics as Lowry— pioneering proficiency with vice, self-destruction, and self-promotion of aggrandizement. Malcolm Lowry’s alcohol dependency was nearly as famous as his novel. There is no person in the history of modern expression that epitomized the great art of suffering more than he did in terms of the manipulation of his vices. There are others that have tried to challenge him for the title including Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Cobain, Malcolm Owen, Jean-Michel Basquiat and William S. Burroughs, to name a few, and though they each came close—traveling in excess along their own grungy
avenues of suffering— they didn’t quite make it into Lowry’s gutter.

Malcolm Lowry was a person who not only encapsulated the tormented genius label, he worked to perfect the great art of suffering. He was a true free spirit who continued with his vices, reveled in them, and took great delight in his style of living—that of wretchedness and degradation. For fans of incredible literature, we are profusely thankful that he danced to the seedy beat of his own drum.

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Greg Evans, associate director of communications of King University in Bristol TN, in the US, serves as a special correspondent for The Seoul Times. The seasoned journalist has been writing for such papers as the Mooresville Tribune, Lake Norman Citizen, the Bristol Herald Courier, and the Sentinel-Progress (Easley, SC). He can be reached at






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