BBC News

Lost Malcolm Lowry novel published

By Ian Youngs
Arts reporter, BBC News

image copyrightUniversity of British Columbia Library
image captionMalcolm Lowry was living in a primitive cabin near Vancouver at the time of the fire in 1944

A novel by British-born author Malcolm Lowry is being published 70 years after its manuscript was thought to have been destroyed in a fire.

Lowry is best known for his 1947 modernist classic Under the Volcano.

He spent a decade working on In Ballast to the White Sea, but the draft was lost when his shack near Vancouver in Canada burned down in 1944.

However, it has transpired that Lowry had given an early copy to his first wife's mother.

The book's belated publication will be marked on Saturday with a special event at the Bluecoat art gallery in Liverpool. The gallery hosts an annual celebration of the author, who was born in nearby Birkenhead.

He did not achieve widespread success in his lifetime, with Under the Volcano only gaining popularity after his death in 1957.

Autobiographical story

In 1998, Under the Volcano was placed at number 11 on the New York Modern Library's list of the best novels of the 20th Century.

Lowry had written In Ballast to the White Sea - an autobiographical story of a Cambridge University student who travels to meet a Norwegian author - before Under the Volcano.

Lowry himself went to Cambridge and worked as a coal-shoveller on a ship bound for Norway in the early 1930s.

image copyrightUniversity of British Columbia Library
image captionLowry lived in Canada, Mexico and Italy before dying in Sussex in 1957

He had given a copy of the manuscript to the mother of his first wife, Jan Gabrial, in New York in 1936.

By the time of the fire eight years later, he had remarried, moved to Canada and had not kept in touch with Gabrial.

The author later rued the loss of a potentially great novel, but the New York copy remained unknown until Gabrial's death in 2001.

'Skeleton of a masterpiece'

Announcing the publication, Bluecoat artistic director Bryan Biggs said it had "probably been read by at most a dozen people" since Gabrial's estate was left to New York Public Library.

Lowry expert Colin Dilnot, who has worked on the new publication, said the surviving novel was an early draft that Lowry would have continued to work on.

"It might have become a masterpiece, like Under the Volcano, if it had been worked over," Mr Dilnot said. "What we can see is the skeleton of a masterpiece."

It was the "missing link", he said, between Lowry's first novel, 1933's Ultramarine, and Under the Volcano.

In it, the writer explores the conflicting political ideologies of the 1930s, Mr Dilnot says.

"Eventually, in Under the Volcano, he comes out as a writer who is well aware of the dangers of fascism. With In Ballast... it's a young writer looking at all the political creeds.

"It's important in the sense of where British writing was in political terms in the 1930s. It's a much more complex novel than some of the other political novels written in the 1930s, so that's what make it extremely important."

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