A series of interviews exploring the influences of some of our favourite artists and clever clogses... who is your Geppetto?
For the fifth in the series we'll hear from Bryan Biggs, artistic director of a key venue in Liverpool's arts scene, the Bluecoat.
What artist / human / thing(s) are you most influenced by?
Malcolm Lowry, the Merseyside writer born 1909:
To be honest, there are other artists who have influenced my thinking on creativity equally – from William Blake and Goya, to John Heartfield, the Beats and their 1960s British equivalents, a million and one musicians, and more recently WG Sebald.
However as this year is Lowry’s centenary it's pertinent to celebrate him.
What is it about him you find so intriguing?
Lowry was born in New Brighton and described Liverpool as “that terrible city whose main street is the ocean”. He left the area when young but Merseyside continued to inform his writing, even though he never returned. You can see echoes of his Wirral youth - his lost ‘Eden’ – in his love for the coastal landscape of Dollarton, outside Vancouver, where he lived in a squatter’s shack for 14 years (in fact shacks, as one burnt down, destroying some of his manuscripts).
He is intriguing because he remains outside the canon of modern English literature despite writing arguably one of the finest modernist novels; and despite that book, Under the Volcano, continuing to exert a profound influence on writers as well as filmmakers, choreographers, visual artists and musicians.
Turning his back on England, travelling first to the Far East as a teenage deckhand in 1927, then to Europe, the US, Mexico and Canada (with many global trips in between), meant he was virtually unknown in his homeland. I am interested in the possibility of ‘re-claiming’ Lowry for Merseyside, of adopting a psychogeographical approach in examining his relationship to Liverpool, which during his time there was hugely important as a port connected to the world, and for Lowry represented both Hell and a means of escape.
Alongside literature and drinking, his dual passions for the progressive art forms of the early 20th century, film and jazz, also positions Lowry as a writer connected to a modernity being forged and informed by popular culture as much as by high art. His rejection of the materialism of the modern world and living life on a perpetual binge, influenced both the Beats and the Situationists, whilst his love of the natural world and despair at what man was doing to it anticipated environmentalism. After all, we are all living under the volcano now.
If you were to pick the most important work by this person, what would it be? Why?
Under the Volcano (1947).
Set in Quauhnahuac (Cuernavaca), Mexico in the shadow of the twin volcanoes, the book takes place over 12 hours in a single day (the Mexican Day of the Dead) in the life (and death) of an alcoholic British Consul (pretty much Lowry himself), who is visited by his ex-wife and half brother.
Lowry said that the reader may read the book several times and still not get its full meaning. And it is indeed multilayered: guilt, remorse, ceaseless struggle, alcoholism, cabbalistic themes, cinematic structure and filmic and music references, autobiography (including vivid descriptions of the Wirral), insights into the Mexican character, and the underlying politics of the period, with Europe descending into war.
There is also much humour and poetry - Lowry regarded himself as a poet, but despite producing masses of (many unfinished) poems and such gems as his own epitaph:
Late of the Bowery
His prose was flowery
And often glowery
He lived, nightly, and drank, daily,
And died playing the ukulele.
It is in the pages of Under The Volcano that his poetry flowed.
The most underestimated? And why?
Lowry only published one other book in his lifetime, Ultramarine (from his experiences as a deck hand sailing from Birkenhead to China), heavily copied from books by his American mentor Conrad Aiken and the Norwegian Nordahl Grieg. His short stories, particularly Forest Path to the Spring, are well regarded but the general opinion is that only Under The Volcano has real merit. However, check out the short stories and October Ferry to Gabriola, incomplete when he died, and the novella Lunar Caustic, also published posthumously, set in a psychiatric ward at New York’s Bellevue Hospital. His letters were brilliant too – for instance the one to publisher Jonathan Cape arguing to leave his Volcano manuscript intact, which was described as “the most careful exposition of the creative imagination” and convinced Cape to publish it without cuts.
The most over-rated? And why?
None are overrated.
What work of yours most bears evidence of this influence?
I am organising a whole season of events to celebrate Lowry’s centenary this year at the Bluecoat. This will include an international exhibition of contemporary artists’ responses to Lowry, films, commissions of dance and music, a Day of the Dead altar dedicated to Lowry, a psychogeographical day visiting resonant Merseyside sites, plus talks, discussions and lots more (including a book of 12 new essays on Lowry by enthusiasts and academics, including images from the exhibition). It starts September 25th!
Bluecoat's Malcolm Lowry season kicks off, as Brian says, later this month. It will run until November 22nd. More details can be found on the Bluecoat's website under the section 'What's Happening'.
In the meantime, check out the blog of Lowry expert and contributor to the Bluecoat programme, Colin Dilnot.