- Strange Comfort: Essays on the Work of Malcolm Lowry
It has been almost thirty years since Sherrill Grace established herself as a major critic of Malcolm Lowry with the publication of The Voyage That Never Ends. Since then she has accomplished a number of other important [End Page 319] projects (books, notably, on literary expressionism, Margaret Atwood, the Canadian concept of the north, Sharon Pollock, and many essays and editions on these and other matters), but as the present collection reveals, she has again and again returned to Lowry - most obviously and significantly in her huge two-volume edition of his collected letters, Sursum Corda! (1995-96). What we may do in reading through these essays is, as Grace says in her Introduction, 're-view the literary critical theories and methods of the past thirty years.' But in so doing, we can also view the growth of Sherrill Grace into a major voice in Canadian literary criticism.
She begins, in Voyage, two chapters of which are printed here, essentially in the New Critical tradition, tracing image patterns and recurrent strategies and structures in Lowry's individual works. Yet from the first, this approach proves not fully sufficient; the metaphor of the voyage is, after all, Lowry's own when, after Under the Volcano, he articulated his kinetic vision of life and fiction, a sense already embodied in his great novel. Grace identified Lowry's dynamism, his notion that (with regard to his writings) each work should be complete and sufficient unto itself, yet simultaneously a part of a larger evolving whole, works exfoliating out of each other to bring into being a vision that reflected the ongoing movement he identified as the basis of life itself.
As she comes back to Lowry in these essays and enlarges her approach to his life and work (the two being not finally separable, as she argues), familiar names from the last thirty years do indeed appear (Derrida, Bakhtin, Barthes, Foucault, Genette) along with some less predictable ones (Rupert Brooke, Michel Schneider, Giorgio Agamben, Laurence J. Kirmayer). Grace makes use of the theorists to her own ends, employing and dropping them as she moves on to new foci and areas of interest. Thus, for instance, the challenge of sorting Lowry's letters (real? fictional? sent/unsent? real recycled as fictional? indeterminate?) demands the creation of a taxonomy and dramatizes the complex interrelations between Lowry's life and writing, a 'writing' in which it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the supposed fictional from the non-fictional. Derrida, briefly useful in this essay on the letters, does not reappear.
In moving to the next piece, however, on the short works of Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, we can also see how it grew out of the concerns and resources of the previous one, how Bakhtin, somewhat inertly employed in sorting out the letters, becomes here absolutely essential to dealing with the polyphonic effects of this key work.
The piece on Lowry and plagiarism - that vexed and recurrent issue in his life and fiction - uses what theory is available (Thomas Mallon, [End Page 320] Schneider), but finally relies on Grace's own long familiarity with Lowry's thinking and responses to create the most thoughtful and nuanced consideration yet of these intertwined neuroses and poetics and how both were involved with the appropriation of the words of others.
Even the minor pieces here - an essay on Joyce and Lowry, a later one on Lowry and Debussy - offer up useful insights, the former making the basic distinction between these two creators of day books: that Lowry's roots are in the Romantic tradition whereas Joyce, ever the ironist, sends up that tradition. The latter essay, while only beginning a consideration of Lowry and classical/operatic tradition, does start to mark out in Pelleas and Melisande and Under the Volcano some of the symbolic and nonverbal ways in which Lowry learned from the 'musical' tradition, and not only that of jazz. And, not a minor piece at all, the final essay here, 'Remembering Tomorrow...