Some Personal Thoughts on the Life of Malcolm Lowry

Introduction

Finding out roughly what kind of person you truly are is the starting point of self-understanding. Many years ago, I discovered that troubled writers are the people who most resemble me – or whom I most resemble. I may also be like other kinds of disturbed people, but they remain largely invisible while published writers leave behind a readable and illuminating record of their emotional and psychological struggles. My discovery, and the fact that I too wrestle with writing books and stories, prompted over two decades of reading literary biographies.

A shirtless Malcolm Lowry stands beside his shack in 1940s Dollarton, British Columbia. He is holding an open book.

Lowry suffered from acute anxiety and had his most productive periods in a secluded squatters camp in Dollarton, British Columbia. (Photo: public domain)

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A Day in the Life of a Hermit Writer

I suffer from manic-depressive illness. In the early nineties, I was newly diagnosed and recovering from a complete nervous breakdown. A few years earlier, realizing I had a terrible problem, but not knowing its true nature, I had taken refuge in a shack near a 10,000-acre tree farm that bordered the British Columbia wilderness. All told, I was to spend sixteen years there, many of them in combative cognitive-behaviour therapy.

Log Cabin in Winter Wind

Winter can be hard on hermit writers trying to live on the cheap. (Image: WPClipart)

Old ambitions of becoming a writer had resurfaced so, being essentially shipwrecked anyway, I decided to live off my savings and have a go at writing full-time. The 1990s proved chaotic and painful years for me, so much so that I was never able to finish anything, yet they “made” me as a writer. For years, I kept a diary of my struggles. Those of you who long to be a hermit – writers or otherwise – may romanticize such an existence, especially one lived in a beautiful semi-wilderness area teeming with wildlife, yet the lifestyle itself really is quite mundane. What matters is what you do with all the time. I invested mine in making Jung’s journey of individuation and learning how to write. These two immensely rewarding activities literally transformed my life.

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H. G. Wells’ Struggle with Sensuality

H. G. Wells was a sensual man whose taste for young women got him into trouble on a number of occasions. His famous and explosive affair with journalist and author Rebecca West is only one of many such adventures. Being an intelligent man, Wells was aware of the price he paid for these extra-marital indiscretions, yet he continued with them throughout his life.

Rebecca West when young

Rebecca West is perhaps H. G. Wells’ most famous lover. Their affair has been described as “explosive.” (Photo: public domain)

Biographer Lovat Dickson writes that Wells’ struggles with sensuality ended up in his novels: “the anguish of the sensual man who has to conform to the hard rigour of life.” Personally, I think that Wells was a bit schizoid about the issue of sensuality. At times he emits, as Dickson puts it when discussing The Sea Lady, “a low passionate cry of distress for beauty lost and pleasures forgone in the line of duty.” Dickson goes on to claim that for Wells, “to withstand the temptation to escape, to turn resolutely aside from desire, not to know the glorious swift rushing imaginative passion — that is the beginning of death in life.” Yet, as Dickson correctly points out, Wells sees only ruin in the pursuit of sensuality: “But the end of the escape is the death of hopes, ambitions, even life itself.” The idea that yielding to sensuality brings disaster originates in Wells’ failure to gain a science degree after falling in love – while still a student – with his cousin Isabel.

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Young H. G. Wells Exemplified the Struggling Writer

I am a devout lover of literary biographies and have read a great many over the years. My introduction to H. G. Wells came by way of Lovat Dickson’s book H. G. Wells; His Turbulent Life and Times. Dickson, a Canadian, lived for many years in London where he worked for the prestigious publishers Macmillan & Company. His job brought him into Wells’ circle and the two men became well acquainted. This publishing relationship allows Dickson to present Wells as a writer vividly.

Young H. G. Wells portrait photo

Young H. G. Wells is a good example of the writer of modest means struggling to write full time. (Photo: public domain)

Wells’ early days as a would-be author are a fascinating portrait of a young ambitious writer of limited means. Like many other lower-class writers of the late 19th century, Wells faced early poverty and waged long struggles with his family as he tried to break free of their limited worldview and escape from his lowly origins. Even now, it is still true that most families cannot conceive of writing as a legitimate career. Today’s young writers are still fighting the battles Wells had to fight.

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The Morality of Robert Louis Stevenson

We revere Robert Louis Stevenson for his adventure novels, but he was not a genre writer in the modern sense of that term. While Black Arrow, Kidnapped, The Master of Ballantrae, and Treasure Island may seem like straightforward romantic picaresque yarns, Stevenson was always deeply concerned with the moral aspects of his story. Among his fiction, the famous novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde most vividly reveals his other side. The story deals with Stevenson’s understanding of the subconscious mind and the idea that good and evil can reside in the same person. Issues of morality so vexed Stevenson that he called ethics his “veiled mistress.”

Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson

Questions of morality so concerned Stevenson that he called ethics his “veiled mistress.” All of his works carry his moral values. (Image: Wikimedia)

He may have acquired a theoretical concern with morality from his fiercely Calvinist nanny, but ethical concerns literally overwhelmed him when his artistic ambitions prompted a serious clash with his conventional and practical father. Unable to sway his obstinate parent, Stevenson had to justify to himself his decision to pursue art rather than a more realistic means of earning a living.

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Inspired by The Wind in the Willows

Who among us has not read, and /or seen some film production of, The Wind in the Willows by British author Kenneth Grahame? The memorable children’s classic was inspired by two enchanted years of Graham’s own childhood. During those magical years, he lived a remarkably free and unfettered life at the rambling home of his Granny Ingles in Cookham, a tiny village nestled in the lovely Berkshire countryside. His uncle introduced him to boating on the nearby river. He roamed the surrounding woods and farmland at will letting his young imagination run wild.

Kenneth Grahame Sketch Portrait

The Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame was obsessed with recapturing the rustic magic of his childhood in Berkshire, not only in his works but in his life. (Image: public domain)

Grahame treasured those special years and the experience became lodged in his mind as the high point of his life. He longed to recapture the nuanced feeling tone or subtle mood associated with them. At twenty, he began to write stories and books drawn from his youthful adventures, a classic case of an artist driven by the hunger to relive a lost yet cherished feeling tone. Many artists produce their works for precisely this reason.

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