This is a remark made by Malcolm Lowry in his long spectacular letter of January 1946 to his publisher in England, Jonathan Cape, but it is not the only moment in this letter when Lowry talks about Under the Volcano in terms of other arts than writing. Elsewhere in this letter, he tells Cape that his novel can be regarded as a kind of symphony, or in another way as a kind of opera—or even a horse opera. . . . It is a prophecy, a political warning, a cryptogram, a preposterous movie, and a writing on the wall. It can even be regarded as a sort of machine. (Sursum Corda I, 506)
Over the years, I have often pondered the synergy between Lowry and the other arts, and I have tried to trace his awareness of the sister arts and to locate other artists’ responses to him. But I continue to find new examples of both types of cross-artistic activity in popular and high-brow culture, and I continue to be somewhat dissatisfied with the explanations I have come up with to date. Therefore, when I was asked to participate in this conference, I decided to explore further some of my thoughts and speculations about Lowry and one particular confrère—Claude Debussy.
As my opening quotation makes clear, Lowry was deeply attuned to music and to the musical possibilities of language and narrative form. He played music, loved jazz, and followed classical music closely, listening regularly (when he could) to “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera,” and attending concerts and opera. He was, so the story goes, listening to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on the night he died. Contemporary “white” jazz was important to him, as the many references to Bix Beiderbeck, Ed Lang, and Joe Venuti in Volcano and Lunar Caustic demonstrate, and Lowry scholars have examined his use of jazz arguing for music/text analogies as well as tracing references (Epstein). Moreover, Lowry puts popular songs, hymns, and the round “Frère Jacques” to structural uses in all his work. For example, the children’s round is a key intertext in Volcano, and, in “Through the Panama” from Hear us O Lord from heaven thy dwelling place—the very title comes from the Manx fisherman’s hymn that is reproduced at the beginning of the volume—Frère Jacques functions as a leitmotif, a verbal/visual cue, and a thematic reference point. In a recent essay, Mathieu Duplay has pushed the musical mapping still further by examining Lowry’s references to opera, notably to Gluck, and by arguing for the importance of the “operatic paradigm” to our understanding of his prose (165). References to classical music and to composers are omnipresent in his work, from Gluck, Mozart, and Bach, to Alban Berg (notably Wozzeck in “Forest Path to the Spring”), Wagner, and Debussy. More often than not, Lowry’s references to operas are to works with themes that resonate for him; thus, Wozzeck is about marital infidelity and a husband’s murder of the thing he loves; Parsifal, with its dangerous, seductive Kundry and its search for the Grail, provides Lowry with a rich source of symbols and allusions in October Ferry to Gabriola, and references to Mozart, especially The Magic Flute, serve to underscore the magical or even cabbalistic aspects of life in Under the Volcano.
But a study of Lowry and music could well be a book, and I want to single out just one example of Lowryan musicality, an example that is not primarily a thematic influence or the source of some particular symbol or intertext. The comparison I want to make is between Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Lowryan narrative in Under the Volcano. I believe it is possible to argue that this particular opera demonstrates a special interrelationship of orchestration with dialogue/voice that is analogous with Lowry’s narrative form in all his fiction, but I will limit my comparisons to Volcano. First the opera.
Pelléas et Mélisande premiered in Paris in 1902. It took Debussy nine years to complete and it is based on Maeterlinck’s symbolist play. We know that Lowry was not only familiar with this work but that in September 1944, while staying in Ontario, he and Margery attended the Toronto premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande. In a letter to friends (Sursum Corda I, letter 198), Lowry writes that “in order to reestablish our awareness of reality, we . . . made an enormous pilgrimage [to Toronto] to see—what but Pelleas and Melisande [sic]?” In one sense this reference to “reality” is an in-joke; Lowry knows full well that this opera is anything but verismo. But there is another sense in which Lowry is not joking. He and Margery were in Ontario in the fall of 1944 because their little home on the foreshore at Dollarton had burned down, taking with it all their possessions and many of his manuscripts; to attend an opera was, for Lowry, a way of restoring some sense of order and reality to his otherwise shattered life. Predictably, Lowry was impressed with the opera’s themes of jealousy, betrayal, lost love, death, and darkness, and in an allusion to Volcano he tells his friends that he and Margery listened to the opera “in the middle of a dark wood, in the Massey Hall” (SC I, 464). I am certain that the many other parallels between the two works could not have escaped him: the love triangle (two half-brothers and a woman they both love); the ambiguous, troubled background of the woman; the strategic importance of the number 12; the rearing horse, the storms and forest; the view down into an abyss; flight through a dark wood ending in death; the crucial importance of silences; the cyclic imperative of the plot; the symbolic values of the characters; and the shifting scenic structure of scene and counter-scene that focusses on a single or a shared perspective.
Lowry goes on in this letter to comment on what I see the deeper significance of this opera for him: he quotes two passages from the libretto as examples of “Debussey’s [sic] whole tone harmonies expressing such words” as Mélisande’s question—“Where are you going?”—and Golaud’s response—“I do not know . . . I am lost also” (SC I, 464). [1st music clip Act 1, scene 1 CD........] Whether he had simply read the program notes or had immediately grasped something unique about this opera, Lowry’s attention was drawn by its form, the relationship between music and words that has made this work so unique and influential in the 20th century (see Nichols and Smith). Central to that form (what Osborne has called the intimate “music-drama,” 10) is Debussy’s subordination of the words to “continuous symphony”; he argued that “People sing too much” in operas, and he wanted “short librettos, shifting scenes . . . diverse in setting and mood; characters not arguing, submissive to life, fate” (Porter 11). Silences are crucial to the opera, and the characters are elusive, symbolic, rarely connecting with each other in realistic, or even dramatically motivated ways. The mood, the mystery, and the sense of fate overhanging the somewhat abstract, minimal plot, are primarily conveyed through the music. It is Debussy’s music that talks to us, that tells us a story we can feel but never quite pin down.
Much the same can be said of Volcano (and Hear us O Lord), where characters and plot are fully subordinated to the continuous musical textures of Lowry’s metaleptic prose narration (exposition, description, imagery, symbolic tonalities, rhythmic phrasing, character motifs, onomatopoetic word choices, etc). Indeed, Lowry defended himself against charges that his character drawing was weak by insisting that he had “not exactly attempted to draw characters . . . there just isn’t room . . . the character drawing is not only weak but virtually nonexistent . . . the four main characters being intended, in one of the book’s meanings, to be aspects of the same man, or of the human spirit” (SC I, 500-501). Thus, in chapter 2, [transparency # 1] when Geoffrey and Yvonne are reunited and as they return to their home, we do not learn more about who they are and why they are seemingly estranged because they do not talk to or with but past each other in brief phrases, incompleted sentences, and silent gestures (which Lowry indicates with gaps and dashes):
“It’s a pity because—but look here, dash it all, aren’t you terribly tired,
“Not in the least! I should think you’re the one to be—“
— Box! Preliminar a 4 Rounds. EL TURCO (Gonazalo Calderón de Par.
de 52 kilos) vs. EL OSO (de Par. de 53 kilos).
“I had a million hours of sleep on the boat! And I’d far rather walk, only—“
“Nothing. Just a touch of rheumatiz.—Or is it the sprue? I’m glad to get the
circulation going in the old legs.”
— Box! Evento Especial a 5 Rounds, en los que el vencedor pasará al
grupo de Semi-Finales. TOMÁS AGUERO (el Invencible Indio de
Quauhnahuac de 57 kilos, que acaba de llegar de la Capital de la
República). ARENA TOMALÍN. Frente al Jardín Xicotancatl.
“It’s a pity about the car because we might have gone to the boxing,”
said the Consul, who was walking almost exaggeratedly erect.
“I hate boxing.”
“—But that’s not till next Sunday anyhow . . . I heard they had some
kind of bull-throwing on to-day over at Tomalín.—Do you remember—“
“No!” (Volcano 54)
Their fragments of speech are surrounded, carried away, lost amidst the portentous signs of aggression pressing in on all sides from an external world over which they have no control.
Dialogue in both works is basic, stripped down, and overpowered by the surrounding textuality. This subsuming of speech (represented speech in the novel; sung, emboded speech in the opera) occurs in other ways to—for example, through what I will call interludes. Consider this scene from chapter 2 of Volcano: when Geoffrey tries to make love with Yvonne as a gesture towards reconciliation, we are not given a description of the action or any dialogue between the husband and wife. Instead we have a very long prose interlude that conveys the emotion and thought of the Consul in hesitant phrases, long, right-branching, metaleptic sentences, and clauses that halt and then move forward only to stop abruptly against the punctuation (colons, long dashes, and ellipses). [transparency # 2]
But he could feel now, too, trying the prelude, the preparatory nostalgic phrases on his wife’s senses, the image of his possession, like the jewelled gate the desperate neophyte, Yesod-bound, projects for the thousandth time on the heavens to permit passage of his astral body, fading, and slowly, inexorably, that of a cantina, when in dead silence and peace it first opens in the morning, taking its place. It was one of those cantinas that would be opening now, at nine o’clock: and he was queerly conscious of his own presence there with the angry tragic words, the very words which might soon be spoken, glaring behind him. This image faded also: he was where he was, sweating now, glancing once—but never ceasing to play the prelude, the little one-fingered introduction to the unclassifiable composition that might still follow—out of the window at the drive, fearful himself lest Hugh appear there . . . (Volcano 92)
It is no accident that Lowry’s governing trope for his prose style at this point is, in fact, music. However, his medium is words and what follows is an evocation of the cantinas, with their sights and coarse sounds, that culminates in a stunning visual image—not of physical tenderness or sexual ecstasy but of the sunlight “falling like a lance straight into a block of ice” (93)—from which we must infer what is never presented, never stated, never embodied in the common modalities of fiction:
Debussy achieves a strikingly similar effect with his orchestral interludes which interrupt the dialogue but also continue the story in music and create a musical bridge between one scene and the next. For an example of what I mean, consider the closing speeches of Pelléas and Golaud from Act 3, scene 1, followed by the Interlude, and then the opening of the next scene with Pelléas and Golaud: [music clip 2—CD .....] In this so-called Rapunzel scene, Pelléas and Mélisande have been flirting at night; she has leaned from her tower window as he waits below; her long hair has fallen down and he catches it, refusing to release her. Suddenly Goloud enters; he is angry and calls them careless children. Speech stops abruptly, and the scene gives way to a gradually darkening orchestral interlude in which Debussy repeats motifs and phrases from earlier in the score. When the interlude ends we hear Golaud and Pelléas as they begin a frightening scene.
In both the novel and the opera, two characters confront each other before and after the interlude; there is great tension between them and a host of unspoken/sung explication, exposition, etc which the reader/listener must get, as it were, from the cadences, motifs, verbal and musical themes. Narrative meaning is evoked, suggested, implied, but not spelled out in extra chatter. Personally, I find this indirection, if that’s what it is, to be profoundly moving, haunting, and dramatic, as if larger forces—the fates, the gods—were controlling the story quite apart from what the characters think, say, or do.
For my third and final comparative example, I want to return to dialogue. In chapter 9 of Volcano, when Geoffrey and Yvonne have their one brief moment of rapprochment, it is conveyed in snatches of dialogue (strangely reminiscent, to my ears, of those passages from the libretto of Pelléas et Mélisande that Lowry quoted in his 1944 letter, or of the love scene between Mélisande and Pelléas in Act 4) their comments are pitched against the descriptions of tedium, silences, sudden bursts of noise, and the violence of the bull ring, which overwhelm and nullify the dialogue and any action that might—in other novels—follow from such a moment. Here is Lowry’s text: [transparency #3]
“I’ve fallen down, you know . . . Somewhat.”
“Never mind, darling.”
“. . . Yvonne?
“I love you . . . Yvonne?”
“Oh, I love you too!”
And here is Debussy’s: [music clip #3—CD Act 4, scene 4.....]
My colleague, musicologist Vera Mizcnik, describes this moment as “the emptiest, lowest point in the drama.” The very same could be said of the hurried snatch of conversation between Yvonne and Geoffrey. And yet, it is a crucial moment in both texts; time is running out for both couples; the forces of death and darkness are rushing forward (Golaud approaching through the forest and the glasses of mescal lurking in the opening words of chapter 10); if this turning point is not seized, then all will be lost—as indeed it is. Pelléas will be killed/Geoffrey will drink those mescals; Mélisande will flee through a dark wood towards her death/Yvonne will stagger through a dark wood and be trampled to death just as Geoffrey is being shot. Love, in both texts, is doomed. Death and darkness prevail.
What I am trying to isolate through my three comparative examples—characterization through fragmented, silenced dialogue; prose or orchestral interludes; and the anti-dramatic crises—is not so much what is happening in the novel or the opera, but how it is being made to happen in words and music. The opera helps me to appreciate what Lowry was doing and why, for example, readers who expect characters in a novel might be critical or readers who want clear narrative action and motivation might be frustrated. The opera helps me to hear what the prose is and is not doing. By the same token, Under the Volcano has helped me appreciate Pelléas et Mélisande, an opera I initially found difficult, remote, intellectual, abstract). I came to it attuned to bel canto and verismo, but seeing it through Lowryan lenses helped me to stop missing arias, duets, and sung story. I realize that there are some large questions hovering over all I have said thus far—questions about the status and value of comparisons like this, questions about modernism and tradition, questions about how we derive meaning from words or music—but I am, mercifully, running out of time and must end.
I wish I could end this brief analysis with a discussion of an opera based on Lowry and his work. But I cannot. If such a work exists, I am unaware of it. The closest thing I know is Graham Collier’s jazz cantata The Day of the Dead. I can imagine such an opera, however, and it might be a bit like Gounod’s Faust, with its myth, magic, and temptations, and a bit like Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, with its dark world of death and entrapment that images contemporary existence, and certainly a lot like Pelléas et Mélisande, where symbolism and orchestration carry an otherwise minimal plot, heightened but stripped down dialogue, and two-dimensional, fated characters. It would be set—absolutemente necessario—in Mexico and staged against a stylized set of the volcanoes. The soprano would end up dead—which must happen in opera—the tenor would die broken-hearted, and the baritone, not an outright villain—for neither Debussy nor Lowry created such villains—would suffer in darkness and fail. And the opera would end—as does Pelléas et Mélisande, as does Under the Volcano—with a reminder that the entire cycle will begin again: “Il faut qu’il vive, maintenant, à sa place. C’est au tour de la pauvre petite,” says Arkel; “Over the town, in the dark tempestuous night, backwards revolved the luminous wheel._______________________________” (Volcano 43).
My study of Lowry’s interest in the arts began in the late 70s with an exploration of his debt to expressionist film (see Grace, 1978, and Regression and Apocalypse). From this I moved to painting (see Grace 1990) and then theatre (Grace 2000). Others have paid considerable attention to Lowry’s love of music, especially jazz (see Epstein, and Collier) and, most recently, opera (see Duplay). My initial thoughts about Lowry and Debussy began when I was the Malcolm Lowry Professor, in Mexico, for 2000, and presented a lecture on “Lowry and the Sister Arts.”
It is a special pleasure to thank my colleagues Bryan Gooch, Vera Micznik, and Paul Stanwood for their assistance with Debussy’s opera. My thanks as well to Florence Hayes, Music Division, the National Archives of Canada, for locating production details for the Toronto premier of Pelléas and Mélisande in Massey Hall on 21 September 1944: Wilfrid Pelletier directed the Metropolitan chorus, with Bidu Sayao as Mélisande, Martial Singher as Pelléas, and Lawrence Tibbett as Golaud.