on 14 October 2005
'Ultramarine' is Lowry's first book, written when he was barely out of college. It tells the story of Dana Hilliot, an upper class schoolboy who gets a place working on a tramp steamer in order to facilitate his passage into manhood. His privileged background leads to the crew not accepting him, and his essentially childish nature means that he repeatedly fails to achieve his aim in matters of sex, drink, camaraderie and heroism. It is a 'rites of passage' novel with a very lonely feel.
The book is unusually constructed, with no real narrative structure. Each chapter begins with obscure, largely meaningless dialogue between crew members, full of sailor's vernacular. This is followed by an episode illustrating yet another failure on the part of Hilliot as a man. The episodic structure gives the book a disjointed feel, almost more like a short story collection than a novel.
'Ultramarine', like so much of Lowry's work, is autobiographical, albeit heavily embellished, written after Lowry's own attempts to find his own manhood as a sailor. Because of this, Lowry is able to convey the shame Hilliot feels very well, and the central character is easy to empathise with. However, Lowry himself was barely grown up when he wrote this, and sometimes the author seems like a child writing about a child, with childish ideas of what it means to be 'grown up'. Simple errors, such as supposedly rough and ready sailors speaking like public schoolboys, repeatedly creep in. That being said, although Lowry later dismissed the book, largely because he believed that he had plagiarised it (which he had in parts, probably because he was drunk when he wrote it, rather than through malicious intent), Lowry's distinctive, lyrical voice can definitely be heard. 'Ultramarine' is, ultimately, proto-Lowry. It is a good first book, but he went on to write much better ('Under the Volcano') and I think that 'Ultramarine' is probably best appreciated by readers already familiar with Lowry.
on 25 June 2012
Ultramarine is a collection of impressions, alcohol clouded memories, homesickness and youthful rebellion as Malcolm Lowry turned his back on his wealthy upbringing to run off to sea at 17. Not a great book but not too bad either; Lowry was testing the waters as he headed along his uphill climb to 'Volcano'
What Lowry needed more than anything in his life was the need to escape. Whether it was in some God forsaken, run-down Mexican town, a wooden shack in Canada, the beaches of Wirral, a rusty old tramp steamer or simply staring at the bottom of a whiskey glass all gave him the inspiration to produce his tortured, wonderful works.
Lowry gives us a flavour of the difficulty of being a privileged posh boy in the tough world of the deckhand on a clapped out cargo ship with the constant presence of alcohol, violence, disease and death tempered with some lovely passages of poetic homesickness for his girl back on Merseyside.
Lowry never stoops into an over-sentimental, or too horrific account of his voyage but produced a fine opening novel that laid out his stall as he set out on his strange, difficult life as one of the 20th Century's most original novelists.