Saturday, 5 May 2012

Goya The Obscure

A short story by Lowry published in Venture 6 (1930): 270-276. The title alludes to Conrad Aiken’s poem ‘Goya’ (subsequently incorporated into Aiken’s novel Blue Voyage) and to Hardy’s Jude The Obscure. ‘Goya’ was an important poem for Lowry (The Letters of Conrad Aiken and Malcolm Lowry 1929-1954 Letter 65), who later compared Under The Volcano to Hardy’s novels, which are similarly dark and fatalistic (Collected Letters Vol. 1, Letter 210). The story can be read now as a draft for Ultramarine; Lowry used parts of it in Chapter 2 in the same manner as he re-worked the short stories ‘China’, ‘On Board The West Hardway’ and ‘Port Swettenham’.

Joe Passalique, a trimmer on the 'Dimitrios N. Bogliazides', has returned from a voyage to the East where he contracted syphilis. Drinking in the Birkenhead Docklands (at the Dolphin Hotel) and mulling over what he has done since returning home, he tells his old bosun that he has syphilis. The bosun tells him not too worry too much, as he has had V.D. several times. Joe says that he was going to marry his girlfriend Poppy, who is pregnant, but now he cannot. The bosun offers to help later that night. Joe leaves the pub, making his way home to Liverpool on the ferry. He follows women looking for sex, then reaches the Museum of Anatomy, which he enters, to confront the syphilitic models there. 

The story is the first manifestation of Lowry’s obsession with syphilis, which Goya was thought to have had, as Aiken reveals in Blue Voyage in passages before the incorporated ‘Goya’ poem and later with: “The syphilitic family in the cobbled mud of Portobello Road. Goya” (Blue Voyage 103). Joe Passalique has contracted syphilis in the brothels of the Japanese port of Miike. Lowry refers to two related publications: ”The effects of venereal disease are grave and far-reaching” (272) is a quotation from the 1916 report by the Royal Commission on Venereal Disease; “Man Know Thyself”, “What a terrible account he will have to give of himself on the Judgement Day” and “To the pure all things are pure” are cited from the guide book to the Liverpool Museum of Anatomy. 

The story is constructed, like the later Ultramarine, with passages of naturalistic description in real locations, dialogue between the main characters, snatches of overheard conversation, and stream of consciousness. Like Blue Voyage or Joyce’s Ulysses, it offers quotations from poets and writers, lines from songs, and lists of observed detail from posters, timetables and signs. It opens (and ends) by quoting one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “terrible sonnets”, ‘Carrion Comfort’, to parallel Joe’s despair with Hopkins’s desolation “as the self-dramatising convert who has become the object of his own disgust and of God’s rage and abandonment” (Jill Muller Gerald Manley Hopkins and Victorian Catholicism Pg 128). 

The opening paragraph contains images from Elizabethan and Jacobean writing associated with prostitution and venereal disease. “Yellow-toothed” and “yellow stained” are precursors to “the slattern” who sits at the bar: “most yellow ladies are as Lustful as their Goddess (Venus)” ( Gordon William A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature Pg. 1559); “pickles” alludes to pox-treatment, and “froth-ringed” alludes to semen. 

Inigo Jone's Costume Design for Torchbearer of Oceania in Jonson's ‘Masque of Blacknesse’

The myth of Venus born from the foam produced by Uranus’s castration derives from Ben Jonson’s ‘Masque of Blacknesse’ (1605), as used in the final chapter of Blue Voyage; and the nightmare vision of the policeman who walks down Great Homer Street infecting people with V.D. with his evil “wand” alludes to: “this rod charmes her to be still and the caduceus… for it is like the Mercurian wand”, from Jonson’s Academy of Love (1641). “Some very nice young carrots” may be a line from an unidentified song, but their phallic shape is obvious; while “The old old lady carrying a white rose” alludes more obliquely to the sores of syphilis. 

 Illustration for A.P. Herbert's poem 'Nocturne' in 'Ballads for Broadbrows' 1930

Joe, who has written for the left-wing New Statesman, quotes from other poets and writers; Hopkins’s ‘Spelt Sibyl’s Leaves’: “Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable”; Thomas Hardy’s ‘Neutral Tones’: “They had fallen from ash and were gray” (also in Ultramarine); “And talk of James Joyce in a bronchial voice” from A.P. Herbert’s “Nocturne”; Osbert Sitwell’s “Eunuch Arden”; Robert Graves’s ‘Against Clock and Compasses’: “three card shufflers, magic men”; Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale; “stinking codful-filled of donge and of corrupcioun?”; Balzac’s The Quest of The Absolute: “hear me imponderable and impalpable”; T.S. Eliot’s 'Sweeny': “a eunuch among nightingales”; Terence’s The Eunuch :“about the eunuch at the athletics sports”; Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’: “Is that you Ruthie, there among the corn?”: Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit: The Adventures of Jeremy Fisher and the Tailor of Gloucester; Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Eureka’; “That in the original unity of the first thing lies the secondary cause of all things with the germ of their inevitable annihilation”; Charles Reades’s The Cloister and The Hearth: “Stupid as swans” and James Wood New World Vistas: "with a cold monstrous insistency".

 Postcard of Sabang 1920's

Postcard of Iloilo circa 1920

Lowry further uses the names of Indonesian and Philippine places (Sabang, Iloilo and Zamboanga, which he had never visited) from Richard Eberhart’s ‘A Bravery of Earth’; Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’; the Kolbrin Bible: “no normal child to protect from the destroyer”; and “ware shoal” from Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Bell Buoy’. An early reference to theosophy (also in Ultramarine), which mentions pre-natal influences and heredity, paraphrases Lilian Edger’s Elements of Theosophy.

The main influence on the story was Conrad Aiken, whose ‘Goya’ poem (274) is followed by other lines from Blue Voyage: “That’s me, do you hear? And squeeze their little juices out, in arid hands, insensitive!”. Lowry capitalises some of Aiken’s words in much the way that the Museum of Anatomy guidebook is cited in Chapter 3 of Ultramarine. Aiken’s short story, ‘Costumes By Eros’, informs the opening of Lowry's story, and the name ‘Poppy’ may have been influenced by “The poppy is Europe, and also Cynthia” (Blue Voyage, 97). Lowry uses several words used variously by Aiken: “strange melody” from ‘The Charnel Rose’, “slattern” from ‘Goya’, “serge” from ‘The Costumes’; “froth” from ‘Costumes By Eros’; “dies irae” from ‘John Deth’; “dream-bright face” and "wraith" from ‘The House of Dust’; and “yellow-toothed the piano”; “exophtalmically”, “fatality of decay” and “squamous” from Blue Voyage. The sentiment, “let us repeat together that poem with all its contrapuntal devices which harmonises with my being” makes reference to Aiken’s theory of poetry (in Poetry A Magazine of Verse); while the dialogue between two stevedores from New Orleans (which Lowry had not then visited) may have been influenced by the several references to New Orleans in Aiken’s novel. 

 Cattle being driven at the Pier Head, Liverpool 1930's

Crowds awaiting ferry boat at Pier Head, Liverpool 1920's

Lowry uses exact local references to Birkenhead and Liverpool for the first time. He mentions in Birkenhead: Cleveland Street, Dock-road, the Dolphin Hotel, Hamilton Square, Woodside Ferries; and in Liverpool: Austin Reed’s, the Bear’s Paw Restaurant, Bon Marche, Canning Dock, CastleStreet, Church Street, Dale Street, Goree Piazzas, Great Homer Street, Howell’s Bookshop, Lewis’s, the Liverpool Museum of Anatomy, Lord Street, Mann Island, Milk Street, the OverheadRailway, Pier Head, Paradise Street, Old Ropery, the Seaman’s Temperance Restaurant and Water Street. The Ellerman Lines ‘City of Kobe’ which Joe mentions was based in Birkenhead. Many of these locations recur in Ultramarine and ‘Enter One In Sumptuous Armour’. Other local references include: the Liverpool Echo and the Liverpool Evening Express newspapers; dockside trains running along Liverpool’s dock road; cattle being herded near the Pier Head and crowds disembarking from the River Mersey ferries at the Pier Head landing stage; the floating bridge; Liverpool trams; shopping arcades in Lord Street; and Air Force Officers possibly heading to R.A.F. Hooton Park. 

Equally exact is the detail of local 1930s English working class pub life: the “saloon”; eating pickles; the stand up Bluthner piano; the communal singing of the old sea shanty, ‘Seraphina’; drinks that can be bought only with cash (“do not offer cheques in payment, a refusal often gives offence”); Smart’s potato crisps; Caergwale Ale; a “giant green bulb of whiskey” behind the bar, the barman sweeping up between serving drinks; and the phrase “time gentlemen, please” to denote closing-time. 

Several signs are seen: “This space, 41,189 tons, is exempted from the gross tonnage” is from an unidentified source; “exclusive use of deck passengers and any other is illegal” is copied from a sign on board a passenger ship; the “L.N.E.R. time-tables are those on the London North Eastern Railway information boards (most likely at Liverpool Central Station where the L.N.E.R. operated); “Spitting is forbidden, penalty under byelaws 40 shillings” was a sign on buses and trains to prevent the spread of tuberculosis; “Mystery ship V.C. to visit Wallasey” is a newspaper headline referring to visit by Vice Admiral Gordon Campbell V.C. to the town to deliver a lecture on Q-ships
; “contributions for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution” refers to the collection of monies usually on the bars of pubs or shop counters, to run the voluntary rescue service; “Passengers certificate for a vessel plying in smooth waters in estuaries and lakes” refers to the documentation required under marine law. 

For all its apparent hysteria, then, the ornate prose style and incessant allusions that reflect and perhaps overstate the agonies of Joe Passalique’s despair, ‘Goya the Obscure’ is grounded in a precise observation of facts and an exact sense of place. These are qualities that would henceforth characterise Lowry’s writing, and to that extent this early short story is an important precursor of the weightier fiction to come.

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