Saturday, 5 May 2012

In Le Havre

A short story written by Lowry in 1934. Lowry’s London agent Innes Rose placed it with Life and Letters Volume X, No. 55 July 1934 edited by Hamish Miles.

The short story was originally intended for a collection to have been called So We Live Foever Taking Leave. Three stories from this period ‘In Le Havre’, ‘Bulls of the Resurrection’ and ‘Hotel Room in Chartres’ are drawn from incidents in Lowry’s unhappy first marriage. " is your story, the tragic one we thought of going down on the train, "I don't love you, I never have," you remember he cries as the ship is going; I have put so much of what I feel for you..into this story that I find difficult to write to you" (Collected Letters Vol. 1 149).

The story can be read as a love letter to his first wife Jan Gabrial. The partly autobiographical story is based on Jan’s departure for America from Le Havre on the S.S. Ile de France to see her mother who she hadn’t seen for two years. The trip followed the trauma of Jan’s abortion in France. (Jan Gabrial Inside The Volcano Pgs. 58-59).

The story’s narrator is an Englishman who has just seen his American wife Lee off to the USA by ship. The narrator meets an American newspaperman in the Hotel-Café Bar near the docks in Le Havre. The narrator tells the newspaperman that he is fearful of never seeing his wife again but wants to sort out his life before they meet again. The narrator refuses the advice of the newspaperman to go after his wife. The reporter accuses the narrator of only really loving his own misery and not his wife Lee. 

The story probably reflects the internal battle Lowry was facing at the time following his insistence that Jan had an abortion combined with a sense of loss for Jan after their recent marriage in Paris. Though Sherrill Grace warns not to read too much into the story about Lowry's relationship with Jan who helped in writing the story. (Sherrill Grace Swinging The Maelstrom and Jan Gabrial Inside The Volcano Pg. 59). “It is your story, the tragic one we thought of going down in the train” Lowry to Jan Gabrial May 1934 (Collected Letter Vol 1)

Lowry quotes 2 lines from Clere Parson’s poem “Never Before Has Seemed Any Event…” as an epigraph to the story, “A ship crossed, and beyond/Hull down, the lone sea’s curve”.

The use of the hotel sign Hotel-Café-Bar – Tout Va Bien-Comfort Moderne is an early use of signs in Lowry's work. Tony Kilgalin in his 1973 book on Lowry notes the irony of the words Tout Va Bien.

The story opens and closes with almost a dirge written in italics containing the lines “Listen the far threnody of sirens in the haze”. The threnody or hymn of mourning may be for the lost child that has been aborted or signify Lowry’s loss of Jan. Having the Sirens sing the dirge conjures up allusions to Greek mythology. Maybe Lowry is alluding to Jan as one the three dangerous bird-women, portrayed as seductresses who lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island. 

Lowry’s use of the phrase “threnody of sirens” is a probably taken from John Curtis Underwood’s poem 'The Sands' from the collection The Iron Muse (1910) featured in a part called “The Sea”. These poems reflect other Lowry obsessions including the poems “The Lighthouse”, “The Liner” and “The Coal Passers”. Compare Underwood’s lines; “We are snares, our shallows lie underneath the smiling sea; Lure the sailors till the sky changes, blackens; hard alee, Gleaming breakers surging high, shout our sirens’ threnody.”

The story follows Lowry's often used journey metaphor of a sea journey involving a ship referred to this time by its real name. A rail journey by the “boat train” is mentioned. The story contains references to Lowry’s haunts in Paris during 1934 such Porte Maillot and the Martinque Rhumerie Bar. We also get a hint in the topography of the story as to where Jan may have had her abortion – possibly the American Hospital in Paris. There is also a mention of the American Express office in Paris which Jan and Lowry both used.

Lee was one of the nicknames given to Jan Gabrial by Lowry. The name Lee predates the character Lee Maitland in Under The Volcano and maybe drawn from Edgar Poe’s poem 'Annabal Lee'. Lowry also has the American reporter quoting from the John Donne poem 'The Broken Heart'; “My ragges of heart can like, wish and adore, but after one such love can love no more”

The reporter in the story refers to several American locations all of which Lowry had not visited if ever at the time of writing the story. The places referred to include are either in Westchester County ( ChappaquaDobbs FerryLarchmontMamaroneck, Mount KiscoOssining and Peekshill  or New York City (2nd Avenue El, 17th Street, 45th Street, East River, East 45th Street, Louis’s on 17th Street, Queensboro Bridge and Welfare Island). Did Lowry chose place names because of undiscovered links to Jan Gabrial who helped him write the short story? . Lowry refers to Westchester County as “where the big money lived” which Jan may have aspired to. Lowry also mentions the Gulf of Tehuantepec (Lowry spells as Tehantapec). This is one of the first mentions of Mexico in Lowry’s work and alludes to his reading of Wallace Stevens’s 1924 poem “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” set off Tehuantepec. 

Lowry also seems to be aware of the concept of nympholepsy in the references made by the newspaperman to the “pursuit of the nymph” and “That hell, they say, to experience desire which you can no longer gratify”. Lowry was probably aware of Conrad Aiken’s poem “The Charnel Rose” 1915 which has the theme of nympholepsy. The end of “In Le Havre” echoes some of the imagery in Aiken’s poem. Aiken defines nympholepsy as “that impulse which sends man from one dream or ideal to another always disillusioned and therefore always inventing new fictions”.

Lowry makes allusions to classical mythology entioning Sisyphus, Cerberus, Charon and Phoenix.

The end of the story involves an almost surrealistic scene in which the newspaperman relates what he has “deep down inside of him”. He reminisces about New York and wants to return like Lee now “this riot story is dead” (a reference to the 6th February 1934 crisis in Paris). The scene is punctuated with images of “the terrible, terrible sea”, being buried and drowning. The ending seems to be based on a drunken reverie experienced by Lowry as he sees drunks, a man starved to death, “a big shot” smoking a cigar, Farrell the cop, and a big turtle in a brown coat floating in the dock. The reporter believes the police searching the dock to be “Mr Charon” and his hallucinations reveal Cerberus and Sisyphus. The scene is set in a nightmarish world of fog ending with the newspaperman going to a bar for another drink. This may reveal the extent Lowry realised how he was descending into alcoholism portending the future of his internment in Bellevue Hospital in New York.

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