It’s time for the never-ending carwash that is Dunedin’s weather, time to walk upon the transplanted Hibernian strand with the night owls and first-edition seekers. I’m presenting more Lowry work at the Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand 2012 conference “Thinking Through Books”, hosted by the University of Otago.
The quotation in the title of my paper comes from the first draft of Malcolm Lowry’s poem ‘Indian Arm’, written between 1940 and 1947 at his Dollarton shack, near Vancouver. In this draft, Lowry anticipates that the “beauty and radiance” of the Dollarton inlet will fall—or suggests, perhaps, that it has already fallen—to the anthropogenic effects of squatters and industry. Though the autumnal land seems safe for the suspended moment, even the water’s “motion of eternity” is tainted: as “an oil tanker passes, trumpeting / like a Leviathan”, “A gull soars upside down in a brown toned pigment” and a “crab is drowning on the opaque surface”.
In the final version of the poem, Lowry reconciles natural and man-made (incidental) beauties. “Oil tracks make agate patterns”, the tanker is divested of its monstrous nature, and the “Mill-wheel reflections of moonlight” embroider the “waving windows” of the squatters’ shacks. The crab no longer drowns on the “opaque surface” of the inlet; the water is, indeed, no longer opaque. The poem itself is transmuted into a meditation on translucency and reflection, on the interplay of light and objects.
When we consider the publication and revision history of Lowry’s first novel Ultramarine, initially published some ten to fifteen years before this poem, we see this process in reverse. The first edition, however much a ‘cento’ it was, possesses a clearer dependence upon its source material than the posthumous revised 1962 edition. Lowry’s second wife Margerie carefully followed his marginal notes, deletions and emendations to the 1933 first edition, in the process making the novel more opaque—a result Lowry may well have intended.
TL;DR: veracity breeds opacity. The audacity! Further, I’ll talk about reading books distantly, as per my abstract below:
The proposed paper presents a preliminary method for automated distance reading based on stemmed word-level n-gram comparisons of related texts, using freely available software resources. Such computational approaches are significantly scalable, and may be used to provide elementary analyses of speculative source texts or unfamiliar works.
Malcolm Lowry’s Ultramarine (1933) is heavily indebted to Nordahl Grieg’s The Ship Sails On (1927); Lowry claimed that anything worthwhile in his novel was a result of “paraphrase, plagiarism or pastiche” from Grieg. Because of Lowry’s pronounced tendency to adopt phrases, sentences and scenes from ‘donor texts’ such as Grieg’s, distant readings and comparisons of the two novels allows rapid analysis of transcribed texts, and suggests potential avenues for more traditional textual interpretation.
Prior research on Lowry’s debts to Grieg has focused on the posthumous edition (1962) of Ultramarine; applying the above method to the first published edition (1933) reveals several phrases recycled from The Ship Sails On that were later deleted or amended by Lowry.
The paper also considers speculative computational readings as exercises in recursive provocation. Distant or surface readings such as the Lowry-Grieg analysis above may be disruptive to linear readings of the same texts, but still provoke close readings of both the primary texts and the automated methods used to parse texts and provide output: subjective interpretation thus equally shapes the process and the outcome of such distant analyses.