But the sea is none the less the sea

From Ultramarine, Malcolm Lowry’s first novel. This passage is taken from a later printing where Lowry’s widow had re-edited the original text to incorporate marginal revisions Lowry had made over years in his personal copy. I have no sense how extensive those revisions were – here or generally – but his usual approach to re(writing) would suggest they were not sparing. That said, I enjoy this section – where the main character Dana Hilliot imagines a letter of sorts to his girlfriend Janet – as much for the strength of the opening (which feels close to Lowry’s mature prose) as for the (to me) relative weakness of the closing. There’s always something intriguing in moments where a young writer’s stratigraphy feels notably jumbled.

(Puella mea … No, not you, not even my supervisor would recognise me as I sit here upon the number six hatch drinking ship’s coffee. Driven out and compelled to be chaste. The whole deep blue day is before me. The breakfast dishes must be washed up: the forecastle and the latrines must be cleaned and scrubbed—the alleyway too—the brasswork must be polished. For this is what sea life is like now—a domestic servant on a treadmill in hell! Labourers, navvies, scalers rather than sailors. The firemen are the real boys, and I’ve heard it said there’s not much they can’t do that the seamen can. The sea! God, what it may suggest to you! Perhaps you think of a deep grey sailing ship lying over in the seas, with the hail hurling over her: or a bluenose skipper who chewed glass so that he could spit blood, who could sew a man up alive in a sack and throw him overboard, still groaning! Well, those were the ancient violences, the old heroic days of holystones; and they have gone, you say. But the sea is none the less the sea. Man scatters ever farther and farther the footsteps of exile. It is ever the path to some strange land, some magic land of faery, which has its extraordinary and unearthly reward for us after the storms of ocean. But it is not only the nature of our work which has changed, Janet. Instead of being called out on deck at all hours to shorten sail, we have to rig derricks, or to paint the smokestack: the only things we have in common with Dauber, besides dungarees, is that we still “mix red lead in many a bouilli tin.” We batter the rusty scales of the deck with a carpenter’s maul until the skin peels off our hands like the rust off the deck … . Ah well, but this life has compensations, the days of joy even when the work is most brutalising. At sea, at this time, when the forecastle doesn’t need scrubbing, there is a drowsy calm there during the time we may spend between being roused from our bunks and turning out on deck. Someone throws himself on the floor, another munches a rasher; hear how Horsey’s limbs crack in a last sleepy stretch! But when bells have gone on the bridge and we stand by the paintlocker, the blood streams red and cheerful in the fresh morning breeze, and I feel almost joyful with my chipping hammer and scraper. They will follow me like friends, through the endless day. Cleats are knocked out, booms, hatches, and tarpaulins pulled away by brisk hands, and we go down the ladder deep into the hold’s night, clamber up along the boat’s side, where plank ends bristle, then we sit down and turn to wildly! Hammers clap nimbly against the iron, the hold quivers, howls, crashes, the speed increases: our scrapers flash and become lightning in our hands. The rust spurts out from the side in a hail of sharp flakes, always right in front of our eyes, and we rave, but on on! Then all at once the pace slackens, and the avalanche of hewing becomes a firm, measured beat, of an even deliberate force, the arm swings like a rocking machine, and our fist loosens its grip on the slim haft—

And so I sit, chipping, dreaming of you, Janet, until the iron facing shows, or until eight bells go, or until the bosun comes and knocks us off. Oh, Janet, I do love you so. But let us have no nonsense about it. The memory of your virginity fills me with disgust. Disgust and contempt! You are like Arabella, you would let Claudio die rather than sacrifice it—Claudio—Hilliot—die … with no bride to fix his swimming eye.

And this poor Claudio you would invest with shy, abstemious promises. Claudio, continent in his prison! The story of the Scots professor on the ship who had never been able to make up his mind whether to marry or travel! You are suffering from forced celibacy! … Good God, I loathe you, abwhore you, Janet! Forgive me for having thought that, it is not true. Let’s make it up. Do you remember the time you wore your white sweater, which gave you a kind of woolly smell, and I put my hand on your heart to feel it beat? It was like feeling a lamb’s heart beating, your sweater was so innocent and soft. I love you … )

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