After Lowry: A Film Essay

Critical Apparatus


by Miguel Mota

The accompanying documentary essay, After Lowry, attempts to complicate in productive ways the experience (ideally conceived as unmediated) of The Malcolm Lowry Walk, a landscape currently occupying a curious space between the natural and the cultivated, the private and the public. The Malcolm Lowry Walk, located in Cates Park in the village of Dollarton in the district of North Vancouver, British Columbia, commemorates the author of the great 20th-century novel Under the Volcano, who with his wife Margerie Bonner lived from 1940 to 1954 in a squatter’s shack on the beach there. It was here that Lowry finished Under the Volcano, and here too that he would compose his long story set in Dollarton itself, “The Forest Path to the Spring,” a sometimes ecstatic, sometimes contemplative meditation on the human relationship with nature and with history. The longer Lowry lived at Dollarton, the more complex his fictional ruminations on the landscape became. A great deal of his work is dedicated to rethinking his personal and literary challenges against the backdrop of Burrard Inlet and the larger sweep of coastal history and potential redemption it embodied for him. This space became for Lowry, to use the words of American historian Simon Schama, “a text on which [he wrote his] recurring obsessions” (Schama 12). The sense of, and belief in, Dollarton as a place to begin anew in an unspoiled world returns repeatedly in Lowry’s writing, and “The Forest Path to the Spring,” a story he worked on until late in his life, has frequently been read as a kind of psalm to the simple, solitary, and hopeful existence that could be led in a squatters’s shack by the sea in North Vancouver.

This particular landscape became for Lowry a natural emblem of his desire for a simpler, nobler, less complicated life and world. It was here that Lowry was finally able to finish his great work and here that he most successfully (even if only temporarily) found respite from a deeply troubled, because deeply felt, life. It is hardly surprising, then, that Lowry’s years on the beach at Dollarton have repeatedly been seen as a paradise, however temporary it may have turned out to be. And so it is to this space, this “paradise,” that many readers of Lowry’s life and work have continuously returned, as pilgrims to a kind of literary shrine, a place of proximity and connectedness to the writer himself. In the late 1980s, the district of North Vancouver even reclaimed Lowry as one of its own after having hounded him off its beaches decades earlier with numerous eviction notices. A commemorative plaque was erected in 1987 in honour of the years he spent living and working at Dollarton. A path through the forest was christened The Malcolm Lowry Walk, and roughtly half way along it, a set of steps was built leading down to a wood platform on the beach to mark the site of the Lowrys’ shack.[1]

Yet this landscape, a kind of sacred place to many, is also of course a fictional space, the product of both Lowry’s and his readers’ desires. After Lowry calls attention to the mediation involved in any attempt to recreate the Lowrys’ experience in Dollarton. The film juxtaposes the “natural” sounds and images of the park with a number of self-consciously artificial interjections into that “natural” space, including additional sound recordings of that very same space, various iconic images associated with the Lowrys’ days there, and textual material produced by both Lowry and his readers/critics, in an attempt to offer a critique of the park’s utopian function (a function that fulfills a desire for proximity and connectedness) in the context of Lowry’s life and work. After Lowry explores the extent to which this “natural” space is repeatedly and inevitably turned into an aesthetic object, whether mediated sonically through the aural landscape, textually through Lowry’s narratives, or culturally through the gaze of the literary tourist. In the end, the film essay considers the extent to which the “natural” space of the Malcolm Lowry Walk functions not as an unmediated connection to some imagined origin and “authentic” author, but rather as a historical and geographical document, a living, changing text, itself always subject to media manipulation and cultural desire.

[1] The exact location of the original shack has been a matter of some conjecture and controversy, and it is perhaps both ironic and fitting that the gaze of the literary tourist searching for the “authentic” paradisical home of Malcolm Lowry should be directed at the precise spot where he may have never lived.

Works Cited

Lowry, Malcolm. “The Forest Path to the Spring.” Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. Vancouver, Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1961.

---. Under the Volcano. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1947, 1961.

Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. Toronto: Random House, 1995.