A letter from Malcolm Lowry to Conrad Aiken, sent in the winter of 1929. Lowry, who was born on this day in 1909, was so enamored of Aiken’s novel Blue Voyage that he attempted, with this bumptious letter, to strike up a correspondence; throughout, as if to prove his worth, he quotes liberally from Blue Voyage and Aiken’s poem “Palimpsest: A Deceitful Portrait.” It worked: the letter sparked a complicated, rivalrous mentorship that would last until Lowry’s death. By July of 1929, Lowry had already decamped to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for lessons from Aiken, who was twenty years his senior. Lowry called his first novel Ultramarine in parodic reference to Blue Voyage.
5 Woodville Road
Blackheath, London S.E. 3
I have lived only nineteen years and all of them more or less badly. And yet, the other day, when I sat in a teashop (one of those grubby little places which poor Demarest loved, and the grubbier the better, and so do I) I became suddenly and beautifully alive. I read … “I lay in the warm sweet grass on a blue May morning, My chin in a dandelion, my hands in clover, And drowsed there like a bee … Blue days behind me Reached like a chain of deep blue pools of magic, Enchanted, silent, timeless. Days before me Murmured of blue sea mornings, noons of gold, Green evenings streaked with lilac … ”
I sat opposite the Bureau-de-change. The great grey tea urn perspired. But as I read, I became conscious only of a blur of faces: I let the tea that had mysteriously appeared grow clammy and milk-starred, the half veal and ham pie remain in its crinkly paper; vaguely, as though she had been speaking upon another continent, I heard the girl opposite me order some more Dundee cake. My pipe went out.
… I lay by the hot white sand-dunes.
Small yellow flowers, sapless and squat and spiny,
Stared at the sky. And silently there above me,
Day after day, beyond all dreams or knowledge,
Presences swept, and over me streamed their shadows,
Swift and blue, or dark …
I paid the bill and went out. I crossed the Strand and walked down Villiers Street to the Embankment. I looked up at the sea gulls, high in sunlight. The sunlight roared above me like a vast invisible sea. The crowd of faces wavered and broke and flowed.
Sometime when you come to London, Conrad Aiken, wilst hog it over the way somewhere with me? You will forgive my presumption, I think, in asking you this.
I am in fact hardly conscious myself of my own presumption. It seems quit fated that I should write this letter just like this, on this warm bright day while outside a man shouts Rag-a-bone, Rag-a-bone. It may not even interest you, my letter. It may not be your intention ever to come to London even to chivy up your publishers.
While on the subject of publishers I might as well sway that I find a difficulty bordered upon impossibility in getting your “Nocturne of Remembered Spring.” Have you got a spare copy of this in Rye that you could sell me? If you have, it would be a good excuse for you to write to tell me so. You could also tell me whether you are coming to London any time, you would have any time to see me. Charing X is only a quarter of an hour away from here. But perhaps this letter has infuriated you so much that you have not read this far.