Lowry treasure snapped up for Library's collection

by Susan Stern

Staff writer

The UBC Library has made a unique and exceptional addition to its Malcolm Lowry collection, the largest in the world, with the recent acquisition of Lowry's personal, first edition copy of his first novel Ultramarine.

Lowry's most successful novel, Under the Volcano, is ranked as one of the major English literary works of the 20th century.

The annotated copy of Ultramarine, regarded as a treasure by Lowry scholars, was placed on sale at the Pacific Book Auction in San Francisco last fall by a friend of Lowry's late wife.

"My heart leapt in anticipation of this unique item and subsequently dropped when I learned it was expected to fetch between $20,000 and $25,000 (US)," says Brenda Peterson, head of Special Collections and University Archives.

Peterson immediately informed Sherrill Grace, the author of three books about Lowry and head of the English Dept.

Together with Bernie Bressler, vice-president, Research and Barry McBride, vice-president, Academic, they agreed to attempt to purchase Ultramarine, a difficult feat in times of budget restraint and a very low Canadian dollar.

Peterson, who had never participated in an auction, did the bidding by phone. She had a maximum budget of $21,500 (US).

"The operator said $14,000 and I said yes," says Peterson. "It was the minimum bid and luckily we were the only one in the running."

Grace says UBC didn't even consider going after an even more expensive first edition collector's copy of Under the Volcano that was also up for auction.

"We already have the first edition of Volcano and Ultramarine is the ultimate scholar's prize," she says.

Ultramarine is the story of a naive young upper-class Briton who goes to sea as a deckhand on a freighter in the 1920s and is subjected to rough treatment by the working class crew.

Lowry made a similar voyage between leaving public school and entering university and said it was a very unpleasant experience. He grew to dislike Ultramarine even more.

"In the book that was published 20 years ago in England there's probably scarcely an original line," Lowry wrote in 1952. "Everything is derived, pastiche, hash. In short it is one of those pieces of juvenilia that their authors would like to buy up all the copies of and burn and then forget that they had written."

Even so, Ultramarine showed his creative genius. The book was well received and was out of print by 1935.

"It is a messy book, dog-eared and full of staples and scotch tape with pencil hand-writing all over it. It isn't very pretty," says Grace. "What we see in his copy of the book are the changes, in his own writing, which he never lived to complete."

The small dark blue hardcover book has been professionally restored to preserve it.

UBC Librarian Catherine Quinlan says Ultramarine is a very important addition to the Malcolm Lowry collection which includes his manuscripts, letters and personal papers.

"We were thrilled to acquire the book. Scholars come from all over the world to UBC to study Malcolm Lowry," Quinlan says. "We've already had half a dozen inquiries about Ultramarine."

Lowry, the black sheep of a British business family, was a binge alcoholic with a dark, destructive side.

For years he lived in a simple cabin in Dollarton in North Vancouver, where he eked out a living writing articles, Under the Volcano, and working on new stories and novels. Lowry eventually returned to England where he died at the age of 48.

The Lowry Collection is housed in the Special Collections and University Archives division in Main Library.