Dan Sandman

06: Ultramarine by Malcolm Lowry

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 08/02/2013 at 12:00 pm

By my estimation, I pass Primrose Hill Books from four to twelve times a week. Outside, during opening hours, are two tables displaying a revolving selection of second-hand books. Inside, everywhere that one cares to look, are thousands of brand new books. I prefer the second-hand books; to me they are more fun.

"I prefer the second-hand books; to me they are more fun."

“I prefer the second-hand books; to me they are more fun.”

I remember going to visit Primrose Hill Books with my mother when I was a boy. If I recall correctly, there used to be a white staircase that led to an underground basement full to the rafters with pages and pages of used books: once loved stories that had been abandoned by their readers; poems that were looking for a home; sad and lonely pages hoping that one day someone would come on down, past the shiny new books, down the white staircase searching for carefully ordered letters, sentences and words.

Used books are great because their pages cover a spectrum of different yellowy colours from mustard to gold. I love how used books smell of old wool, candy-floss, and strawberry-cream sweets. But most of all, I love well aged books because they have a personal history that usually remains a secret; a mystery to ponder as one guesses where one’s book might have lived and who might have turned these very same pages. The book I found outside Primrose Hill Books, Malcolm Lowry’s Ultramarine, seemed to have all of the above qualities in abundance – I had to have it!

Ultramarine by Malcolm Lowry (side)

Ultramarine is a short novel, divided into six episodes, that vividly depicts a sailor’s life. It was written in 1933, a time when modernist writers were engaging in new and creative ways of writing. Lowry’s highly original writing style is somewhat reminiscent of the kind Joesph Conrad published at the turn of the 20th Century. This is due in part to its seafaring subject matter and in part to its deeply descriptive passages of the surrounding landscapes. Written in his early twenties and partly autobiographical, Lowry’s brilliant début novel is full to the brim with emotional resonance, imaginative ideas and realistic dialogue. For example, Lowry is able to create a lucid sense of conciousness as the novel’s protagonist Dana Hilliot drifts between the conversations of his shipmates, his memories of his lover Janet, and outside influences such as the poetry of John Keats or Confucian philosophy.

“It cost me £3, in 1972 it would have been 35p.”

“It cost me £3, in 1972 it would have been 35p.”

I would recommend Ultramarine to a friend with an interest in exploring original writing written in the stream of conciousness style. Reading Ultramarine transported me into another world, Hilliot’s interior world, a place where we are invited to explore the inner workings of the human condition within a given context: a young man’s travel adventures on the high seas as he struggles to mature into adulthood. It was a short and slightly flawed book; packed full of creativity, insight and realistic characters. It cost me £3, in 1974 it would have been 35p.


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