The American publication of Aidan Higgins’s Langrishe, Go Down is, or should be, a cause for celebration. The novel, Higgins’s first, appeared in Britain in 1966 to wide critical acclaim, and was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, which still counted for something in those pre-Booker days. Although Higgins went on to produce further novels—notably Balcony of Europe, a big, ambitious tale of a mixed group of expatriates living in Spain in the 1960s—Langrishe is without doubt his masterpiece. It is a bitter fate for a novelist to be best known for his first work. However, Higgins should keep in mind the response Joseph Heller gave to an interviewer who was crass enough to remark the fact that Heller had not managed to write anything better than his first book, Catch-22: “Who has?” Heller asked.
It is hard to account for the decline of Higgins’s reputation from the early highs of Langrishe, Go Down and Balcony of Europe, the latter of which was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1972. He was perhaps not as fortunate as he might have been in his early publishers, although in his autobiographical trilogy A Bestiary he acknowledges, albeit coolly, the editorial skills of John Calder, who was also, of course, the publisher of Samuel Beckett’s novels and poetry. In A Bestiary Higgins notes, with what seems admirable resignation, that both Balcony of Europe and the quasi-fictional Scenes from a Receding Past (1977) are out of print “and will remain so in my lifetime.” “I have freely pillaged from both [books] for sections of this present work,” he insouciantly admits, and adds a characteristically elegant and caustic metaphor: “bold Robin Crusoe ferrying booty from the two wrecks.” With writers such as Higgins—if, indeed, there be other such—nothing is lost, nothing wasted, and his own work is precisely that—his own—the components of it his to revise, recycle, reuse.
An admiring reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement, quoted on the jacket of Flotsam & Jetsam—a representative selection of Higgins’s “fiction and prose” first published in Europe in 1996 and now republished, along with Langrishe and A Bestiary, by the admirably enterprising Dalkey Archive Press, with the support of the Lannan Foundation—may inadvertently have hit on at least part of an explanation for the withholding of the literary fame Higgins deserves. Writing of Higgins’s exalted place in the history of twentieth-century Irish literature, the TLS reviewer saw him as “a missing link between the modernist period and contemporary writing.”
Certainly Higgins’s abiding characteristics as an artist are of a High Modernist order: obsessive subjectivity, a broad range of allusive references, insistence on formal freedom, a plethora of polyglottal quotations, aristocratic disdain of the audience. His influences, or at least the ones he is willing to acknowledge, are unusual for a twentieth-century Irish writer: less Joyce and Beckett than Djuna Barnes and Paul Bowles. Like Bowles and Barnes, Higgins is a cosmopolitan wanderer, an exile everywhere and nowhere at home. He writes continually of Ireland, but also of London, Berlin, Spain, Scandinavia, South Africa. His subjects are the past, family, loves found and lost, the pleasures of sex, the pleasures of drink, the self as artist, and, just the self—has there ever been a more introspective oeuvre than this?
Higgins is that rare, perhaps unique, phenomenon, a writer to whose fiction one goes in search of illumination of the life, and not vice versa, the more usual direction. In a sense, indeed, life and fiction are one for Higgins, since as far as can be ascertained he has never written of anything that did not originate in his own experience. For anyone who knows Higgins’s novels and short stories, A Bestiary—“this bogus autobiography”—will be haunted territory, abounding in echoes from the fiction, most of them resonant, but some, it must be said, that strike the ear with a dull thud. Autobiography and fiction alike are a recuperative endeavor:
What I would hope to convey, reader, is movements from the past (movements of the hidden heart), clear as sand in running water; the strange phosphorous of a lost life nameless under the old misappellations.
Yet feed though he does on his own life, the precise facts of that life remain conjectural. As in the case of Beckett, even the date of his birth, March 3, 1927, is a matter of doubt: in the closing lines of A Bestiary an old flame demands to know, “How can you be seventy-one in the year 2000 when you were born in 1927?” How indeed. We must be content with approximations. Aidan Higgins was born sometime in the late 1920s, in Springfield House, a fine Georgian mansion near Celbridge, County Kildare, a score of miles due west of Dublin. The Higginses were minor rural gentry, not Protestant, however, but Catholic—landed Catholics were a rare species until more recent times. His father, Bart, known as Dado, lived the life of a hard-riding country gentleman on the rents from properties in America that eventually had to be sold because of “increasing rural dilapidation,” leaving him financially broke and spiritually broken.
Higgins’s mother, Lil, or Mumu, had pretensions to the cultured world. She knew a number of literary figures including Oliver St. John Gogarty, the model for Buck Mulligan in Ulysses, and claimed familiarity with numerous others; Higgins reports her brazenly introducing herself to Noël Coward when she spied him one afternoon taking tea with the handsome young Beverly Nichols in the lounge of the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin—“Mumu referred thereafter to dear Noel [sic] and dear dear Beverley [sic].”
Life was good at Springfield avant le déluge:
With us who lacked nothing in the way of home comforts, “want” was a dirty word; servants and nannies were always there, dancing attendance. We lived, as Mumu put it, in the very lap of luxury, and servants attentive to our every wish were at the end of every bellpull, five or six of which were situated strategically about the house, in the upper rooms set into the wall by the fireplaces of white marble, the roaring coal fires.
It is an old story in the annals of the landed Irish: the dog days are sweet but eventually all goes to the dogs.
There were four Higgins brothers, two older than Aidan and one younger. In A Bestiary Higgins cheerfully admits that although a real pair of Langrishe sisters had lived at Springfield before the Higginses, the “four apathetic spinsters” at the center of Langrishe, Go Down “were my brothers and myself in drag, subjected to a sea-change and all the names altered except the dog’s.”
Langrishe, Go Down, the very core of Higgins’s life work and the repository of his and his family’s history,
was about the death of a house and the break-up of a family. It took me two years to write, two more for a dilatory publisher to bring it to the public eye; the final editing took twenty-four hours non-stop (but for dinner in Jammet’s [a then-fashionable Dublin restaurant]) and I stayed up all night, wearing out two copy-editors. Langrishe sold just over 2,000 cloth copies in the first fortnight after publication in September 1966, after which sales sank to a dribble. And it has consistently sold in a dribble ever since, in five or six European languages. Beckett called it “literary shit.”
Beckett and Higgins were friends in Paris in the 1950s, and despite that harsh judgment on Langrishe the older writer gave the younger a handsome compliment, declaring that “in you, together with the beginner, is the old hand.” Although the shadows of Beckett and, of course, of Joyce fall darkly in places upon his style, Higgins has always been very much his own man, as he showed in his first book, the remarkably poised and confident story collection Felo de Se (1960). In these stories a voice was heard that was new in Irish writing. We were used to the Protestant tones of the likes of Synge and Yeats and Beckett and, among the Catholics, the petit-bourgeois accents of Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolain at one end of the scale and the Jesuitical strains of James Joyce at the other. Higgins’s work, however, spoke in a wholly original manner that sounded to Irish ears at once foreign and familiar: mordant, dandified, waspishly comic, cosmopolitan to the point of world-weariness, and steeped in history, the history of a continent, a country, and a family.
Home and away: these are the two poles between which all of Higgins’s writing is strung. Much of the melancholy beauty of his work derives from a pervading sense of displacement, whether it is that of his Hemingwayesque expatriates loving and squabbling among themselves in Berlin, Alicante, Cape Town, or the Langrishe sisters marooned in a decaying house in the plains of Kildare. Baudelaire remarks somewhere that literary genius consists in the ability to summon up childhood at will, and at times it seems that Higgins never quite left the scenes of his own receding past:
Were I a painter of the stamp of Magritte, I might have suggested the decline of the Higgins family in one significant image: Virginia- creeper leaves from above my father’s room now blown into a gutter of the small balcony above the long windows, one opened about a foot at the bottom for fresh air. The leaves would change colour from spring into autumn, first green, then scarlet, then orange, then purple, then dark plum-coloured, blown about the little balcony by various winds, then clenched together in a ball by frost, reduced to the size of a clenched fist, now the teak colour of Tollund Man dug out of the Danish earth.
As so often with Higgins, Langrishe, Go Down grew out of something else. “Killachter Meadow,” the first story in his collection Felo de Se, contains all of the later novel in embryo. In the story, the four “unprepossessing and unmarriageable” Kervick sisters, Emily-May, Tess, Helen, and Imogen, after the death of their parents live on at Springfield House, “a freehold premises in the barony of old Killachter, situated one mile from Celbridge village and the ramparts of Marlay Abbey, whilom home of Hester Vanhomrigh.” “Killachter Meadow” ends in March 1927 with the suicide by drowning of Emily-May; in Langrishe, Go Down, Emily Langrishe, as she is called now, has been dead a long time, and figures only as an unsettling memory for her three surviving sisters. As the novel opens it is 1937, and Helen, the eldest of the sisters, who is herself dying of an unspecified illness, is returning to Springfield after a fruit-less foray into the city to see if something might be salvaged of the family’s fortunes:
They would have to talk…talk together, discuss what was best to be done, and make some arrangements to change their ways, for the old impossible life was ending. They would have to sell the house, that was all there was to it. Solicitors, land-agents, undertakers—as they came tramping in, the Langrishe world was falling down.
For all its originality, the book in this early section is quick with hints and echoes of earlier Irish masters. Helen’s night journey is a tour de force of writing reminiscent of the Joyce of Dubliners:
The lights in the bus burned dim, orange-hued behind opaque bevelled glass; ranged below the luggage racks they lit up the advertisement panels with repeated circles of bilious light.
The scene the following morning, in which Helen wanly confronts her alcoholic sister Imogen—“A disturbance of springs and squeaking castors began; then the bedclothes were pushed aside and Imogen’s head appeared”—recalls the opening pages of Elizabeth Bowen’s A World of Love.
The heart of Langrishe, Go Down, the long section set in 1932, is an account of an affair between Imogen Langrishe and the German scholar Otto Beck, who lives rent-free in a cottage on the Springfield estate. Beck is a wonderful creation, feckless, arrogant, demanding, the classic opportunist and sponger. “Beck of Bavaria. He has no visible means of support. He was arrested by the Guards of Enniskerry and Dada got him out on bail. He is writing a thesis, supposed to be.” For Imogen, the youngest of the sisters but no longer young, he is her last chance of finding love. Although we know from the first encounter between the two that Beck will “take advantage” of Imogen—“Ah you’re wicked, you’d get round me if I gave you half a chance,” she says—and although the inevitable affair will follow an inevitable course, Higgins portrays it all with enchanting delicacy and freshness, and with the lightest touches of ironic humor. Consider this exquisitely gauged moment when Imogen first invites Beck into the main house:
He heard her delay before the hall mirror. And as she entered the room he was rising to his feet from the sofa. The music started again upstairs. She had removed her coat and brushed her hair for him. She wore a pretty dress, walking there before him where the air was so still, in the dim light and shade of a past which he had no part in. Now that he could see her more clearly he saw that she had a pale powered face, the skin stretched tight across the bones. Her dress made a caressing sound, riss-riss, as she passed, and her scent, her displacement, followed; so many cubic feet of scented Miss Imogen Langrishe going riss-riss.
The affair is recounted in a series of set pieces so cunningly and fluidly executed that there is nothing about them that seems set. There is a grimly comic late-night drinking session in a seedy studio flat in Dublin, where Beck introduces Imogen to the egregious Barry Shannon and the one-eyed actress Maureen Layde, “a hot-faced sprite with a wet avaricious little mouth.” The night ends with Imogen insulted by the actress and helplessly drunk on Guinness: “The room swung round. Something was approaching, a kind of milky translucence. It came closer and closer. Her eyes filled with unshed tears.”
Throughout his work Higgins has a magical way with louche characters and situations, never, or hardly ever, falling into the buffoonery of the “hard man” school of Irish writing. Strong drink is a constant in his fictional as well as his autobiographical worlds—on his own evidence, he begins most of his mornings with a glass of stout and a whiskey chaser—but he eschews the sodden braggadocio that so often mars the work of Flann O’Brien or Brendan Behan or J.P. Donleavy.
The affair between Imogen and Beck ends, as such affairs tend to do, in tears and small tragedy. Beck, im-patient for new vistas, flees Springfield, pursued by a blast of buckshot that Imogen in her fury and despair fires off at his departing head. After the gunplay comes the regret. “Two springs, two summers, three autumns and two winters. That was all; and now all over.” Imogen has turned forty, she is alone, and unexpectedly, disgracefully, disastrously, pregnant. The child when it comes is stillborn. All this may seem trite rather than tragic, but Higgins arranges his scant material with such force of feeling and beauty of style—he can veer from classical purity to demotic knockabout and back again in the space of a paragraph, or a sentence, even—that his tale takes on the lineaments of a timeless legend. As in all true art, the effects that he achieves are at once simple, profound, and entirely mysterious.
The last, brief, section of the book is set in 1938, after the death of Helen and the death, too, of Imogen’s last hopes of happiness. On a cheerless day at the end of winter she revisits the cottage for the first time in years, and memories of Otto and her love for him come flooding back: “He had come when she was miserable and lost, telling his tall tales, putting his invincible mailed fist on woman’s weakness.” The closing paragraphs of the book are resolutely unemphatic, despite the beating repetitions of “w” words—wind, window, winter—and yet, or therefore, heartbreaking, especially in the sudden switch from general bleakness to mention of the “mild March day” with its hint of the spring to come:
When she heard a sound behind her she turned quickly. No, nothing. Grey light. The wind on the door. Nothing at all. She went to the window facing the avenue and stood there with her back to the window- sill. Tenuous air, bare fields, the beginning of a typical winter’s day.
She turned her face to the window again, to a soft diffusion of winter light. The beginning of a mild March day. On the shadowed windowsill a few dead flies remained, leftovers. Hide away here, let the days pass and hope that things will change. Clouds were slowly passing across the window. Yes, that—or nothing at all. How the wind blows today!
One of the things that give Langrishe, Go Down its feeling of timelessness is Higgins’s acute sense of history and the historical moment. For him the past is not the past but a kind of continuous, fixed present. The book is rife with quotations from such sources as the fabulist Barnaby Rich’s A New Description of Ireland—Shakespeare took Rich’s Apollonius and Silla as the source for Twelfth Night—and the Elizabethan general Sir John Perrott’s thoroughly disenchanted and disenchanting Chronicle of Ireland. In the three books that make up A Bestiary there is also much recourse to old and dusty documents, especially those pertaining to the history of Springfield House, records of which, Higgins tells us, with an audible sniff of pride, can be traced back to 1734.
Donkey’s Years, published in London in 1995 and now the first book of the trilogy, opens with a preface reprinting some pages devoted to Springfield House in an account of Celbridge and environs by a historian, Lena Boylan, while toward the close of the third volume, The Whole Hog, first published in 2000, Higgins prints four or five pages of legends culled from the headstones in the two cemeteries, one Protestant and one Catholic, in the town of Kinsale where he now lives, that same Kinsale on the coast of County Cork where the last and decisive battle was fought, on the afternoon of Christmas Eve 1601, in a violent thunderstorm, between the doomed Irish aristocracy and the English Crown. Hig- gins’s account of the “Great Battle,” tossed into the closing pages of A Bestiary, is as violent as the Iliad and as vivid as tomorrow’s headlines.
A Bestiary is at once a bildungsroman, a portrait of the artist young and aging, and an old-fashioned account of a rackety literary life lived as much to the full as any full-time writer could manage. The three books of which it is comprised, Donkey’s Years, Dog Days, and The Whole Hog, are garrulous, opinionated, frequently incoherent, packed with gnomic scraps of useless information—“Henry David Thoreau had a brother who died of lockjaw”—and repetitive to a degree which the sorely tried reader will consider infuriating or endearing, depending on mood and the quality of what is being repeated. Friends, relatives, lovers, enemies pop up in these pages like the irrepressible figures of the commedia dell’arte, always in new disguises and always instantly recognizable.
Higgins has a swaggeringly cavalier attitude to his family portrait gallery, constantly painting over old canvases to make space for new studies of the same handful of subjects. His brothers appear and reappear in all the stages of life from infancy to old age. In particular, the numerous fondly mocking caricatures of the eldest of the four Higginses, the richly eccentric Desmond, known as Dodo, are funny and affecting in equal measure; the book is worth having for Dodo alone. Meanwhile the two major portraits, of Dado and Mumu, stand on their easels at the back of the studio, obsessively worked on and never to be finished. Baffling, beloved, mourned, these people are themselves, unforgettably so, and yet they are characters too, like all the other players in Higgins’s little theater. “Rory,” Higgins’s alter ego throughout A Bestiary,
found that he could bring dead people back to life. Even when treated in a fictional manner, they came back to life. He could bring them closer. Rory could bring my mother back, as long as I called her “Mumu” and not Lil; and my father, as long as I called him “Dado” and not Da. I had to turn my back on the real parents in order to evoke this other pseudo-anonymous couple who were more real than my real parents, Bart and Lil. I thought, not quite believing it, that one day I would write a book about them. Well, this trilogy is it.