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 …