Reading Aidan Higgins

Context N°11

by Devin Johnston

The writing of Aidan Higgins roams over continents, subjects, and genres, making it difficult to shelve or classify. In addition to various novels and short stories, one finds memoirs of a Sligo childhood in Scenes from a Receding Past; travel literature in Images of Africa (recounting the author’s stint with a touring company of puppeteers); or the knotty reportage of “Black September,” on the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Despite such variety, genre is itself never at issue: Higgins has little self-consciousness about literary convention, and rarely gestures toward the boundaries of a form. His overlapping memoirs, fictions, and travelogues form a single, singular, wayward prose. Opening anywhere, one finds an imagist aesthetic of minute attention and crystalline condensation at work.

Many writers carefully hold the distinct strands of their stories—beginnings and endings, this and that—a span apart, as one would the clamps of jumper cables. Higgins’s prose is more often sparked by the vertiginous collapse of time and space within a single paragraph. For instance, take this passage from “The Other Day I Was Thinking of You” in Flotsam and Jetsam, a collection of writings drawn from Higgins’s entire career:

An autumn of acorns in Highgate Wood and Queens Wood, where the mass graves for the Plague dead were dug; archaeologists unearth pottery made by Roman slaves. An autumn of conkers and red berries and an oldish man saying to his wheezing, waddling old dog: ‘You’re only a big overgrown puppy, that’s all you are.’

Several millennia of history, along with natural facts and social observations, are telescoped to a few lines of text. Such paragraphs are rarely structured around a linear narrative of context, action, and consequence. Rather, they bring together a constellation of brilliant particulars, with close attention to the persistence of sensory experience in memory. As often as not, details are juxtaposed without transition or exposition: each sentence bristles in a different direction.

The workings of memory are often themselves Higgins’s implicit subject. Like Joyce, he is a Homeric cataloguer of quotidian experience: zoos, the beastiaries and royalties of pubs, newspaper stories, and the ironies of graffiti are his particular pleasures. In “Lengthening Shadows (An Elegy for England),” he observes “THUG RULES” and “IMMANUEL KANT RULES!” and “HOYLE RULES OKAY!” on London walls. Higgins documents sensory data with an acuity rarely matched, attentive to smell, taste, and touch as well as sight and sound:

The chemical composition of skatal, the colatile aromatic portion of human faeces, is very close to jasmine. These two odors have a common root. The smell of the lawnmower’s catch at Howth Castle. The smell of Malaga after rain. A brown ligneous aroma. Like brown standing-water in the boles of partly rotted trees. Maja-odour, scent of leaves. Maja-scented evenings, Andalusian summer night, dry earth, magnolia, vapoury sky. Ambergris. Thermal evenings. (Balcony of Europe)

Through such careful comparisons of odors, we arrive at new and surprising structures of relation. This is a modernist, empirical approach to the observed world. Science reduces smells to five elements—carbon, hydrogen, sulphur, oxygen, and nitrogen; convention groups them according to use and aesthetics. In distrust of both, a modernist such as Higgins examines samples of his experience under the glass slide of attentive prose. He retains some of the procedures and language of scientific materialism—part chemist, part detective, and in turn partly parodic—but improvises his own taxonomies of the senses. The point, in this case, is simply to get at the sensory data of shit—what a dog might learn—apart from our shame or revulsion.

In thinking through Higgins’s aesthetics, I am reminded of the poetic value expressed in the second section of Basil Bunting’s “Briggflatts.” He devotes a stanza each to embodiments of taste, sound, and touch, including for the latter:

It feels soft, weed thick in the cave
and the smooth wet riddance of
Antonietta’s bathing suit, mouth ajar for
submarine Amalfitan kisses.

Yet the act of writing introduces a gap of self-consciousness that can never be mended:

It looks well on the page, but never
well enough. Something is lost
when wind, sun, sea upbraid
justly an unconvinced deserter.

Aesthetic failure may be, in this sense, necessary to any literary endeavor. To paraphrase Emerson, Higgins repeatedly acknowledges the evanescence and lubricity of fact and memory, which escape our grasp when we clutch the hardest.

The foggy corridors of time can quickly become occasion for sentimentality—what I once was I am no more; “that which is wished for may not (cannot) come again” (BE). It is worth remembering that enthusiasts of Joyce include Thomas Wolfe, whose autobiographical epics of lost time such as Of Time and the River and You Can’t Go Home Again are all appetite; such works are sentimental in their very capaciousness. Higgins skirts such a danger in Balcony of Europe, which his editor John Calder edited to 463 pages from a manuscript of twice that size (much as Maxwell Perkins edited Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River). In the new selection Flotsam and Jetsam, Higgins retains only fifty pages of the original novel, declaring that he has “withdrawn it from circulation as a failure.”

Admittedly, the marshaling of characters and strands of plot over vast tracts of prose has never been Higgins’s primary concern. Yet stepping into the gulf between was and is, the author does not so much evade sentimentality as flirt with it. As he concludes in “The Bird I Fancied,” “The past itself is probably the most potent and enduring of all known aphrodisiacs.” The past is not simply subject to heroic recovery: Higgins is attuned to its perverse and melancholic uses. In this sense, nostalgia resolves into irony; the faded photograph of a childhood home becomes “Only a fadograph of a yestern scene” (BE). In its rich mixture of irony and melancholy, Higgins’s tone may recall the ending to Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, in which Frédéric and Deslauriers exhume their youth. The scene is both profoundly moving and banal, as they repeat after each remembrance, “Do you remember?” But the comparison is misleading in some respects: Higgins is neither patient nor elusive, but irascible and extravagant. His descriptive passages are often a rhapsodic rush to the edge of sentimentality, only undercut in the final moment by a shift in tone. A paragraph may begin with a desperate assignation along the Spanish coast, light-headed and hopeless desire, and then suddenly pull up short: “Presently the ground began to level off” (BE).

For Higgins, memory leaves signatures in space; individuals are inseparable from circumstance. In “Helsingør Station,” “We walked hand in hand down the promenade, which was the length of your own childhood.” However known, his characters are always captured in the middle ground between phenomenal surface and psychological depth. Higgins rarely introduces them by describing their physical attributes, nor does he quite occupy minds other than his own. Instead, characters register through behavior, as habits of drink or dress or speech. In Balcony of Europe, for instance, we are given a little word-hoard for each character, including the mother’s “Lug, sloshy, ructions, bibbable, barging, farfetched, never-rains-but-it-pours, once-in-a-blue-moon, as bold as brass, as broad as it’s long, as good as gold.” As a literary portrait, this linguistic cloud serves as well as any summary of face and disposition. Elsewhere, the strands of identity cannot be disentangled from a mass of related memories:

The other day I was thinking of you. Or, rather, of Nullgrab, that quartered city you love so much. It amounts to the same thing. When I recall Berlin I remember you, or vice versa. (Flotsam and Jetsam)

We “recall” one thing and “remember” another: thinking of “you,” we arrive at a city amounting to the same thing. It is part of the author’s erotics, as well as his aesthetics, that “you” infects everything with which it comes in contact.

The direct address appears with unusual frequency in Higgins’s writing. In fiction as well as memoirs, the author suddenly turns to speak to an intimate other of whose presence we were previously unaware. Scenes from a Receding Past begins with a first-person narrative of childhood and adolescence in County Sligo; but on page 148 “Olivia” is introduced:

You, nameless as yet, walked into St. Stephen’s Green under the columns of the Grafton Street gate. HARTSHILL on the one side, LADYSMITH on the other, TALANA COLLENTO, what did it mean? And now you were walking in dim retreating afternoon light under a thundery sky threatening rain. You crossed the little humpback bridge. I walked beside you, I didn’t know you.

Such strange insistence on “you” overwhelms the direction of the narrative. Indeed, the narrator’s relationship with Olivia is presented as an intersection of memories: the next four chapters recount Olivia’s past, with the justification that it has become “more real than my own.” Such confusions are, of course, the great subject of lyric poetry. Higgins might say with Sir Philip Sidney, “Thus may I not be from you: / Thus be my senses on you: / Thus what I thinke is of you: / Thus what I seeke is in you: / All what I am, it is you.”

Samuel Beckett, who admired Higgins’s early writing, advised the author to “despair young, and never look back.” Higgins is not, like Beckett, a writer of the absurd. Yet his characters live in a state of desire just beyond hope. They have generally ceased work, and are caught in the final phases of love or a collapsing marriage. They often live at the end of land, in a landscape that contrasts sharply with their emotional condition: their meadows and beaches might be Edens but for the oppressive misery of those who wander there. So many of his characters are “free yet constrained, like a castaway” (F&J); Crusoes shipwrecked in random, paradisical places.

The persistent subject of travel in Higgins’s writing is not simply a circumstance of autobiography. The narrator in “Lebensraum” directs us to its larger implications: “If sleep and death, as we are told, bestow on us a ‘guilty immunity,’ then travel does too, for the traveler is perpetually in the wrong context” (F&J). Higgins’s characters are perpetually “in the wrong context”—but not, as in so much postmodern literature, through a deconstructive manipulation of readerly expectations. Rather, Higgins pursues “the wrong context” as lived experience. The oxymoronic irony of the phrase “guilty immunity” applies not only to travelers and sleepers and corpses, but authors as well. In this sense, the phrase might be placed beside Stephen Dedalus’s formulation of Flaubertian impersonality: “The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” By contrast, Higgins is a palpable presence in his own texts—not a god of creation, but a brilliant and ambivalent fellow traveler.

Selected Works by Aidan Higgins

Asylum and Other Stories. Out of Print.
Balcony of Europe. Out of Print.
Bornholm Night-Ferry. Dalkey Archive press, $12.95.
Flotsam and Jetsam. Dalkey Archive Press, $15.95.
Helsingør Station and Other Departures. Out of Print.
Images of Africa. Out of Print.
Lions of the Grunewald. Out of Print.
Langrishe, Go Down. Dalkey Archive Press, $12.95.
Ronda Gorge and Other Precipices: Travel Writings 1956-86. Out of Print.
Scenes from a Receding Past. Dalkey Archive press, $12.95.

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