by Roger Boylan
I hear the wind in the high beech tree and the the wearisome grinding together of its great boughs. Night comes. The darkened house is breathing . . . windy, bronchial. Soon we will be old. Old, ill and poor; and when we die no one will mourn for us, or afterward remember us. — Langrishe, Go Down
Ah yes, says the Higgins connoisseur of this high-spirited passage; that’s vintage Higgins, all right. Maybe, but what makes it so? As a description of “an old man in a draughty house under a windy knob,” in Eliot’s words, it could be a bit of universal modernism (the more so as it actually describes an old, or aging, woman); but in fact, if it is distinctly anything, it is distinctly Irish, and not even of a particular era or class. It could be a swatch of Kiely, or MacLaverty, or even the nineteenth-century folklorist William Carleton, in his less benign moments.
The situation of this hovel was not only strikingly desolate, but . . . in the mouth of this glen, not far from the cabin, two murders had been committed about twenty years before the period of our narrative, within the lapse of a month. — The Black Prophet
Or it could be Jennifer Lash, the late Anglo-Irish author (and mother of Ralph Fiennes), she of the brilliant but grim Big House tragicomedy Blood Ties. Lash writes just like this too, and she has a take on life entirely in keeping with the gloomy Celtic tenor of the above passage.
The day itself had been hot, muggy, exasperating; full of a solid thick dead of stillness, like rotten marrows on warm ground.
(Fair: She died of leukemia soon after finishing the book.)
And I hardly need point out that there’s more than a hint of Beckett in the above Higgins excerpt, and much elsewhere in the man’s work.
One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more. — Waiting for Godot
Like Beckett, Higgins throws himself upon the minutiae of life’s miseries with the enthusiasm of a scientific researcher, but with rather more of that researcher’s humorless zeal than the blasphemous sense of the absurd that elicits such belly laughter in the works of the great Franco-Irish sage . . . and Joyce? Well, of course; if Beckett’s there, so is Joyce, lurking somewhere in the shadows. Higgins has a similar appetite for vernacular nuance and pop allusion, and his characters, like Joyce’s, introduce themselves primarily as opinions, or tastes, or odors; and the precise details of their ambient dreariness, whether the interiors of pubs or bedrooms or the sidestreets of the Hibernian metropolis, are caught and bottled like specimens, for all time.
In other words, Aidan Higgins, like all writers of distinction, is a composite: in his case, an Irish writer, uniquely so, and yet not entirely. His entire oeuvre displays a wide erudition and experience of life and travel—in Africa, Europe, and North America. Higgins throws around expressions and quotations in several languages (Afrikaans, Finnish, Danish, German, French), thereby bestowing a Joycean feel to his writing from another angle, that of the Irish cosmopolitan open to the world and at home in it—indeed, more at home in it than in his own country. Whether it is his three-volume autobiography, Donkey’s Years (1996), Dog Days (1998) and The Whole Hog (2000) (subsequently published in one volume, A Bestiary), or his fiction, from Langrishe, Go Down, which won the 1966 James Tait Black Memorial Prize (and was made into a film starring Judi Dench and Jeremy Irons, with a script by Harold Pinter), to Lions of the Grunewald and Flotsam and Jetsam, the man’s energy and honesty are prodigious.
Langrishe, Go Down, his first and probably best-known novel (thanks in part to that Pinterized movie), stands alongside another subgenre of Irish writing, the Big House story, while displaying elements of the later cosmopolitanism of the Joyce-Beckett variety. In this novel the decaying Big House of the once-noble Langrishe family symbolizes the Irish society of the 1930s, during De Valera’s grim years of “self-sufficiency”: an Irish society that is the main obstacle to a life of self-expression and passion, particularly for marginal types like Imogen Langrishe, the novel’s introverted and repressed main character, and Otto, her solipsistic German lover. We are on metaphorical terrain. This Higginsian Big House, i.e. Ireland, is slowly collapsing from within, chewed half to death by the termites of church and backwardness. The evocation of these social obstacles gives substance to Higgins’s writing, as it does to the writing of many of his compatriots: the late John McGahern, for one, dealt in very much the same trade of age-old repressions, as did Frank O’Connor, and even Flann O’Brien, via another refraction of the prism. Interestingly, in his autobiography Higgins reveals that the sisters Langrishe, inhabitants of the house, were based on himself and his three brothers, and the Big House setting was pretty much identical to that of his own family home in Celbridge, Co. Kildare; so there we have the lineaments of autobiography, right from the start.
And autobiography, his own and those of others’, is what Higgins excels at. A Bestiary is so long and so disjunctive, and so much of it winds back and overlaps on itself and becomes overly “experimental,” that the average reader might be forgiven for setting it aside, or hurling it across the room; but then he would miss so much, such as the pure distillation of a man’s self that this work represents, and the intense descriptive powers which come almost unbidden:
In the Leitrim Bar I am civilly served a shot of Jameson by the redheaded son of the former butcher who has two shops on the main street. Looking out the window I see the sea breaking over the low wall and the shell of the old station, its platform and loading sheds long disused, where I had arrived for a week’s holiday around 1949. The station had moved inland since; it had stood there once with the solid look of permanency peculiar to railway stations, when I stepped off the train, aged about twenty-one years.
Here, in the space of one short paragraph, I experience bar, whiskey, the sea, memory, and melancholy; and I make the acquaintance of Higgins, aged about twenty-one, and of the former butcher and his redheaded son. It is a masterpiece of precise evocation.
To place Higgins in context we need to climb to a high promontory and look out over the landscape of all of European literature, for in him there is the guile of Rabelais and the romanticism of Goethe as well as the exile’s cunning of Joyce—and the plain old Irishness of an honest journeyman-writer from Co. Kildare.