Sunday 4 December 2016

Tribute - Higgins: a sensuous and anarchic spirit

Published 10/01/2016 | 02:30

High art: Higgins was a harsh critic of the often dumbed-down modern era.
High art: Higgins was a harsh critic of the often dumbed-down modern era.

In an era of author interviews and book publicity, Aidan Higgins, who has passed away at the age of 88, was the very opposite: content in relative reclusiveness in Kinsale, beavering away on a new project and rarely courting the glare of modern attention, except for his occasional broadside at Irish nationalist foibles and political vanity, especially through the artists' body Aosdána.

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Higgins was a harsh critic of the often dumbed-down modern era, but he was also a harsh critic of himself, constantly dissecting and even disowning his earlier work, as he strove for a more vivid and memorable prose style and narrative. In recent years, he had moved from novels to memoir and his engrossing three-volume series A Bestiary - Donkey's Years (1996), Dog Days (1998) and The Whole Hog (2000), is a rich compendium of recollections, social history, sensuous description, peppered though with an anarchic attitude and a bracing and defiant sexuality.

In this, Higgins was unusual for an Irish writer, as was his interest in literary experimentation, non-linear narrative and digression. Widely travelled and fluent in many languages, he was not afraid to use such references in his literature. But, in this, he would be consistent with the ambitions of those too little emulated Irish literary icons Joyce and Beckett. Indeed, he befriended Beckett, who encouraged him early on and helped him secure the publication of a short-story collection, Felo De Se, in 1956 by the publisher John Calder.

Higgins's breakthrough came with Langrishe Go Down (1966), an atmospheric novel about four curious sisters living in a decaying Big House in Kildare - and drawn from Higgins's own upbringing in Springfield House as part of a once prosperous (foreign mining interests) but now down-at-heel genteel Catholic family.

The novel won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and was made into a television play by Harold Pinter starring Judi Dench and Jeremy Irons.

Another novel, Balcony of Europe, followed in 1972, larger and more ambitious but also a test of readers' patience. Other novels appeared such as Scenes from a Receding Past (1977) and, most effectively, the epistolary Bornholm Night-Ferry (1983), a powerful, and adulterous, love story between Fitz, an Irish poet, and Elin, a Danish poet. Lions of the Grunewald (1993) drew upon the author's experiences in a very bawdy Berlin.

Higgins was also a great friend of my late father, the sculptor Edward Delaney, with whom he shared an anarchic humour and an old bohemian European passion, and he was a memorable visitor to our holiday home in Connemara when we were kids.

A witty and acerbic conversationalist, he seemed the epitome of Joycean sophistication, but he also played up the 'mad artist' routine and would eat fresh mackerel with the fish flecks left hanging in his beard while he stared forward with a manic smile. But he also came with new editions of his many works, including Images of Africa, a fascinating diary of his travels in Africa from 1956 to 1960. There are vivid descriptions of Belgians fleeing the Congo. He also edited A Century of Short Stories, a compendium of the form from Yeats to Beckett (and including stories by Djuna Barnes, Karen Blixen and Saul Bellow) which is inspirational in its selection and introduction.

Aidan Higgins was a prolific and dedicated artist whose ambition, intellect and rebellious spirit are qualities that will be sorely missed in our modern age. He was an Irish writer who was, mercifully, truly European in his scope and sensibility.

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