Tuesday 27 September 2016

Obituary: Aidan Higgins

An intelligent 'aristocrat' whose prose of memory was truthful, supple and wonderfully funny

Brian Lynch

Published 03/01/2016 | 02:30

Genius: Aidan Higgins liked to keep quiet about his brains Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney / Provision
Genius: Aidan Higgins liked to keep quiet about his brains Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney / Provision

"Yeats, it was easy for you to be frank,

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… you never put the tank

On a race. Ah! Cautious man whom no sin depraves."

Patrick Kavanagh's pot-shot at our greatest poet could never have been fired at Aidan Higgins. When it came to writing, Higgins, who died on December 27 aged 88, was not a cautious man: he repeatedly bet the tank, everything he had, on his own genius. Now that his race is run he can be declared "Winner All Right".

Higgins was no rank outsider - but rankness, the stink of things gone off, was always in his nostrils. Smells, sights, sounds, as well as the touch and feel of things, particularly in sexual love, what he called "the game of laugh and lie down", were all in all to him. He was, like Proust, a thorough-going sensualist.

But he also took pleasure in the movements of the mind. On hearing of his death, the writer Neil Donnelly, who is making a documentary about Higgins and has rare footage of him, said he was "the most intelligent man I ever met". But Higgins kept quiet about his brains: he once appeared on an RTE television programme with a panel of other Irish artists, including Flann O'Brien and Ronnie Drew of The Dubliners, and uttered not a single word. That was not shyness; it was the manner of an aristocrat.

If Higgins the author had hauteur, he inherited it from his family. They were Catholic, not Protestant like the peculiarly sinless Willy Yeats. The Higginses were, literally, minted: copper, mined on the Mexican border near the town of Tombstone, Arizona, was the source of their wealth.

Aidan was brought up in style in Springfield House, near Celbridge, in Kildare, but the money soon ran out. "We are paupers like the rest of you, except we live in a big house and enjoy credit. But we can't pay our bills any more. There's nothing to eat in the place except a few maggoty snipe hanging up in the larder. For all the eating we do, we might just as well not eat at all."

The quotation comes from Langrishe Go Down, Higgins's first novel. Published in 1966, it was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (the equivalent then of the Man-Booker Prize now) and in 1978 Harold Pinter adapted it for BBC TV - it featured a very young Judi Dench and an even younger Jeremy Irons.

It is, as John Banville wrote in the New York Review of Books, "a bitter fate for a novelist to be best known for his first work". On the other hand, we should keep in mind, as Banville pointed out, that when a thick-skinned interviewer remarked to Joseph Heller that he had not written anything better than his first book, Catch-22, Heller said, "Who has?"

Langrishe is commonly held to be Higgins's masterpiece. But that is a mistake - the borders between it and the rest of his work should not be drawn so strictly. Anyway, Higgins was not really a novelist at all. The form bothered him. He had trouble making up stories. The four Langrishe sisters, for example, are, as Higgins said, "my brothers and myself in drag". He was, rather, a Memory Man, a describer of his own past. "I am," he said, "consumed by memories and they form the life of me."

As it happens, much of what Higgins remembers relates to Ireland - if you want to know what it felt like to be Irish (at home and abroad) in the 20th Century read A Bestiary, his three volumes of autobiography gathered together in one 742-page volume.

It is not meant to be swallowed whole. Nothing in Higgins' work is. He is more like a poet, best read a page at a time.

After the success of Langrishe Go Down everything went uphill for Higgins. Despite his second novel, Balcony of Europe, being shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1972, he regarded it as a failure.

The rejection was hasty. A revised edition of the Balcony, published by the Dalkey Archive Press in 2010, reveals it to be "an interesting and valuable (if somewhat flawed) alternative to the conventional realism of most of his peers". The quotation comes from an insightful essay in the Irish University Review by Kevin O'Farrell, who approaches the book by way of Edmund Husserl's phenomenology. Not the least of Higgins' achievements is that he can be read by the phenomenologists and the plain people alike.

In the words of Dan Ruttle, its randy hero, the Balcony explores "the wonderful dangerous intensification of feeling that comes with lying and cheating in love". That is a moral judgement. It is also a Catholic one. When Higgins the non-hero refers sardonically to "the Jesuit fiction of the world's order and essential goodness" we are reminded that, like James Joyce, he was educated by the Jays at Clongowes.

Higgins's relationship with Joyce's chief disciple, Samuel Beckett, is revealing. Beckett not only persuaded John Calder to publish Felo de Sé, a collection of Higgins's short stories, in 1956, he also helped the impoverished young writer with gifts of money. And even earlier he gave him advice - it was an unheard-of thing for the future Nobel Prizewinner to do. The advice, which came in handwriting so cramped and spiky Higgins's mother had to decipher the letter for her son, was typical Beckett: "Despair young and never look back."

Higgins was grateful for the attention and so overcome with awe of his idol that when they first met, in London in 1955, he threw up. And yet by 1970, Higgins was writing that he detected in Beckett's early novel Molloy a "balls-aching bordeom with fictional themes". At the time he was writing Balcony of Europe, so in slamming Sam, Higgins was probably hitting at himself. He was caught in a dilemma: conventional storytelling was boring and trying to disguise the tedium with style wasn't working either. It was a fight he fought all his life.

Although Higgins kept up the pretence of being a novelist for many years after - the Bornholm Night-Ferry (1983), for instance, and Lions of the Grunewald (1993) - it gradually became clear to him, I think, that the best things in them, and in himself, were truths about his past.

Truth-telling, remarkable intelligence, a marvellously supple prose style, and a sense of comedy that can make the reader laugh out loud were not his only gifts.

The central quality of his genius is revealed in something he wrote in 1995:

"I once asked Beckett his opinion of Joyce, in one word. He didn't hesitate: 'Probity', said Sam stoutly. I've heard it defined as a ferocious application to the task in hand."

Aidan Higgins was a fierce man entirely.

Brian Lynch's second novel 'The Woman Not The Name' was published in 2013. He is a member of Aosdána

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