Friday 19 January 2018

More than words from a literary giantAlthough almost blind, one of Ireland's greatest writers, Aidan Higgins, has produced an outrageous new book of just 60 pages, writes Brian Lynch

Aidan Higgins belongs in the company of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. In fact it was Sam who was instrumental in giving a start to the Kildare writer's career: he recommended him to his own publisher, John Calder, who brought out Higgins' first book, Felo de Se, in 1960.

This new book, 52 years later, is his 16th. It is a tiny thing of 60 pages – like Beckett, the older Higgins gets the more condensed his work becomes.

It could be argued that, along with John Banville, he is our greatest living prose stylist. But Banville is a Booker Prize winner and, thank the Lord, hale and hearty, whereas Higgins is old, frail and almost blind – these days, as he says here, he has difficulty telling the difference between a woman and a wheely-bin. And the nearest he ever got to the Booker was in 1972 when his extraordinary novel Balcony of Europe was shortlisted.

TV viewers with a long memory will recall that in 1978 Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter adapted Higgins' masterpiece Langrishe, Go Down for BBC and RTÉ television. Anoraks might also remember that the adaptation starred Judi Dench, as well as a promising young actor called Jeremy Irons, and Joan O'Hara, mother of the novelist Sebastian Barry.

Although that film was made so long ago, it is still enthralling viewing and the sexy young Judi Dench may be a surprise to today's mass audiences who know her best as the intimidating M in the recent Bond films. RTÉ should show Langrishe to mark Higgins's 86th birthday in March.

Recently I met a cultivated person from Kinsale and asked him did he know the writer. He had never heard of him and was amazed to hear that he has been living in that west Cork haven for years with his wife, the writer Alannah Hopkin.

Jesus Christ said a prophet is not without honour except in his own country and, as far as Higgins is concerned, Jesus Christ was right.

The reason why he is neglected isn't hard to find: his character is complex; he moves fast but he writes slow; the reader has to work to keep up with him.

But neglect has a comic side to it and as a consequence Higgins can be wonderfully funny. In a way, the funniest thing about Blind Man's Bluff is that its central joke is hidden from the author: this is a book about images, many of them cartoons and drawings made by Higgins in better days, but which he cannot now see.

Visual art, especially painting and photography, has always been central to his imagination. Like Joyce and Beckett, he is obsessed with words. But, unlike them, the words often depend on pictures. This prophet of comic gloom is a seer. And he is subtle. Take, for example, the photograph at the start of the book which shows the future novelist as an infant in his pram. Higgins tells us that his family home (a mile outside Celbridge) was near the Collegiate Girls' School and a farm owned by the local postman, Jem Brady.

Aidan must have been a hypersensitive baby – when he passed girls from the school out for a walk he was, he says, "acutely embarrassed . . . and blushed to the roots of my hair".

Then he remembers being taken "in my black-hooded pram, that most funereal looking thing", into Celbridge and finding the village flooded. The Liffey had overflowed its banks, "the bridge with five arches was under water" – and Jem Brady was missing.

That's the end of the story. It's hard to see the point of it. But then, seven pages later, Higgins tells another story, this time about his "lackadaisical father, as lazy as they come, [who] ran a stable for racehorses".

One day his father remarked to a neighbour that he had seen a rat in the stables. The neighbour said: "Of all the birds in the air, I do hate a rat."

This was Jem Brady. Later he drowned himself in a flooded quarry. The story is funny but it comes with the memory of the baby's "funereal" pram.

A few pages later Higgins tells us that he twice tried to commit suicide. One attempt, by a lake in Berlin, was bizarre: he intended to anaesthetise himself with vodka before slashing his ankles, but instead he drank the vodka and went home.

There are other stories here almost as gruesome but more light-hearted. I especially like the one set in a Chinese restaurant "sparsely populated except for a couple of Cork men rather loudly discussing private affairs, as is the way with Corkonians". Their tobacco fumes were annoying Higgins, so he said to them: "Smoking to me is as offensive as farting."

In a family newspaper I cannot report the epithet one of the men then applied to him, but Higgins' reply, broadcast to the restaurant, indicates what the word was clearly enough: "He has a queer notion of gender if he thinks men have one. Though I wouldn't put it past you."

This is an outrageous little book and the Dalkey Archive Press is selling it at an outrageously inflated price. But it's as dense as a cube of Oxo, 10 times sadder, a hundred times more amusing, and worth every penny.

Brian Lynch's novel The Winner of Sorrow is published in Ireland by New Island Books and in America by the Dalkey Archive Press.

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