Langrishe, Go Down by Aidan Higgins review: a modernist classic
Half a century on, Aidan Higgins’s debut novel remains bold, expressive and daring
Aidan Higgins in his garden in Kinsale, Co Cork residence. Photograph: Billy MacGill
Langrishe, Go Down
A dying woman stands in a mossy graveyard, having made the effort to visit the family plot. It wasn’t easy finding the exact place where her parents and the first to die of her three sisters are buried. Memory is offering some level of comfort but not much as she struggles for a sense of cohesion in a mind busy with thoughts, both sombre and practical. The mood of melancholic disconnection has already been established. As she had sat on the Dublin bus returning home to Kildare, enduring the communal stench and the trite small talk around her, Helen had attempted to read the Evening Herald; the news was grim.
Upheaval in Spain with further bombing and closer to home a man accused of murdering his girlfriend was pleading insanity. There was also that farmer whose cattle had died in the snow from feeding on yew trees.
She reads on; madmen on the rise in Germany, while good old Australia had retained the Ashes. Her stomach is contracting and she fears she will vomit, there on the bus. It is 1937, and the world is also in a bad way. “Full of calamities, real or imaginary, impending or completed. The heavy wheels ran on. Let it, she thought, let it be. Let it all happen, and as violently as possible – with the utmost ferocity. Let it snow, too. She would not live to see another war.”
Aidan Higgins (1927-2015) was shaped by tradition, the one he had inherited from James Joyce, with nods to Samuel Beckett and Elizabeth Bowen, and the wider European vision he absorbed and from which he was able to select freely. If one word describes his work it is easeful. Higgins doesn’t struggle: he peruses. There is a saunter and a swagger consolidated by a wealth of reading and travel. In his sophisticated debut novel, Langrishe, Go Down, published in 1966, Higgins took a defining theme of Irish literature, the death throes of the big house, and made it wonderful and strange, somewhat painful and so ironic. Most of all he gave it a singular life in a narrative that stands boldly and movingly between Brian Moore’s masterpiece, The Lonely Passion of Judith Herne, published more than a decade earlier, in 1955, and the work of Jennifer Johnston, which was to follow. The most obvious comparison, though, must be John Banville’s admittedly slighter and more stylistically concentrated novella, The Newton Letter (1982), which also explores an unequal relationship based on desperation and self-deception.
Not that Helen is deceiving herself. She is far too aware of everything: the past, the present and the messy future, which will further implode in her wake. “Those who are dead now lie in earth, the living linger here; so much the worse for them,” she muses. The quietly heroic, doomed Helen is a remarkable creation; she is the prevailing presence. Resentful, reflective and intelligent, for all her reserve and possibly because of her tormented inner life, she proves unexpectedly sympathetic.
As she stares at death she remains aware of the social complications of being alive. On hearing approaching footsteps, she quickly steps away from the Langrishe plot, “not wishing to be associated with her own dead”. An old man arrives, moving slowly and heavily, armed with a gardening fork. In one of the many superb images made vivid by Higgins’s daunting lightness of touch, this man’s approach is heralded by a “miniature” whirlwind which “danced on the path, spinning on its tail. Then, its energy spent, it collapsed at her feet, leaves, dust and straw”.
Intent on his not thinking that she has come to mourn, Helen is, and will be, proud and private to the end. She lies and claims: “I was just admiring the ruins.” It is all the motivation the old man requires and off he goes on a monologue – rendered phonetically by Higgins ever alert to the authenticity of speech as spoken – interspersed with descriptive writing of rare eloquence. Story is the old man’s great refuge; fact and snatches of anecdote as well as his memory sustain him. “He went on talking, his tongue wagging over the history of Ireland. He had lost his son in the Great War. ‘Oh dear God, but it was a terrible war,’ the old man said. ‘Terrible murder. The muddle and the filt and the cowld. Me son Tom, God rest his sowl, seen grown min in the trinches cryin with the cowld.’ ” Helen listens and a thought strikes her. “He thinks I am a Protestant. Let him.”
ig house Those two short sentences effectively place the novel within its social context. The remaining Langrishe sisters inhabit Springfield, a decaying b
ig house, and as Catholics, the family’s mining fortune gone, all they have left is the mystique that clings to them, at least in the eyes of the locals.
Higgins makes effective use of the silent soundtrack of unspoken thoughts that often undercut conversation. Helen is sickened by the cloying deference: “Will you let me be? 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 anymore . . . I have no life in me.”
Meanwhile as Helen continues her slow odyssey in what is one of Irish fiction’s most assured sequences of thematic writing, her youngest sister, the alcoholic Imogen, furtively revisits the agony of the love affair that briefly gave her a sense of self only to destroy her. Her path to memory rests in a bundle of love letters that were never posted to their intended recipient.
Langrishe, Go Down, is widely known to be based on the Higgins family. The writer grew up in a Kildare family of four brothers, also Catholic, also living in a decaying grand house. The novel grew from a story, Killachter Meadow, which was published in 1961. Higgins is a flamboyant stylist and as is apparent from Windy Arbours, a volume of his collected criticism, which was published in 2005, his literary range of reference is impressive. But there is more to it than that; he possessed a boundless literary confidence, almost an impatience as well as supreme daring.
The action shifts five years back in time, to 1932, and dreamy, vague Imogen is given her first and only experience of romance. Her suitor is Otto Beck, a selfish and arrogant pedant intent on his own needs. Beck is a brilliant monster, a bitter parasite convinced of his genius. This long middle section of the novel is dominated by Imogen’s affair. Her genteel resistance initially appears to mirror Helen’s staunch courage. Yet Imogen, no Molly Bloom, is not strong. The relationship, played out with some tenderness, much rancour, is told from her viewpoint. Higgins consistently and convincingly describes Beck, as a man and as an elusive love object, through a woman’s eyes. It is quite astonishing; an Irish male writer in the 1960s achieved such an astute miracle of perception. Imogen gradually realises that her only hold on Beck is sexual and when that wanes, she is lost. All that is left is memory. True to her personality, she blames herself and her dismissal of him, compounded by a final, despairing gesture that simply eased his departure.
Helen has no such regrets although she is left contemplating: “A blameless life. How perfectly useless everything seems towards the end of a blameless life . . .”
Half a century since its publication, Langrishe, Go Down remains bold, expressive and daring, a narrative that could as easily be two novels, two stories. Curiously the third surviving sister, Lily, is completely undeveloped. Yet it is the inner cohesion, the shared tragedy and the collective memories, flickering and merging, which make what is a self-consciously impressionistic mood novel, largely about two people with vastly differing aspirations, so much more. It is a defining great Irish novel; in fact, it is a defining international modernist novel that resonates with dark and very human intent.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent