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A Very Strange Man: A Memoir of Aidan Higgins – A marriage in close-up

Alannah Hopkin is clear-eyed and candid on her life in Kinsale with fellow writer Higgins

A Very Strange Man: A Memoir of Aidan Higgins
A Very Strange Man: A Memoir of Aidan Higgins
Author: Alannah Hopkin
ISBN-13: 978-1848407930
Publisher: New Island
Guideline Price: €17.95

One day in 1995, as I was reading Donkey’s Years: Memoirs of a Life as Story Told, a new book by Aidan Higgins, I realised that the author had done something strange. He had taken one of the best sections of his novel Balcony of Europe, published in 1972, removed the word Ruttle, the name of the protagonist, and replaced it with Higgins, and reprinted it as memoir.

How should it matter? The section, as I read it in the novel, was filled with detailed observation and sharp noticing. The writing was exquisite, the tenderness in the tone was coupled with something sour and unsparing of both the self and the world around it. In the preface to her memoir, Alannah Hopkin writes: “Aidan was one of the great stylists of the late twentieth century.” Anyone who wonders about this should read that twice-used episode or the opening section – the scene on the bus – in Higgins’s novel Langrishe, Go Down (1966).

Hopkin was introduced to Higgins by Derek Mahon in 1986, when she was 37 and he was 59. She was living in Kinsale, working as a journalist. She had published two novels.

Hopkin has written a subtle and memorable book about her marriage to Higgins, but she has also, as though by implication, drawn a picture of her own interior life. She has Higgins’s diaries to jog her memory, but she also has her own. He notes, for instance, that “she looked like an Italian lesbian (not that I have ever encountered one)”. In her book, she conjures up an entire world of feeling. She makes their sudden falling in love, for example, into something immediate, fresh and palpable.


Loyal and funny

Hopkin emerges all the more strongly in these pages as kind, sensuous, smart, loyal and funny because she does not make any obvious effort to present herself at all. Her intense way of looking outward allows us to see what lives within her all the more clearly.

As much as the book, especially the first half, is a love song to the man she married, it is also Hopkin’s hymn of praise to the town of Kinsale and to the landscape of west Cork. It is hard to think of a book in which an Irish town emerges as so easy to live in, so tolerant and embracing.

Hopkin writes well about the freelance life, the waiting for cheques and contracts, with money always running out. Eventually, courtesy of a county council mortgage, they manage to buy a small house in the town centre and do it up.

Higgins was known to be irascible, easy to offend, but also charming, eccentric, independent-minded. Those who received postcards from him tended to be left in no doubt what he thought about many matters, including other writers.

Hopkin had the ambiguous pleasure of reading his work for the first time – including his novel Bornholm Night-Ferry (1983), which describes a love affair: “It was a bizarre experience, to be reading this vivid account of the man I had just fallen I love with, falling deeply in love with someone else.”

Putting down roots

As they attend literary events and travel to the Aran Islands and Spain, Hopkin takes pleasure in every new moment, writing about Higgins as an occasionally cranky but intriguing companion, a man obsessed with what memory does and how it can be rendered in prose, a man who had lived in South Africa and Spain, London and Berlin, now putting down roots, as though for the first time.

But she is also alert to what it means to be married to someone as single-minded as Higgins. When she meets the wife of another writer, the woman “recognized a familiar in me, another woman with a life of her own, striving to find a way to be the companion of a larger-than-life, dominant character who loved to hold the floor”.

Hopkin quotes Higgins in the epilogue of The Whole Hog (2000), a third volume of autobiography: “Age does us no favours. Advancing years do not bring serenity.” She can pinpoint a moment in New York, eight years into their relationship, when, as he ignored her and fawned over a critic, he was no longer the man she had known.

She charts, then, his slow disintegration – he gradually loses his sight, for example – and her own efforts to deal with him as physical frailty was followed by the beginning of dementia. In his diary for Christmas 2000, spent in Spain (a diary now lodged in the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas), she reads: “Too fearful to look over balcony five stories up. Down and down, the compass needle dead on terror. Can hardly open a door, order coffee, calculate the correct tip, find the way home. Helpless. A vacancy of spirit, a terror of the unknown, the foreign here and now whose language you cannot speak.” She read this in 2019, but “had no idea of the extent of his suffering at that time”.

Devastating moment

She notes the devastating moment when a friend says: “You do realise, he’s not going to get better? He’ll always be psychotic from now on; it’s his age.” And then she writes: “So now ‘the shrink’ was added to the round of medical appointments, eye, heart and head, pills and eye drops, uppers and downers, round and round and round, the waiting rooms, the hospital corridors, and, in between, calming interludes for me, wandering among the tidy racks of new clothes in the Bishopstown Dunnes Stores.”

She describes how easy it was to lose hope, run out of patience. Kinsale helped: “I would come home wondering where he was and find a message on the answering machine saying ‘Aidan is outside the Blue Haven in his dressing gown and slippers, looking a bit lost.’ Thank God for small towns.”

When she finds a good local nursing home, the relief is tempered by his interest, on her visits, in being taken home. During all these difficult years, she earns a living as a freelance journalist and writes a book of stories, The Dogs of Inishere.

She quotes from her own diary on December 14th, 2015, just less than two weeks before Higgins died: “I have two moods, one very bad, in which I’ve had enough … And the other mood, which is grieving – for the man he once was, the man I loved and married, the man who made me feel loved and appreciated. Though that man is long departed, only traces remain, but I still miss him, and I am sad it’s turned out like this.”

In A Very Strange Man, Hopkin is unflinching about how hard things became, but there is another side of the book that does justice to the adventure on which she embarked when she met Aidan Higgins in 1986. She emphasises in a tone that is clear-eyed and candid, but generous too and wise, how vivid those years seem; they are rich and textured as she recreates them here.