Aidan Higgins: a very singular talent

Rob Doyle admires the work of a writer recently profiled by his widow Alannah Hopkin

 Aidan Higgins, centre, with filmmaker and writer Neil Jordan and author Dermot Healy  during Kinsale Arts Week 2008. Photograph: John Allen

Aidan Higgins, centre, with filmmaker and writer Neil Jordan and author Dermot Healy during Kinsale Arts Week 2008. Photograph: John Allen

 

Although he never became a household name even in his native land, Aidan Higgins is among the most significant and original Irish writers of the late 20th century.

Higgins died in 2015, aged 88, and now his widow, Alannah Hopkin – herself a writer of fiction, books on travel and history, and journalism – has written a remarkable and absorbing memoir of their life together.

I’ve long been a reader of Higgins, drawn to him for how he seemed an outlier in Irish writing, not least in terms of the restlessly international life he lived, and how he gave up on traditional fiction to focus instead on his experiences and the people and places he encountered.

Reading Hopkin’s book felt like being given a new way of perceiving Higgins’ body of work, showing the man and his creative life from an external yet highly intimate perspective – similar materials, cast in a wholly different style. A Very Strange Man is replete with insight on the Irish literary scene of a passing generation; on the practical, financial and psychological realities of the writing life; on marriage and intimacy; and on bohemian Kinsale, the coastal town in Co Cork where the couple first met, then bought a house together.

When she is introduced to Higgins by the poet Derek Mahon, Alannah Hopkin is the 37-year-old author of two novels published by Hamish Hamilton, at work on a book about the iconography of St Patrick. Higgins is 59, though according to Hopkin he could pass for 39. In the early stages of their love affair, she is somewhat awed by the older, more acclaimed writer. Enjoying her freedom after a painful romantic disappointment, she is determined not to lose her independence in the delirium of new love. But they soon move in together, and fall into a happy rhythm of writing in the quiet, rustic house by day, playing Scrabble in the evenings, and drinking and dining with their friends in Kinsale’s restaurants and many pubs.

It’s idyllic – up to a point. Early on, Hopkins is subjected to flashes of the sly, barbed, egotistical character that can emerge from Higgins’ autobiographical, formally freewheeling work. It gets back to her that Higgins has been belittling her abilities as a writer to mutual friends down the pub. Not that his harsh appraisal comes as a surprise – on reading one of her novels, Higgins closes the book and tells her, “Not interesting” – but his disloyalty provokes her to consider leaving him. She does not, and the portrait she paints of Higgins in A Very Strange Man is warm and loyal without being idealised.

It’s intriguing to watch the subtly shifting power dynamics between two cohabiting writers: the pangs of jealousy and ruthlessness, and ultimately, the unstinting loyalty and support. At first, Hopkin is prone to mistake Higgins’ arrogant callousness for tough love, but she uses her indignation at his slights to fuel her work – hinting that there just might have been a shrewdly nurturing instinct behind his affronts after all.

Indeed, Higgins comes across better in Hopkin’s book than he sometimes does in his own work, which gave hearty endorsement to Philip Roth’s dictum that “Literature is not a moral beauty contest”. Known in the literary world as an irascible, contrary character, Higgins tended not to hide his sourness at what he came to feel was the neglect his work suffered, while writers he considered less deserving won the applause of the Irish reading public. This sense of grievance could shade Higgins’ critical writings, yet even an admirer of his work – as I am – must conclude that he didn’t make it especially easy for himself to win popular favour.

Hopkin quotes John Banville’s assessment of Higgins as fundamentally an artist in the High Modernist mould, listing his credentials as “obsessive subjectivity, a broad range of allusive references, insistence on formal freedom, a plethora of polyglottal quotations, aristocratic disdain of the audience”. (As a young man, Higgins revered and befriended “Sam Beckett, though at the launch of his first novel, Langrishe Go Down, Beckett famously dismissed the book as “literary shit”.)

It isn’t that Higgins’ work is especially difficult. I’ve feasted on his copious output, while more conventional Irish novelists of his generation exert no comparable pull on me. There is, however, a marked tendency to formlessness in Higgins’ writing, which is both its chief disadvantage and the heart of its attractiveness. Page by page, sentence by sentence, his stories, travelogues and autofictions veer off wherever memory, sensual and erotic imagination, or Higgins’ sense of play and allusive whimsy take him. Balcony of Europe, my favourite of his works, is a sun-drenched, very long, autofictional reverie that transmutes Higgins’ romantically complicated life in the Spanish seaside town of Nerja in the 1970s. If you go to it expecting structural tautness – or, indeed, any sort of plot – you’ll be frustrated.

The same goes for later works such as The Whole Hog (part of Higgins’ trilogy of autobiographies titled Bestiary), which ambles through Berlin, South Africa, London and Higgins’ native Co Kildare. Such work welcomes a looser, less focused way of reading – you submit to a wash of sensuous evocation, half-understood allusions, snatches of conversation and lustful whisperings (who’s speaking again? It doesn’t matter…) The epistolary novel Bornholm Night Ferry – which charts Higgins’ affair with a Danish woman while he was married to his first wife – is probably a good place to start, in that the love-story-in-letters structure lends it a coherence lacking in some of his other books.

In a telling scene from Hopkin’s memoir, she accompanies Higgins to a Galway books festival to hear him read in public for the first time. It is an excruciating, overlong performance to a sparse audience, most of them on the festival staff. When he submitted book reviews to the likes of the Spectator, Guardian and Financial Times, they were “returned as ‘unusable’ due to his idiosyncratic, elliptical style”.

Both on the page and off it, we sense that Higgins either didn’t realise, or – aristocratically disdainful – didn’t care when his audience was getting restless, wishing he’d make himself clear and tell a straightforward story. This cannot be categorically written off as a failing: Higgins would not have achieved the unique kind of work he did – absorbed in memory, selfhood, digressive reverie – if he were more conventionally self-aware.

Shakti to his Shiva, Hopkin writes in a more courteous, reader-conscious way. The book reads like a novel – not just in its fluency and digestibility, but in the level of detail with which Hopkin writes about events of many years past.

Care to know what the couple had for breakfast on a trip to the Aran Islands in 1987? “A fresh mackerel fillet, lightly fried and served with home-baked soda bread.” The level of detail is explained not by a prodigious memory, but by one of the book’s formal keys: Hopkin is an inveterate taker of notes, and she draws on these, sometimes quoting from them, while doing the same with her late husband’s similarly abundant (but more elliptical!) notebooks, which she read for the first time while writing this memoir.

Occasionally she compares the two writers’ impressions of the same occurrence, such as the night they first met. Hopkin’s notes record her being thrown into tumult by the arrival of this man, which disrupts her hard-earned work rhythm and imbues a “terrible sense of things being pre-ordained, there is no escaping this fate”. For his part, Higgins noted of Hopkin that “she looked like an Italian lesbian (not that I have ever encountered one)”, and records their coitus with Beckettian brevity: “Undressed her; she me. Say 4.00am. Long dalliance. Darkness.”

It sinks in that in taking such plentiful notes over so many years, Hopkin was doing no less than preparing to write this very book – getting down its first draft. She captures well the hum of intimacy and desire in their marriage, and the challenge of living with a cast of former lovers and family who still inhabit one another’s lives (Higgins’ three sons from his previous marriage are not that much younger than Hopkin).

Over a decade into their marriage, the couple take to regularly visiting Nerja, wandering in the “scenes from a receding life” that Higgins had romantically mythologised in Balcony of Europe. Hopkin mainly takes it in her stride; the couple are delicate with each other’s feelings, and while they row and quibble, they are fiercely protective when the other is criticised by an outsider.

Hopkin loves Higgins, the man and the writer – but not all of him. She finds the prose in his novel Lions of the Grunewald “over-wrought and tiresome, and the characters too”, disdaining how Higgins’ “monstrous alter ego… delights in boasting of his bad behaviour towards his [ex-]wife”.

When the couple visit New York on a literary expedition 12 years into their life together, an excited Higgins carelessly slights her over afternoon drinks, then leaves her nursing her resentment as he introduces himself to the literary critic Denis Donoghue “in an ingratiating way”. For Hopkin, this moment marks a point of no return: “my feelings for him and his for me would never be the same again. There was a sliver of ice between us where none had been before. The honeymoon was over.”

A Very Strange Man is instructive on the ins and outs of how writers make (more accurately, eke out) a living: the advances and deadlines; the rejections; the abandoned novels; the coexistence of admiration, envy and disdain for other writers; the gnawing of ambition. Hopkin owns up to the numerous rejected novels she wrote, and sketches her contemporaries insightfully without taking vindictive swipes. (On Edna O’Brien: “Motherly, but also frail and helpless, making you want to mother her in turn… charming, but with a core of steel, interested mainly in herself and her work, and very slightly in other writers of high repute… but not the other writers also taking part in the festival.”)

Higgins, we learn, never got over a pincer-attack of bad reviews – in the Irish Times and the Sunday Tribune – for his collection of short stories Helsingør Station & Other Departures. To his mind, it was a case of “the Dublin feminists” conspiring against him. In later years, increasingly melancholy at his perceived neglect, he would respond to barstool queries about what sort of books he wrote with either, “Books that don’t sell” or, on the really bad days, “Books that nobody reads”.

The final hundred pages recount, in acutely grim detail, Higgins’ physical and cognitive decline. In 2002, as if in a premonition of the sufferings to come, he attempted suicide, explaining in a note to Hopkin that he “cannot face the long weary years when you might tire of your ever loving Moulty” (a lovers’ nickname he’d adopted).

What follows is a gruelling depiction of what will face each of us as memory gives way, reason departs, and the indignities of a second infancy accumulate. And yet, in Higgins’ final decade, there are peaks. John O’Brien, herculean founder of the Dalkey Archive Press (who died last year), and a champion of Higgins’ work for decades, republishes a multitude of his books. An 80th birthday celebration of Higgins’ work takes place in his hometown of Celbridge; this one weekend, he remarks, justifies “twenty years of neglect”.

The seemingly mundane title – a description of Higgins by his publisher John Calder – comes to feel apt. Aidan Higgins emerges from A Very Strange Man as a roguish, lovable, prickly, and somehow inscrutable figure – it’s as if he, like his prose style, was elliptical. Alannah Hopkin’s thoughtfulness and integrity shine through until the final page, in which she reconciles to a new existence without her life partner of over two decades. A Very Strange Man is an admirable work of love. It’s also among the richest accounts I’ve ever read of lives devoted to writing.

Rob Doyle’s latest work is Threshold (Bloomsbury Publishing)

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