Life as Story Told

ESSAY: Thanks to the efforts of an American imprint dedicated to keeping important work in print, the Irish writer Aidan Higgins…

ESSAY:Thanks to the efforts of an American imprint dedicated to keeping important work in print, the Irish writer Aidan Higgins may yet reach a wider readership, says poet DEREK MAHON, one of the contributors to a festschrift in his honour

Balcony of Europe By Aidan Higgins Dalkey Archive, 425pp. $15.95

Darkling Plain By Aidan Higgins Dalkey Archive, 520pp. £12.99

Aidan Higgins: The Fragility of Form Ed. Neil Murphy Dalkey Archive, 358pp. $29.95

Thanks to the efforts of an American imprint dedicated to keeping important work in print, the Irish writer Aidan Higgins may yet reach a wider readership, says poet Derek Mahon, one of the contributors to a festschrift in his honour

Balcony of Europe(John Calder, 1972), its author Aidan Higgins reported in 1995, was out of print and would remain so. It was a failure: "it presumes too much". But better thoughts prevailed and here it is again, reduced by a fifth from the loose baggy monster it once was. Gone are 50 pages of Dublin prologue and Aran epilogue, for use elsewhere; gone the "rejected epigraphs", some of the epistolary matter and nine shortish chapters by my count. The result is a much more manageable book, one that reads more like a novel and less like a demanding literary experience. Higgins's object, evidently, was to highlight the central narrative, and in this he succeeds admirably. No longer overwhelmed with information and digressions, we can concentrate on the people, the story and the picture of Spain in the 1960s. Everything is in clearer focus and moves more briskly, though not so briskly that we lose the ruminative dimension. This new, trim Balcony was an inspired initiative by Dalkey Archive (Illinois), his current publisher. Their list, dedicated to keeping important work in print, contains Henry Green, Céline and American authors including Creeley, Barthelme and Higgins's heroine, Djuna Barnes – from whom, in part, he learned his spirited, ceremonious prose.

It's 1962-3 and we are in Spain, at the seaside town of Nerja, east of Málaga, where the Ruttles, Dan and Olivia, are spending a year or two. Dan is an Irish artist, Olivia a New Zealander. Nerja has the makings of an artistic colony. Expats of various nationalities have settled there including some Americans. Dan, the first-person narrator, gets involved with one of these, Charlotte née Lipski, a married woman with a small daughter. The affair takes its course. Olivia is not pleased. The husband, Bob, divines the truth; eventually Bob and Charlotte move on. Did I make it all up, wonders Dan: "I dreamed her as she dreamed me". One of Higgins's principal themes, the fictionality of the past, is in play here; Gone with the Wind, ("con Clark Gable y Vivien Leigh"), is showing at the Cine Olympia. Also the fictionality of the present, the idea that events are imagined even as they happen. Dan has a life-altering experience, but is it real life or a vivid yarn, "life as story told"? Introspective to the point of solipsism, he seems quite capable of inventing the whole thing; you wouldn't put it past him. But Charlotte is real, so palpably real that you indeed wonder why, as Neil Murphy suggests in an afterword, Dan hasn't painted her many times over. An air of hallucination hangs over much of the rest despite, paradoxically, the high resolution of individual scenes and objects. We could be watching an arthouse movie (Buñuel? Polanski?): "The house flies were sinking and rising, going at odd tangents, and a bluebottle banged against the walls like a charge of electricity. I too felt charged and heated. On the draining-board a halved lemon was decomposing."

Dan is undoubtedly a painter. He has a Crucifixion on his easel, his art-historical expertise is noticeable; but he lives like a writer, filling pages rather than canvases. His word pictures are in high definition: “Terraces in chromatic colours, never dull, even on overcast days. Three or four breaks in the cliff, sable and greens, a windbreak of high cane. A couple of long-boats, their fishing days over, disintegrate on the sand. They have, in the prow, the rough outline of the jaw mandibles of gibbons, a design prevailing unchanged since the Phoenicians occupied Málaga.” He describes events as they occur; his desk (his easel) is a café table. Much of the action takes place around the old Balcón de Europa bar, now a hotel; the book is as boozy as The Sun Also Rises if not quite Under the Volcano. This is all very much of its period, though the expatriate frolic was already an old story when Balcony appeared.

Higgins writes elsewhere: “The Nerja of that time no longer exists. Gone the way of Torremolinos, gone the way of the world”. But the American dimension gives him a means to look at a broader canvas, the Cold War era. (The US military presence in Spain commenced in 1958, with an air-force base at Morón de la Frontera, within reach of the Algerian rising, just in case).

One recurrent feature is Dan’s fascination with Charlotte’s Polish-Jewish family background, and there’s a horrible old Nazi in the opening section who inveighs against “over-tender” humanistic feelings: “The Jews have only themselves to blame” and so on.

We never forget that this is Franco’s Spain. History and geopolitics are constantly in evidence; the roar of US warplanes is frequently heard, especially at moments of lovemaking. As always with Higgins, we see the larger picture, the personal in the context of the political. Which raises the question of Dan’s attitude to women.

These were pre-feminist times; Dan’s gaze is that of an artist: “I entered and found Olivia lying naked on the covers, reading a book and smoking a Celtas through a long amber holder, her bison-brown hair confined in two braids as the Andalusian girls wear it. Her dimpled back, her bare backside, conferred a look of innocence that her posture and physical development denied”. Boucher and Gauguin are mentioned. Balcony is a profoundly erotic work, thoughtfully erotic, the eroticism contained by a devotional disposition towards women; towards, in fact, the phenomena of the world and what he calls, in a striking phrase, “the seminal substance of the universe”.

Striking phrases abound, as you would expect from Higgins: “The elegant poverty of Mediterranean fishermen”; “Apostles snoring in Gethsemane”. Murphy speaks of “gripping and insightful prose-poem images”, and there are many, some perfectly simple: one chapter begins, “As we walked in Málaga in the Alameda gardens, her hand touched mine”. This highly charged novel is made up of these images. Episodic, shaped and framed by a fastidious consciousness and lit by the Andalusian sun, it glows with lyrical chiaroscuro (and would indeed make an excellent film). Good to see it back in print.

THE NOVELS ARE NOTABLE for their visual qualities, but there’s an auditory Higgins too. During his Berlin time he developed an interest in experimental radio as favoured by the German networks, and his own experiments in the genre are collected, with other material, in Darkling Plain (“Texts for the Air”), now published for the first time. Mostly BBC commissions, these were broadcast in the 1970s and 1980s when he lived in London. (He now lives in Kinsale.) Radio drama as an original art form is largely a thing of the past (at the BBC they talk about “plays to iron by”), so there’s an archival air about these pieces now, however lively in themselves.

Higgins, in this phase, took the medium very seriously. Punctilious in the matter of sound directions, he uses all the tricks of the trade: cacophony, polyphony, voiceover, tannoy, music various and recondite, the natural world: "At dusk, the din of grackles . . . (Grackles louder)" (Boomtown, Texas); "Berlin Zoo, hurdy-gurdy, Ku-damm traffic, muted"; "Water lapping on Wannsee, sound of swans gobbling; wind" (Zoo Station). One of the best things here is Discords of Good Humour, a knockabout but valuable symposium starring Myles na gCopaleen. Did he hold political opinions? "[Anthony] Cronin: No. (Decisive.) What he had was a rate-payer's opinions." Higgins, whom Myles takes for a technician, praises At Swim-Two-Birds. "You should know better," says Myles, "a Christian Brothers boy like you." (Higgins went to Clongowes.)

Daniel Jerningham, who edits the “ear plays”, also contributes to the Fragility festschrift, as do Higgins himself, Annie Proulx, John Banville and Gerry Dukes. George O’Brien, in Questions of Travel, remarks on Higgins’s “documentary quiddity”, an important point that goes some way towards mitigating the occasional charge of ivory towerism. Wherever he is – South Africa, Denmark, Greystones – he is acutely alive to ambient circumstance, back story, the state of the world. He was never an ivory tower man, not even in Langrishe, Go Down, though perhaps he is something of an “elitist” – a designation he would, I suspect, be proud to endorse, so long as we recognize the radical nature of this elitism. He has been called the “missing link” between high modernism and the present. His reputation for much of his working life has been a fugitive one, a thing of hearsay among initiates, if I may quote from my own not very extensive contribution. In any case it’s a pleasure to be in such discriminating company and to know that, thanks to the enthusiasm of a few over the years, a wider readership may yet cease to regard him as a cult figure and do itself the favour of getting to know the work.

Derek Mahon's new poetry collection, An Autumn Wind, is due from The Gallery Press this month