Experimental writer championed by Beckett and Banville

Aidan Higgins: March 3rd, 1927 - December 27th, 2015

 

The award-winning writer Aidan Higgins, who has died aged 88, has been variously praised for the experimental nature of his work and for being both a highly cosmopolitan and a quintessentially Irish author.

His versatile output encompassed novels, short stories, radio drama, screenplays, literary criticism, travel and autobiography.

He was born into a “minor gentry” Catholic family and raised in Springfield House, Celbridge, Co Kildare. The family’s wealth was based on copper-mining in the United States but was dwindling as he was growing up. After Celbridge Convent and Killasheee Preparatory School he attended the Jesuit-run Clongowes Wood College and then worked for a period as a copywriter for the Domas advertising agency in Dublin.

In the mid-1950s, he moved to London, where he worked at a variety of jobs, including labouring. There he met Jill Anders, whom he married in November 1955. They had three sons before eventually separating.

South Africa

In the late 1950s, they went to South Africa with a marionette company. Higgins also worked as an advertising copywriter in Johannesburg. Further travels followed, mainly to Spain, Berlin and what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). These trips were to provide him with much material for his future writings.

His first book, Felo de Sé, a short story collection, was issued in 1960 with the help of Samuel Beckett, who prevailed on his London and Paris publishers to bring it out. Beckett encouraged and helped the fledgling writer in many ways.

Higgins’s 1966 novel Langrishe, Go Down won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Irish Academy of Letters Award.

The story centres on the lives of three of the four surviving Langrishes, spinster sisters living in a decaying big house in Celbridge, focusing especially on the love affair the youngest sister, Imogen, had with a German student, Otto Beck.

Brothers in drag

The novel is autobiographical in that Higgins explained that the house is Springfield and the characters are based on himself and his three brothers “in drag”. It was adapted for television by Harold Pinter in 1978, starring Judi Dench, Jeremy Irons and Joan O’Hara.

His next major publication was Images of Africa (1971), a travel book based on his time in southern Africa. Balcony of Europe, a novel, followed the next year. It is set in Andalusia and tells of an affair between an Irish painter and a diplomat’s wife. It is notable for its stream-of-consciousness technique, similar to the final, Molly Bloom, episode in Joyce’s Ulysses.

An earlier stage in the same Irish painter’s life forms the core of the novel Scenes from a Receding Past (1977), a coming-of-age story ostensibly set in Sligo but really in Celbridge and telling of the meeting with and wooing of the wife of the earlier novel.

A second collection of short stories, Asylum and Other Stories, was published in 1978, followed by two novels, Bornholm Night-Ferry (1983) and Lions of the Grunewald (1993). The former, which again features a love affair, uses an epistolary technique, while the latter is a light-hearted romp around Europe and Berlin just before the collapse of the wall.

Other collections were Helsingor Station and Other Departures (1989) and Selected Fictions (1993). Three volumes of autobiography, Donkey’s Years (1995), Dog Days (1998) and The Whole Hog (2000) were published collectively as A Bestiary in 2004. A number of radio plays were collected and published as Darkling Plain: Texts for the Air in 2010.

Banville tribute

His work is probably now not much read, but in a tribute for this newspaper John Banville wrote: “His work, one suspects – one hopes – will be like an underground river, flowing on unnoticed for a long time and then suddenly bursting out and joining and mingling with the broad sea of a glorious tradition, where it firmly belongs.”

Aidan Higgins lived in Kinsale, Co Cork, from 1986 with the writer and journalist Alannah Hopkin. They were married in November 1997. He is survived by her and by his three sons, Carl, Julien and Elwin, from his first marriage.