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Aidan Higgins, Langrishe, Go Down; March Hares – TLS


Why do some writers of significant, or even major, fiction fail to find a secure footing in the canon? The obvious marks of achievement for an author are remaining in print, market success and critical acclaim – the extent to which writers are assimilated into the story of literature, recognized for their place in a national tradition or as part of a literary movement. For those who fail to maintain availability, sales or notice, and whose neglect seems palpably unjust, we have the much-used compensatory phrase, “a writer’s writer”. Usually offered as high accolade, indicating appreciation by an elite circle of peers, it can mask a more uncomfortable truth about the failure of critics, academics, publishers and the reading public to find room in the house of fiction for books that are held to be in some way unfamiliar, uncompromising or heterodox.

Sometimes the cause of such neglect is baffling: “Why he isn’t better known, I simply don’t understand, because he’s outstandingly good”, Philip Pullman wrote recently of his favourite overlooked writer, MacDonald Harris. Often, though, there is an observable kinship between novels that get lost along the way: many are themselves concerned with ideas of waywardness, homelessness or oddity, with marginalized people and places. All too often their portraits of obscurity are projected back on them, with the result that they are themselves neglected. One example of this treatment is the writer’s writer Christina Stead, hailed over the years by Mary McCarthy, Angela Carter and Jonathan Franzen, yet despite successive rediscoveries, never breaking through to a more general acceptance.

In some cases, overlooked novels achieve notoriety precisely because they have been left to languish at the periphery. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), falls into this category, as does Aidan Higgins’s debut novel, Langrishe, Go Down (1966), reputedly the greatest Irish novel serious readers may never have heard of. Writing in the Irish Times, Derek Mahon confirmed not just the novel’s reputation, but the author’s, as “fugitive . . . a thing of hearsay among initiates”. Langrishe concerns four sisters (one already dead) marooned outside Dublin in Springfield, one of Ireland’s decaying Big Houses. The novel is set in the 1930s as fascism creeps across Europe; the Langrishe women are creatures living at the edge of the continent and the end of their wits: ignorant, impoverished and condemned to the loneliest of spinsterhoods, which has turned them in on themselves and set them against one another. The two sisters who narrate the novel fret continually about their fall from respectability, wondering how they have arrived at a place so far beyond the pale.

With Langrishe’s latest revival by the Apollo Press, John Banville, in a new after word, has declared the book a “masterpiece”. But he also acknowledges its rough passage, quoting Higgins’s rueful observation that a fortnight after Langrishe’s publication, “sales sank to a dribble”, while Samuel Beckett’s scathing assessment – he thought it “literary shit” – did little to improve the book’s fortune. Beckett was a friend to Higgins, however. And it was on his recommendation that John Calder decided to publish the novel. The unjust evaluation was probably born of a horror of “Oirishness” – the “old-fashioned and placating nature” of Irish “yarnsters” which Higgins himself lambasts William Trevor and John McGahern for in March Hares, a posthumous collection of non-fiction from the Dalkey Archive. Perhaps Beckett felt that Langrishe failed to lift itself sufficiently out of the grip of Irish history and tradition, or to find a new form as rigorous as his own – “as cold as refrigerators” is how Higgins memorably describes Beckett’s late style in the opening salvo to March Hares, “The Hollow, The Bitter and the Mirthless in Irish Writing”.

By the time Higgins took up the pen, the authors he admired – James Joyce, Flann O’Brien and Djuna Barnes – were either dead or past their prime; the scene had moved on to the more radical formalism of the Nouveau Roman, making his high modernist style seem out of step with the era. During the postwar years, the anglophone world was slow to catch up with the demolition of “réalité” that was invigorating French fiction, Beckett being the exception: he was living as an emigré in Paris. Then, in the 1950s, Calder began publishing not only Beckett in English, but also many of the Nouveau Roman writers. By 1966, when he brought out Langrishe, ideas about exhaustion and bankruptcy were in the air. Angela Carter’s first novel, Shadow Dance, which was published at the same time, has a pervasive sense of people living in aftermath, embroiled in traditions and beliefs that are decaying or worn out. And the following year saw the publication of Frank Kermode’s influential collection, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the theory of literary fiction; written with knowledge of the Holocaust and in fear of impending nuclear war, Kermode identifies the apocalyptic strain of the literary imagination.

Aidan Higgins, by Suzy O’Mullane, 2002

Part of the problem for Higgins was the way critics placed his novel. Because of its Big House subject, historical references (James Connolly, Éamon De Valera, Constance Markiewicz, etc) and melancholy lyricism, many thought of it primarily in a national context – another brick in the wall of “old Irish miserabilism”, as Eimear McBride described the tradition recently on Radio 4 – as existing, therefore, in a space disconnected from these continental debates about literature and politics. But this is perhaps a category error: Langrishe is not an example of the isolation of Irish culture, but rather a work that critically dissects it. Disputing the novel’s reading by many reviewers, Higgins underscores this point in another piece included in March Hares. In it, he asserts, “on the subject of misunderstandings and cognate matters, may I be here permitted to state categorically that Langrishe, Go Down is not a Big House novel, nor ever was intended as such”.

John Calder, thinking back over some of the writers he championed during his (heroic) career, singled Higgins out as “greatly under appreciated”. “He is a very strange man”, Calder told an interviewer in 2013, “A great writer, though.” No doubt lack of appreciation played its part in that strangeness, leading to some of the bristliness on display in March Hares, where he returns repeatedly to the matter of Ireland’s “deeply conservative reading public”, the fantastic sales of the “sobsisters” (Nuala O’Faolain, Frank McCourt), the ever-present faces of the fashionable literati (Colm Tóibín, Roddy Doyle), his own remaindering (out of print again), and the all-too-brief mentions of his work in anthologies of Irish literature. Yet he is astute enough to understand that, for an artist, there is existential validation in being excluded: “To feel out of place is, to be sure, quite a salubrious state for a writer to find himself in”. No doubt this is why writers at the edge so often become experts in reinvention. Higgins’s own talent for redeployment and recycling – characters reappear, later memoirs replay passages from earlier fictions – is at odds with the complete lack of wherewithal demonstrated by the Langrishe sisters. He has said the women were based on himself and his brothers, who had grown up in the house that Springfield is modelled on: the sisters, he writes, were characters “in drag”. Presumably one of the reasons for changing their sex is that women more plausibly embody the “weakness” and redundancy that he was intent on exposing.

Langrishe contains some of the most poignant and beautiful writing to be found anywhere on the evanescence of time and the cycles of nature. Inlaid against this lyricism, though – as is often the case in studies of lateness – there are moments when people start to regard themselves anthropologically, and odd notes of the parodic edge into view: “Pray sir, did you ever meet a lady who is a sort of specimen of a bygone world?” Carter’s critique of Britain as a country past its sell-by date still manages to find a way forward for her characters: in the new Sixties culture of camp and cut-up, they recycle and sell off busts of Queen Victoria, clown noses and soldiers’ uniforms. But at Springfield, though the Langrishe women, cloistered in their only heated room, are also surrounded by detritus from the past – pictures of sabre-waving soldiers, a “blackamoor” statue, a sarcophagus vase-stand – these symbols remain oppressive because the stay-at-home sisters have no countering point of view, no way of learning how to flount authority or play in the ruins of their history.

The only outside voice in Langrishe comes from a German doctoral student, Otto, who takes up residence in the gatehouse, lives off the land and pays no rent – a situation the sisters, in their “stifling stasis”, are incapable of doing anything about despite a desperate need for funds. With his masterful manner and apparent knowledge of all things, Otto quickly seduces Imogen, the youngest and prettiest of the sisters, the family’s “one hope”. But because of the novel’s a-chronology, the reader knows from the outset that the hope of this affair, begun in the summer of 1933, is doomed: Langrishe opens in the winter in 1937, with the once lovely Imogen now surrounded by stout bottles, her hair and teeth falling out; it closes after two deaths and a funeral in 1939, “squashing” all hope for the Big House inhabitants and, following the Anschluss, for Europe as a whole.

“Mother Eire was never young”, Higgins writes in March Hares, chastizing Joyce for his mythologizing, and in Langrishe she is a brute, an old hag who squashes the lives of the Langrishe girls like insects. The novel ends with Imogen back in the deserted gatehouse, hiding away among “rotting wainscots” and “mildewed walls”, “spiderwebs” and “dead flies”. In another passage from March Hares, entitled “Ancestral Voices”, Higgins says (playfully, camply) of his own upbringing: “In those stagnant times how we fairly trembled before Authority!” His novel Langrishe, Go Down deserves to be more widely known, not only for its extraordinary mournful beauty, but also for its apocalyptic vision of a culture’s squandering and rottenness, for its thoroughgoing dismantling of the Irish house of fiction, and as one of the great works of European anti-authority.

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