Aidan Higgins, probably the finest Irish novelist since Beckett, died on Sunday aged 88. To mark his sad passing, I thought I’d reblog this piece I wrote for the Guardian Books Blog in 2008:
The James Frey controversy once again opened up the age-old debate on where the borderline between “truth” and “fiction” in a writer’s use of their own life as material should lie. It’s a question that is forced to the front of my mind whenever I read anything by my favourite Irish novelist since Beckett, the wonderful but sadly neglected Aidan Higgins.
Higgins’ answer would appear to be that the borderline lies wherever the author decides it does. You don’t have to read his books if you don’t want to, but you cannot tell him what to do with his materials, or how he should label the results. His fictions are based on his own life, his memoirs are fictionalised.
Born in 1927 into an impoverished “big house” in Celbridge which was unusual for being Roman Catholic, Higgins lived in England, Spain, South Africa, Rhodesia (both North and South) and Germany, before winding up in Kinsale. His first novel, Langrishe, Go Down, is set in a Catholic “big house” family in Celbridge, which differs from the author’s own family in that the Langrishe offspring are all daughters. The book won awards and was adapted for the BBC by Harold Pinter. It looked like Higgins was set to be a successful literary novelist.
However, his next novel, Balcony of Europe, saw Higgins abandon the conventions of plot and characterisation that had made Langrishe so attractive in favour of an apparently more formless type of narrative writing. Balcony is a first person tale of Dan Ruttle, an Irish painter living in relative poverty in the bohemian community of Nerja, in Andalusia. Ruttle is undergoing an affair with an English diplomat’s wife that precipitates the collapse of his own marriage. Ruttle is, essentially, Higgins lightly disguised and the book, with its blurring of the lines between fact and fiction and order and chaos, serves as a template for the rest of Higgins’ output to date.
Higgins is essentially a novelist of memory and its unreliability. His protagonists are generally alienated from each other by shared experiences differently remembered. He admires Beckett and applies Beckettian methods to a fictional world that more nearly resembles the quotidian than the older writer’s does. Crucially, despite their mutual incomprehension his characters are more like real people than Beckett’s and he admits the importance, the almost redemptive quality, of sexual love into his fictional universe. His 1983 novel Bornholm Night-Ferry is the story of two adulterous lovers, Finn Fitzgerald, an Irish novelist, and Elin Marstrander, a Danish poet. The couple’s affair begins in Nerja and their relationship continues through a series of letters and a number of fruitless meetings. Unfortunately, they manage to construct mutually incompatible fictions out of their shared experiences, with inevitable consequences.
Everything that I have said about Higgins’ fiction can also be said of his three volumes of memoirs, Donkey’s Years, Dog Days, and The Whole Hog, collected as A Bestiary. The books include family photographs from Higgins’ Celbridge childhood and we learn early on that the house he grew up in had previously belonged to a family called Langrishe. The memoirs include retellings of many of the sources of Higgins’ fiction.
However, everything in the memoirs is not what it seems. The protagonist’s family members are not actually named, but referred to by pet name. More interesting still is that this protagonist turns out to be someone called Rory of the Hills, yet another Higgins alter ego. In fact, the memoirs are effectively an inverse of the novels; they are fictions disguised as factual accounts.
Boundaries between truth and lies, memoir and fiction simply don’t matter. It’s an approach that has not won Higgins a mass readership, and without risk-taking publishers such as Calder and the Dalkey Archive his books would never have been published at all. I suppose he can take some consolation in the fact that having fewer readers makes it less likely that he’ll be sued by an irate literalist.