An odd little gem.
My review of two recent books by Augustus Young is live on the Dublin Review of Books. The books in question are:
Brazilian Tequila: A Journey into the Interior, by Augustus Young, Matador, 160 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-1785899874
The Invalidity of all Guarantees: A Conversation between Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin (1934), by Augustus Young, Labyrinth Books (2017), 222 pp, £6.31, ISBN: 978-1872468853
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.
I have a piece on the Guardian Books blog about how the Internet may make Joyce’s baroque masterpiece easier to read.
The Glass Ocean by Lori Baker, Virago. £8.99 Sterling.
A young woman sits down to write her life story, which is the story of her parents and of her grandparents, with scant sources to draw on. She has a photograph of her mother, her father’s drawings, diaries and letters, and her memories, more or less accurate, more or less complete. From these she will construct a narrative to explain herself to herself, as best she can. She’s supposed to be setting out on a journey, and her travelling companion is growing impatient, wants to be off, can’t see why the delay is needed.
Her parents’ story is summed up in a single sentence; ‘They met at sea, they were at sea, they parted by sea.’ Like the narrative as a whole, this summary is not necessarily factually accurate, but it is essentially true. Carlotta Dell’oro’s parents met while a sea voyage was being planned. Her mother, Clotilde, was the daughter of naturalist/collector Felix Girard, her father, Leo, is to be ship’s artist on Felix’s latest, last voyage of exploration. Leo is shy, awkward and obsessed by Clotilde; she is acerbic, a touch cruel, and equally obsessed with her Papa. As the voyage unfolds, they circle round each other, each lovesick in their own way.
And then Felix disappears, presumed dead. Clotilde and Leo end up married and living in Leo’s native Whitby in a house called the Birdcage. Leo decides to learn glassmaking to try to bring his drawings of strange sea creatures to a kind of life; meanwhile Clotilde pines for Papa and indulges in a little mercenary adultery with his new boss as she begins to plot her escape from this new life. On land, they are all at sea.
The Glass Ocean is a novel of dislocation. None of the characters is capable of actually knowing any of the others, except as characters in stories. Leo cannot see that Clotilde is planning to leave, she can’t see that he is nearer to being like her father than she is, Carlotta can see some of what’s happening, but cannot articulate it. Inevitably the bonds between these people are in some sense provisional. Felix abandons the life of a French surgeon that his wife’s family planned for him and she in turn, abandons him. He then abandons Clotilde and she, in her turn, abandons Carlotta and Leo. Leo abandons his Italian immigrant family to go to sea, even his sister Anna, to whom he was especially close. In death, he abandons his daughter, too.
And yet… The final impetus, the push that causes Clotilde to leave, is the discovery of a map that indicates that Felix’s disappearance was planned and that he may be still alive. This drive to find him is perhaps her first fully volitional act since his disappearance. It also leads to the book’s resolution, an equally willed and integrative decision by Carlotta, the journey she is about to set off on.
The world of the Victorian naturalist is endlessly fascinating, a world in which science, obsession, showmanship and commerce, frequently shady enough, overlapped to form the basis of modern life sciences. It’s a world that Baker depicts with affection and no little insight. Sensibly, she has avoided writing in a kind of Victorian pastiche; apart from occasional sentences in direct speech, the book is written in a reasonably neutral dialect, without place or time, capable both of great poetry and of clear-headed matter-of-factness.
If you approach novels expecting realism, you might be inclined to question how a neglected and uneducated child could produce anything quite so coherent, but this would be to miss the point entirely. As mentioned earlier, this story is explicitly a fiction, a demonstration, on one level, that all the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are fictional. Carlotta Dell’oro is both an unreliable narrator and a conscientious one. She makes no attempt at disguising the fact that she frequently has to imagine what must have happened where she has no way of knowing what did.
She, or rather Baker, is also careful not to indulge too much in easy literariness. At one point when she finds herself creating an extended bit of pathetic fallacy, she immediately undercuts it with a blunt ‘nobody’s mood controls the weather, not really’. This awareness of what she is about permeates Carlotta’s narrative style throughout.
It is to Baker’s great credit as a novelist that the writing can evoke a character who is self-conscious without suffering from self-consciousness itself. Equally, it is interesting that so stylised a novel should be populated by characters the reader comes to really care about and feature a narrative that develops into something of a page turner. Baker is a widely-published writer of short fictions, but The Glass Ocean is her first novel. On this evidence, it seems unlikely to be her last.