Higgins, Aidan 1927–
Higgins, Aidan 1927–
PERSONAL: Born March 3, 1927, in Celbridge, Kildare, Ireland; son of Bartholomew Joseph and Lillian Ann (Boyd) Higgins; married Jill Damaris Anders, November 25, 1955; children: Carl, Julien, Elwin. Education: Attended Clongowes Wood College.
ADDRESSES: Home—Cork, Ireland. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Dalkey Archive Press, ISU Campus 8905, Normal, IL 61790-8905.
CAREER: Writer. Laborer in light industry in and around London, England, for about two years; copywriter for Domas Advertising, early 1950s; John Wright's Marionette Co., puppeteer in Europe, South Africa, and Rhodesia, 1958–60; Filmlets, Johannesburg, South Africa, scriptwriter, 1960–61.
AWARDS, HONORS: Somin Trust Award, 1963, for Felo de Se; James Tait Black Memorial Prize, 1967, and Irish Academy of Letters Award, 1970, both for Langrishe, Go Down; DAAD scholarship of Berlin, 1969; American-Irish Foundation grant, 1977; D.D.L., National University of Ireland, 2001; Booker Prize shortlist, for Balcony of Europe; British Arts Council grants.
Langrishe, Go Down, Grove Press (New York, NY), 1966.
Balcony of Europe, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1973.
Scenes from a Receding Past, Riverrun Press (New York, NY), 1977.
Bornholm Night-Ferry, Allison and Busby (London, England), 1983.
Lions of the Grunewald, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1993.
Imperfect Sympathies, 1977,
Discords of Good Humour, 1982.
Vanishing Heroes, 1983.
Texts for the Air, 1983.
Winter Is Coming, 1983.
Tomb of Dreams, 1984.
Zoo Station, 1985.
Boomtown, 1990, published as As I Was Riding down Duval Boulevard with Pete La Salle, Anam Press (Kinsale, Ireland), 2002.
Felo de Se (short stories), Calder (London, England), 1960, published as Killachter Meadow, Grove (New York, NY), 1960, revised edition published as Asylum, and Other Stories, Calder (London, England), 1978, Riverrun Press (New York, NY), 1979.
Images of Africa: Diary (1956–60), Calder (London, England), 1971.
(Editor and author of introduction) A Century of Short Stories, Cape (London, England), 1977.
(Editor) Julien Carl and Elwin Higgins, Colossal Gongorr and the Turkes of Mars, Cape (London, England), 1979.
Ronda Gorge and Other Precipices: Travel Writings, 1959–1989, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1989.
Helsingor Station and Other Departures: Fictions and Autobiographies, 1956–1989, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1989.
Donkey's Years: Memories of a Life as Story Told (autobiographical fiction; also see below), Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1995.
Samuel Beckett, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1995.
Flotsam and Jetsam (short stories), Minerva (London, England), 1997, Dalkey Archive Press (Chicago, IL), 2002.
Dog Days (autobiographical fiction; also see below), Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1998.
Whole Hog: A Sequel to Donkey's Years and Dog Days (autobiographical fiction; also see below), Secker & Warburg (London, England), 2000.
A Bestiary (autobiographical fiction; contains Donkey's Ears, Dog Days, and The Whole Hog), Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 2004.
Windy Arbours (literary criticism), Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 2005.
Contributor to X Magazine, Art & Literature, Evergreen Review, Les Letters nouvelles, Transatlantic Review, Malahat Review, and Tri-Quarterly. Killachter Meadow has been published in France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Portugal, and Denmark. A collection of Higgins's manuscripts are housed at the University of Victoria, British Columbia.
SIDELIGHTS: Aidan Higgins is part of a rich history of Irish writers, and is often mentioned as a successor to such great Irish writers of the twentieth century as Frank O'Connor, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, and Brian O Nuallain. Yet Higgins has resisted being hemmed in by his origins and has revealed the influence of literary figures from other cultures, such as Jorge Luis Borges and T.S. Eliot. As Peter G.W. van de Kamp pointed out in Contemporary Novelists, "In his attempt to escape the traditional constraints of Irish fiction, Aidan Higgins has emerged as an Irish internationalist, firmly grounded in his Irish experience and yet devoted to an extensive view." Reflecting this extensive view, Higgins's novels and short stories often involve Irish characters in foreign landscapes or in relationships with non-Irish characters.
The family "as a kind of collective neurosis, imprisoning its members inextricably in a welter of obsessions and delusions" is the subject of Langrishe, Go Down, according to Bill Grantham in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. The novel focuses on the women of the Langrishe family, specifically "on the affair in 1932 between Imogen Langrishe, a spinster from a declining line of the Irish landed middle class, and Otto Beck, a German research student," Grantham explained. The setting is Ireland during the years lead-ing up to World War II, and as Grantham observed, "While the action is confined to a debilitated section of Ireland and its culture, the dramatic sweep encompasses the vast upheavals on the European scene." This type of setting, a cloistered locale vexed by rumblings in the distance, is a device characteristic of Higgins's stories, according to Grantham. The critic described it as a "depiction of localized, personal events being held in suspension by outside matters which at once appear beyond the reach of the characters of the story and yet hold them completely in thrall."
Langrishe, Go Down captures the slow deterioration of isolated lives. As a Times Literary Supplement reviewer commented: "Mr. Higgins clearly feels his responsibilities towards prose rather acutely, but his style is sustained not so much by ambition as by an unremitting attention, and although his particularities can verge on the gratuitous, they do make you see. The relation of the bits of the novel to the whole piece is not always convincing … but [the book] certainly reveals a promising talent."
Balcony of Europe, set in Spain in the early 1960s, introduces the character of Dan Ruttle, an Irish painter married to a New Zealander. Ruttle moves in expatriate circles, and the characters he meets form a "panorama of grotesques and misfits," as Grantham explained, "all distillations of aspects of the European societies rent asunder by the war and finding it impossible to put back together what has been lost." In this context, Ruttle begins an affair with the American wife of a friend. In creating yet another isolated community where personal tensions are influenced by events happening on the larger scale, "plot is largely sacrificed for a number of cognitive tableaux," commented van de Kamp, "held together by cross-references and a distinctively idiosyncratic voice. As a result," the critic continued, "the novel is dominated by a technique of Beckettian repetitions, ellipses, and grammatical distortions to which are added spices of [Laurence] Sterne and numerous quotations from [William Butler] Yeats." Through this approach, "Higgins manages to produce a work again similar to a historical novel, but not quite in that category," Grantham suggested. "History itself is the issue here—its status, its theory, its influence."
Scenes from a Receding Past offers more of Dan Ruttle's personal history, following the Irish artist from his early childhood through his marriage to Olivia, the girl from New Zealand, past his experiences in Spain. The novel is "constructed primarily through the use of a montage effect: events and moments blend with newspaper reports, scorecards from cricket matches, and other ephemera from Ruttle's life," related Grantham. Though not as well received as Higgins's two previous novels, Scenes from a Receding Past provides a logical bridge between those works and Bornholm Night-Ferry, according to van de Kamp. The "epistolary form" of this novel, set in northern Europe, "enables Higgins to combine successfully post-modernism and his timeless gift for detail," added the critic.
With the publication of Asylum, and Other Stories, a revised version of 1960's Felo de Se, Higgins placed himself in the company of another great twentieth-century Irish short story writer, William Trevor. Each of these stories deals with characters that live quiet, desperate lives on the fringe of society. The major achievement in these writings may be the intensity in which the author captures the raw emotions of his characters.
Flotsam and Jetsam is another collection of short fiction and prose. Spanning the author's entire career, it is a primary introduction for those unfamiliar with his body of work. Published between 1960 and 1989, the stories in this volume are scrupulously crafted and challenge the reader with a sense of wonder and astonishment about language and literature. Annie Proulx stated in her review of the work for the Washington Post: "To read Flotsam and Jetsam is to be introduced to complex and masterly prose of striking richness." The range of emotions and subjects covered in the collection is nothing less than "dizzying," according to John Green in Booklist. Both humor and poignant sadness are achieved by the author, who portrays his situations and people "with quick lyrical bursts." Many of the stories are set in Berlin during the Cold War era, and Green noted that like Ireland and Berlin, Higgins's characters are in a near-constant struggle to reconcile the past with the present. A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted the author's affinity for a certain type of character, one who is "eccentric, sexually tormented and pathetic." One example is the protagonist of the story "Catchpole," in which a married man tells the narrator the strange tale of his life and his many sexual misadventures, including being discovered in a compromising position with the best man at his own wedding. The reviewer called the author's work "determinedly odd and aesthetically uncompromising," while acknowledging that it was not likely to have broad appeal. Still, concluded the reviewer, "this collection will amply satisfy the discerning few who savor his work."
In Donkey's Years: Memories of a Life as Story Told Higgins fictionalizes the lives of a Catholic family in his birthplace, County Kildare. The hilarious autobiography examines the mysteries of lost love and coming-of-age during World War II. "It seems that for most of his writing career, Aidan Higgins has been preparing for Donkey's Years," according to Jack Byrne in the Review of Contemporary Fiction. Higgins followed Donkey's Years with Dog Days and then Whole Hog: A Sequel to Donkey's Years and Dog Days. Whole Hog is an honest look at one man's struggle to build relationships with members of the opposite sex. The author's candid talk about sex is built upon a lifetime of experiences that started in his school days and lasted through over twenty years of marriage. Penny Perrick, writing in the London Times, called the dialogue "dazzling," and Sunday Times contributor Phil Baker referred to the author's writing in this memoir as an "intoxication with language."
Donkey's Ears, Dog Days, and Whole Hog were brought together into one volume in 2004 titled A Bestiary. Commenting on the numerous stories of the amorous conquests, Library Journal reviewer William D. Walsh found that "the most interesting woman in Higgins's life is his mother," and the author's "unflinching" description of her death is "a sad yet virtuoso piece of writing." Booklist commentator Brendan Driscoll commented that the trilogy is "a modernist adventure to the bone and not for the prudish."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Novelists, seventh edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 14: British Novelists since 1960, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1983.
Higgins, Aidan, Donkey's Years: Memories of a Life as Story Told, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1995.
Higgins, Aidan, Dog Days, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1998.
Higgins, Aidan, Whole Hog: A Sequel to Donkey's Years and Dog Days, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 2000.
Higgins, Aidan, A Bestiary, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 2004.
Modern British Literature, second edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Booklist, March 1, 2002, John Green, review of Flotsam and Jetsam, p. 1092; July, 2004, Brendan Driscoll, review of A Bestiary, p. 1811.
Herald (Glasgow, Scotland) September 23, 1999, review of Dog Days, p. 22.
Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 2002, review of Flotsam and Jetsam, p. 17.
Library Journal, February 15, 2002, Philip Santo, review of Flotsam and Jetsam, p. 180; August, 2004, William D. Walsh, review of A Bestiary, p. 76.
New Statesman, November 21, 1980, Judy Cooke, review Scenes from a Receding Past, p. 23; June 17, 1983, Angela McRobbie, review of Bornholm Night-Ferry, p. 26.
New York Times Book Review, June 16, 2002, Michael Porter, review of Flotsam and Jetsam, p. 24.
Publishers Weekly, June 28, 1985, review of Bornholm Night-Ferry, p. 61; February 18, 2002, review of Flotsam and Jetsam, p. 75; June 14, 2004, review of A Bestiary, p. 55.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, summer, 1990, Eamonn Wall, review of Ronda Gorge and Other Precipices: Travel Writings, 1959–1989, p. 260; spring, 1996, Jack Byrne, review of Donkey's Years: Memories of a Life as Story Told, p. 147; fall, 1998, George O'Brien, review of Dog Days, p. 258; fall, 2003, Neil Murphy, "Aidan Higgins," p. 49.
Spectator, October 14, 2000, Patrick Skene Catling, review of Whole Hog: A Sequel to Donkey's Years and Dog Days, p. 53.
Sunday Times (London, England), January 7, 2001, Phil Baker, review of Whole Hog, p. 39.
Times (London, England), January 5, 2002, Penny Perrick, review of Whole Hog, p. 16.
Times Literary Supplement, March 3, 1966, review of Langrishe, Go Down; December 29, 2000, John Kenny, review of Whole Hog, p. 19.
Washington Post, June 16, 2002, Annie Proulx, review of Flotsam and Jetsam, p. T07.
University College Cork Web site, http://www.ucc.ie/ (October 6, 2005), biographical information on Aidan Higgins.