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Aidan Higgins Biography

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Nationality: Irish. Born: Celbridge, County Kildare, 1927. Education: Celbridge Convent; Killashee Preparatory School; Clongowes Wood College, County Kildare. Career: Copywriter, Domas Advertising, Dublin, early 1950s; factory hand, extrusion moulder, and storeman, London, mid-1950s; puppet-operator, John Wright's marionettes, in Europe, South Africa, and Rhodesia, 1958-60; scriptwriter, Filmlets (advertising films), Johannesburg, 1960-61. British Arts Council grants; James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1967; DAAD grant (Berlin), 1969; Irish Academy of Letters award, 1970; American-Irish Foundation grant, 1977. Lives in Kinsale, County Cork.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Langrishe, Go Down. London, Calder and Boyars, and New York, Grove Press, 1966.

Balcony of Europe. London, Calder and Boyars, and New York, Delacorte Press, 1972.

Scenes from a Receding Past. London, Calder, and New York, Riverrun Press, 1977.

Bornholm Night-Ferry. Dingle, County Kerry, Brandon, and London, Allison and Busby, 1983.

Lions of the Grunewald. London, Secker and Warburg, 1993.

Short Stories

Felo de Se. London, Calder, 1960; as Killachter Meadow, New York, Grove Press, 1961; revised edition, as Asylum and Other Stories, Calder, 1978; New York, Riverrun Press, 1979.

Helsingør Station and Other Departures: Fictions and Autobiographies 1956-1989. London, Secker and Warburg, 1989.

Plays

Radio Plays (UK):

Assassination, 1973; Imperfect Sympathies, 1977;Discords of Good Humour, 1982; Vanishing Heroes, 1983; Texts for the Air, 1983; Winter Is Coming, 1983; Tomb of Dreams, 1984 (Ireland); Zoo Station, 1985; Boomtown, 1990.

Other

Images of Africa: Diary 1956-60. London, Calder and Boyars, 1971.

Ronda Gorge and Other Precipices: Travel Writings 1959-1989. London, Secker and Warburg, 1989.

Donkey's Years: Memories of a Life as Story Told. London, Secker and Warburg, 1995.

Samuel Beckett. London, Secker and Warburg, 1995.

Flotsam and Jetsam. London, Minerva, 1997.

Dog Days. N.p., 1999.

Editor, A Century of Short Stories. London, Cape, 1977.

Editor, Colossal Gongorr and the Turkes of Mars, by Carl, Julien, andElwin Higgins. London, Cape, 1979.

*

Manuscript Collection:

University of Victoria, British Columbia.

Critical Studies:

By David Holloway, in The Bookman (London), December 1965; "Maker's Language" by Vernon Scannell, in Spectator (London), 11 February 1966; in New Leader (London), 25 September 1967; Morris Beja, in Irish University Review (Dublin), Autumn 1973; "Aidan Higgins Issue" of Review of Contemporary Fiction (Elmwood Park, Illinois), Spring 1983.

* * *

Aidan Higgins was born in 1927 to a rich legacy in Irish fiction dominated by the experimentations of James Joyce. Higgins makes full use of Joyce's innovative techniques in his novels and collections of short fiction, but with a broader world sensibility based on his extensive travels. In addition to his novels and short stories, Higgins documents his international experiences in non-fiction travel books based on his travel diaries and assorted memoirs, which constitute the primary resource for his fictional works. His recent autobiography, Dog Days (1999), confirms how much his personal experiences have informed the picaresque elements in his fiction.

Higgins's first major novel, Langrishe, Go Down, which received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Irish Academy of Letters Award in 1966, is the story of Imogen Langrishe, the youngest of four spinster sisters. As the Langrishe sisters live their dried-up lives in the gentle landscapes of Ireland, Germany is rising to war and the Spanish Civil War is in full swing. Framed by these historical events, Imogen's only love affair with the German Otto Beck carries symbolically political undertones. Otto poaches on the sisters' estate, invading their lives while stealing their game. His invasion of Springfield and Imogen ends with his indifferent departure as Germany invades Austria.

Balcony of Europe, Higgins's second major novel, was shortlisted for the 1972 Booker Prize. The author's interest in phenomenology shapes the disjointed narrative, which is Dan Ruttle's first-person account of his adulterous affair with an American Jewess, Charlotte Bayless. Dan, a passionate Irish artist, is oblivious to the external reality of war as bombers fly over them in Andalusia. The experiences of the senses predominate in the sun-drenched area of southern Spain, which contrasts with the dreary gray weather of Ireland, where the story begins and ends. Higgins tries to coalesce the moment of experience and expression. Plot is largely sacrificed for a number of cognitive tableaux, held together by cross-references and an idiosyncratic authorial voice.

Balcony of Europe exercises the Joycean interior monologue technique with emphasis on rhetorical and grammatical distortions, such as repetitions and ellipses. The interior monologue focuses less attention on Dan's point of view than on the author's labored and insistent symbolism, often in homage to Joyce and Yeats. The planes that fly overhead, for example, alternately turn into the ghost of Dan's mother or a football that is kicked in the air on the Spanish beach.

Scenes from a Receding Past adds further scraps to the memory of Dan Ruttle from his early childhood and adolescence to his early maturity. The book is set in Sligo, which represents Celbridge, the author's birthplace and the parish near the big house in Langrishe. Young Ruttle's bildung is quite similar to young Stephen's in Joyce's bildungsroman, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The pangs of growing up are projected onto Dan's brother, the inflexible and intransigent Wally, who ends up in a lunatic asylum. Interleaved are records, and records of records, including a—faulty—Dutch Mass Card, a clothes list for La Sainte Union Convent, and two pages from the score book for the Fifth Oval, August 20-23, 1938. Dan meets and woos Olivia Orr, a girl from New Zealand who hovers in the background of Balcony of Europe as his unhappy wife. The present and glimpses of their pasts are woven with mawkish poetry and casual prose disrupted, in one instance, by a page-long list of names for the baby that Olivia loses in her fifth month.

The epistolary form of Bornholm Night-Ferry is a logical follow-up to the snap-shot technique of Scenes from a Receding Past. It enables Higgins to combine his modernist techniques with a crafted attention to detail. The novel is as full of linguistic distortions, chronological jumps, and occasional lyricism as any of his works, but it is more organized by the epistolary form. The plot is again grounded by a love affair, this time between a Danish girl, Elin Marstrander, with poor English language skills, and an Irish writer, Finn Fitzgerald, with little commonsense. Higgins introduces an implied narrator-as-archivist who identifies letters and diaries as they come to him.

Lions of the Grunewald, published in 1995, is set in Europe and Berlin just before the Berlin Wall came down. It is a picaresque novel of frenzy that jaunts around postwar Europe with giddy abandon and inebriated characters engaged with each other's lusty mannerisms and surrealistic pranks. The novel's publication is surrounded by the publication of numerous collections of memoirs, including Images of Africa: Diary 1956-60 and Donkey's Years: Memories of a Life as a Story Told (1996), the prequel to Dog Days, supporting Higgins's admission that most of his books follow his life "like slug-trails."

In addition to Higgins's novels, several collections of shorter fiction works, such as Helsingør Station and Other Departures, Asylum and Other Stories, as well as his travel writing, such as Ronda Gorge and Other Precipices (1989), have earned Aidan Higgins a reputation as one of modern Ireland's greatest writers. The influence of the great Irish modernists, Yeats and Joyce, is unshakeable in all of the genres he has mastered, to which he adds a pantheistic verve and hedonism not uncommon in the lives and literature of twentieth-century writers following World War II. He does not shy away from rattling family skeletons or dissecting the follies of Irish Catholics as he sheds light on Ireland just before, during, and after the pivotal Second World War.

—Hedwig Gorski

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