His family and other animals

Aidan Higgins, the wild goose of Irish writing, has come to rest. Now his comic talents can fly free
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The Independent Culture

When Aidan Higgins first met his hero Samuel Beckett, he felt so nervous that "I puked in the wash-basin". I can't quite match that level of apprehension as I knock on his door in a quiet street behind the harbour in Kinsale, the postcard-pretty town on the Cork coast where this much-travelled writer has come to rest. All the same, the adjective "uncompromising" fits the Higgins oeuvre as snugly as Beckett's. Since 1960, a baker's dozen of works - novels, stories, travel pieces and now a ferociously funny and touching trilogy of memoirs - have put the author far beyond the tides of fashion that rip through Irish letters. And this, after all, is the writer who diagnosed the "fear and uncertainty" beneath Irish hospitality, that "craven urge to please, to be amusing at all costs" bred by centuries of subjugation.

When Aidan Higgins first met his hero Samuel Beckett, he felt so nervous that "I puked in the wash-basin". I can't quite match that level of apprehension as I knock on his door in a quiet street behind the harbour in Kinsale, the postcard-pretty town on the Cork coast where this much-travelled writer has come to rest. All the same, the adjective "uncompromising" fits the Higgins oeuvre as snugly as Beckett's. Since 1960, a baker's dozen of works - novels, stories, travel pieces and now a ferociously funny and touching trilogy of memoirs - have put the author far beyond the tides of fashion that rip through Irish letters. And this, after all, is the writer who diagnosed the "fear and uncertainty" beneath Irish hospitality, that "craven urge to please, to be amusing at all costs" bred by centuries of subjugation.

I need not have worried. Aidan Higgins has just that grave courtesy that friends report of Beckett himself. ("Such humility," he remembers, "a kind of a saint, if you can believe in such a thing".) As a young man living near Dublin, he got to know Beckett's cousin John and wrote to Sam ("They're a very cliquey lot, the Irish Protestants"). Against all the odds, Sam replied, with sage advice: "Despair young and never look back." Later meetings deepened the bond and taught the lessons of a writing lifetime: "Not so much guff. Pare it down. Which is a good lesson to learn if you're Irish."

We walk out of the airy Spanish-style workroom up a sloping half-acre of walled garden, on one flank a Norman church and cemetery. With luck, the Anglican graveyard will keep at bay the kitsch-loving developers of "Celtic Tiger" Ireland, the "plug-ugly modern state" that Higgins mocks as gleefully as his did its damp, priest-ridden forerunner. As he puts it in The Whole Hog (Secker & Warburg, £16.99), the new, final volume of his blazing autobiographical triptych, "We have those quiet, well-behaved Protestant neighbours, los muertos."

For much of his life in Ireland, Higgins seems to have abutted Protestant terrain. By an accident of history (an ancestor who struck it rich in the Cailfornian copper-fields), the Catholic Higginses attained a kind of budget version of the Ascendancy lifestyle with their Georgian mansion in Kildare, west of Dublin. Yet for young Aidan, the real thing remained tantalisingly out of reach. "There was a gate near us which to me was a quintessentially Protestant gate with all those nuts and bolts," he recalls. "Behind that was an extraordinary, unimaginable life with peacocks and ladies smoking cigarettes in long cigarette holders."

From this fascination, and the singular history of the Higginses, he fashioned the novel that first made his name: Langrishe, Go Down in 1966, with its fading family and four sisters who "in reality were my three brothers and myself in drag". Langrishe, later dramatised by Harold Pinter, trespassed with sublime assurance on the Big House turf of Anglo-Irish fiction (Molly Keane, Elizabeth Bowen, William Trevor). The trilogy revisits his childhood in a more direct (but still inventive) mode, its acidic comedy pitched somewhere between dark-hued sitcom and heart-rending nostalgia. His second half-dozen books, he says, have lightened up no end: "The first six I was being a mandarin, and I'm not a mandarin. It turns out that I'm a comic writer if I'm anything." The memoirs have taught him that "you can look at melancholy in a frivolous way. That was a release for me."

What melancholy; what frivolity. There's feckless, Micawberish "Dado"; snobbish, ethereal "Mumu", equally "a stranger to this world"; and Aidan's three brothers, all evoked with stunning harsh hilarity. Virginal "Bun" lived and died a jobsworth in an Ealing office; noble, dogged young "Dote" became an architect who fails over decades to finish his own ramshackle house; while the sinister eldest, the "Dodo", grows ever more cruel and impassive, made of the stuff of "your silent psychopathic murderer".

It was Dodo's rejection, near her death, of the mother who spoiled him rotten that explains the alarming virulence of this portrait. "I always wanted to get my own back on him, for her sake," Higgins says. "He was such a brute, looking after himself."

Dysfunctional and inspirational in equal measure, this fissile family gave Higgins his most enduring theme. When he went into analysis, "the psychoanalytical lady asked me 'When did you begin writing?'. I said, 'In my mother's womb.' 'In your mother's room?' 'No, womb.' She wanted to be a writer. She always said, 'I have a book in me'. And the book she had in her was me."

Family aside, The Whole Hog also tells much more than before of its author's long and rackety years of wandering. With his first wife (born in Transvaal), the young Higgins toured South Africa as - off all things, for a future novelist - a professional puppeteer. This followed the obligatory Beckettian years in crummy London factory jobs, minding the extrusion-moulding kit by day and reading Sartre by night. Later, the publisher John Calder paid him enough to fund a stay among the bohemian expats of Andalusia. That stretch inspired the Booker-shortlisted Balcony of Europe, and returns in a faster, funnier register in The Whole Hog. Later spells in Berlin and Copenhagen (and Muswell Hill) triggered affairs, travel writing, novels - and now a comparatively unadorned recollection in tranquillity.

Higgins writes with a robust, even reckles, openness about the lust and rage that eroded his first marriage ("after twenty years of ding-dong"). The Whole Hog pays a passing tribute to its author's dentist, but otherwise concentrates with unbridled candour on the tangled passions of middle age. In this, it neatly reverses the priorities of what must now count as merely the second most eloquent literary memoir of the current year, Martin Amis's Experience.

I ask, as I must, about the writer's responsibility to the living who appear in these pages. ("The Dote" has objected even to the deeply affectionate depiction of him.) Higgins counters with another authorial responsibility: to reclaim the past from time and tedium. "You're forgetting the boredom of life," he chides. "Words are so cold. Writing itself is a cold business. You've got to warm it up. Memory warms it up." As does humour? "Humour makes it boil." And The Whole Hog simmers without cease.

In the memoirs, Higgins calls himself "Rory of the Hills" - the wanderer, the "archetypal Irish homeless one", he explains. For long a troubled, restless middle son (who writes with huge tenderness about his own restless middle son), he now enjoys an autumnal serenity with his second wife, and even a stipend from the Irish arts council. "To remarry someone who's as calming as Alannah, and to have my own house and garden, gives me peace." And to this belated "lack of strain and worry" he attributes the late flowering of his comic gift.

In The Whole Hog, that gift runs gleeful rings around a "horrible new Ireland". Surely, some things in the Celtic Tiger must have changed for the better? Indeed. "When I was a young man, the women didn't wash. You could smell them in the upper part of buses - rotting shift-straps and ur- ine. It was a quite extraordinarily unwashed race. Now they're all washing like billy-o."

This winter he plans to revisit Spain - Nerja, where he lived in the Sixties. The Spanish and the Irish stories chime, he believes: two long-sequestered peoples suddenly thrust into squeaky-clean modernity, "headlong... they have been poor so long and now they must have models of their own". Of course, those models prove to possess feet of sodden clay, "but it's all grist to the comic writer's mill". That mill's now grinding faster, and finer, than ever.

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