(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

his aptly named mélange of fiction and nonfiction covers thirty years of Aidan Higgins’s literary career, beginning with his first book of stories, Felo de Se, in 1960. Because Higgins so often recycles and republishes his work under different titles, it is necessary to identify the previous publication of the pieces included here. One of Higgins’s most famous stories, “North Salt Holdings,” has the following history. It was first published as “Killachter Meadow” in the collectionFelo de Se, which in turn was republished in 1972 as Asylum, and Other Stories. Moreover, the story was worked up and expanded into the novel Langrishe, Go Down in 1966 and appeared again in the collection Helsingør Station and Other Departures in 1989. Other stories included here that originally appeared in the Felo de Se collection under different names are “In Old Heidelberg” (originally “Tower and Angels) and “Berlin After Dark” (originally “Winter Offense”). The excerpt “Catchpole” is a reworked section of Higgins’s novel Balcony of Europe (1972), which was short-listed for the British Booker Prize that year. The title story of the collection originally appeared as “Nightfall on Cape Piscator”; it is republished here with the addition of a first-person opening that situates it in the period when Higgins traveled with his first wife in South Africa.

Another aspect of Higgins’s writing practice—his blurring of the line between autobiography and fiction—needs to be recognized in order to understand this book. Many of his fictions are derived from, or reflected, in his three-volume autobiography: Donkey’s Years (1995), Dog Days (1998), and The Whole Hog (2000). For example, when the first volume of the autobiography appeared, Higgins made public the fact that the “fictional” story of the Langrishe family, featured in “Killachter Meadow,” Langrishe, Go Down, and “North Salt Holdings” was really the story of his own family revealed in Donkey’s Years. The sisters of the story and the subsequent novel, he said, were really his brothers and himself “in drag.”

Still a third element of Higgins’s work reflected in this hefty volume is that he frequently merges fiction and autobiography with his travel writing. For example “Ronda Gorge” (originally entitledSommerspiele) and “Black September” (originally entitled “The Opposite”) were first published in 1989 in Ronda Gorge and Other Precipices, which was subtitled Travel Writing: 1956-1989. The pieces “Helsingør Station,” “Sodden Fields,” “The Bird I Fancied,” “Frere Jacques, Brüder Hans,” “The Other Day I Was Thinking of You,” and “Under the Ice Shelf” were all published in 1989 in the collection Helsingør Station and Other Departures, which was subtitled Fictions and Autobiographies, 1956-1989.

The problem for readers approaching Higgins’s writing is that he never really distinguishes which of his works are fictions, which are autobiography, and which are nonfiction travel pieces. The fact that Higgins subtitled the first volume of his autobiography Memories of a Life as Story Toldsuggests that for him the past is not only grist for the fictional mill, but that there is no way to recount the past without making use of the conventions of fiction. He once said that Donkey’s Years, which he described in the appendix of that book as a “bogus autobiography,” was actually closer to a novel because all honest autobiographies must inevitably be bogus. Similarly, when Higgins writes travel pieces, there is no such thing as a simple description of an exotic place; he almost always grounds the locale in a narrative with a human perspective.

Although it is probably a truism that many writers use experience from their own lives as the basis for their fictions, the reader usually expects some measure of concealment and control of such personal material. Higgins, however, makes little effort to conceal the personal source of his fiction and little effort to exert a tight formal control to give them the sense of structured short fiction. As a landlady says of Higgins’s writing in the second volume of his autobiography, Dog Days, it has no beginning, no middle, and no end. Indeed, one of the frustrating things about reading Higgins is his constant shifting about from event to event, seemingly as memories occur to him. As he said in the opening of Donkey’s Years, “I am consumed by memories and they form the life of me.” However, a loose rendering of such memories seems too often self-indulgent in Higgins’s writing. Lacking an overall sense of...

(The entire section is 1956 words.)