Robin Skelton (essay date fall 1976)
SOURCE: Skelton, Robin. “Aidan Higgins and the Total Book.” Mosaic 10, no. 1 (fall 1976): 27-37.
[In the following essay, Skelton asserts that Higgins is working toward “the Total Book” in his fiction, in that he is “exploring the possibilities of linguistic innovation.”]
Aidan Higgins was born in 1927 in County Kildare and educated at Clongowes Wood College, after which he became a member of a marionette troupe and, with his wife, toured Europe and Africa. Since then he has lived for different periods in Dublin, London, Berlin and Spain. His book of short stories Felo de Se (called Killachter Meadow in the U.S.A.) was published in 1960, and his two novels, Langrishe Go Down and Balcony of Europe, in 1966 and 1972 respectively.1
This bald summary of Higgins' varied experience may serve to explain, in part, why his two novels deal so successfully with the mingling of cultures in present day Europe, and why he is able to set his stories against a background, not merely of Irish, but of European history. It does not, of course, account for the manner of the stories, their subtlety of allusion, their rhythmic power, and their elaborate structure. These may perhaps usefully be viewed from the standpoint of Roland Barthes who has suggested in many of his essays that at the present time literature is once again exploring the possibilities of linguistic innovation. Mallarmé, Proust, and Joyce are obvious instances of this. Others are, equally obviously, Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, and William Burroughs as well as a host of so-called avantgarde writers in North America and Europe. Barthes sees Proust and Joyce as radical explorers of language seeking for “the Total Book,” and suggests that a number of writers of our times are seeking to make their works also a “critique of language.” One reviewer of Felo de Se detected “muted echoes of James Joyce.” He was, I think, both right and wrong—wrong in that the whole thrust of these early stories is towards a most un-Joycean end—and right in that Higgins, like Joyce, was providing himself with the first of a series of books which relate intimately to one another, each of which reveals a deepening of intention and a development of stylistic methods. Joyce's progress was like Higgins' only inasmuch as both reveal a movement towards an overview which offers us human life as a unity combining present with past, conscious with unconscious, and man with myth. Joyce brought his work to a conclusion (or so we must believe) with Finnegans Wake. Higgins is still moving towards that final vision.
That Higgins is one of those who are searching for “the Total Book” can hardly be doubted by anyone who has read his three works of fiction. The shape that “Total Book” will take is something we cannot as yet guess at with any safety, but the “rejected epigraphs” to the third work, Balcony of Europe, do give us a hint. There we read a passage from Edmund Husserl, who, we must remember, was once the teacher of Otto Beck, the central priapan figure of Langrishe Go Down. The passage from Husserl runs:
This world now present to me, and every waking “now” obviously so, has its temporal horizon, infinite in both directions, its known and unknown, its intimately alive and its unalive past and future. Moving freely within the movement of experience which brings what is present into my intuitional grasp, I can follow up these connections of the reality which immediately surrounds me, I can shift my standpoint in space and time, look this way and that, turn temporarily forward and backwards; I can provide for myself constantly new and more or less clear and meaningful perceptions and representations, and images more or less clear in which I make intuitable to myself whatever can possibly exist really or supposedly in the steadfast order of space and time.
In this way, when consciously awake, I find myself, at all times, and without ever being able to change this, set in relation to a world which, though its constants change, remains one and ever the same.2
If we attempt to translate the phenomenology of Husserl, its emphasis upon the way in which the mirror within us distorts (by intention as well as by accident) the phenomena we say we perceive, we are faced with a problem of showing these distortions without suggesting that they are invalid, for who is to say what image is correct? We are faced, perhaps, with presenting a subjective viewpoint whose inconsistencies are clear, but whose coherence is never seriously in question. Higgins does this in his two novels by giving us changing perspectives upon the central characters. He offers us detailed descriptions of persons and scenes, and then further and further descriptions, each one implying a different perception. He moves us back in time, and then forward. He allows third parties to comment for our benefit. We see Helen Langrishe's view of the Otto Beck affair as well as the changing views of Imogen herself, and these last are never quite in the order in which they developed. Longing, nostalgia, and regret may provide a bright and positive vision immediately following a dark and savage one. This shift in perspective in both novels, and to a lesser degree in the short stories, gives all Higgins' work its ironic cast, and yet irony is not what he is truly after, at least in the narrow point-making sense of the word. Irony can, after all, only be absolutely effective if there is a standard of truth, and in Higgins there is none. His is a fluid, fluent universe, a movement of tides ebbing and flowing, a series of withdrawals and returns that are only surprising to those who see life, as some of Higgins' characters attempt to see it, as a progress, a Roman road driving straight to a destination foreplanned and foreordained. This ebb and flow movement is not only noticeable in the movements of the plots, but also in the way in which the narrator (whoever it may be) shifts perspectives. Thus, in Balcony of Europe the Mother's death is contemplated from three different and yet mingling viewpoints. She is seen both in universal and in local terms; naturalistic details follow mythic references, levels of experience mingle and exchange:
You were dead. You intimated: Take heed of what you see, my son; for as you see me now, so will you one day be. You were Sedna the Earth Mother, the old woman who lives under the ice. White birds flew to unknown lands over your head and the aurora borealis danced in the sky, but you heard nothing except the roaring in your head. You were down among the walrus herds and the seal herds and the big fish. You were a deep fish, half that, half human, little soapstone mother.
They buried her on a grey autumn day, slightly head first (she was always impetuous), put a framework of wreaths on top and left it at that. No thumping of clay on the lid. Not many were there. It was almost nice to be going to earth before the winter.
The grave, das Grab; in the old Gaelic poetry it was the ‘dark school.’ To prop up the earth with a stone. She belonged to the earth, and it belonged to her. And the past too, and not only her own past. It was there. Hands long still in the grave. Look at the clouds. You had existed as a part of the seminal substance of the universe that is always becoming and never is: and now had disappeared into that which produced you. Many grains of frankincense on the same altar: one falls before, another falls after, but it makes no difference. Some things are hurrying into existence, others are hurrying out of it; and of that which is come into existence a part is already extinguished. (I stood in Doran's snug with my mother, and in my Menswear overcoat thought I would never die.) Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered. Thou art a little soul bearing a corpse, Epictetus said. St. Paul called the human body a seed. It was sown a natural body; it was raised a spiritual body. Persephone. Xochipilli the Lord of Flowers.
Phrases used by my mother: A drop (or let-down), a land (a harder drop: a disappointment), a windfall. The heel of the hunt; I can't fathom it; a queer fish; it never rains but it pours. It dawned on me. A real Yahoo. A black Protestant. Wall-falling (lassitude, inertia, state of will-lessness).3
This final paragraph is one of several in which the narrator withdraws from the detailed scene, from subjective reverie, to gather together key phrases and sum up, with shrewd accuracy, the language of a given person and culture. Thus, at another point in the book, we read:
Sayings of Bob Bayless: Good Faulkner gets better with time, bad Faulkner worse. Stick with me, honey, and in a couple of years you'll be farting through silk. Lace-curtain Irish.4
At another point and, significantly, after we have become extremely well acquainted with Charlotte Bayless, and have seen her in many intimate postures, we read:
Expressions used by Charlotte: Step-ins (not corset), all washed out (exhausted). Prat, fanny, butt, can, Dreck, guck, screwball, ass. Happy as clams, ignorant as monkeys in a tree, high-tail it.5
Here the explanatory parentheses—(not corset), (exhausted)—establish the way in which the narrator's linguistic reactions to phenomena, his verbal picture of the universe differs from Charlotte's. There is much about language itself in all Higgins' work. He is a word-collector, an expert in linguistic patterns. And the language used and the languages brought into the story, all contribute to the shifting patterns of perspective:
“Their language (Andalusian) sounds like heavy raindrops falling down,” said Charlotte.6
There is no clear division made between what people think and how they move and speak; the movement may tell us more than the words, the manner of speech more than the matter. We record messages on many sensors. Thus Rosa Munsinger is presented to us in terms of thought, movement, and mode of speech:
Rosa Munsinger had a theory that, given the existing rate of development, carbon monoxide fumes from traffic would make the planet uninhabitable by the first quarter of the next century. No lung-breathing creature would survive into the second half of the twenty-first century, Rosa believed. She had heavy haunches, her thighs quivered, she rolled along monumentally—self-obsessed to an Addisonian degree.
She said: My algarroba tree. …
It was a gnarled old algarroba tree that grew in a siding by the bridge near La Luna. My algarroba tree. She had sat under it, surprising a pack-rat in the act of moving a sardine tin into the tree. She threw a stone and it disappeared. I said that I had never heard of a rat living in a tree. Rosa assured me that she had seen the pack-rat pushing the tin into the tree.
Was Munsinger a Viennese name? It was her maiden name? No, it was her married name. Her maiden name was awkward to spell, difficult to pronounce, and impossible to remember. She spoke of Klaus Munsinger, who lived in New York and was in the ‘art racket.’ He blackened his face at parties, spoke like Henry Fonda.7
This style may be called impressionistic, or even possibly cubist. It is certainly rhythmical in its sudden shifts of viewpoint, in its movement forward into a person's mind and its withdrawing back into cool observation. This rhythm of advance and withdrawal is central to both Higgins' novels. It is as central to the affair between Dan Ruttle and Charlotte Bayless, as it is to the affair between Imogen Langrishe and Otto Beck. Both books are organized cyclically, moreover. In the first we begin with Helen's dying, move on to the Beck affair, and then return to be present at Helen's funeral. In the second we move from Ireland to Spain and then return to Ireland, and the period in Spain is constructed according to the epic formula, beginning early in 1963, moving back to 1962, and then moving forward to the summer and autumn of 1963. In each part of both these novels there are recurrent images, recurrent themes. The river motif runs through Langrishe Go Down, and the sea is ever-present in Balcony of Europe. What should be noticed,...
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