The Irish writer Aidan Higgins has always been a peripheral figure on Ireland’s crowded literary landscape and he remains there despite the power and eloquence of his novel, “Langrishe, go down”, first published in 1966.
The novel is set in rural, post-Independence Ireland and concerns sisters living in a decaying, near-bankrupt Irish estate.
They are remnants of the Irish Ascendancy, descendants of the English who invaded and expropriated the land and became the island’s ruling class. Despite their poverty, deference is still their due from older locals but it’s valueless to the sisters.
The plotless opening chapter is a tour de force, registering in a minor but insistent key, through minutiae of the quotidian, the psychological fragility of Helen Langrishe as she travels home on a bus from Dublin in 1937.
She reads a newspaper report on events in the Spanish Civil War, a macro reflection of the mental dislocation that she struggles to control. Nothing is made explicit but the reader knows something has gone terribly wrong. On the bus, Helen sits close to two men from the countryside and is repulsed by everything about them: “The big thick lug of a fellow who sat before her wearing a soiled gabardine raincoat very greasy about the collar now opened his mouth to its utmost capacity in a noiseless yawn. The bossy bones of his so cruelly barbered skull moved in recoil.”
The middle and longest section of the novel goes back five years to 1932 and tells the story of the relationship between Imogen, Helen’s younger sister, and a young German, Otto Beck.
If the two men in the bus were stupid, brutal males, Otto is a highly educated equivalent. He becomes Imogen’s cruel lover and his predatory nature gradually emerges in descriptions of how he kills and eats rabbit and fish. His sexual conduct is another aspect of this nature but Imogen has to find it out for herself – and by then it’s too late; the implosion is slow, drawn out and agonisingly destructive.
It is interesting that Higgins chose not to make Otto Beck a proto-Nazi when his character’s instrumental reason is so well honed as to suggest he could – or should – have been one.
At one stage he says to Imogen, “You’re so soft … Some soft spineless insect that’s been trodden on. I can feel you beginning to curl up at the sides.”
What the author concentrates on instead is a portrayal of their affair from Imogen’s point of view and his ability to inhabit a woman’s interior is as remarkable an achievement as James Joyce’s in the final chapter of “Ulysses”.
If literature is, as Ezra Pound said, ‘news that stays news’, then “Langrishe, go down” deserves that label. It was republished two years ago and has now appeared in another new edition.
It is a hauntingly melancholic evocation of loneliness and the sense of life as a trap, an existence not just doomed to failure but hardly worth setting out on in the first place.
“Langrishe, go down”, by Aidan Higgins, is published by Apollo (Head of Zeus)