Aidan Higgins' Flotsam & Jetsam

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Sharing the streets on St. Patrick's Day with a bunch of Irish-for-a-day amateur drunks never fails to have me questioning that side of my family roots (the Ryans, my middle name). I spent a fair amount of time in Ireland in the 80s researching traditional Irish music. The musicians, who did the Irish Catholic self-effacement thing to a fault, loved the music passionately, but were not above shrugging it off as "diddley-diddley music" when around fawning Americans. The River Dancey, Chieftainsy bastardizations that get pumped out to Americans this time of year drive me to contemplation of violence. I've been moved in my day to fling chairs at Irish-American fools leprechauning their way through "Casey Lowers the Boom."

A lot of what passes for Irish literature in the American market is diddley-diddley writing. Meanwhile some really fine Irish writing goes unnoticed here, no doubt because it fails to play up the antic/morose/whiskey-nosed tropes that seem essential to the American audience's appreciation of Irish lit.

Irish writer Aidan Higgins is a case in point. His work is virtually unknown in the U.S.; I'd never heard of him until Dalkey Archive Press put out a fat new (new here, that is) collection of short pieces, Flotsam & Jetsam (470 pages, $15.95).

Higgins was born in County Kildare in 1927. As a young man he traveled broadly, including Africa. Through most of the 60s and 70s he lived in Berlin and Spain, before returning to settle in County Cork where he lives today. Dazzingly precise evocations of the places he's been?the forlorn West of Ireland countryside, down-and-outer Berlin, Spanish coastal towns?run like veins of precious ores through the pages of this collection.

Higgins' first short story collection appeared in 1960. Samuel Beckett was an early fan and introduced Higgins to his first publisher, John Calder. There have been a dozen or so books since?novels, more story collections, fictionalized memoirs, literary travel sketches. Only a couple-three were published in the U.S. and are out-of-print. Many of his titles have passed out of print in Ireland as well. The people at Dalkey tell me Higgins himself would prefer that some of them stay that way; he's rewriting and revising them, something I gather he's done rather obsessively throughout his career. Dalkey hopes to reissue his best-known novel, Langrishe, Go Down, in the future.

The 18 pieces in Flotsam & Jetsam span decades and reveal a gifted writer assaying and mastering a range of styles and subjects. The Flotsam & Jetsam title, which I suspect is more of that Irish self-effacement, suggests fragments and tatters, but the best pieces here are anything but. To the contrary, Higgins is a master of sketching fully formed characters in a few lines or paragraphs, suggesting whole lives and histories with stunningly deft precision. Though you wouldn't call them novellas, a few of these stories are as rich and finished as novels.

My favorite example, "North Salt Holdings," is a masterpiece of portraiture in miniature, compressing what feels like a full, rich novel into under 30 pages. In tones that glide like a stream from the balefully humorous to the elegiac, Higgins relates the lives of four spinster sisters haunting the decrepit grounds of their Irish estate like solipsistic ghosts.

Imogen Kervick had the nondescript face of a plaster Madonna, pallor and all. Her small opportunist mouth daubed with dark lipstick recalled the l920s, and she favoured also the trenchcoats and the hats of that period. Her movements were at once prosaic and portentous; she conjured up lascivious dreamy knees for herself, and a heart full of vicissitudes, the morals of a rhesus monkey.

Helen Kervick was a collector of dead things, right from the start. She discarded dolls (capable of modestly lowering their eyes) in favour of rabbits strangled in the snares and overrun with lice and fleas, and these she disentangled and buried with her own hands. It was they, dumb disfigured creatures, who got all her compassion, as she grew up.

...Emily-May took ridiculously small steps for a person of her bulk and moved rapidly, pigeon-toed, from thickset hips with a repressed fury that was painful to see. Physically she belonged to what Kretschmer called the pyknic type (all arse and occiput). Add to this a disagreeable set of countenance and an uncommon air, for a lady, of suffering from hypertrophy of the prostate. The creature had commenced to put on flesh at an early age, and as well as that found herself prematurely bald before the age of thirty. Those unhappy people who speak of being "thrown back" upon themselves, in the sense of being confounded, would perhaps have understood her best. For she was a throwback, stem and corolla risen to new heights, bound to please no one; one single forbidding link, alive and growing into itself, casting a brave shadow in a world loathsome beyond words, from root to flower.

As unappealing as they are, these are characters about whom one could have read another 300 pages; and yet, from the concision of Higgins' lapidarian portraits, one comes away from this story feeling like one's known them well, and perhaps too long. He pulls the same neat trick in several other pieces, making us intimate with unlikable yet sometimes tragic, sometimes comic figures. As with many people we meet in the world, we're both fascinated and repelled by them, and maybe by what we see of ourselves in them, or maybe by the ways we find ourselves acting around them. His J.J. Catchpole is an extraordinary comic monster, a lascivious Great Dane of a homosexual whom Higgins describes in most un-p.c. terms:

Some of his accounts of sins committed were as ripe with buggery as pages torn from The Decameron. Once he had made a trip to Moscow; once attended a film festival at Pula, all buggery; he certainly got around. Strange indeed is the homo-fire, the fire of the cat on heat, the thin and anxious thread of need stretched to the limit, the membrane wrung. Something there of the blind bloodlust of ferret, that blind animal with eyes as red as rubies that hunts and kills underground in darkness, taking victims from behind against the end wall of the burrow. All stretched to the very limit of need; the victim's abject terror, the killer's lust for the kill, as in my boyhood days of ferreting with Josey Darlington the blacksmith's son who owned a white ferret named Nazi, a great little killer who did much slaughter down in the burrows.

Or the highly strung edginess of greyhound or whippet chronically constipated, sensing more than seeing the lure, the false hares careering down the track ahead. He had qualities of those creatures in him, both predator and sportful blood; and something in the eyes, moistly appealing, myopic behind heavy-rim spectacles, recalled the novice in the seminary, the saint in the sentimental print, and behind them, smiling a tight, contained smile, Pacelli.

Higgins can portray whole societies with the same concision, as when he writes of Copenhagen: "The sleepy Danes are modest in a reserved way; reserve with them being a form of arrogance. Public displays of anger only amuse them. The music in the bars is muted. In the San Miguel Bar the flamenco music was turned down. There is not too much laughter or high spirits in evidence. These drably dressed citizens of the north are warmly bundled into their lives. Babes with chronically disgruntled old faces peer critically from hooded prams. Headscarves are favoured by the young mothers who move about on high antiquated bikes. The long allées open like yawns."

That's really fine. Flotsam & Jetsam is crowded with such beautifully detailed sketch-work. Bless Dalkey for introducing us to this undervalued author.

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