A Very Strange Man: A Memoir of Aidan Higgins, by Alannah Hopkin, New Island, 355 pp, €18, ISBN: 978-1848407930
If you read no other memoir this year other than A Very Strange Man you’re doing the right thing. I found the book transfixing and simply could not put it down. For it tells – bravely, honestly and without the faintest hint of self-pity – the story of a love that survived much stress and strain. The “culprit” for this tension was the Irish novelist and autobiographer Aidan Higgins (1927-2015). He had the inestimable good luck to meet and marry Alannah Hopkin. He was twenty-three years her senior; not that age matters. But his rickety life unravelled in his late seventies and by his eighties his health disimproved drastically. Alannah, as this priceless memoir makes abundantly clear, was at the heart of efforts to shore up the artist’s constitution even as he descended into dementia. It is a harrowing story, make no mistake. But alongside the deftly told tale much else is revealed.
The realities of living as a writer without commercial “pull” (or back-up work) and one, what’s more, hostile to the business of self-promotion, forms a kind of cultural subtext as we move from the remnants of the bohemian Fifties world of interconnections between Dublin, London and European settings in Germany, Spain, France and North America and the struggles of many Irish-born writers, painters, designers, musicians and dancers to survive into the harsher environment of the 1970s and 1980s as the older support systems ‑ mostly ad hoc, anecdotal, vicarious ‑ fell away. This generation shared a literary life, which included Higgins ‑ and among others, the younger Derek Mahon (1941-2020) – that Alannah Hopkin sketches in with such telling local and atmospheric detail. It belongs in many ways to the ending of a different era and in that historical sense A Very Strange Man provides fascinating material for the diligent researcher in Irish cultural history.
By the 1990s, as Higgins became only too aware, the culture he had been part of – a haphazard, intense, uncertain and mischievously oppositional one – was on the way out, to be replaced by a highly commercialised and media-drenched environment in which he, and others of like mind, felt distinctly ill-at-ease and eventually, ineffectually hostile.
While tracing the course of their deeply charged emotional relationship, Hopkin explores the absolute primary focus on language and form which Higgins brought to everything he wrote. The obsession with how things are said, or not said, matched by wonderful playful and often arcane learning, lies at the basis of his novels and his series of autobiographies collected into A Bestiary.
It was an influential preoccupation too, connecting Higgins with one of the leading writers of a younger generation, Dermot Healy (1947-2014), as well as bringing into his orbit writers and critics who remain intensely loyal to his achievement, such as Neil Donnelly, Keith Hopper and Neil Murphy, his agent Jonathan Williams, the late John O’Brien (his publisher) ‑ all of whom feature in the latter stages of A Very Strange Man.
Higgins’s life in Kinsale, on his walks with Alannah, co-swimming and endless working on his books, his travels and his companionship with locally based and visiting writers, such as his undaunted “pal” Derek Mahon, are as clear as the West Cork skies, coves and villages which Allanah Hopkin uses as the novelistic background to her story.
But as the narrative moves towards its calm yet heart-breaking denouement, I couldn’t help but feel that Hopkin has opened a door on Higgins’s sixty-year “career” as a writer through which an upcoming generation of readers and scholars can now enter and see just how truly diverse and impressive this country’s literary traditions are and how much more waits to be discovered.
From Felo de Se, his first stories, published in 1960, to March Hares, a collection of literary journalism of 2017, the value of a living language shaped into story-telling is second to none. In her own writing, as a writer of fiction such as the impressive The Dogs of Inishere (2017), as much as in her other innovative books on landscape and local art, Alannah Hopkin has produced a memoir which is a must-read. The final scene of parting is as tender and unsentimental as art can make of tragic endings. If there is any justice, A Very Strange Man should scoop the prizes which eluded her partner of thirty years.
Gerald Dawe’s most recent poetry collection, The Last Peacock (Gallery), appeared in 2019. A City Imagined: Belfast Soulscapes, the third and final instalment of his Northern Chronicles trilogy will be published in July by Merrion Press.