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Matthew Geden reviews Aidan Higgins's newest memoir
Born in England, Matthew Geden moved to Kinsale in 1990 and still lives in the town. He co-founded the SoundEye International Poetry Festival. His poems have appeared in several publications both at home and abroad including Something Beginning with P, Poets of the Millennium, The Backyards of Heaven and Landing Places: Immigrant Poets in Ireland. Lapwing published his Kinsale Poems as well as Autumn: Twenty Poems by Guillaume Apollinaire, translations from the French. His first full length collection, Swimming to Albania, was published by Bradshaw Books in 2009. A new collection, The Place Inside, was published by Dedalus in 2012.
(Dalkey Press Archive, 2012)
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Aidan Higgins regards me with a defiant gleam. Both his eyes are bloodshot and the right one is additionally bruised and blackened. He has been in a punch-up with one of his, now former, room-mates in the nursing home. He is eighty-five years old but still willing to fight his corner. He demonstrates a slow-motion punch and momentarily I imagine an almost balletic encounter choreographed and slowed down so the audience can enjoy each pugilist’s attack.
“He was evil”, says Higgins indignantly. He reassures me that the man in question has been moved elsewhere, but, he says, he has taken precautions. A knife has been slipped out of the dining-room and secreted somewhere in the bed. He can’t find it at the moment, but it is there just in case. By way of diversion I pick up Balcony of Europe, one of his great novels, and as I read aloud Higgins listens attentively, we chuckle together at appropriate places.
Higgins, in an interview with Neil Donnelly, has said that Balcony of Europe was written as “a true book as events developed, so I didn’t have to worry about plot” and this process informs much of his work including his latest publication, Blind Man’s Bluff. This new book is both like and unlike any previous Higgins work. Characteristically plot is of little or no concern, instead we are faced with a series of incidents, drawings and even collage. The anecdotes are slight and often enigmatic pieces that seem to have hardly any connection to the work before or after them but sometimes a theme is echoed or returned to further on in the book. So, old Jem Brady is briefly mentioned in “Flood and Fire” and then returned to later on in “The Suicide of Old Jem Brady”. Suicide is the subject of a later piece, “Compass Hill”, and the black cat mentioned there refers back to “My Mother and the Cat” and so on.
In fact, this layering of incidents and returning to earlier themes links in with Higgins’ own interest in collage. The words, their meanings and all the visual elements of this book create an assemblage of ideas and pictures which illustrate that even as a semi-blind octogenarian Higgins can still surprise with a new and totally idiosyncratic view of the world. One is reminded of the great collage maker Kurt Schwitters who believed, according to Herbert Read, that it was possible to make great art out of almost anything. Higgins too is not afraid to pull any punches, even the apparently trivial myopic mistake of confusing a wheelie bin for an old woman becomes the “Incident on the Hill”, a portentous piece that touches upon the “walking dream” of old age without pity or pathos.
Higgins, in both memoir and fiction, has not hidden from man’s, and in particular his own, weaknesses and failings. Old age has not withered him and Blind Man’s Bluff contains hilarious encounters with a pub landlady, a Japanese tourist blatantly wandering through his garden, and a feisty entanglement with a couple of Cork men in a Chinese restaurant, a dark version of Derek Mahon’s “The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush” perhaps. There is humour too in his portrayal of contemporaries such as the publisher John Calder who believed “counting his conquests was a cure of insomnia” and the photographer John Minihan, a “yellowish blur”. Blind Man’s Bluff is a deceptively small book. It is beautifully designed and what it lacks in size, just sixty pages long, it more than makes up for in sheer delight. It does, like its author, still pack a considerable punch.
©2013 Matthew Geden
Buy Swimming to Albania
Buy The Place Inside
Other work by Geden in Southword