Langrishe, Go Down was published back in 1966 and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (a prestigious award by any measure, I’d think). With this debut, Aidan Higgins (born in 1927) became one of Ireland’s writer’s writers and – for me – a particularly challenging read. The book ostensibly follows the surviving Langrishe sisters, three old maids living alone in Springfield House, their family’s decayed Irish estate, but it rather quickly loses that focus and becomes something of a prose-poem with beautiful descriptions of Ireland and a long-winded story of a love affair that I found hard to sit through.
For me the strongest writing comes during the plotless opening salvo that follows Helen, eldest and emptiest of the Langrishe daughters: I have never known the love of the body or of the heart. People think that I am bored with them but that in fact is not so. I come empty-handed to them and go empty-handed away. Senseless to lament what cannot be changed; but there you are – one does. It is Helen who is the strongest character. She knows the history of the Langrishes and Springfield House and she of all the sisters tries to manage realistically. Yet she doesn’t recognise a former servant come across in a churchyard and silently pleads to escape him: Will you let me go? Will you let me be? We are paupers like the rest of you, except we live in a big house and enjoy credit. But we can’t pay our bills any more. There’s nothing to eat in the place except a few maggoty snipe hanging up in the larder. For all the eating we do, we might just as well not eat at all. Porridge and tea, tea and porridge. Heavy old stirabout that lies heavy on the stomach all day. Will you let me go?
These 80 pages stand almost on their own, unfurling haunting emptiness in page after page of desolate beauty: December snow breaks the windows of the greenhouse. Rot undermines the exposed roof supports and half of it falls in upon what has already perished there – tomatoes that nobody wants, a lone tea-rose, Belgium vine. The leaves of the chestnut tree dry up and fall in groups and singly. All that seasonal decay and dying fall to the ground, deprived of summer’s light and heat. The leaves cover the wrinkled conkers, soon to be obliterated. And so all goes away. The field-hands share the gabardine suits between them. Lily is cheated in a scheme for marketing Bramley seedlings. Winter invades the garden and the orchard, coming down from the freezing sky and up from the ground, to lay all in waste before it. Gaunt and famished like a wolf the neglected Alsatian Oscar starves in the backyard ash-pit.
Once this early segment is concluded and it proceeds backward in time to 1932, Langrishe, Go Down loses a great deal of forward momentum as Higgins devotes an extensive amount of the book to youngest sister Imogen and her short, stormy relationship with Otto Beck, who first roused and then snuffed her spirit. It is unfortunate that Higgins does very little to convey the affair, devoting himself instead to more and more elliptical scenes from their time together. Brief snippets of conversation, arguments unmoored from context and little faded glimpses of “passion” make up the bulk of the affair as he paints it.
By no coincidence for a book of this vintage, Otto Beck is a German; an esoteric intellectual wildman, poaching, tree-climbing and taking advantage, plundering the estate without conscience. Imogen sees in him a pagan figure: His restless eyes devour me. Mine meet them, and I flinch away. He has a small flat head and a fox’s face. One thinks of sharp teeth and a lolling red tongue; his expression never changes. He runs his tongue over his dry lips like a fox cleaning its chops. His small-boned body and animal nature suit that first image of him I carried away as a silly girl; a still face staring from among the leaves. Not stepping on a twig, alert, ready to pounce; the fire is burning in him, – lust and cruelty too. He seemed an outlandish, a legendary figure, that face among the leaves… Though Otto holds to no “worse” an ideology than egregious self-centeredness, in his actions he is always at the kill – whether fishing or ferreting, shooting pigeons or eradicating insects.
The age gap between Imogen and Otto is a scant four years (he’s 45 to her 49) but with no inheritance to speak of and nary a fling to her name, she’s long been an old maid and acts it. Imogen is a pallid individual, simpering and weak yet prideful. Her relationship with Otto devolves into petty insults and distrust and she listens in on gossip dismayed that she might be the subject. It’s a fact, people can never get enough of what’s bad for them... When her confessor convinces her to renounce Otto we are told this estrangement lasted perhaps a fortnight. Afterwards Otto sneers about “Irish piety.” Attempts on Higgins’ part to show Imogen as a passionate individual of some kind (running starkers through the night and such) do not convince and she actually comes across as a less developed (and certainly less intriguing) character than Helen in spite of being the ostensible protagonist. Otto is more charismatic but he’s kept at something of a distance.
Unfortunately, Imogen and Otto are the only characters even depicted for the majority of the novel, with scarcely a hint of the outside community and even less of her sisters. This may function as a demonstration of insularity and isolation but it is wearying and a little frustrating if you thought you’d signed up to read about the downfall of the Langrishes. That happened long before the book begins and the reason is never clearly stated. Why fail? Otto said. I don’t understand it. You have seventy-four rich acres of land, ten of that in tillage. You had a herd of cattle once, a supply of eggs, pullets, a vegetable garden, a fruit garden, an orchard. You did not live riotously; so why had it to fail?
So, if the protagonist and her lover are not interesting enough to keep the pages turning, what steps into the spotlight? Higgins’ elegant, lilting-Irish landscape painting. His is a wonderful example of fine prose, from rolling depictions of the pastoral seasons to richly detailed imagery of decay (not as imaginative as would come from the pen of Djuna Barnes or John Hawkes, but gorgeous as demonstrated). Eventually the narrative breaks down into isolated paragraphs, prose-poem impressions capturing like scattered memories their daily life. This further damages the narrative flow and character development but enhances the bucolic impressions:
Swallows dipping, catching flies. Sandmartins clinging to the sides of the bank opposite. Pitted with their nests. Riddled. Continually on the go. Swifts scouting over the shadowed river, touching the surface of the water with their wings. Smell of the river. The sound of it passing. Peaceful river. Purling. Water purls. A river purls. Kingfishers (a touch of brilliance) fly upstream with undeviating straightness. Waterhens jerking across the current. Their cries. River flags the trout swim along.
As Langrishe, Go Down concludes I am left to struggle between admiration and weariness. The unstoppable modernist language, freely experimenting with literary styles, is a gift. There is a transporting power to the prose and while the obscure allusions aristocratically bestowed upon an unworthy and ignorant audience are a challenge (unless you’re a German-language literary scholar or something), they are not what bog the writing down. The kernel of the story is sad and haunting but Higgins has no storytelling technique. His writing is exquisite but sensory in all it conveys. It only really works when describing the minutiae of existence, rather than the mechanics of a plot. Had he completely abandoned the alleged story of a love affair and just continued to follow Helen through her sad daily movements I would be more pleased. For something this rich with detail to feel so meager is a pity. Researching his later works, it appears Higgins swiftly turned to writing stream-of-consciousness impressions full-time and I am not surprised. It might be a better display of his talents, in any case – though sad to say I’m not especially curious to find out.