Here is a masterful writer and a distiller of memory

Blind Man’s Bluff

Aidan Higgins

Dalkey Archive Press, Paperback, US $13.95

Review: Thomas McCarthy

“In you, together with the beginner, is the old hand” wrote Samuel Beckett of the Kinsale resident, Aidan Higgins. Truer words were never spoken, for Higgins is a dab hand at making the old new, at making fiction into a memory.

Blind Man’s Bluff is the commonplace book of a deeply embedded, rather than a widely travelled sage; it is remembrance as paper-folding, the origami of memory. The wise cataloguer at the Library of Congress has given this book the Dewey Decimal classification of fiction in English out of Ireland (823.914), but this work is more complex than that bold classification. Beautifully arranged and printed, it is more like a Beat-era book out of City Lights in San Francisco: it is memory, epiphany and rhetoric in equal measure, a project in portable belles lettres that would sit easily with the pocket-sized books of Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg.

What is here has been distilled rather than assembled. Here is an installation of family snapshots, Osbert Lancaster-like drawings and poetic epiphanies:

“And now it was her turn to get even, when I entered the Fishy Fishy Bar with a bloodshot eye and vacillating tread, for that morning I had received no less than three injections in the left eyeball, and must have resembled Wild Bill Hickok after a good morning’s buffalo-slaughtering”

Or: “If I stand at the morning door a mist obscures both ends of Higher Street. Some days it intensifies, becomes murk, out of which a figure may emerge. I can’t tell male from female, the unknown from the known. The past comes closer and the present disappears. Time itself goes awry. Some days go missing. The hours are no longer consecutive, evening or morning ... morning and evening merge.”

Here is a masterful writer and a master. It is nearly 40 years since I first heard the name uttered in public, from the mouth of that chronicler of the Anglo-Irish, the late Mark Bence-Jones. You must read Balcony of Europe by this man, Bence-Jones said emphatically: “it’s the greatest book of the post-War age”.

When we were at college it was all Bornholm Night-Ferry, all displaced, shadowy, Nordic atmosphere and relationships. And then Langrishe, Go Down, that seemed to hit a sweet spot with the Irish intelligentsia, all pre-Banville reticence and a grandeur of characterisation.

Higgins became rooted to Kinsale as his sight deteriorated. Kinsale has that strange quality of ingesting noble literary refugees, from Lady Diana Vernon to Elizabeth Bowen, from MacNeice to O’Grady, Mahon and Higgins.

Blind Man’s Bluff is a book of uncommon prayers, a mustering of ghosts and shadows. Restricted like Robinson Crusoe, Aidan Higgins flies away with words, blindness being the mother that puts a new kind of pencil in his hand. Page after page has the lightness of a pencil sketch; the lightness of a born writer, as Frank O’Connor described him: “in love with language and what language can do”.

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