Book review: Langrishe, Go Down

NEW ISLAND BOOKS has marked the 50th anniversary of Aidan Higgins’ masterful Langrishe, Go Down with a new edition that features an insightful introductory note by Alannah Hopkin, Higgins’ widow, and an arresting cover design. 

Aidan Higgins

New Island, €13.95

It is a fitting tribute to one of the recently deceased writer’s most important novels.

Re-reading Langrishe at 50 is a curious experience, given the overall context of Higgins’ rich literary career, and the body of criticism that has been written on a novel that detailed, like exquisite embroidery, the lasp gaspings of the big house as it slowly expired in 1930s Ireland.

The haunting story of the Langrishe sisters, the last ghosts of an era that had vanished, is beautifully rendered while repeatedly name-checking the tumultuous events of the first half of the 20th century.

The memorable opening chapters detail the news via the Evening Herald during Helen’s bus journey, local details, the family’s history during her visit to Donycomper cemetery, and the descriptions of house — more dying, wheezing organism than bricks and mortar.

Helen and her wraith-sisters, Imogen, Lily, and the deceased (via phlebitis) Emily had previous existences in the early short story ‘Killachter Meadow’, in turn based on Higgins and his brothers

What strikes the reader now, half a century after the novel’s relevance in the 1960s, is how contemporary it feels. 

This is not to lazily suggest its ‘relevance’ but rather to observe how the novel transcends the big house frame, even though this is how it has most frequently been read. 

History was important to Higgins, but only insofar as it radiated through the living, finding imaginative utterance in the present. 

Langrishe is a story of suffering, memory, human decay, and the harsh echo-chamber of the lonely mind.

While Helen is a powerful presence, even in death, this is Imogen’s novel and her love affair with the German, Otto, generates the powerful question that defines her life. 

She asks herself: “The memories of things — are they better than the things themselves?”

She believes so: “Of that time, what do I remember now? What can I recall if I try? Was he good to me? Yes. He was good to me; good for me; Kind and considerate.”

However, when Imogen’s narration is superseded by an objective narrator, Otto’s behaviour comes into sharper focus. 

During one of his typically insensitive moments he tells her: “You’re so soft … Some soft spineless insect that’s been trodden on. I can feel you beginning to curl up at the sides.”

Otto’s cruelty is extraordinary — he plunders the grounds where he lives rent-free, charges whiskey to the impoverished Langrishe estate at the local shop, and pillages, impregnates, and abandons Imogen.

A defeated Imogen at one point asks: “What else is my soft white useless flesh good for” as she submits to Otto’s brutal superiority.

Otto studied under Husserl and Heidegger and disavows National Socialism but exhibits many of its sneering, racist superiority, as when he cuts a wasp in two: “The human eye cannot allow certain shapes,” Otto says. 

“Very hard to resist the temptation not to stamp on certain shapes, put an end to them.” And yet, he brought something vital to Imogen’s life.

Higgins grew to view Langrishe as a rather conservative novel but the experimental zeal of later novels, like Balcony of Europe and Scenes from a Receding Past, is already clear here. 

While the dense allusive style of Langrishe clearly echoes much important modernist writing, it also progressively becomes more fragmentary and impressionistic as it proceeds; personal vignettes are mixed with historical and local details, the narrative voice zooms in and out and the sense of the fluidity of life was already deeply present.

More than 30 years later in Dog Days, volume two of his extraordinary autobiography, Higgins reminds us of a view that was already there in Langrishe: “Reality is concreteness rotating towards illusion, or vice versa, arsyversy; illusion rotating towards concreteness.”

The endless ebb and flow of living, the unavoidable losses with which memory torments us and sustains us in equal measure, the endless puzzle that is life — all are exquisitely conveyed in Langrishe, Go Down. It is a truly masterful novel that deserves to be on every shortlist of Irish fiction.

  • Neil Murphy is Professor of English at NTU Singapore. He is the editor of Aidan Higgins: The Fragility of Form (2010), author of Irish Fiction and Postmodern Doubt (2004), and the co-editor (with Keith Hopper) of Writing the Sky - Essays and Observations on Dermot Healy and Dermot Healy: The Collected Plays (both July 2016).


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