The Hidden Narrator






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Publication: Review of Contemporary Fiction
Author: Higgins, Aidan
Date published: October 1, 2011

Paper read at Irish Writers' Centre, 19 Parnell Square, Dublin, on 2"* March 1995.

Around this time of year twenty- nine years ago Flann O'Brien, that phantom figure, had taken to his bed, afflicted with all manner of ailments, and was sinking into his last decline. On April Fool's Day, 1966, he passed away, appropriately enough.

I met Myles once; and this evening here thought I might give you some account ofthat . . . you can hardly call it "a meeting."

***

It fell to my lot once to read a paper at UCD.

After the reading a lady of surpassing beauty with cornflower-blue eyes sailed up to say, "I liked your line Only ghosts see the wind."

What I had in fact written was "Only goats see the wind." A thought lifted from The Worm Forgives the Plough, a title which John Stewart Collis had pilfered from William Blake.

When wild goats had the run of the place we may assume that their perceptions of the surroundings qua surroundings were sharper than those of the domestic variety that came later. Their innate knowledge of upwind and downwind were strategies for survival; at every moment of their existence they knew where they stood, as goats; so they soon learnt to "read" the wind. This useful knowledge has atrophied in us humans; we have no such firm ground to stand on. "Ill half seen" was Beckett's knacky formulation.

And wasn't it Collis who had overheard Yeats humming poetry to himself in a bluebell wood above in Coole Park? The thin, nervy, edgy voice flitting up and down the emotional scale had reminded him of another voice. But where had he heard it? In Munich? Ja! Herr Hitler captivating the Bavarian ladies in a Munich drawing room.

When the Dictator addressed immense crowds he flew off the handle; it was his way of controlling them. But was the power emanating from the podium or from the people? This spellbinding orator knew how to wind them up, get them on their feet. Goering and Goebbels were bludgeon and rapier, cosh and hypodermic; Dr Goebbels sounded as charged-up as Jim Jones the madman of Guyana, distraught with power, who in turn was oily as Bob Guccione the odious coxcomb of Penthouse, purveyor of wet dreams.

Who spake of the void endlessly generative, of the dark varnish of public moralising? Nietzsche?

Gore Vidal and Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky, Let It Come Down) were indifferent novelists who had independently agreed that the novel was on its last legs and would be quite dead at last in spite of all within their separate lifetimes, and possibly extinct by the middle of the coming century, the very noisy oncoming one.

Readers (a quiet breed) would become extinct. The few remaining would know each other by whispering titles, as Freemasons exchange secret hand-signals. Readers of serious literature would have become a secret confraternity, lending out dog-eared and annotated copies of Martin Buber and Soren Kierkegaard.

Certainly the rapid onrushing manner in which children are quickly weaned on software and CDs in the nursery, the TV screen (always glowing, howling) replacing Nanny and Granny, with hardcore porn available at adolescence, confirms the worst fears of Huxley and Orwell, neither of whom, in their worst imaginings, could have imagined Desert Storm.

The kids of the next century are in for a hammering, a pasting, a Kursk tank battle on the air and ground, miles high, miles deep, for the hearts and minds of innocents. The kids demand their kicks and turn-ons. They'll get it, pressed down and running over.

Pictures are easy.

The flickering images on the screen are idle and arbitrary as the antics of a bored baboon caged in the zoo and idly playing with straw, dying of boredom. It's a discontinued tale that they, the viewers, gape at, an occupation fit for idle baboons and simpletons, which our great-grandchildren will have become with Sky Sports and Murdochs morons numbed in millions, passive dupes.

But where will the readers be?

By AD 2045 both Paul Bowles and Gore Vidal will have paid their debt to nature. It is disputable whether either ever wrote a novel, properly speaking. They were just airing prejudices, posturing, stalling. The writing of a novel is a mysterious process, an inspired form of daydreaming. It is not what Saul Bellow calls "cosying up" to the reader, to which Mr Updike (for example) is very prone.

Flann O'Brien certainly wrote two novels, before he began airing prejudices in two other polemical works full of pawky jokes and flatulence.

When I first began to be published some thirty-five years ago by John Calder in London, Irish writers were thin underfoot and rarely seen around. They tended to be self-effacing if not exactly invisible. Nothing much was stirring on the home front. Both More Pricks Than Kicks and Murphy were out of print, as was Flann O'Brien in two languages, and The Third Policeman lost. We had to make do with Austin Clarke and Men Withering.

At the old Abbey, the very seat of infection, amid the creaking of ancient corsets and the spent smell of stale porter, The Rugged Path ran forever, to be succeeded by fare no less stodgy, The Righteous Are Bold. While over the way, at the Metropole, an American tear-jerker movie, The Best Years of Our Lives, was breaking all records and all hearts.

The Bovril sign still flamed above College Green.

Frank O'Connor, Francis Stuart, and Francis MacManus, the doughty penmen of the past, had a faded look about them, sere as withered leaves or the sepia heroes of old celluloid, Gene Autry and Tom Mix forever riding off into the sunset. Young Beckett aged twenty-seven had just contemptuously dismissed our entire poetic tradition, rigid as an apostolic succession: "Antiquarians and others, the former in the majority."

The relative obscurity of those poor pen-pushers of yore was in striking contrast to the extreme visibility of the pushy pen persons of today who come into prominence from one Booker or Whitbread prize to the next.

Each new generation of writers loathes the generation immediately in front and the generation immediately behind; and I should know, with seven titles out of print or remaindered, having come through three such baptisms of fire. The self-eífacing Señor Borges wrote somewhere that he would like nothing better than, under an assumed name, to publish a merciless tirade against himself, his entire oeuvre.

"B. Traven" was an elusive fellow with several identities at his disposal; all different, none known, all fake. Nor was that his "real" name; he kept that secret and died unknown.

What remains constant is the intractable nature of the given material. In a prose draft or aide-memoire to his poem "Coole Park, 1929," Yeats wrote, for his eyes alone: "Each man more than himself through whom an unknown life speaks." And later: "I am a crowd, I am a lonely man, I am nothing."1

The diplomatic garden gnome Harold Nicolson noted in his diary that every family had its secret sayings, picked up from reading and set circulating within the closed family circle; a coda or little language known only to initiates. He was of course thinking of privilege, his privilege, the Nicolson and Sackville-West tenure, the God-given rights of upper class English to appreciate Earl Grey tea at four in the afternoon, served up in thin china tea-service; as they would appreciate the novels of Jane Austen, each thin and tasteful as well-sliced cucumber sandwiches. Lobster and cutlets in aspic were for the gentry. Don Giovanni at Sandlers Wells: "For as long as Wimpole Street remains, civilisation is secure," qua Flush.

Earl Grey tea served up punctually at four in the afternoon with muffins constituted their notion of high art, an art that became them; hence the huffiness and stuffiness of Bloomsbury.

Punctuality begat propriety which begat politeness which in turn begat order which begat good manners which is largely a question of obeying one's best - as opposed to one's worst promptings; above all following good sound common sense, for those lovers of the finer amenities. Art for the Woolfs and the Nicolsons and the Sackville-Wests was largely an affair of good manners. Something to be enjoyed with one's equals (Mrs Dalloway and Lily Briscoe and those twittery debs in The Waves of whom I can only recall Rhoda). Art concerned itself with good breeding and good taste, equals to equals on the croquet lawn and tennis court.

Virginia Woolf mocks Septimus Smith, the suicide clerk who impales himself on railings, for being unlucky enough to have been born Septimus Smith, thus born to inevitable set-backs (a common clerk, a nothing much), even though it was she herself who had named him thus in the novel Mrs Dalloway.

Yeats's own even more hierarchical notion of the common man, your average bloke, the chap on the top deck of the Clapham omnibus, was "Jones of Twickenham." For Yeats the unthinkable would be Dagenham. No. 7 Eccles Street was more than a bad address; it was an unthinkable place. Yet Joyce mocks Bloom by giving us an inventory not only of Bloom's worldly possessions but the sad inventory of his dreams. Dreams of more possessions for the little home which Bloom dearly loves, Joyce implying that Bloom has no taste.

Now if the unthinkable occurred and the Nicolsons or the Woolfs were cordially invited to tea with the Joyces, they would have been dismayed to find a non-fictional squalor as bad as the fictional squalor they so deplored, with no guarantee that Jim's terrible old man (all too real) would remain reasonably sober.

Virginia Woolf had dismissed James Joyce as a low-bred fellow and to this day English critics as sound and level-headed as Sir Victor Pritchett have entertained certain reservations about the unappealing sordidness of Ulysses, sordidness being the natural terrain of low-bred fellows.

The sound and stinks of Bloom at stool or the spectacle of Bloom abed, lying upside down in order to ardently kiss Molly's bum, for that close intimacy is foisted upon us readers, must have been deeply offensive to the finer sensibilities of Mrs Woolf.

The idea of the Blooms being invited to tea with Virginia and Leonard in Sussex or with Vita and Harold at Sissinghurst is too ludicrous to contemplate. Like the infamous rubric above the gate of the death-camp, over Sissinghurst flew a banner with the bold device "C P O J D W T K !" which decoded read: Certain People One Just Doesn't Wish To Know.

Virginia Woolf was herself smothered in good taste; indeed she probably died of it. Behind Mr Dalloway one detects the willowy form of Mrs Miniver.

During the last widow-making war, which (some would wish to aver) had nothing to do with us, our Emergency, Miss Elizabeth Bowen of Bowen's Court was co-opted into British intelligence to act as a sort of unpaid lady spy operating in Dublin and Cork, planted as a mole in Mitchelstown. She was briefed by Harold Nicolson of the Foreign Service, told to keep her ear to the ground and report back to him. She mentions this in a chatty indiscreet letter to her false friend Virginia, so it cannot have been very serious spying.

Writing is in any case a form of spying, and can even be an exalted form of spying and betrayal (step forward Monsieur Genet). Behind any text of any value lurks the sub-text.

Our family had adopted certain catch-phrases from At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O'Brien's (real name Brian O'Nolan) great comic work, about which I'd like to talk.

As part of its secrecy, a monstrous practical joke, the entire stock of Longmans first edition went up in flames early in the London Blitz, along with Beckett's first novel, Murphy.

At Swim has a strong sadistic streak amid deft touches of vernacular lunacy, insouciant as the death -wish that runs, or dances, through the work of Synge. The torture scenes in At Swim and the cold-blooded account of the murder of old Mathers in the first page of The Third Policeman must remind us that our ancient progenitors (Joyce's "horde of jerkined dwarfs"), the daddies of us all, were a rapacious lot and liked to play skittles with human skulls. Philosopher egoarch Ussher used to argue that we Irish are a deeply conservative race; but I wouldn't be so sure.

And we had our own spy amongst us.

Nobody knew what he looked like and he operated under a number of pseudonyms, working certain pubs off the fashionable areas, processing his information from his office in the Scotch House back to HQ at 31 Westmoreland Street, to be published twice or thrice a week in smooth, learned Gaelic in a column in the Irish Times that was so much Double Dutch to editor Smyllie, most of the subs, and ninety-nine per cent of the readership.

The Plain People of Ireland were a match for Joyce's Citizen, when it came to chauvinism and bigotry.

Myles surrounded himself with fantasy, for which potent spirits (distilled) would be fuel, preservative and afterglow. With five half ones aboard, the Swords Road began to resemble nothing on earth, and the face he saw observing him in the mirror was no longer his own; he could go anywhere, do anything; camouflaged within his pseudonyms he had become invisible.

He even contrived to make himself persona non grata on our freshly established television network. The great hygienic leveller and homogenising Irish Washing Machine that was to create a living saint from material as saccharin as Gay Byrne could not even begin to swallow such an intractable subject as Flann O'Brien or Myles na gCopaleen or however he (Brian Ó Nualláin) preferred to be known.

I had the honour to appear with him on an early arts programme with Ben Kiely, Tony Cronin, and the publisher Alien Figgis. The plan was to get your man sober into the studio and endeavour to keep him that way by dosing him with nothing stronger than Vartry water. They didn't know their man, slippery as an eel.

In strolled he with Big Ben (scarcely a good augury for sobriety). Ben, as the Pope O'Mahony before him, was strong on Irish genealogies and family trees and had already discovered that he and Myles were kinsmen and bloodbrothers, the Mookse and the Gripes close as arse and shirt-tail, Omagh and Tyrone; were, verily, forty-second cousins, twice removed.

Myles sat himself down at the round table and as if by magic a ball of malt appeared out of one cuff. In no time at all he had the table and in less time than it takes to tell he had wound himself up into a fury and begun to launch into a diatribe against "them" - the shower of bastards or present set of bastards, the gurriers, bogmen, turnip -snaggers, chancers, upstarts, mountebanks or persons of inferior education who had the country in the state it was in, and was on the point of naming names when a message on yellow paper was swiftly conveyed to the Anchorman and the proceedings brought to an abrupt close before charges were preferred and libel writs began to fly.

Television sets were few in those far-offhalcyon days when Lemass "led on" and my mother was upstairs in a Ranelagh flat with a Protestant neighbour who had TV, sitting on the edge of her seat, on tenterhooks at the prospect of seeing her lad on television with the famous Flann O'Brien, whose face and form were unknown even in his own adopted city. If anybody saw him shuffling along Clifton Avenue they wouldn't have know who it was; it might have been anybody.

But RTE, the national grid, in its wisdom quickly substituted The Dubliners in raucous mid-gig for the arts programme which had been going out live and unrehearsed until Myles put the kibosh on it; and there was the bold Ronnie Drew bearded to the eyeballs, belting out "The Rattle a da Thompson Gun," which greatly astonished my ma.

She watched this heavily bearded rascally fellow rasping out this sorry subversive stuff, turned to the good neighbour (a Miss Turner) to whisper: "And I never knew Aidan played the guitar."

Meanwhile in the studio Myles had turned to me, I not having appeared on camera or uttered a single word good, bad, or indifferent in the course of a very long thirty minutes of what I believe is called Prime Time, in Tube speak, and inquired how had it "gone down," evidently under the impression that I was one of the sound-engineers.

"Grand," I said. "It went down grand."

We were then told we could disperse.

Consternation in the control box!

Myles, a ruffianly muffler wound about his neck, was backing down the corridor, lighting up a fag. When politely asked where his cheque could be sent to, he replied that he could accept no remuneration. His German publisher retained all subsidiary rights and he (Myles) "shouldn't be here at all." Mad Sweeny was persona non grata everywhere and had no pot to piss in. I later received, through the post, a small cheque for my non-participation and a covering letter of apology from the Producer, Jack White.

We repaired, as the saying goes, to McDaid's, the ruin of many. For Myles I ordered up a double Jameson and set it down before him. When civilly asked whom he had to thank for this bounty I replied as civilly, "Another admirer of At Swim-Two-Birds" not aware of how much he detested the novel, or its fame. He felt about it rather as Yeats felt about "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," or as Beckett felt about Murphy: he abominated it.

As I sat by him I was not aware of being in the presence of a sharp observer, for his glance tended to stray about; I had the impression of a shadowy presence, a spirit collapsing inward (with many a sigh); the oblique gray hooded eyes, evasive, guarded, and secret, scarcely saw me. He was an intensely indrawn man. Behan, occasionally astute, said you had to look twice to make sure he was there at all.

Anecdotalists and alcoholics prefer not to catch your eye. Myles s attention was fixed on someone else out there, far removed from me. The dehydrated tongue shot in and out lizardlike, moistening the thin lips, two front teeth prominent, ball of malt atremble in hand. He threw me an evasive look and spoke out of the corner of his mouth.

"You ought to be ashamed, and you a Christian Brothers' boy."

I had been transformed, thrice, into other beings viz.,

Ronnie Drew, Lord of Fleadh,

an RTE sound-engineer, and now the broth of

a Christian Brothers' boy.

The revival of AS2B by MacGibbon & Kee in 1960 and its progress through ten printings as a Penguin Modern Classic had something of the marvellous about it, though its success continued to puzzle and sorely vex the author for as long as he lived. He had instructed Tim O'Keeffe, his new publisher, that no jacket photo was to appear and absolutely no biographical details for this second edition. When a photo in dim profile did appear with one of the many reviews, Myles repudiated it; it wasn't him.

Few knew him by sight.

It added a spice of the subversive to the mischievous nature of the column, "Cruiskeen Lawn" (The Full Measure? The Brimming Jorum??) appearing now in cultured Gaelic, now in lordly English, with woodcuts purporting to be the authors own; one depicting a horse and carriage being driven smartly through an Act of Parliament conveniently suspended across the roadway. No mast-head image afforded any clue as to the identity of the author who claimed to write editorials on the progress of the war now raging in Russia. He was said to live in high style at Santry Great Hall with a titled da, Sir Myles na gCopaleen. The column had a secret following, as with the cultured Gaelicspeakers who could follow An Béai Bocht. Its true circulation must have greatly exceeded the actual print-run. Odd people read it in out-of-the-way places. Old Martin O'Donnell sniggered over the masterly Gaelic in an ingle on Inishere; I knew two hash-house cooks in Texas who independently devoured At Swim for it had made that remote place- Dublin circa 1942 - close and familiar. I knew a Welshman who landed a job in what was Radio Rhodesia by reciting A Pint of Plain Is Your Only Man for the audition. And Borges reviewed it favourably in Spanish for a women's publication in Buenos Aires soon after it came out.

When out of print its fame had spread. Copies were lent around. Undergraduate Philip Larkin discovered it and he lent it to Kingsley Amis who lent it to John Wain, an improbable trio of admirers. It inspires affection perhaps because you cannot imagine the author; it came out like spontaneous combustion. Dylan Thomas thought it would make a fine present for a dirty boozy sister.

Shabby thought-wracked Stephan Dedalus with his Italian- sounding name is an idealised version of the even shabbier young Joyce, as lawyer Gavin Stevens is an idealised version of William Faulkner (formerly Falkner) or as Malcolm Lowry can be vaguely discerned behind the prepostrously disguised Sigbjorn Wilderness or William Plantagenet, that redoubtable trio of crashing bores in false beards.

Lowry was Plantagenet as much as he was Kennish Drumgold Cosnahan, Ethon Llewlyn the fake Welshman, or the equally fake Manxman Roderick McGregor Fairhaven (Lowry was never very good at inventing names). He was all his own heroes rolled into one and was himself his own half-brother (preposterous "Hugh") of the deeply absurd novel Under the Volcano.

All was posturing, manifestations of an alcohol-induced self- aggrandisement, a puffing up of the old alter ego, the one with pretensions (head-staggers?). But where is the author of Ai Swim-Two-Birds, tell me that? Strangely absented; the fellow who disowned his own book is nowhere to be seen, refined out of all existence.

I was told that a photo of him did exist, taken at a golf outing of the Dublin Diplomatic Corps, which hung in the bar of Delgany Golf Club, of which I was once a member. The French representative Monsieur Goor was in it, as was Bertie Smyllie the pipe-puffing monstrously fat editor of the Irish Times, with his no less corpulent obituary writer Eamonn Lynch; with some IT staffers lolling on the grass, presumably Golf and Political correspondents, and Myles.

I found it.

The group might have been a Ralph Steadman illustration for one of the unpublished or forgotten novels, a lost novel with himself a character in it. Not the narrator, no; a walk-on character such as Pisser Burke.

I identified him in the back row.

Just the head and shoulders, chubby face shadowed by the brim of a black homburg; a dark-visaged, small-sized, portly savant with what appeared to me a mensur scar athwart one podgy cheek, lending credence to the rumour spread about in the famous Time magazine interview, where he had laid claim to be the illegitimate offspring of a Cologne basket-weaver. I forget to whom he attributed paternity; his own feelings about his own da being well disguised.

The life of language is in speech.

The O'Nolan family had two languages at their disposal. Those bilingual Ó Nualláins of Strabane had smooth Tyrone in the home, and didn't approve of At Swim-Two-Birds, which seemed to hold the family up to derision. As with Mahatma Gandhi shrivelled up on the pyre, the Gandhi family couldn't make head or tail of him. Myles was rather an enigma to his brothers and sisters, (some of whom ended in a nunnery) as no doubt he would have been for his father, had he lived. The novel was a far cry from weepy Mother Machree and the cuddly yokels beloved of Somerville and Ross. I myself could never stomach that great anthropomorphic lie about Mother-Eire-our-mother-dear spread about like slurry by O'Flaherty.

Even if Joyce himself had praised it, Beckett had absolutely refused to open it, from a sense of loyally to the Master whom the young whippersnapper, aspirant to great things, had somewhat impertinently dismissed (to Sam's face) as "that refurbisher of skivvies' stories." A sally that might have gone down well in the Palace or the Pearl Bar but failed to amuse Beckett.

The severe features of the great reductionist glares out from a poster on the cylindrical sides of a Berliner Litfassäule hard by Europa Centre, advertising NICHT ICH . . . Nicht Ich ... Nicht ich ... Nicht ich ... Not I Not I Not I.

NOTE

1 Immigrant extraordinaire and fastidious sourpuss V. S. Naipaul, triply exiled, superstitiuously refused to number the pages of his early fictions; could not even bring himself to affix the name of the author to his books (a colleague wrote it or typed it in, V. S. Naipaul); on all official forms his occupation was given as "a broadcaster." He was the genie in his own bottle.

Author affiliation:

AIDAN HIGGINS has written short stories, novels, travel pieces, radio plays, and a large body of criticism. His literary reputation rests primarily on the short story collection Pelo De Se (later re-titled Asylum and Other Stories) and the novels Langrishe Go Down, Balcony of Europe, and Bornholm NightFerry, and on his trilogy of autobiographies, collectively entitled A Bestiary. He has won numerous literary prizes and is frequently considered to be the natural heir of Joyce, O'Brien, and Beckett. His work was recently the subject of a critical collection of essays by Dalkey Archive Press: Aidan Higgins: The Fragility of Form.

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