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By Aidan Higgins
New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1966
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 66-28731
236 pages

Bob Corbett
December 2015

Aidan Higgins’ book, LANGRISHE, GO DOWN, is technically billed as a novel. However, it is as much a poetic drama as a novel, boldly conceived and brilliantly achieved. The novel can even be thought of as a prose poem in larger parts of the text. It is challenging, often dark, moving and brilliant, at times self-indulgent, but never boring.

There is little to the story. Imogen Langrishe youngest of the four daughters of Bob and Louisa Langrishe, falls in love with a seemingly brilliant German man who is living in Ireland in 1932.

Her lover, Otto Beck, was born in Bavaria into a well-off family. He was sent to a boarding school in England, learned English, but returned to Germany and even served in WWI in its final year when he was just 18. He was wounded and spent months in the hospital. He then went to Freiburg and studied with both Martin Heidegger (junior professor then) and Edmund Husserl, Heidegger’s primary mentor. (The many mentions of Heidegger and Husserl were of special interest to me, since I was for 36 years a professor of philosophy and Heidegger and Husserl were two of the most influential philosophers in my own intellectual development and later teaching).

Author Higgins weaves the tale of the quiet, but arrogant Beck, winning the love and body of Imogen, but more using her as much for his amusement and source of housing and sustenance than for real love. His lust for her seemed quite genuine. However, Imogen is deeply in love, always terrified of losing him, jealous of his occasional infidelities which eventually bring her to reluctantly give up the relationship and she, effectively, drives him off.

It isn’t the plot and its development which makes this a quite extraordinary novel, it is the manner of the story telling that Aidan Higgins creates.

The reader follows the story of their meeting, rather quick development of an attraction, the entering into a passionate love affair, and then the slow and disastrous realization by Imogen that she is not really loved, yet likely needed which just isn’t enough for her.

It isn’t the plot that makes this an exceptionally fine novel (if that’s what it really is) but it is the manner of Higgins’ narration.

A significant part of the novel is a very economical description of their relationship, the love, and eventual desperation that Imogen has for him, and the well-developed picture of the arrogant and aloof Otto Beck, with his generous conviction of his own intellectual status and ability, which makes this work so interesting.

In many sections Higgins uses a sort of minimalist style to reveal what the lovers are doing and seeing and experiencing. One example may make it clearer of how Higgins gives the reader both a picture and the FEELING of the time and place.

“The fox covert. Acrid smell of the foxes, bitter, scattered bones, rabbit and hen bones, fowl. Plover passing overhead. Dempsey’s land. Mournful cries. “By the Liffey in Killadoon in the summer. The walk through the wood. The overgrown path to the water. Silver birches. Their whispering. Nettles, overgrown path. High grass by the wall. Broken wall. Behind the screen of leaves. . . .”

Their short time together was in 1932. Otto is from Bavaria. He speaks excellent English and seems to be a gifted student. When he first came to their area Imogen’s father was still alive and got to know Otto, allowing him the use of a small hut on their estate so that he could speak German with the dad and discuss literature.

Otto is attracted to Imogen, who is four years his senior, however, is a quite beautiful woman and she is sort of “playing him” and enjoying it. But things move quickly in their “affair.” After her father dies she soon moves quickly to begin a sexual relationship with Otto.

At first she is shy and nervous about the affair, but she slowly frees herself, visiting him more often in his small cabin, making love at every chance.

Otto was aloof from all people and hard on then. “He talked of ‘culturally’ inferior nations’ and of ‘culturally insignificant’ individuals.” Yet very soon she became “the abject slave of her foreign conqueror.”

He did take her all over to interesting sites in near-by Ireland. He knew a lot more about Irish history and Ireland itself than she.

Otto always saw himself as someday becoming an important scholar. However, despite an early publication of a work called “Symbolism in Grimm” Otto was himself unsatisfied with his work. His “career” was still in a standstill and he dissatisfied with himself.

She becomes very comfortable in giving herself to him fully in every way. At times even making love to him in her own bedroom, yet trying to hide her affair from her sisters.

He shocked her, revealing that at age 22 he had a love affair with a 17 year old and had a son with her, yet he never feared that even such a shocking revelation would drive her away. He saw her as: “. . . Imogen, his slave and doormat.”

He knows who he is and even tells Imogen:

“Here am I (examining the deposit suspiciously), a battler, a poor scholar, with free lodging, free fuel, peace and quiet, all my corporal needs attended to (giving her a sly look), so that I can get on with my work.”

However, his “work” is rather more in his fancy that his achievements and he still dreams of once again studying with Husserl and/or Heidegger.

She tries to break it off. She fails; can’t help herself. She also suspects he has developed another sexual relationship with another local woman. Finally she simply can’t take the unsureness of it all and she does manage to break off the relationship and he goes away, never to be heard of again.

The last section is set right at the time of the Anschluss of Austria by Germany. Her sister, Helen, has died and is being buried. Imogen is very distraught, and can’t really make sense of the whole funeral and burial. She has no meaning left in life, yet she wanders back to the small cabin, scene of their love affair, and seems truly lost.

This is a very sad and heavy story of a love affair gone horribly wrong. Yet it is brilliantly crafted and told. It’s a simply marvelously written work.

Bob Corbett


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