‘Langrishe, Go Down’ by Aidan Higgins

Langrishe, Go Down

Fiction – paperback; New Island Books; 320 pages; 2007.

First published in 1966, Aidan Higgins’ first novel, Langrishe, Go Down, is regarded as an Irish classic. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Irish Academy of Letters Award, and was later made into a television movie based on a screenplay by the great Harold Pinter.

It is by no means an easy read — it features literary flourishes characteristic of high modernism and a narrative that switches between third person and first person seemingly on a whim — but it is a rich and rewarding one. I also found it profoundly moving.

The story is set in Ireland in the 1930s. Four middle-aged sisters live in a crumbling estate set on 72 acres in Celbridge, County Kildare. They are unusual in that they are landed Catholics, but their parents are dead and the money has long since run out. But their social standing remains, even if the only way they can pay their bills is to cut down a stately ash tree in the garden for two quid (a trend started by their late father, who felled trees and sold them for firewood when he was desperate for cash).

The book opens with the older sister, Helen, taking a crowded bus journey back home from an outing in Dublin. It is evening and the bus is awash with “circles of bilious light” and “warm gusts of sweetish nauseous air”, all brought incredibly alive by Higgins’ masterful writing. Without any mention of time or date, we get an immediate sense of period by the Evening Herald lying open on Helen’s knee:

Well muffled up against the elements, the passengers read that the Italians were arming, that Herr von Ribbentrop had made a provocative speech at the Leipzig Fair, that the Pope had graciously given audience to Monsignor Pisani, Archbishop of Tomi. General Franco had spoken on the destined march of free Spain. At Melbourne, in cool summer weather, Australia had retained the Ashes.

By the time Helen gets home, we know the world is in a dire situation, that the Spanish Civil War is in full swing and the trouble is brewing in Germany. But the home front isn’t much better. Helen’s younger sister, Imogen, is prone to hypochondria and spends her days in bed, not wanting to rise, and her diet, comprising thin omelets sprinkled with parsley, has left her pale and weak. But what led to this situation?

The answer is revealed in part II, when the story jumps back in time, to 1932. In just over 150 pages, Higgins details the secret affair Imogen leads with her German lover, Otto Beck, a mature-age student who lives on the Langrishe farm. Otto is an intellectual, well read, well travelled and prone to talking endlessly about himself and his studies. (He is working on a thesis entitled The Ossianic Problem and the Actual Folk Sagas and Customs in 17th Century Ireland with special reference to the work of Goethe and the Brothers Grimm: a sociological-philological-critical study, a title that Imogen so deftly points out is “a bit of a mouthful”.) Imogen, a 40-something virgin, sees him as her last chance to experience love.

They embark on a passionate affair — which lasts “two springs, two summers, three autumns and two winters” — and suddenly Imogen’s rather routine domestic life takes on a new exciting element. But when she begins to realise that self-absorbed Otto is taking her for granted, that he is only interested in her body and not her mind, the relationship hits rocky ground. I don’t think it is a spoiler to say it ends badly, but it is heart-rending to read.

The breakdown of their relationship is perhaps a metaphor for the tragic decline of the house in which Imogen was raised. As the property falls into ruin, so, too, does Imogen’s simple, chaste life. Similarly, the ties that bind the sisters together begin to fray until very little love or friendship between them remains. And we could take it even further and suggest it mirrors the demise of Ireland’s old order of power, too.

If this sounds like a terribly melancholy story, then you’d be right. It’s heart-breaking in places, particularly when you realise that much of Imogen’s behaviour is characterised by small acts of desperation in order to escape her dull, dreary life. But there’s other emotion here, too, including love, passion and sexual desire, which balances the despair.

While this novel won’t be to everyone’s tastes — too literary, too modernist, too experimental — I thoroughly enjoyed it, not least because it took me right out of my comfort zone and introduced me to a novel regarded by so many as a masterpiece.

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18 thoughts on “‘Langrishe, Go Down’ by Aidan Higgins

  1. Nice review. I like the phrase “warm gusts of sweetish nauseous air.” And agreed, it’s a good thing to be nudged out of our comfy zone. I’ll consider this one. An aside, I’m early in my reading of (my gifted) The Unnamed by Ferris, like it thus far.

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  2. I love how eclectic and dare I say obscure your reading choices are! You’re always highlighting books that I’ve never heard of, but following your review I always wonder how that can be! I’m not at all sure that this would be a book I would connect with and appreciate, but now I definitely feel like I must give it a try.

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  3. I am also not very happy when I am out of my comfort zone but this is a book I will be quite ready to read (if I can find it) Thanks for this post and review.

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  4. The whole first section is astonishingly well written, and reminded me very much of the first section of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But by the time you get to the second part it feels like a COMPLETELY different book.
    Glad you’re liking The Unnamed so far… do come back and let me know your thoughts when you’ve finished it.

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  5. Steph, I might change my banner at the top so it says “Book reviews of mainly eclectic and obscure fiction”!! Mind you, I do deliberately try to hunt out different stuff, a mix of old and new, although I tend to read an awful lot of Irish novels, hence my choice of this one. I’ve wanted to read Langrishe, Go Down for years, because it crops up on Irish reading lists all the time. I sought it out on my last trip to Dublin (in 2009) but only pulled it out of the TBR a couple of months ago. As I said, it’s not an easy read, but it is a rewarding one if you make the effort.

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  6. I have to admit under normal circumstances I would probably hate this book, but I adore Irish fiction and read a lot of it, so this one was on my “must read” list. It’s quite Joycean, too, so it helped that I was mildly familiar with the style otherwise I’m sure much of it might have gone over my head.

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  7. I’d be interested in seeing how this story translates on the screen; I suspect most of it revolves around the affair, and the first part and the last part are condensed into small scenes.
    I will admit that reading the book was a bit like going on a big dipper, full of ups and downs and bits where I thought it was pretentious waffle. But there’s something that happens to your emotional subconscious when you read it that hits home near the end and makes you realise he’s crafted a damn fine book. I actually want to read this one again, because I think it’s probably one of those books that is so rich you can’t possibly absorb it all on just a single reading.
    I’d be interested in finding out your thoughts if you get around to reading it. Maybe you could do a combined book and movie review?

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  8. Yes, back in the UK. Very stressful summer, I will write you an email one day, when I find the chance. But the good news is that my local library has got a good selection of McGahern’s (managed to read Among Women last month and LOVED IT) and I finally purchased a second-hand copy of George Johnston’s My Brother Jack, which you’ve praised often. So among the sadness, there’s been some joy. 🙂

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  9. Sorry to hear you’ve had a rough summer, but pleased you’ve discovered a good library and read McGahern’s Amongst Women. Hope you enjoy My Brother Jack… always get a bit nervous when others tell me they’re about to read it.

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  10. Kim!! Kim!! so delighted you have read this too, even though I’m three years behind :DD
    It was wonderful, now I am busting to see the adaptation. Young Jeremy, Judy and Pinter Oh. My. God.
    (Though Otto should have been a redheaded German with fleas, but never mind.)

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  11. oh joy, I am able to hire it here. Have found an old LAT review of the film which is a bit scathing, but it will be an interesting exercise.
    Remarkable writing, I will observe a decent gap between reading and watching to let myself absorb Higgins’ achievement, particularly in evoking the desolation of a decayed Irish estate.
    And I’m so glad I have someone to talk with about it online :DD thanks for reviewing, Kim!

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  12. I’d agree with the earlier comment that the book somehow becomes a completely different book as the story takes on a life of it’s own. I thought it was odd but excellent, however tragic. i gather the film is pretty awful but heartily recommend the novel…

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  13. Hi Genevieve, glad to hear you’ve read this one… isn’t it great? I’ve still not hunted out the film adaptation… not sure it would ever live up to the brilliance of the book, even if it is done by Pinter!

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  14. That was my comment, Frank. It’s been a few years since I’ve read this one, but I still clearly remember the change in pace/tone/style after that first section. It was a bit of a shock, but somehow it all seemed to work. Quite an amazing novel, really, and one I will no doubt reread at some point.

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  15. I’ve managed to hire it, Kim. But I want to write down my reflections on the book first before the film messes with them 😀 Agree, adaptation would be tricky.

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