Thursday, November 18, 2021

Recent Reads – November 2021


A Very Strange Man: A Memoir of Aidan Higgins by Alanna Hopkin


After reading this you come away with two impressions: Alannah Hopkin is a saint and Aidan  Higgins is an insufferable prick, childish and demanding. The two met when Hopkins was a jobbing journalist and Higgins had commenced his long slide into irrelevance – but still dining out on the attention he garnered for his first novel Langrishe, Go Down and to a lesser extent his second one Balcony of Europe. Hopkin’s early romantic attachment soon curdles into a rueful acceptance of the nature of the beast she has embraced. She keeps the show on the road both financially and domestically and occasionally escapes the lair of her demanding lover for air. She is very honest about the strains of living with an egotistical despot but clearly retains an affection for him to the very end when he required constant nursing. The book is good on these domestic strains and also on the literary milieu in which they both live. We get some decent gossip also – hearing yet again of John Montague’s shortcomings as a house guest: “Montague turned up yet again to have supper and stay the night without contributing a bottle.” Oh dear. 



Francis Bacon – Revelations by Mark Stevens and Annalynn Swan



This is undoubtedly going to be the definitive biography of Bacon – coming in at over 800 pages and exhaustive on the life and on the work. Despite the smallish print, it’s an easy and entertaining read because it’s so well-written and organised. I’ve read plenty of other Bacon biographies but this covers ground I am unfamiliar with – especially his early days in Ireland. The authors clearly like their subject and it shows. His early dabbling in interior design, his work ethic, his incontinent gambling, his deeply strange love life, and his etreme and widespread generosity all get full measure. And yet we don’t ever really get to know him beneath the surface. He famously hated any narrative around his work and discouraged speculation. The weirdest incident in the book is when his occasional lover George Dyer was found dead on the toilet in their Parisian hotel room the morning after a flaming row with Bacon. The row had been about an Arab rent boy with smelly feet that Dyer had brought back the previous night - it was the smell not the infidelity that irked Bacon. He flounced off and slept elsewhere. Left on his own, Dyer overdosed (accidentally?) with pills and alcohol and died of a heart attack. A major show was scheduled for the Grand Palais in Paris that day and Bacon went ahead with the speeches, gala dinners and attendant events while the hotel covered up the death until the next day. Such impossible chutzpah showed a hard and controlled side of the man. A couple of weeks later he returned from London to the same hotel and stayed in the room where his lover had died. Now that’s weird.



 The Best Catholics in the World by Derek Scally



The title of course is ironic but I had expected a different book – a wide-ranging survey of the many ways the Catholic Church fucked the people of Ireland. Instead Scally narrows his focus to concentrate on some of the individuals affected by the Church’s disgraceful protecting of the child abusers in its ranks. In addition to hearing from the victims we also get the views of brave priests like Fr. Kevin Hegarty who spoke out and were banished to remote parishes as a result. We know the generality of this story but it’s an excellent introduction to some of the specifics. 


Burning Man – the Ascent of D.H. Lawrence by Frances Wilson



In terms of the sheer silliness of some of his obsessions and prognostications D. H. Lawrence is right up there with Yeats - but lacks of course the latter’s greatness. His novels have aged badly and his latest biographer rates his non-fiction work and poetry much higher than his turgid, high-flown fiction. She’s unsparing on Lawrence’s social climbing, his pomposity, and his priggishness. He emerges as a deeply unlovable character. Her focus on his travels and on the characters he met along the way make it an entertaining read. Chief amongst these characters is Mabel Dodge Luhan, the American heiress, Native American Indian lover, and literary groupie. She it was who lured Lawrence to New Mexico and made him part of her entourage. A lesser known character was the unfortunate Maurice Magnus who after claiming a sizable amount of both the author’s and Lawrence’s time, commits suicide in Malta. And then there’s the monstrous Frieda – Lawrence’s long-term partner who took his doctrine of free love to its extreme. No man in her orbit was spared her very overt advances – often as Lawrence sat miserably by. Although by no means a straight forward biography it contains fascinating glimpses into the writer’s life and his premature death from the TB that he never fully acknowledged.