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Flotsam and jetsam /
Aidan Higgins.
1st U.S. ed.
Normal, IL : Dalkey Archive Press, 2002.
470 p.
1564783162 (acid-free paper)
More Details
Normal, IL : Dalkey Archive Press, 2002.
1564783162 (acid-free paper)
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A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

Flotsam and Jetsam

As Largs in Scotland is to Glasgow so is Kidd's Beach to Kingwilliamstown in the Eastern Province of South Africa -- a quiet seaside resort.

    The grunting of baboons hidden in thick woodland that reaches down to the lagoon sounds a warning note of rampant wilderness; as does the four-foot shark decomposing on the hot sand; as do the putty-coloured ‘Non-White’ youths displaying swaying stallion's erections on the dunes. Now they are scrummaging with two free and easy African girls; the girls screeching in a stupendous surf that bursts over them, their excitement barely contained in the briefest of bikinis.

    An incoming rip tide smashes on the reeling shore with the force of toppling masonry. Kidd's Beach is not safe.

    We walk there at sundown, looking for driftwood, buy a bottle of Oude Meester brandy from the hotel off-licence, use Coca-Cola as a mixer. Cattle breathe close to us at night, scratching themselves against the clapboard walls, and every sunup gives us more of Bruckner's ‘thunder dawns’. Rise up! Rise up! The skin tingles.

    One day in a clearing away from all human habitation we came upon a group of African men breaking in a horse, a coal-black stallion whose twitching pelt glistened with the sweat of fright as a little brown manikin with his shirt off struck and struck again at the stallion's head with a tarred, knotty rope-end. Emitting gusty whistling through the wide wings of its nostrils, the stallion reared up to expose its thundering great progenitive parts. Rolling a bloodshot eye it backed, kicking up dust, straining on a lunge rein held by another African.

    We strangers from overseas salute them civilly, but they do not respond nor seem to see us, a white man and his woman walking at dusk. It was the time of Apartheid when ‘Non-Blankes’ were invisible to ‘Blankes’, and were forbidden to swim on their beaches or sit on their public benches.

Mr Vaschel had sleepless nights. He lay on his back in bed listening to the gale blowing itself in over the Sound, the scratching made by the privet against the small window set high in the wall, the breathing of his fat wife Kate, and could not sleep. Motoring down on the previous day he had witnessed two disturbing incidents. First he saw two cars run off the road pointing in opposite directions into wild country. A scattering of people, white and coloured alike, stood about with indeterminate expressions and restless as though waiting for an ambulance to arrive and the accident to be completed. Then the crowd parted for an instant and he caught sight of the victim. It was a coloured man, an elderly person: someone had thrown a coat over him covering the injury. He lay there, as still as death where it had found him, his face pressed to the asphalt, his limbs quite naturally disposed though not yet at peace. The ghouls hovered over him, their shadows mingling, the thin summer clothes stretching forth in the wind. Sand also was being blown over him so that he could have no peace; death and burial were arriving at the same time. Mr Vaschel let in the clutch and drove slowly through, trying not to see, swallowing his spittle. But before he had time to compose himself the second incident was upon him. He saw, between parted trees, two donkeys struggling. The field, as it flew by, seemed to carry them forward and upwards as if onto a platform, there to display to advantage the incredible erection of the male gruesomely mounting and the female submissive and with downcast eyes. And then nothing but scenery again, the bridge and the flooded river. But this was not the cause of his sleeplessness. Not this, nor the sea, nor the air always disturbed, nor the annual holiday again. It was some distress, other than these, which would not let him sleep.

    By day he ranged far and wide, passing through the various deserted beaches and across the high dunes overgrown with scrub. In the rocks he came upon a young shark decomposing, a wound twelve inches long in its side, its obstinate mouth closed for ever. He walked as far as the wreck, the thousand-ton coaster Frontier which had gone aground on the rocks one clear night, for no good reason, with a cargo of sugar and tyres, all hands saved. And on the public beach in view of all (though it was deserted but for the three of them, himself unseen) he saw a coloured girl in a red costume provoking a coloured man with her straps undone and her breasts bare, prone in the surf, allowing the waves to wash her against him, the saucy piece, but he was apparently having none of it. And Mr Vaschel, high and dry on a sand dune, felt an erotic twinge such as had not visited him for many a long year.

    He saw the second river dried up short of its mouth, and over the estuary the ibis birds flying, dark and awkward, with beaks curved like scimitars and their wings thrashing the air. Out of more than curiosity he returned to where the young shark lay, already opening, prodding it with a stick so that its gases escaped with a sigh and out came its intestines, oozing back into the water. For his was the ‘angelic’ nature of the pampered boy who must seek consolation in wounds: an inclination which had bequeathed to the grown man a positive love of disfigurement. He welcomed the stye in the eye, the swollen members, the bandaged face and arms as actors welcome masks. Similarly the timid, should they care to search, can discover for themselves in the bodies of whores irregular traces of human aspiration on its off-days: a wild and brutal chaos undreamed-of in their more cautious politic. For respectable women could be found -- various enough to suit nearly all tastes -- who would be prepared to negotiate, to trade (even in marriage) a present for a past, or at least to make that past ‘safe’ for interlopers. But here, with his stick feeling in the dead fish and his eyes wide open to it, was an archaeologist breaking the seals of neglected and forgotten tombs, to read in the rigid bodies and perished features the impossible extent of his own decay. Here was one of those who, turning away from what is considered normal and permissible but which has refused them, finds in perversion themselves, even as archaeology finds a living past buried in the unconscious body of the present (which is Time on its way somewhere).

    Years before, after his long bachelor existence had at last come to an end, he had found reason to say:

    ‘For the first time in my life I seem capable of pure sensation, and you ask me to forget it!’ And she, Kate, the infected charmer, had lain there in the ruins of the marriage bed, rolling her eyes at him in disapproval if not actual disgust, whispering:

    ‘You are cruel ... you certainly are cruel. I wasn't expecting that ... I wasn't prepared!’

    A toast to her ‘beauty’ tossed off recklessly in the long days of courtship, ‘I cannot hollow out a space big enough for you to occupy’ (presumably in the heart) had rebounded on him with a vengeance in her early middle age, when she had begun to put on flesh like a schooner clapping on full sail. She lay in bed upstairs as a rule, issuing orders from that sanctuary, dropping her ‘darlings’ on all and sundry, heavy as stone, himself included, producing her coffins of polite alternatives, bidding the children to come to her bed, giving the day's orders to Amalinda, counter-ordering and shouting downstairs, her voice raised high as though haranguing invisible curs. She drank a glass of milk regularly before dropping off to sleep and enjoyed a hearty breakfast shortly after waking. Holding a slice of cake in one fat hand, she looked up at him, Innocence-surprised-in-a-deed-of-cupidity, a hand cupped to her ear, saying in mockery:

    ‘Hark, do you hear the sea?’ But he looked down at her, unsmiling, his life's partner, smelling misfortune escaping like a gas leak. Gone was the period when he could say, Last time it was no good; I wanted to struggle with you, not to argue. You would not let me . Gone was the woman he wanted to struggle with; and in her place this veritable mountain of flesh, which had the additional grossness of being a generally accepted fact. He went down, to sit in a catatonic trance in his study, unable to work. To be able to rise at last and go to bed, and be unable to sleep.

    Kate Vaschel was the only daughter of Carl Theodor Richter, lawyer, and Hilda Berenice (née Bone) Richter. The father, aged seventy-five, had long retired from his profession, while the mother, aged sixty-five, was bedridden.

    Kate was at pains to represent their son-in-law to the Richters as a bona fide character, gruff and downright. Whereas, as far as they were concerned, he was inaudible and underhand: his remarks at table being generally of a cynical or deprecating character, delivered as ‘asides’ which they only haft caught, and between husband and wife the fiery glances flew. She told animated stories -- entirely fictitious as far as they were concerned -- delivered sotto voce and as though mimicking his honest-to-goodness inflexions, where he ‘came across’ in a manner which they might be expected to consider reassuring; Vaschel the bluff squire in riding-breeches. And with this farce she persisted.

    In accordance with a long-standing arrangement which none had the heart to disrupt, the whole party, Vaschels and Richters alike, spent three weeks at the sea each year, drinking coffee and brandy and praising the view. Add to this the coloured girl Amalinda, maid of all work and namesake of the murderess who had done away with her own child.

    Old Mrs Richter sat at table, her face troubled with some hidden and enduring grief. Some dislocation of the spirit, added to the ruins of a distinguished carriage, gave her the semblance of a dilapidated monarch: a Mary Tudor, as it were, wasted away under life-sentence in the Tower. Some such unheard-of dislocation of history or nature seemed to pervade and undermine her spirit. Shaking before the absolute and inevitable, too long covered, too carefully hidden, she looked slyly out at the hurly-burly before flinching away, the worms that had eaten her nerves and her fortitude down to the hone still breeding in her face. No sooner had she finished picking at her slops than she was pushed from the table by ‘the devoted Amalinda’, eyes upturned in stark amazement as though she (Mrs Richter) had just begun to grasp one of her son-in-law's insinuations -- the rest of the expression, dawning certainty, being lost as she was propelled violently through the doorway: Amalinda's spine dead straight and her buttocks grinding fiercely together.

    Mrs Richter's bedroom was downstairs and sparsely furnished. A wardrobe rested there on the bare boards with a chest of drawers and the bed itself on a rectangle of faded blue carpet. A commodious chamber-pot was generally apparent under the sadly drooping edges of the bed coverings, almost magnetic in its importance to the general picture of Mother Richter abed, as though the parts of the iron bedstead and herself, covered in glad rags and a nightgown with a ruff, constituted the filings -- the mesmeric field -- which ‘made’ the whole happy unit. She seldom offered to quit her bed, being content to sit or lie there like a hen in a dust-bath, hale and hearty enough at sixty-six, though decked already in the habiliments of a slovenly old age, plucking at her beads, engrossed in the women's magazines, a set of false teeth in a glass by her head. For her, the ‘beautiful thoughts’ of the world were confused hopelessly with the framed sentiments found embroidered on cloth at seaside cottages -- grisly mottoes which ran to predictable jingles very much in character with the damp air outside and the stained ceilings within: a boredom caged within four walls, as within a tormented soul, raging to be allowed out.

    She preferred to lie before the open window and listen to the sea, trying not to hear the dreadful outcry coming from her daughter above. Sometimes Simon would come and sit on her bed ‘to keep her company’; but these were visitations she did not greatly relish, well-intentioned though they might have been. She complained to her husband:

    ‘I do wish he wouldn't sit there ... he tightens it down.’ And sometimes, made frantic by his calm and patience, by the uselessness of the gesture -- for it aggravated her until she seemed on the point of suffocating -- she wanted to scream at him:

    ‘Go away! Go away; I want no patched-up horrors in my room. Go and look for Nelly Deane ... Maybe she'll give you a touch of her seaweed!’

    But in the meantime he visited her and she tolerated it. She was a little wizened-up creature in a cloth cap out of which wisps of hair stuck at all angles, for all the world like the wizard of Ferney in his last decay. Blinking and screwing up her crow's-feet the better to propose her momentous questions, she shifted in bed: her veined and parchment-like hands, wherein a sluggish lymph moved, hesitant and old, fidgeted on the covers. Her jaw sagged a little as she prepared to break silence. And then the ‘s’ sounds came whistling forth as from the nozzle of a badly trained hose. Would the bread suffice until tomorrow? ... Was the wind ever going to drop? ... Could he say the time? ... Had the clothes dried yet? ... Had the boys come home? ... Until at last, weary of this little game, she relented and let him go, sinking from sight beneath the coverings and leaving only the grey mound of her wig visible, her old breathing filling the room. She knew Simon Vaschel had been a casual child: his birth an accident -- neither of his parents (since deceased) had wanted him. From the beginning, therefore, already a casualty he was to search all his life for a consideration withheld from him from the start -- rummaging in locked drawers, white in the face, breathing fast. She alone knew this: she, Hilda Bone, by all despised. Recapitulative suffering was her particular middenheap. Occasionally she wept, her face to the wall and the coverings in upheaval.

    Then, like sorrowful music interrupted and again resumed, the sea commenced hammering again on its one persistent chord, washing in over the yells of the players, pounding even rocks down to powder.

    By the sea Mr Vaschel walked alone with his troubles, though what these troubles were he could not say. To his right hand the sea was burning; from the horizon heat vapours arose; and every night sleep refused herself to him until four or five next morning. About the house the donkeys and their young were straying, cropping the grass, eyeing the visitors, all gutta-percha prick and lantern jaw. Their moist long-suffering eyes sought him out until they bored into his own. Carl Theodor Richter continued to discuss world finance in his slurred old man's voice, as though his mouth were crammed with fudge. Signor Coreggiato sat opposite, nodding his head every so often, a glass of brandy balanced on his bulging thigh. Signor Coreggiato, the pineapple king, seemed to lack a neck, for his inflamed face was screwed down flush into the great barrel of his chest without noticeable interference. He had straw-coloured hair as coarse as grass which stood on end so that he resembled a caricature of one of his own pineapples. Simon Vaschel excused himself after a while and left. He walked among the rocks which thereabouts had always reminded him of Aran and wildest Mayo, where as a young fellow he had spent many pleasant holidays. The track burned under his rope-soled feet, wet grains of sand blown in by the sea adhered to the uppers. Forlorn shapes of nature surrounded him only, like the landscape of Rousseau's La Charmeuse de Serpents . Littoral and hills were giving up the ghost before the onslaught of implacable heat: all the harsh or accommodating shapes of land and home erased. But darkness would fall, none the less, obliterating all, and the consistency of day go down before the vast inconsistency of night, in which no man slept. But into which he crept. Damned for dating to have children (for he had children, two males, at first all gut and squall and ignored by him; more recently turned baboon, spending all their free time in trees, still ignored by him), damned for his activities in the antique trade -- into which he was securely rammed, like a cement block into a cement wall and indeed unthinkable otherwise; double damned for courting the bewitching Katherine Richter, who had lured him to his destruction and then changed herself into another person; so that early Kate remained innocent and could wash her hands of the whole affair. So that late Kate could say to her cronies:

    ‘He doesn't fit in, it's a speciality with him that he doesn't fit in.’


Excerpted from Flotsam & Jetsam by Aidan Higgins. Copyright © 1996 by Aidan Higgins. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 2002-02-15:
This book brings together 18 pieces of short fiction, originally published between 1960 and 1989, by award-winning Irish author Higgins. These works, most of them novelistic in their scope and ambition, are characterized by a poignant yet sinister lyricism. From the suicide in "North Salt Holdings" to "Catchpole," which relates the picaresque exploits of its title character, Higgins explores the dense, dark underbelly of desire and memory; each story turns on a set of key images that gather density as the writing builds in layers of metaphor and allusion. Whether the subject is race relations or sexual intrigue in post-World War II Germany, themes of guilt and the disruptive force of desire are apparent. Recommended for collections with especially large or complete holdings in contemporary European or Irish literature. Philip Santo, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2002-02-18:
This collection of short fiction by one of Ireland's intransigent modernists follows, roughly, the chronological order in which the works were written. "Asylum," a novella from the early period, is an Anglo-Irish tale of a mad Englishman fallen on hard times. Eddy Brazill is the son of a manager of an estate in Ireland. He's one of the many who eventually make the crossing to England, taking a series of starvation-wage jobs in London until he is saved from utter starvation by an old acquaintance, Ben Boucher, a deaf, alcoholic toff who proposes that Eddy become his personal servant while he dries out at a sanatorium in Stye, an English coastal town. Boucher's type eccentric, sexually tormented and pathetic seems attractive to Higgins. In "Catchpole," the eponymous hero is a very odd married man down on his luck on the south coast of Spain, telling the narrator his life story, which mainly consists of sundry degradations involving a polyglot rough trade. His wedding is emblematic of his career: "The reception was rather grand, the house full of the most proper people.... Later that night the mother-in-law unexpectedly came upon the best man under the groom on the grassy verge of the front drive." Late in his career, his stories become more autobiographical. Such texts as "The Bird I Fancied" and "Sodden Fields" combine opaque personal references and a tumble of images connected by suppressed transitions. In "Sodden Fields," the most successful of these stories, this results in paragraphs that sometimes startle with Brueghel-like images. Determinedly odd and aesthetically uncompromising, Higgins's fiction is not for everyone, but this collection will amply satisfy the discerning few who savor his work. (Mar. 15) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews, January 2002
Library Journal, February 2002
Publishers Weekly, February 2002
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New York Times Book Review, June 2002
Washington Post, June 2002
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Table of Contents
Flotsam and Jetsamp. 3
In Old Heidelbergp. 19
Berlin After Darkp. 43
Lebensraump. 62
North Salt Holdingsp. 79
Asylump. 101
Catchpolep. 177
Helsing[oslash]r Stationp. 229
Sodden Fieldsp. 249
The Bird I Fanciedp. 290
Frere Jacques, Bruder Hansp. 365
The Other Day I Was Thinking of Youp. 373
Under the Ice Shelfp. 384
Ronda Gorgep. 391
Black Septemberp. 411
The Opposite Landp. 426
Lengthening Shadowsp. 441
Ruckblickp. 458
Notes on the Textp. 470
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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