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Irish memories, leavened with wit and absurdity

A Bestiary: An Autobiography

By Aidan Higgins

Dalkey Archive, 742 pp., paperback, $14.95

Aidan Higgins, the author of over a dozen books of fiction and observation, is best known for his 1966 novel, ''Langrishe, Go Down," an elegiac portrait of four elderly spinsters going to seed in an Irish country house. The actual house was Springfield, a modest Georgian mansion in the midland county of Kildare, which the Langrishe family had owned and which later became Higgins's childhood home. That place and time inform the best of the writer's distinctive work.

Now Dalkey Archive has republished all three of Higgins's memoirs -- ''Donkey's Years" (1995), ''Dog Days" (1998), ''The Whole Hog" (2000) -- in one hefty yet effervescent volume titled ''A Bestiary." The autobiography takes us from Higgins's infancy in the late 1920s to the close of the 20th century; a meandering journey that repeatedly loops back into history or sideways into reverie but always rejoins the main current, flowing toward loss.

Influences reverberate, chief among them James Joyce and Flann O'Brian, but Higgins's voice is his own and as natural as that of a man who has forgotten nothing telling everything. Not everything, of course.

Toward the end of ''Donkey's Years," the writer refers to ''this bogus autobiography, bogus as all honest autobiographies must be."

The first two volumes forgo honesty for truth, a fair literary trade that produces recollections of unparalleled grace, humor, and compassion. Higgins's portrait of himself and of his people, embedded in the boggy terrain of history, class, and collective memory, is one of the finest in Irish literature. As such, it relies on wit, absurdity, and the certainty of comeuppance.

The family fortune, made by an ancestor in California, supports idle Bart, Lilly, their four sons, a few servants, and a couple of delinquent tenant families.

But class lines are not as rigid as Higgins's highly strung mother wishes or insists. The family is Catholic; 75 acres is hardly an estate; Higgins talks like a local, plays with the filthy Keegans, and is happiest in the kitchen, sitting on the butcher's lap listening to his First World War stories.

Kildare's flat landscape and flatter accent are brilliantly evoked. ''He was whipping everting outta me," Bowsy the butcher recalls of the brisk Dublin surgeon who cripples him. Meanwhile, Higgins's three brothers cultivate the individual eccentricities that he later describes in their full-blown state to hilarious effect.

He is the skinny middle child running wild in the fields; eating his dinner backwards, beginning with dessert; hiding behind the kitchen mangle, educated first by temperamental nuns, then by Jesuits at Clongowes College in ''a simmeringly overwrought tumid atmosphere that was a cross between racing-stable and bordello." Higgins is as frank and funny about the homosexual lusts, flirtations, and copulations of other boys as he is about his own compulsive matings with the mossy side of the cattle trough at home. Mesmerized by a genteel beauty spied on the bus to Dublin, he recalls that ''she wore a small lady-model wristwatch which I imagined would show a different sort of Protestant Time."

Religion, World War II, politics, and history surface repeatedly, and a stray association often prompts a story. The writer Oliver St. John Gogarty, visiting Springfield, tells awestruck Lilly that De Valera is ''a cross between a corpse and a cormorant." While Higgins grows up -- working in London factories; marrying and betraying; traveling in South Africa, Europe, and America; becoming a father, a writer -- his parents go down. Debts mount, Springfield is sold, the family first moves to a shabby bungalow in sedate Greystones but his elderly parents are finally reduced to renting a squalid basement flat. At his mother's deathbed in 1966, Higgins recalls a summer afternoon. ''All of that happened in the long ago; and so remote in time it seemed to belong to someone else's past, not mine, when the three of us sat under the oldest tree in the garden and the yew berries fell about us, disturbed by the thrushes feeding."

The description of his mother's death in ''the ward for the female dying, near the service lift" is one of the most affecting Higgins has ever written; spare and uncompromising. ''Her hair was damp with the terrible effort of giving up her life, as all about her the ghosts moved whispering. A moth was burning in God's holy fire." Three years later his father dies, the spendthrift dandy finally reduced to wearing his son's old cricket boots padded with newspapers.

Supported largely by Irish arts awards, Higgins returns periodically to write in Ireland, and his descriptions of rural life in the 1970s and 1980s, whether humorous or pastoral, have the snap of lively diary entries. The third volume is more self-indulgent, pockmarked with caddish revelations.

''On the days when I escaped from Coppera and the kids," Higgins writes of his wife as he hurries to an assignation, ''she liked to arrange them in the windows like the heads of a hanging jury." A second marriage, to a much younger Dane, also unravels, and Higgins concludes that ''all women's natures were much the same, particularly when it came to defending their interests." ''A Bestiary" could do without this, particularly as Higgins has gloriously demonstrated that he can transcend the personal, never mind the grubby.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times.

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