Printer Friendly

Phenomenological fiction: Aidan Higgins via Edmund Husserl.

Aidan Higgins remains best known for his first novel, Langrishe, Go Down (1966) after which his work is generally regarded to have declined; this essay however makes the case for a re-evaluation of his experimental second novel, Balcony of Europe (1972), arguing that, accepted on its own terms, it is an interesting and valuable (if somewhat flawed) alternative to the conventional realism of most of his peers. Taking one of the novel's 'rejected epigraphs' as its starting point, the importance of Edmund Husserl's phenomenology for understanding Higgins's fiction is outlined for the first time. The principal value of Balcony, it is contended, lies in its depiction of how consciousness negotiates with its past, and thus it is a mistake to expect a conventional plot or even conventional characterisation, since the idealist or subjective viewpoint adopted for narration does not allow for either the telling of a tale or the detachment necessary to develop a cast of well-drawn or rounded individuals. Through its demonstration of how the novel's unusual form is to some extent determined by its participation in Husserl's phenomenological project, the essay shows the value of Higgins's fiction for comprehending reality and how it thereby transcends mere autobiography.


The artistic tendency is not expansive, but a contraction. And art is the apotheosis of solitude.... The only fertile research is excavatory, immersive, a contraction of the spirit, a descent.... We are alone. We cannot know and we cannot be known.

Samuel Beckett, Proust

Balcony of Europe, Aidan Higgins's rich, sprawling second novel, is difficult to categorize and perhaps for that reason as much as any other, has had a hard time finding its way into the canon of twentieth-century Irish fiction. Its revision (or rather reduction, since nothing has been added) at its author's own hands, published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2010, reinforces its status as something of a failure. This reissue--a half-hearted compromise with convention if ever there was one--is not likely to persuade anyone unimpressed the first time around of the novel's importance, especially as it omits the opening chapters, probably its strongest section. For that reason, this essay concentrates on making the case for the significance of the original text, published in 1972. Through understanding its relation to the phenomenological project initiated by Edmund Husserl, the degree of the novel's innovation will be revealed. Higgins's unique mode of realism springs from an adherence to Husserl's version of philosophical idealism, and it is partially through a failure to appreciate this that what is arguably his strongest contribution to post-Joycean Irish prose has so long been neglected.


Unsurprisingly for a writer so fond of allusion, Higgins has taken exorbitant care in his choice of titles and epigraphs throughout his career. His penchant for the latter is evident from their inclusion in every book he has written or even edited. (1) The title Balcony of Europe, as with so much in Higgins's oeuvre, operates on several levels simultaneously. It alerts us to the ambition of the work, wherein from one location a panoramic view of Europe and its history, focussing particularly on the Second World War, takes place as the past lives of various characters are recounted or imagined. Yet it is also indicative of the ironic undercurrent that shapes the novel. Setting out Stephen Dedalus-like to flee the narrow confines of his homeland and embrace the multiplicity and cosmopolitanism of the continent, the 'Balcony of Europe' Dan Ruttle escapes to turns out to be nothing more than a small bar in a remote and rather backward Spanish village. The irony is compounded by the obvious similarities between Spain and Ireland, the parallels being made explicit in the novel. (2)

The epigraphs alert us to some of the major themes; love lost, lust, and cuckoldry. But more interestingly the novel ends with eleven 'REJECTED EPIGRAPHS' (p.460). What is the reader to make of these? Many have been displeased: Klaus Lubbers indignantly asks 'Why did the author append them if he didn't consider them adequate?', whilst John Banville dismisses them as a rash and foolish decision, like the inverted 'N' of the title, they are, in his view, mere gimmickry. (3) Rudiger Imhof sees them as symptomatic of an overall lack of focus: 'one is frequently tempted to ask oneself whether one really has to know all that one is being offered, rejected epigraphs and all.' (4)

The precedent that comes most readily to mind within the modernist canon that has so shaped Higgins is T.S. Eliot's extensive footnotes to The Waste Land. Eliot later expressed regret at their inclusion, citing various reasons for it, but the one which rings most true was that he intended his readers to realize the deliberate nature of his allusions. (5) Thus these footnotes could be interpreted as akin to instructions for reading a complex work. I believe the rejected epigraphs can be read in a similar (though not identical) light. They are like signposts that direct us back towards the labyrinthine text we have just exited, useful tools for navigation. This is part of Higgins' ambiguous and playful relation to his modernist predecessors. They could be seen as the novel's own version of the Gilbert schemata for Ulysses ironically mentioned in the text; 'Remember: no matter how much you think you are getting, you are not getting it all.' (p.403) His approach contrasts with Eliot's more prescriptive approach. By leaving these instructions at the end of the text he acknowledges the integral role the reader's participation has already played in their negotiation with the novel. Nevertheless these epigraphs are highly useful when analyzing the book, more so than those at the beginning. In a sense they are the ultimate assertion of spatial form in a novel that consistently denies linearity; they articulate a central point of this unorthodox text that the most marginal and seemingly tmimportant material might prove as insightful as that assumed central.

Of course, these rejected epigraphs vary in their usefulness; some such as that from Barnes' Nightwood nod towards a major influence, whereas it is reasonably safe to assume that a perusal of Leaky's Adam's Ancestors or Childe's The Origin and Development of the Nervous System will reap little reward in terms of a deeper understanding of Balcony. Further investigation of this latter variety of rejected epigraphs is hardly necessary; their relevance to the novel lies within the book to which they have been displaced rather than in the one from which they originated. I believe that the epigraph from Edmund Husserl's Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology is one which calls for extended consideration. Husserl's presence is not restricted to the margins; the novel contains several paraphrases of his work, and it can, as will be demonstrated below, function as a significant aid in an overall interpretation. (6)

Higgins's sustained interest in phenomenology, of which Husserl was the founder, is made clear by the fact that Otto Beck in Higgins's first novel, Langrishe, Go Down (1966), was a student of both Husserl and Martin Heidegger at Freiburg University. However, Otto was a devotee of the latter, and, as Vera Kreilkamp has demonstrated, the connotations within the novel were cultural and political. There, the implications mainly pointed towards Heidegger's dubious association with National Socialism rather than his work in phenomenology. (7) In Balcony the focus is on Husserl's innovations in philosophy. It is worth noting in this regard that Dan Ruttle is partially based on Higgins's close friend Arland Ussher, a philosophical essayist who had written on Husserl, Heidegger and Sartre--the latter pair being hugely influenced by Husserl, as Ussher was aware. (8) This is obviously not to suggest that a comprehensive knowledge of this complex thinker is needed to read and understand Balcony, any more than one needs to read J.L. Weston's From Ritual to Romance or Fraser's The Golden Bough to understand The Waste Land. Nevertheless, Eliot did acknowledge the enormous influence of these works on the poem's composition in an author's note at the end of The Waste Land, and they have proved an invaluable source of understanding for critics and students ever since.

The main thing to stress about Husserl's work at this point is that it is not, nor does it ever claim to be, a system of philosophy per se. In contrast to the long gestation of Balcony, which took eight years of writing and editing, Ideas was written in just eight weeks. (9) Dermot Moran comments that whilst the book 'is Husserl's most comprehensive exposition of his phenomenology as a method, it is also hastily written, poorly structured and, in places, quite sketchy'. (10) Emmanuel Levinas, an important phenomenologist in his own right, has stressed the foundational nature of Husserl's earlier writings, stating: 'The book of Ideas is meant to be an invitation to work.' (11)

Thus, as we navigate the complexities of Balcony of Europe, the nature of Higgins's acceptance of this invitation will serve as a useful reference point in coming to a fuller understanding of the novel.


The most obvious development in Higgins's technique when we compare his first two novels lies in the narrative mode. His debut Langrishe, Go Down, like the short story collection Felo de Se before it, had relied upon an omniscient mode of narration occasionally veering into free indirect discourse to transmit Helen and Imogen's thoughts. The narrator could grant access to either reported or direct interior monologue whilst also retaining the power to step out of such subjective viewpoints to precisely relate details of, say, the locality, or the character of the Langrishe sisters' father. This differs markedly from the restricted role the novelist has in Balcony wherein he confines himself to the consciousness of Dan Ruttle and as such can offer nothing outside of his limited viewpoint. In this novel Higgins heeded the advice Beckett had offered him in a letter of 1958 'that expression of the within can only be from the within.' (12) This dictum is so uniformly adhered to that readers have rather understandably mistaken the protagonist for the writer of this work, a point to which we shall return to shortly.

The new contracted focus is obviously an advance on Higgins's preoccupation with individuals and their relation to identity and the past in his career to date; it is his most sustained and daring attempt at a realistic depiction of a human mind (or stream of consciousness) in the tradition of Joyce and Woolf. This is indicative of Higgins's concern with the subject as he relates to his past within his own consciousness rather than as it is problematized through writing. Balcony is more readily analogous with Husserlian phenomenology in its methodology than with anything in the contemporary literary landscape: '[a]bove all else, phenomenology must pay close attention to the nature of consciousness as actually experienced'. (13) The key concept of Husserl's thought is intentionality, which he characterises as 'the unique peculiarity of experiences "to be the consciousness of something"'. (14) Levinas clarifies this notion neatly, stressing that intentionality is not 'a bond between consciousness on one side and the real object on the other', but rather 'Husserl's great originality is to see that the "relation to the object" is not something inserted between consciousness and the object; it is consciousness itself.' (15) Thus, the traditional dichotomy of subject and object is obliterated 'by finding a deeper meaning within subjectivity itself. ('16)

Applied to fiction the appeal of this revelation to a disciple of modernism is obvious: by emphasizing the role that consciousness must play in our relation to reality it shatters any of the claims to objectivity implicit in the traditional realist novel. Whereas Langrishe for all its innovation was more or less content to remain within the category of conventional novel, with Balcony Higgins decisively breaks with that tradition and elides the two poles, objective reality and subjective experience of it, whose mutual opposition usually governed it. However Higgins is ultimately unwilling to relinquish the depiction of the world to the traditional realists; if both their means of expression and their very understanding of reality was fundamentally flawed, their aim was nevertheless somewhat laudable. Higgins too will attempt to depict external reality, but in his own idiosyncratic manner; not through a subject as (s)he deals with the past through writing (as is typical in the work of Higgins's contemporary John Banville, say), but as consciousness directly negotiates with its past. Both of these alternatives may look rather solipsistic in their responses to the world, but they are the only ones available once the novelist has accepted Husserl's insight that '[s]ubjectivity must be understood as inextricably involved in the process of constituting objectivity'. (17)

In Images of Africa: diary (1956-60) (1971), a short non-fictional account in diary form of the author's time in southern Africa, Higgins employed first-person narration for the first time. Though that work resembles the novel which followed in its impressionistic diffuseness, we should be careful not to conflate their narrative strategies too closely, as Ruttle is not to be confused with a diarist or even a conventional narrator-protagonist telling us his tale. What we are in fact presented with is a representation of Dan's mind as it ruminates over space and time; however, this is not the same as the direct transcription of the words within his head. Higgins strives to illustrate all aspects of Ruttle's subjective experience, so rather than just staying within the parameters of interior monologue the novel is saturated in imagery. Since Ruttle can hardly be expected to articulate internally every sense perception he experiences, the narration fulfils that role by giving beautiful linguistic approximations of his sensory apprehensions. This sheds light on Higgins's description of writing this novel as a search for le mot juste. (18) At its best, this work combines Ruttle's painter's eye with the writer's accuracy and lyricism, and by bringing the consciousness of Dan to the reader, Higgins fulfils tile integral role Husserl ascribes to description; 'Phenomenology must carefully describe things as they appear to consciousness. In other words, the way problems, things, and events are approached must involve taking their manner of appearance to consciousness into consideration', since the 'only meaning of the world is as world for consciousness'. (19) Patrick O'Neill sees a further parallel between Balcony and Images of Africa in their both being 'made up of a series of short, numbered sections'. He rightly suggests that this gives Images (the title, as always with Higgins, betrays much) 'something of the evocative character of a photograph album'. (20) But it would be erroneous of us to carry this analogy across to Balcony; describing it as a series of snapshots does not do justice to its insights into the functioning of human memory, and hence an apt phrase contained in Balcony itself is preferable: 'Only a fadograph of a yestern scene' (p.20), lifted from Finnegans Wake. (21) Fadograph- the word simultaneously suggests memories' slow but inevitable dissolution (fading), reliance on imagery and visual perception (photograph) and complex relationship with time (fado (Irish) long ago, in former times). The first time the phrase is employed is in relation to a photograph of Ruttle's childhood home which he is not actually looking at, merely remembering. However, Dan is not actually in autumn 1961 (which is where Part I is set temporally) but rather is recollecting it. Thus, this is merely one of the first of countless incidents in this temporally complex novel where we encounter a memory of a memory.

The great value of these memories within recollection is the insight they allow into how memory works. Hence after a memory of a childhood incident Ruttle reflects: 'All that seems to have happened, if it ever happened, long ago, belonging to someone else's past, not mine.' (p. 43, my italics) This emphasis on the past self (someone else's past) indicates why the snapshot analogy is so inadequate: looking at a past incident is not like looking at a photograph, which would merely involve recognition, rather we become our past self and re-live the incident when we remember it:
   The revival of my earlier perspective involves a revival of myself
   as perceiving at that time. Just as the past object is brought to
   life again, so my past self as an agent of that experience is
   brought to life again. Through memory a distinction is introduced
   between the remembering self and the remembered self. (22)

This is why the narrative of Ruttle's recollection of the past is in the present tense. The observations about the possible unreliability of memory (if it ever happened) are made about the memories within the recollection itself and thus by inference tell us something about that narrative. However, they could not be made about the recollection itself (the present narrative) directly, precisely because it is a memory; to cast doubts about the nature of memory goes against its very essence: 'we have no other resource, concerning our reference to the past, except memory itself. To memory is tied an ambition, a claim that of being faithful to the past.' (23)

The reason that these memories recur in recollection is because we completely re-live the experience, 'including the temporal halo that accompanied the unfolding of the perception the first time around'. (24) However, there are incidents in which the contained experience being relived apparently breaks from the temporal framework and goes beyond it to where Ruttle is recollecting from: specifically, when he displays knowledge he could not possibly have had at the time he is recollecting. An example of this is when he is with Charlotte Bayless and he observes that '[a]lmost six of the nine months we were to spend together had passed' (p.126). This is an example of a protention (the opposite of retention), an anticipation of what will transpire, that Ruttle experienced at that past time. This is not to say he is psychic; rather, reflecting on his disintegrating relationship with her, he thought at that moment something to the effect of, 'we have been together six months, surely we will not last much longer'. In recollection, the mind moves forward to the present and the knowledge that that protention (prophecy as it were) has been fulfilled; 'in the case of expectation, of the consciousness that looks forward to "what is coming", there is always the essential possibility of diverting the glance from this coming event to its coming perceivedness'. (25) This is illustrative of an inherent quality of recollection; we are always aware of the distance between the time we are re-living and the time we are re-living it from, nevertheless the essence (or uniqueness) of our past perception survives unaltered. (26) Were it not for this inbuilt characteristic, how could we know we are not simply re-living every incident rather than experiencing it for the first time? 'That two perceptions essentially identical in respect of this uniqueness should also be identical in respect of context-determination is in principle impossible, for they would then be individually one perception.' (27)

Let us take chapter 19 as an example of this principle. It is entitled 'Mowska! Mowska! (when I first saw her)' (p.190), a reference to Charlotte Bayless. Ruttle associates this event with the woman he will fall in love with, he can also place this event a few months before their affair commences. However, this knowledge in no way infringes upon his re-living of his past perception. He is drinking and talking with Eddie Finch and the Baylesses only enter in the second last paragraph of the chapter, they are 'strangers to [Ruttle]' and moreover he dismisses them as 'poseurs, fools, imposters' (p.197). At this point, Charlotte is nothing more for him than 'small and neatly made' (p.197). He assumes her husband Bob is, like her, in his mid-twenties whereas the reader knows (as does the remembering rather than remembered self) that he is in fact in his thirties. This ability to render two levels of Ruttle's experience simultaneously heightens the subtly ironic tenor of the novel, since he cannot see the occasional incongruity of his behaviour or the disparity between his remembered self's perceptions and his later self's ones but the reader can savour them. Higgins maintains the delicate balancing act between multiple temporal perspectives admirably throughout, and few novels, Irish or international, can lay claim to such a skilful and sophisticated dissection of the self's complicated interplay with its past through memory.

Balcony was its author's attempt to 'dispense with plot',28 and it is far more fruitful to understand the novel's structure in terms of the individual's relation to his past rather than as a way of relaying a story. Understood properly this novel can claim its part in what Paul Ricoeur identifies as:
   the major contribution of fiction to philosophy [which] does not
   lie in the range of solutions it proposes for the discordance
   between the time of the world and lived time but in the exploration
   of the nonlinear features of phenomenological time that historical
   time conceals due to the very fact that it is set within the great
   chronology of the universe. (29)


The adoption of an idealist viewpoint greatly benefits the realistic depiction of a single consciousness. But what are the repercussions of this relentlessly subjective viewpoint? Husserl's idealist turn, by his own admission in the preface to the English translation of Ideas, 'seriously impeded the reception of the work'. (30) Much the same could be said of Balcony--one hostile reviewer criticised the 'curious technique of depersonalized characterization', whilst Banville felt that 'the main figures in the book, the colony of expatriates, stubbornly remain mere shadows'. (31) Since the characterization in Langrishe was so effective and rounded one might ask whether this was truly a weakness of the writer's. Rather, is it not the inevitable consequence of the idealist viewpoint? The criticisms made are valid but they do not weaken the novel's impact; on the contrary, they strengthen its uncompromising authenticity. Bernard Share reveals that 'Higgins on his own admission is "not interested in character"--a statement that needs to be accepted with caution.' (32) Given the large cast of Balcony, the proviso Share attaches is paramount; in this experimental work the author is not interested in conventional realism and indeed he has confessed that 'as characters in a "real" novel they are useless'. (33)

'These are figures cut loose from a frieze; what you see of them--the little you can see of them--it's only a very small part of their existence; their existence in my eyes. It's nothing. These are unknowable shapes. (34) This quotation is from Images of Africa, but it perfectly encapsulates the reason for the unconventional characterisation in Balcony. After all, once the idealist viewpoint has been so thoroughly utilised the claim to ever truly know another person must be abandoned. Though 'we have primordial experience of ourselves and our states of consciousness in the so-called inner or self-perception'; the same cannot be said for others. We must simply judge them through the appearances they present us with: 'The other man and his psychical life is indeed apprehended as "there in person", and in union with his body, but, unlike the body, it is not given to our consciousness as primordial.' (35)

The central focus of the novel is the extra-marital affair between the protagonist and Charlotte Bayless: it is therefore an ideal starting point for an examination of Dan's experience of the other. The book's comic irony is to the fore here as he engages in the 'idealization of an identical woman through various incarnations' (p. 219), a woman who strikes the reader as rather unworthy of such excessive valorisation. At one point he comes to the crux of his dilemma, 'She who appears so permanent is transitory ... I can neither hold her nor let her go.' (p.291, my italics) What is the significance of this paradoxical situation in which he finds himself? Let us examine the two parts (of the italicized sentence) separately. Most obviously the first part refers to Dan's inability to possess Charlotte on a physical level; his deep feelings for her are clearly vastly disproportionate to hers for him. On an epistemological level she also eludes him, 'She changed from day to day, from hour to hour if necessary.' (p.223) The two levels are intimately related and it is the epistemological one which is more worrying for Ruttle; he returns to it obsessively throughout the novel but to no avail, it is like 'memorizing the reflections of a diamond'. (p.422)

Just as with the physical desire for possession, the epistemological aspect of Dan's struggle is motivated by dominion; tellingly, he ponders 'had she no fixed point that I could call mine?' (p.390) It is interesting that his inability to fully understand her arguably preoccupies him more than her physical intimacies with other men. Ruttle wishes to pin down Charlotte's character, to limit her to a set of easily identifiable, non-contradictory characteristics, to thoroughly define her fluid personality. In this he is akin to the traditional realist novelist who sought to fix the incessant variability of an individual through a representative character in his or her book. This is the 'rule of desire for realistic possession: to hold a great power within a small volume'. (p.325) Neil Murphy, sensitive to the connotations of volume here, sees this as Higgins' open declaration of his attitude towards realistic fiction. (36) This is true, but perhaps a little reductive. The same phrase has already occurred earlier, save with the word 'passion' in place of possession (p.284); this pairs not only the physical and epistemological aspects of Dan's desire for possession together, but it also links both with the methodology of the fiction writer. This is not to suggest that the author is equating traditional realist writers with spurned lovers but rather that he is highlighting the human desire for the permanence and stability we find in art. As another experimental novelist, William H. Gass, put it; faced with the transience and uncertainty of those around us we envy the realm of 'fiction, where characters, unlike ourselves, freed from existence, can shine like essence, and purely Be'. (37) Given the inherent uncertainty of others' identities it is hardly surprising that Ruttle should seek to possess Charlotte through fictionalization, that activity whereby '[w]e localize in the body of another all the potentialities of that other life, until it becomes dearer to us than our own'. (p.216)

Having failed to hold down her real self it is the Charlotte he has created, the fictional character, of whom he says he could not 'let her go." In referring to fictionalization I am not returning to the vexed issue of whether Dan is writing the text but rather to a process that takes place within his consciousness, to the simple fact that, as Morris Beja wrote; 'Charlotte is less a real being than a creation of Dan Ruttle's'. (38) Occasionally he quite bluntly acknowledges the vast role his own imagination has played in his conception of her and her past; 'I dreamed her' (p.390) he remarks at one point, for example, though this will have been obvious enough to the reader even without such admissions. Moreover there are times when her real self impinges on, and threatens to ruin, the character he has created; 'the more she talks, explains, the less she is' (p.333, my italics). We might well ask whether the first she here refers to the same woman as the second she.

Clearly Charlotte is an exceptional case given Dan's deep infatuation--this is why the character he has created for her is never far from his thoughts; but what of the other characters in the novel? I think the term 'depersonalized characterization' neatly encapsulates the progressive breakdown of the concept of character the novel enacts. Each of the characters apart from Dan is little more than the sum of their name, the lists of their expressions the text periodically provides, and the few scant details we can glean from their conversation; '[a] character, first of all, is the noise of his name, and all the sounds and rhythms that proceed from him.' (39) The line between literature and life is continually blurred. Characterization is shown to be not merely the task of the fiction writer but a subjective process in which we constantly engage. The role of creativity in perception cannot be underestimated.

Let us return to an example used in the previous section to highlight just how subjective the process of characterization is. The Baylesses, whom Ruttle does not yet know, enter the bar he is drinking in and he dismisses them as 'poseurs, fools, imposters' (p.197). This is a characterization. Why does he characterize them thus? They enter 'laughing immoderately" (fools) and make 'a great show of conviviality' (p.197, my italics); they are also with Rosa Munsinger whom Dan intensely dislikes and thinks is a poseur ('[s]he had an act for everyone' (p. 173) he complains). They are imposters because Dan resents more people joining the expatriate community, particularly Americans. (40) The unfairness of the characterization should already be clear. Another onlooker might simply have seen a good-humoured, friendly group of Americans enter. The words used alert us to the subjective nature of the description: 'immoderately', great 'show'. Bob Bayless has a limp and a stick, this is mentioned again directly after the three word dismissal '(the limp and the stick)' (p.197). Ruttle associates these with the group's imagined falsity whereas most observers would almost certainly feel sympathy for a young man in such a situation. Admittedly, this is a first impression, but though Dan's conception of the Baylesses will become more rounded with time, his experience with Charlotte belies the possibility of ever truly knowing anyone. Even after a lifetime of observing his own mother he can only conclude that '[n]o one had ever known her.' (p.59) Since Dan is only privy to his own consciousness primordially, characterization is an inevitable part of his daily life. The novel's insight in this regard is observable in reality: if a close acquaintance does something that surprises us we say it is 'out of character', that is, it differs from our characterization of him or her.

As well as type-casting others we are caught in their gaze, aware of our reciprocal existence in their eyes: 'I had the feeling, [...] that one is always observed, under constant surveillance, though not perhaps by God. Underlying theme of the overlying earth.' (p.59) Whether it is the old man 'play-acting' (p.211), Con Brady and Rosa Munsinger behaving 'like some night-club act' (p.172), or Charlotte and her Spanish admirer whose flirtations are 'like a play by Labiche, a comedy de mouers, a sofa comedy' (p.293), metaphors of acting and theatre pervade the text. This is partially due to the process of recollection (discussed in section II above), wherein 'we restage in consciousness a past perception ... in a wholesale fashion'. (41) Hence, Dan's father is constantly borne back to 'the past--his past, that is and those who had occupied it. And now so many of them were dead. Still they had to play their set and unchangeable roles in his charades, my father played in them too.' (p.31) However the theme of role-playing permeates more than just recollection, it is an intrinsic part of all human life. We will examine its treatment in the novel through one representative figure: the waiter, Miguel.

One of the two people the book is dedicated to is Miguel Lopez Rojas, camarero, and the final page of the text proper is a reproduction of his headstone despite the fact that his death had barely registered with Ruttle, being completely ignored in light of some minor revelations about Charlotte (minor to all but Ruttle (p.427)). The prominence he is granted on the margins of the text might surprise some readers. After all, he is very much a secondary character in the novel, for he is practically mute and when he does speak it is only to utter the few words his job demands, 'De nada, Senor' (p.112) Yet he is forever hovering in the background, an almost imperceptible shadowy presence--'[a]s soon as we sat Miguel came.' (p.229) His pervasiveness is due to the fact that Miguel is the waiter at the Balcon de Europa bar; as the name suggests, a key setting. We never see him in any other context than in his job here, and he is so closely associated with it that the expatriates refer to it as 'Miguel's bar' (pp.155, 184) though they know he is not the owner.

The only sequence in which Miguel is somewhat more than vestigial is during Dan's encounter with the Baron, a self-confessed Nazi. Miguel is his usual calm, silent self in the face of the Baron's overbearing rudeness, though Ruttle believes he can detect hostility from the set of his shoulders (a rather dubious presumption). Miguel 'mock[s] in dumbshow, pointing his chin in our direction, for the benefit of his employer' (p.111); human after all, but only whilst believing himself out of sight and safe with a fellow member of staff. Faced with the Baron's increasing drunkenness Miguel retreats more into professionalism: 'His movements had become surer, more ballad-like and stagey, as his animosity grew, [...] more and more enigmatic, for he did not care for the Baron at all. He would serve him, yes, but there it ended.' (p.112, my italics) Miguel the waiter is clearly acting a role, '[b]ut what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe.' (42) This famous description of the waiter in Sartre's Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (1943) is given as an example of the concept of "bad faith", but Miguel need not be seen as being condemned for his inauthenticity as such; he simply plays his role to support his family (p.111). All we need infer from this examination of Miguel is the same conclusion Arland Ussher came to regarding Sartre's waiter example: 'the fact that there is an element of acting in all human acts is no doubt true and well observed; and I altogether refuse to be depressed by it.' (43)


By placing the reproduction of Miguel's epitaph on the very last page of the novel, the author is clearly assigning it great significance. As is often the case in Balcony, it points in several directions simultaneously. Being a representation of a 'real' grave it is a reminder that all fiction is the reproduction (signifier) of a reality (signified) which can never be wholly recovered. Since the book is also dedicated to Miguel's memory, and the dates of his decease inside and outside the text proper correspond, the epitaph demonstrates that the waiter not only fulfilled a role (that his profession demanded) in reality, but that the real man has been coerced into playing a further one as a character inside the text. Characterization in both fiction and life is intimately related, as we saw above.

In the final section, the links between literature and life are increasingly complicated; Otto Beck (from Langrishe) is remembered on the Aran Islands, as is, within just a few lines, Brendan Behan, who appears in an unflattering light in the novel (p.453). Related to this is the crucial fact that the headstone on the final page is in 'Nerja cemetery' (p. 459, my italics). Yet the entire novel has taken place in Nerka. At its close the novel enacts 'the fateful gesture with which the writer draws attention to the mask which he is wearing.' (44) A famous parallel of this is Proust's renaming his childhood village of Illiers as Combray in his novel. Yet this precedent bespeaks more distance than similarity. Only one letter separates the fictional town in Balcony from the real one on which it is based. Furthermore Nerka is a phonetic English representation of how Nerja is pronounced in Spanish: '[n]ow, in point of fact, it happens that this graphic difference ..., this marked difference between two apparently vocalic notations, between [consonants], remains purely graphic: it is written or read, but it is not heard.' (45) Just like the backwards 'N' in the novel's title. It is the written nature of the text that is highlighted by these gestures. In seeking the perfect phrases to represent Dan's consciousness the narration has inevitably distorted it; sensory perception and emotional trauma take place as events in themselves, not in the well-chosen words the novelist has had recourse to. The narrative has, like all art, 'sought to limit the scope of what is beyond our capacity to order' (p.332). An individual's life, that endless flux which only ends with death (the epitaph itself suggests this), with its extremely complex relationship to time and its own past, can only be represented through a selective and self-consciously artificial (its perfectly symmetrical ordering) written text.

There are few overt statements in Balcony on fiction or literature, in accordance with Higgins's belief that it 'is hardly fitting that authors should theorise in print about their own work, for if it is any good, the writing itself constitutes a theory.' (46) This is one reason that Dan's profession as an artist is scarcely utilised in the manner it might be expected to: that is, as an opportunity for authorial self-reflexivity. Nevertheless, though rather rarely, there are some comments on art made. For instance, at one point it is stated that '[d]etails should be many or none' (p.161) and it is clearly the former that has been chosen here. Detailed description is the key component of phenomenological enquiry, and the novel is motivated by a desire to depict a single consciousness as it recollects. The reason for the novel's wealth of incidental details (or colouring) is clear enough; if, as the concept of intentionality indicates, consciousness must be consciousness of something, then it is little wonder such extensive description is employed. But if such detail is perhaps false, as the text's emphasis on its status as fiction suggests, then how are we to account for my earlier claims for the authenticity of the depiction of consciousness? What good is so much description if its relation to reality is deliberately problematized?

The solution to this paradoxical situation in which the novel finds itself is best explained by recourse to Husserlian phenomenology. The questions I have just asked might be rephrased in relation to the novel's acceptance of Husserl's invitation to work in Ideas. Since Husserl maintains that he is founding a new descriptive science in phenomenology, surely there is as little room for an artist in it as there was in Plato's ideal republic? Crucially, however, Husserl was not founding a science reliant on facts and figures, but an eidetic one concerning itself with the essences of reality. Husserl is extremely keen throughout Ideas to distinguish phenomenology from psychology, and this differentiation will clarify what is meant by eidetic science: 'phenomenology and psychology differ in the same way that geometry differs from physics: phenomenology deals with the essential structures of the domain of consciousness, while psychology deals with its empirical laws.' (47) The details, though intrinsic to intentionality, may differ from 'reality' (Nerka/Nerja), but the essence of Ruttle's consciousness has been captured through the fictional process:
   Hence, if anyone loves a paradox, he can really say, and say with
   strict truth if he will allow for the ambiguity, that the element
   which makes up the life of phenomenology as of all eidetical
   science is "fiction", that fiction is the source whence the
   knowledge of "eternal truths" draws its sustenance. (48)

All the relationships, interactions, observations, and activities detailed in the text culminate in the observation that '[n]othing essential has changed, yet all has changed'. (p.457, my italics) The novel not only registers the transience of human affairs ('all has changed'), but also the fundamental (essential) structures of consciousness which experience them and survive unaltered.

Furnished with this knowledge, we can now return to our starting point, the rejected epigraph from Ideas which instigated this examination. It testifies to the huge power Husserl accorded the imagination, as the following excerpt demonstrates:
   I can provide for myself constantly new and more or less clear and
   meaningful perceptions and representations, and images more or less
   clear, in which I make intuitable to myself whatever can possibly
   exist really or supposedly in the steadfast order of space and
   time. (p.461)

This epigraph helps explain Ruttle's numerous flights of fancy, but being placed outside the text it points not towards the narrative but behind that adopted mask to the author himself. After all, the dedication and the epigraphs are the only realm within a book of fiction wholly centred on the author himself, once the text has been entered it would be wrong to conflate the author and the narrator, as every good literary critic stresses. Higgins has made no secret of the highly autobiographical nature of his fictional work. Balcony is clearly based on his own experiences in Spain; he used a technique of 'instant fictionalisation' in writing it. (49) Whereas his previous novel, Langrishe, drew on his knowledge of his childhood home and the locality, in Balcony he has examined his own consciousness and this relentlessly introspective method, this commitment to 'dig[ging] down into oneself' (p. 60), has resulted in a certain authenticity and, it must be conceded, a concomitant excess of detail and lack of focus. The ultimate idealist is the novelist himself, fabricating from his own experiences; he can say with Husserl that he 'obtain[s] an original and pure descriptive knowledge of the psychical life as it is in itself, the most original information being obtained from lone]self, because here alone is perception the medium'. (50)

DOI: 10.3366/iur.2013.0085


(1.) Higgins's sons' book for children (written when they were children), Colossal Gongorr and the Turkes of Mars (London: Cape, 1972), which he edited, rather incongruously includes epigraphs from Joyce, Djuna Barnes, and Isak Dinesen. In another collection he edited, A Century of Short Stories (Suffolk: Book Club Associates, 1977), he gave a quotation from each author as an epigraph before their story, but no other information except a brief, uninformative preface.

(2.) 'Six waves of invaders, centuries of occupation, then expulsion, then Civil War, in Catholic Ireland and Catholic Spain. One cut off from Europe by the Pyrenees, the other by the Irish Sea. Both on the outer fringes of Europe, both saved from two world wars by their long-nosed leaders; neither part of Europe. Both troubles started by women.' Balcony of Europe (London: Calder & Boyars, 1972), p.338. Henceforth cited parenthetically in the text.

(3.) Klaus Lubbers, 'Balcony of Europe: The Trend Towards Internationalization in Recent Irish Fiction', in Literary Interrelations: Ireland, England and the World, 3 vols., ed. by Wolfgang Zach and Heinz Kosak (Tubingen: Gunter Narr, 1987), III, 235-44, p.241. John Banville, 'A Colony of Expatriates', Hibernia (6 October, 1972), p.18.

(4.) Rudiger Imhof The Modern Irish Novel: Irish Novelists after 1945 (Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 2002), pp.38-9.

(5.) Other reasons he gave ranged from his desire to protect himself from various charges of plagiarism, to the more mundane need to lengthen the poem for publication in book form. Despite professing his regret he never withdrew them.

(6.) An example of a paraphrase of Ideas in the novel: 'The tree plain and simple cannot burn away; it cannot resolve itself into its component elements' (p.292).

(7.) Vera Kreilkamp, 'Reinventing a Form: the Big House in Aidan Higgins' Langrishe, Go Down', in Ancestral Voices: The 'Big House" in Anglo-Irish Literature--a collection of interpretations, ed. by Otto Rauchbauer (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1992), 207-20, pp.214-15.

(8.) See Higgins, 'The Bosky Dew': '[for] 'Ruttle' read [Patrick] Collins, with an admixture of Ussher', in Windy Arbours: Collected Criticism (Normal: Dalkey Archive Press, 2005), 205-9, p.208. Patrick Collins was an Irish painter and another friend of Higgins's. The most important of Ussher's numerous philosophical texts for this essay is Journey Through Dread: A Study of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre (London: Darwen Finlayson, 1958). See especially pp.65-70, on Husserl's influence and his key concept of intentionality.

(9.) Dermot Moran, Edmund Husserh Founder of Phenomenology (Cambridge: Polity, 2005), p.28.

(10.) Moran, p.130, my italics. Husserl's prose style is universally regarded as rather poor; he is often obscure and long-winded and furthermore constantly changes key vocabulary. Therefore for clarity and brevity I have often chosen to quote his critics and commentators to explain his concepts.

(11.) Emmanuel Levinas, Discovering Existence with Husserl, trans, and ed. by Richard A. Cohen and Michael B. Smith (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998), p.4.

(12.) Samuel Beckett, 'Letter from Samuel Beckett concerning manuscript of story "Killachter Meadow"', Review of Contemporary Fiction (Spring, 1983), 156-7, p.157.

(13.) Dermot Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology (London: Routledge, 2000), p.5.

(14.) Edmund Husserl, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, trans, by W.R. Boyce Gibson (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1976), [section] 84, p.242.

(15.) Levinas, p.13.

(16.) Moran, Introduction, p.16.

(17.) Moran, Introduction, p.15.

(18.) Helen Meany, 'Scenes From a Receding Past: Interview with Aidan Higgins', The Irish Times, 6 June 1995, p.8.

(19.) Moran, Introduction, pp. 5, 178.

(20.) Patrick O'Neill, 'Aidan Higgins', in Contemporary Irish Novelists, ed. by Rudiger Imhof (Tubingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1990), 93-108, p.100. This essay has subsequently been reprinted in Aidan Higgins: The Fragility of Form, ed. by Neil Murphy (Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2010), 233-57.

(21.) James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (London: Penguin, 2000), p.7, line 15. The phrase recurs in slightly altered form (p.33). Like some of the epigraphs discussed earlier I believe this takes on its own significance within Balcony and need not send us back to its source for further enlightenment. It is the only phrase from the Wake used in the novel.

(22.) Robert Sodowlski, Introduction to Phenomenology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.70.

(23.) Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, trans, by Kathleen Blarney and David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), p.21.

(24.) Matheson Russell, Husserh A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Continuum, 2006), p.135, my italics.

(25.) Husserl, [section] 78, p.220.

(26.) 'Thus the perception itself changes according as the determination of the context changes, whereas the lowest specific difference of the genus "perception", its inner uniqueness, can be thought of as remaining identical with itself.' Husserl, [section]83, p.241.

(27.) Husserl, [section]83, p.241.

(28.) Higgins, quoted by Morris Beja, 'Felons of Our Selves: The Fiction of Aidan Higgins', Irish University Review, 3.2 (Autumn, 1973), 163-78, p.172. This essay has subsequently been reprinted in Murphy, ed., 258-81.

(29.) Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, 3 vols., trans, by Kathleen Blarney and David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984-8), III, p.132.

(30.) Husserl, p.18.

(31.) Reviewer quoted in Beja, p.176. Banville, p.18.

(32.) Bernard Share, 'Down from the Balcony', Review of Contemporary Fiction (Spring, p.162.

(33.) Aidan Higgins, Flotsam and Jetsam (Normal: Dalkey Archive Press, 2002), p.177.

(34.) Images of Africa: diary (1956-60) (London: Calder and Boyars, 1971), pp.19-20, my italics.

(35.) Husserl, [section]1, p.51-2. Husserl's use of the term 'primordial' differs from ordinary usage (i.e., as meaning 'primeval'). His usage relates directly to the Latin root, primordialis, 'first of all'. The following contrast by Husserl clarifies his meaning: 'In "outer perception" we have primordial experience of physical things, but in memory or anticipatory expectation this is no longer the case', [section]1, p.51.

(36.) Neil Murphy, Irish Fiction and Postmodern Doubt: An Analysis of the Epistemological Crisis in Modern Fiction (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2004), p.162.

(37.) William H. Gass, 'The Concept of Character in Fiction', in Fiction and the Figures of Life: Essays (Boston: Nonpareil, 2000), 34-54, p.54.

(38.) Beja, p.176.

(39.) Gass, p.49.

(40.) Other examples of Dan's hostility to (foreign) newcomers: 'more and more Americans coming in, with their damn gregariousness, their mutual crying need for an amicable social life at all costs.' 'Why ... encourag[e] extranjeros to settle here? I said testily, when we have too many already' (p. 126).

(41.) Russell, p.135.

(42.) Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: an essay on phenomenological ontology, trans. by Hazel E. Barnes (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 82.

(43.) Arland Ussher, Journey Through Dread: A Study of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre (London: Darwen Finlayson, 1958), p.112, footnote 1.

(44.) Roland Barthes, Writing: Degree Zero, trans, by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (London: Cape, 1967), p.46.

(45.) Jacques Derrida, 'Differance', in A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, ed. by Antony Easthope and Kate McGowan (Berkshire: Open University Press, 2004), 120-42, p.121.

(46.) Aidan Higgins, 'Kundera', in Windy Arbours, 256-7, p.256.

(47.) Russell, p.36.

(48.) Husserl, [section] 70, p.201.

(49.) Share, p.162.

(50.) Husserl, p.14.
COPYRIGHT 2013 Edinburgh University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

 Reader Opinion




Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:O'Farrell, Kevin
Publication:Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 22, 2013
Previous Article:Modernity, gender, and the nation in Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea.
Next Article:'strange architecture': Ciaran Carson's Until Before After.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2014 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters