Exile on ‘Fame’ Street

Roberto Bolano - Portrait of the author as an exile
Roberto Bolano, New York Review of Books

To be exiled is not to disappear but to shrink, to slowly or quickly get smaller and smaller until we reach our real height, the true height of the self. Swift, master of exile, knew this. For him exile was the secret word for journey. Many of the exiled, freighted with more suffering than reasons to leave, would reject this statement.

All literature carries exile within it, whether the writer has had to pick up and go at the age of twenty or has never left home.

Probably the first exiles on record were Adam and Eve. This is indisputable and it raises a few questions: can it be that we’re all exiles? Is it possible that all of us are wandering strange lands?

The concept of “strange lands” (like that of “home ground”) has some holes in it, presents new questions. Are “strange lands” an objective geographic reality, or a mental construct in constant flux?

Exile, in most cases, is a voluntary decision. No one forced Thomas Mann to go into exile. No one forced James Joyce to go into exile. Back in Joyce’s day, the Irish probably couldn’t have cared less whether he stayed in Dublin or left, whether he became a priest or killed himself.

In the best of cases, exile is a literary option, similar to the option of writing. No one forces you to write; [the writer] is no more forced than a politician is forced into politics or a lawyer is forced into law school. With the great advantage for the writer that the lawyer or politician, outside his country of origin, tends to flounder like a fish out of water, at least for a while. Whereas a writer outside his native country seems to grow wings.

Read the full essay at the New York Review of Books …