Aug '02 [Home]


The Internal Outsider:  The Writing of Exile
by Pablo Medina

Some time ago, while I was working on a new novel, I became suddenly anxious that I would never get to write another poem in my life. I picked up pen and paper and stared at the wall. Nothing happened. I stared at the wall some more. A line came, then another and another. In a couple of hours I had six lines in Spanish, a poem in three couplets. I spent the afternoon and evening writing more of these six-line poems in Spanish. The next day I wrote seven more, and as I was writing the sixth line of the eighth poem, I realized not only that the line was in English, but that the whole poem was. It was an extraordinary revelation. However long it took to write those six lines, I was totally unaware of what language I was using. I, who had always been conscious of language—I thought this in Spanish; I said that in English; last night I dreamed in Spanish; this morning I fantasized in English. I, who had almost driven myself crazy with bilingualism, was so excited I was writing poems again that it didn't matter what language they came in. What mattered was that they were coming. It was like happiness. The moment you think about it, it is gone. All this thinking about languages had left me exhausted. I couldn't write any more that night.

In 1990, George Steiner, in a review of Brian Boyd's biography of Vladimir Nabokov, wrote the following:

Like Oscar Wilde—a decisive precedent—and like Conrad, Borges, and Beckett, Nabokov belongs to a constellation of the linguistically unhoused. It is not only that he writes sovereignly in several languages. It is that his native or mother tongue, Russian, acquires an ideal, a talismanic, status, precisely because he could from the very outset choose not to speak it—or, more accurately, because he could view it from an internal "outsideness."

Some time later I went to visit my aunt in the hospital. I got there just in time to spend some time with her and then go with my uncle to have lunch downstairs in the cafeteria. By the time we returned, a couple of friends and their daughter were paying a visit, and a half hour later four other friends showed up. Suddenly, without noticing really, what might have been a somber occasion turned into a celebration. The only thing missing were the cocktails. The language spoken this whole time was, of course, Spanish. I was conversing in "my language." I use the possessive adjective in referring to Spanish, all too aware of the fact that I could never use it with English. Spanish is "my language." I was born into it and I grew up with it. It is still the language of the family, the tongue that allows us to communicate most comfortably and intimately with each other.

The ease I felt in the hospital room was eventually tainted by my realization that English surrounded the bubble of Spanish and Cubanness we had created and by the paradox that haunts me every day of my life that the language of my intimacy is not the language of my writing or of the world I move in most of the time. The realization crept into me even as I enjoyed the company, the jokes, the gregarious banter that is so Cuban. "Internal outsideness" was rearing its head. But let me return to Nabokov. Having abandoned Russian in favor of other languages to write in, Nabokov also abandoned his home. He left behind the breast that nursed him, that gave an early shape to his thoughts and feelings, for another more convenient one—French, the other language of the Nabokov household—and eventually English, the lingua franca, when that became available. Whenever Nabokov returned to Russian, he came to it as a prodigal, fondly, humbly, but also weighed down with the knowledge of other worlds, which often competed, if not with his affections, then with his attentions. He returned home laden with knowledge and experience of the outside. To know more than one language—and here I mean to know so well they are interchangeable, as Russian, French, and English were for Nabokov—is to know more than one world. Nabokov, the grandmaster of exiles as Steiner calls him, could have bemoaned his estrangement from his native language. And there were times, in the early years of his exile, when he was indeed pulled back in the direction of the past. But once the return to Russia—and Russian—dimmed, he embraced Babel and made art with whatever language was available.

The internal outsider can only be home for so long before he grows nostalgic for the other worlds he has tasted, and while he eats at the family table he keeps looking over his shoulder wondering how much longer he will have to stay. It won't be long before he's gone again, leaving behind the forlorn mother with an empty bedroom in the back of the house. What allegiance to the past—that spectre—could be worth the cost of living in at least one other world? Once freed from that allegiance, which is at once the consolation and curse of the exile, the past, no longer sacred, becomes metaphor, becomes the great heap of metal and ore from which the new world of the imagination will arise.

To do this the writer must release himself from the shackles of nostalgia while keeping his memories intact, no mean feat. He must move from saying to himself, "What a beautiful place that was!" (the closed dependent place of the polemicist) to "What a real place I can make!" (the open independent place of the artist). For this transformation to take place, he must be at a remove from the source of his memories, he must be willing to exploit, to pillage, to take away what is useful to him and leave behind the trash. Memories are mired in language through nostalgia. If the language of nostalgia is abandoned, then one is left with the raw material of memory, the stuff of literature. It is at this point that the exile writer assumes the modicum of freedom necessary to assert what John Gardner called "an ultimate rightness of things." I must add that this process of movement away from the past as holy place to the past as mother lode occurs within the same language, but it is more clearly demarcated, and certainly more dramatic, when it occurs interlingually.

Nabokov taught us by example that one way out of the trap of nostalgia is another language, where words have no intimate connection with the wounded creature of the past. With the new language the writer is free to manufacture, manipulate, mock, and yes, even pay homage, without the aftertaste of melodrama, to the world he left behind. In addition, by encoding his memories in a new language, he robs them of their mythic and totemic qualities. They can be decapitalized, made manageable by being brought down to size.

The translation of memory from the crypto-language of the past to the public language of the present occurs in all novel writing at its most basic level. Without this process there can be no fictionalization of events, and the past stands before the writer like an unmoveable, unshakeable monument to lost time; without it, in fact, the modern novel, the critique on the past that Proust taught us to write, makes no sense. The exile writer, for whom the past exists in his mind as a religion of origin, must take this transformation as far as it can go. Of Nabokov's early years in Cambridge, Steiner says, "The whole program and aesthetic are there; the literally maddening fear of loss, of enforced oblivion, and the resolve of the artist to reconstitute every detail, to make history impotent in the strong light of exact imagining."

No novelist can create successfully while the shadow of history (the past, his own enmeshed with others') falls on his pages. One of the benefits of fictionalization is that history recedes to the background. With front lighting its shadow falls away from the real work at hand, the telling of a story (or the saying of a poem, for that matter). I am not claiming that an exile writer must, of necessity, leave his native language, but I would argue that the greater the distance an author places between his past and his work the better hidden he, as an individual, will be and the greater the chances that the past will not dominate the writing or the reader's conception of the writing. Note, for example, the troubles Cervantes went through to hide himself in Don Quixote. He hid behind Cide Hamete Benengeli, the supposed Arab author of the history of the hidalgo, behind the anonymous discoverers of Benengeli's papers, and behind the translator of these documents into Spanish. Eventually, in the second part of the book, we see Cervantes hiding behind his character, as Don Quixote goes about manufacturing and manipulating his own history so that it will fit into the historians' preconceptions of suitable knightly behavior. By the time Cervantes finishes hiding, we see him nowhere, or we see him everywhere, which amounts to the same thing. The crucial thing for the writer is to hide, no matter how and no matter behind what, or whom.

Nabokov had to abandon his beloved Russian as the primary medium for his writing in the 1920's. To keep writing in that language at that particular time was to remain subject to the politics and petty infighting of the Russian émigré communities in Europe. He needed a wider audience, who would look at his work as literature, not as polemic or as the image of a past distorted by nostalgia. According to Boyd it was Nabokov's artistic ambitions that made him take up French and eventually English, both languages he adopted with astounding ease. As he moved away from his native language, as he accepted the realization that his exile, for all intents and purposes, would be permanent, his writing became less identifiably Russian, but also purer and more universal, even, paradoxically, in those occasional works that he wrote in Russian throughout his life.

Exile for a writer is both a great trap and a great advantage. It is a trap in that seeking to understand his past so that he can reconcile himself to the present, the exiled writer might mire himself in nostalgia. If so, he will be unable to respond to the greater demands he faces as an artist, demands that have as much to do with language as with the difficulties inherent in creating a convincing fictional world. His work will be seen as nothing more than a reflection of politics, ethnicity, and history. If he is read and studied, it will be from those angles. He will be a curio, an exemplar for his devotion even, but in the end he will not be taken seriously as an artist.

But exile also offers the greatest of advantages. Away from the land of his birth, separated from the womb-like warmth of his culture and his upbringing, he is now able to look at things with a clear and ruthless eye. He can give his memory free run, and he can shape a world undiluted by nostalgia and false longing. When his exile deepens by adopting a language whose milk, though not as sweet as his mother's, is nevertheless fresher, more immediate, and more nourishing, then we see not an exile writer subsumed in illusion, but an artist struggling to assert his personal vision.

(Pablo Medina is the author of three volumes of poetry and two novels, The Marks of Birth and The Return of Felix Nogara. He teaches at the New School University in New York.)

[Nabokov also had an expert knowledge of butterflies. —Eds.]