The geometry and arithmetic of exile: a Russian writer’s view

What happens to a writer when he is no longer surrounded by his own language and reality? Emigres, exiles use a kind of cunning to adapt and continue functioning as writers, but they have to make so many adjustments that some fall silent. Oleg Yuriev examines some famous literary exiles to consider his own position and attitudes to literature in his former country.

Oleg Yuriev
1 August 2011

“You have asked me what I would do and what I would not do. I will tell you…. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can, and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use . . . silence, exile, and cunning.” 

James Joyce, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Jewish exile

“As a result of a historical catastrophe, Emperor Titus' destruction of Jerusalem and the ensuing exile of the people of Israel, I was born in one of the Cities of Exile. But I have always considered that I was born in Jerusalem.”

These are the words of Schmuel Josef Czackes, better known at Shmuel Yosef (Shai) Agnon, the first and only Hebrew writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1966), in his acceptance speech in Stockholm. He was indeed born in a shtetl in Galicia [today's Ukraine ed], Buczacz, and died in Jerusalem. Exile is, thus, not only a matter of personal choice: you can, for instance, be born in exile as a result of a historical catastrophe which happened 2000 years before your birth. And you don't have to be born a Jew: there are, after all, many peoples in the world who have been displaced by historical catastrophes. But if you are born a Jew and not in Israel, you acquire exile status automatically, as it were.

I am just such a one. I am a Jew and was born in the most beautiful city of exile, which is also one of the wonder cities of the world. On a light and dark May evening, when the streets are empty, the city shines pearl-like, seeming to float above the softly shining river, and, with its golden spires, yellow, blue and ruby-coloured palaces, green and black bridges, it too seems to be exiled…to the skies. I was born in St Petersburg and for this I have Emperor Titus and the ancient Romans to thank.

This is the city where I became a poet. I was 11 when I wrote (and dated) a sad poem about a little grey goat being eaten by the big bad wolf (also grey). The poem has mercifully not survived. 

Soviet exile

I am not given to bandying quotes about, but when I hear the word 'exile', one or other of my revered colleagues springs unbidden into my mind, wanting to express an opinion. I can't always stop them speaking – after all we have spent such a long time together in my mind that they have acquired certain rights.

"In my opinion going into exile and living in exile is the standard poetic and human experience of our days."

After the October Revolution the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva spent almost 20 years in exile in Paris and Prague before returning to Russia, which for her turned out to be more foreign than any abroad. When she heard the words of Shai Agnon, she said “In this most Christian world poets are yids” (sic). So if you are a Jew and a poet too, does that not mean that you are a Jew 'twice over', as it were?  But not a poet twice over – that's not how it works! And if you are a twice-over Jew, are you not living in double exile? Perhaps not.

I grew up in a society, which, for reasons I don't even now really understand, I began quite early to regard as completely alien. This was no 'logical divergence' with the prevailing ideology or the regime. For me to have disagreed with 'them' would have been a complete impossibility, because it would have meant acknowledging they existed in the same way as me, and this I could not countenance. For me Soviet reality was unreal, an opaque film covering my beautiful city and my Russian literature.

To paraphrase my dear Agnon: “As a result of the historical catastrophe that was the October Revolution and the advent of the Soviet Union, I was born to un-freedom. But I have always considered that I was born to freedom.” There were, of course, not many like me by comparison with the fine upstanding Soviet citizens, who never doubted that the world into which they were born was the norm. This is true of any society. But if you live in a small country or town, a small shtetl in Galicia, for instance, surrounded by fine, upstanding citizens, then you will be fairly lonely. You might have a couple of like-minded friends, if you're lucky. But Russia is a big country and Petersburg a very big city, so in absolute terms this insignificant percentage is quite a lot of people.

Thousands! I knew many of them, had discussions with them and used to drink with them.  A sickly sweet (and poisonous) pseudo-port, a cheap wine that simple people used to block out the world during the eternal Soviet night, which was first and foremost deadly boring, and only then all the other things. I read them my poems – no longer about little goats – and listened to theirs. There were whole years when, week in week out, I went every day to places where poetry was declaimed, listened to and discussed; where books which no Soviet publisher would print were read, copied and passed on to the next reader; where we believed that we were free animals who had escaped from the zoo. 

It wasn't what you might call a 'parallel society', more of a 'parallel reality' and this was how it regarded itself. In other words, in the 70s and 80s of the last century we and others like us lived in a Soviet society, which was troubled, decrepit and in a state of continuous distintegration on all sides. We lived in a sort of 'internal exile', so that was my third exile and it perhaps had much more of an influence on me than the other two.

Literary exile

In my opinion going into exile and living in exile is the standard poetic and human experience of our days. Essentially almost everyone in today's world lives to a greater or lesser extent in exile, which is why the strange geometry and arithmetics of this concept require constant honing. Perhaps all literature is exile – sometimes for the reader and almost always for the writer? What matters is whether we are prepared to recognise this, to accept it, almost to feel affection for it.

In 2010 Oleg Yuriev was awarded Heidelberg's Helge Domin literary prize for writers in exile. The nomination described Yuriev's books as "uniting Gogol’s grotesque sense of humour with the courage of the St. Petersburg avant-garde”.

 Not many people are. As, for example, our 'artist as a young man', our old Jim Joyce (as Ernest Hemingway once called him), our heavenly patron with appalling manners, who consciously chose 'exile' as part of his famous triad, together with 'silence' and 'cunning', as an essential pre-condition for his life as a poet. With the merciless consistency that was so typical of him and which was so hard for him to bear, as it was for those close to him, Joyce left Dublin and set off to search out a suitable exile to carry out his programme. Even London, the natural refuge for Irish literary emigres, was too tame for him and English people's English, while fairly awkward and unmelodic, was too easy to understand for him to be able to put up with hearing it all the time. 

He probably believed that a poet has to live surrounded by foreign languages, so that even his mother tongue seems strange to him, because it's only the distance you put between yourself and your mother tongue that makes you a real poet. This was a decisive break with the metaphysical concept established in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century, the time of German Romanticism, of the 'mother tongue', that transcendental combination of blood and soil; the break was made in the 20th century in the midst, and because, of immeasurable human suffering and countless historical catastrophes. As Elias Canetti wrote in 1959, the year I was born, “I feel at home when, with a pencil in my hand, I am writing down German words and all around me people are speaking English.”

I didn't go as far as that when I moved away from my triple exile. At that time the word 'exile' had for me – as for most people – negative connotations, a kind of condition which had to be overcome, turned into a 'correct' state of 'non-exile'. I thought that one real exile i.e. a physical change of place of exile would be less of an exile than my three imagined exiles. This assumption turned out to be false: in the arithmetics of exile one is equal to three. Or even more. But not less.

Adapting to exile

The first ten or twelve years of my new exile were full of these, and similar, reasonings and sensations. I learnt to understand and love the language of my exile, to understand and love the people of my exile. I was settling into a more 'domestic exile', so successfully that I almost forgot I was living in exile. At the very least I never felt I was an exiled author. I was just a writer who, for one reason or another, was living abroad and writing in my old, and sometimes even in my new, language. Rather like Joyce in Trieste. 

In this brave new world of the 90s it seemed to me the most natural thing in the world that all borders should at last be open before me and it began to seem as though a world literature (that 'Weltliteratur' devised by Privy Councillor von Goethe) could at last call the whole world its mother country. Or its exile. Even in Russia, where crossing any border traditionally provokes a mystic shiver, this senseless idea that your place of residence is in some way sacrosanct seemed to be starting to disappear. 

I sensed that I – and all the countless writers who live abroad (some of them in former Soviet 'Union Republics' found themselves abroad without having taken a step out of their house) and write in Russian – was regarded not as an exiled author, but simply an author; that my works were valued for themselves, rather than because of where I lived. I had books published, they were read, reviewed, discussed and I sensed that in Russia a degree of normality had been established. 

Plus ca change…?

But about in the mid-00s this normality suddenly started stalling and new, or rather the same old, refrains were to be heard ever more loudly:

“Our literary journals, which are anyway fairly short of talented writers, are starting to publish works by representatives of the third and fourth waves of emigration of the 1980s.”

“The author comes from St Petersburg. 17 years ago he left to live permanently in Germany..where he continues to be, as he was here, hobbled by the Jewish question.”

“Anyone who more or less regularly reads my column will know that I am once more castigating one of the literary journals for its ridiculous Judophilia, which has gone so far it can only be described as 'crawling'.”

All these comments refer to my novel Vineta, published some years ago in the magazine Znamya. When I read them, I was interested, not so much in the 'thoughts' of the critic (who has been seriously and unpleasantly not quite right in the head for some time and is well-known for it), as the reactions of the Russian literary community. They were sympathetic, but reserved. No one seemed to be particularly outraged and the statements given above were clearly within the bounds of what is acceptable. Back to square one.

"I still regard my exiles, in all their muddled and muddling geometry and arithmetic, as my natural surroundings and I wouldn't be parted from them for anything in the world."

The result for me was very simple. For the first time in my life I felt that I was an author in exile in the most ordinary political-geographical, literal sense. My fourth exile, perhaps?

But in spite of this quite unpleasant experience, I still regard my exiles, in all their muddled and muddling geometry and arithmetic, as my natural surroundings and I wouldn't be parted from them for anything in the world. Who needs yet another exile? I can't imagine it and it would, anyway, not be possible.

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