There is a photograph of Thomas Mann taken in Lübeck, Germany, in 1955, shortly before his death. He is standing with his wife, Katia, outside the family house, the house of Buddenbrooks, or what remained of it. He is staring straight at the camera; the expression on his face bears all the complexity of what has been lost and cannot be regained. It is the look of someone in full possession of dark knowledge, the eyes displaying a sense of resignation that is both hard and melancholy. Mann was in California during World War II; he was one of the most famous German exiles, having fled in 1933. Now he was merely visiting and he had no desire to return and stay, despite the fact that his heritage was in Germany and Germany was the home of his language. He had been away too long for these things to matter much. “Wherever I am, Germany is,” he had said in America in 1938.
In 1975, two poets from Northern Ireland, one living then in London and the other in Wicklow, south of Dublin, contemplated in poems the ambiguous meaning of exile; they wrote about what it was like to have escaped. In the calm, resigned poem “Afterlives,” placed at the beginning of his volume The Snow Party, Derek Mahon wrote about revisiting Belfast:
And I step ashore in a fine rain
To a city so changed
By five years of war
I scarcely recognize
The places I grew up in,
The faces that try to explain.
But the hills are still the same
Grey-blue above Belfast.
Perhaps if I’d stayed behind
And lived it bomb by bomb
I might have grown up at last
And learnt what is meant by home.
In the same year, Seamus Heaney placed “Exposure,” his own self-examining poem about exile, at the end of his book North:
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne
Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows…
In a time of conflict, when a writer needs silence and space, the argument about staying or going remains difficult to resolve. When asked about the possibility of exile in an interview in 1969, Nadine Gordimer said:
I haven’t left South Africa because of my feeling of commitment to the place as a human being rather than as a writer. If I went to live in England, for instance, where I have my cultural roots, I might be very happy there. I might write quite well there. I don’t feel that I would lose my identity as a writer because I was born in Africa: I’ll carry Africa with me whenever I need to draw on it.
Ten years later, however, in another interview, she seemed more aware of Africa …