Friday, February 3, 2012


“Have I ever really left?”

This was James Joyce’s rueful answer to a suggestion that, with the advent of the Second World War, he should end his self-imposed exile in Paris and return to his native (neutral) Ireland.  Joyce knew and loved his Dante, and must have been keenly aware that Ulysses, with its meticulous evocation of Dublin, is indebted to another epic text besides Homer’s Odyssey.

In the years he crafted The Divine Comedy­—and indeed for the rest of his life—Dante was exiled from his native, beloved Florence, for political rather than personal reasons.  Even though its subjects are, ostensibly, hell, purgatory, and heaven, the poem is crowded with Florentine characters, idioms, art, music.

One of the most poignant moments in the Purgatorio is in Canto II, when Dante meets and tries to embrace his old Florentine friend, the musician Casella.  With the ache of exile, Dante remembers the old life and Casella’s “songs / of love that used to quiet all my longings” (107-08).  Dante, and indeed the other shades who have arrived with Casella to begin their purgation, then experience a “sweet” interlude, as Casella performs one of those “songs to solace / [the] soul somewhat” ((109-10).

Europe is a land of exiles.  In the early 1990s, I was lucky enough to spend a year living and working in Paris.  I shared an apartment with an American friend on a medieval street near the Pompidou Center.  In the apartment directly above us lived an elderly Spanish gentleman, a veteran of the 1936-39 civil war.  He had been on the losing side, and so, by the time I met him, had already been in exile for more than half a century.  I talked to him just a handful of times.  I remember that he was very frail, very friendly, and was one of the very few men in Paris who still wore a beret.  The first thing he wanted to know was if I was Spanish.  

"Vision from the Past" Photo by Yanidel

When I returned to rue Quincampoix after visiting my family in Dublin over Christmas, I found out that the old soldier had died.  I felt bad—that I hadn’t been a better neighbor and (classic regret of the young) that I hadn’t asked him about his life.  I thought about his long years of exile.  Franco, the dictator he had fought against, died in 1975, but the Spanish exile had remained in Paris for the last quarter century of his life.  Perhaps, by then, it was too late to go home.

But sometimes, on fine fall afternoons, he opened up the windows of his apartment while listening to music on his record player, and down in the narrow street you could hear echoes of flamenco.

—Robert Cremins