Abish, Walter (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Walter Abish 1931–
Austrian-born American novelist and short story writer.
Abish is a leading experimental writer. Language, of the utmost importance to him, is often the subject of his fiction. "I try to strip language of its power to create verisimilitude that in turn shields the reader from the printed words on the page that are deployed as signifiers," Abish says. Alphabetical Africa and In the Future Perfect are unique in their ingenious arrangment of words. How German Is It is considered his best work.
[Walter Abish in "Alphabetical Africa"] has violated all our expectations of continuity and development, flouted our trust in the created reality of fiction—but I believe he has done so for a reason. The alphabetical stammer, the lists of Swahili words, the teasing laugh with which the past behavior of the "characters" (really names with sexual organs attached) is twitched away from us and a whole new set introduced in conformity with the alphabetical disciplines … is essential to Abish's intention, his ulterior motive. He has written, I believe, a novel of erotic obsession, in which language itself has received the transferred charge of feeling.
Ideas and actions here are not developed, they are distributed; feelings are not dramatized, they are reified; the text is a kind of breviary of compulsive (and masturbatory) gratification. We call the great land masses continents because they are named after women (Africa, Asia, Europe) and we expect them to be chaste—so that men may violate their darkest interiors, I suppose.
Abish has written an infuriating book: its rhythms are those of what used to be called solitary vice, and its explorations into behavior lead nowhere at all—no Dr. Livingstone is recovered from the heart of his darkness, no perceptions are registered or extended…. His heroine is the woman Alva, the continent Africa shaped like the human heart and the female genitals (depending on your...
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Walter Abish's [Alphabetical Africa is a] remarkable, ludicrously programmatic novel…. The adventure Mr. Abish has set himself is to compose a novel of twice twenty-six chapters, of which the first employs only words beginning with "A," the second words beginning with "A" and "B," and so on up to "Z," by which time the full lexical possibilities of the English language are available; then, from "Z" to "A," he moves back down the alphabet, subtracting letters one by one until the last chapter, like the first, is composed entirely of words beginning with "A." The hardships of such a journey should not be underestimated; "A" brings with it a handy number of articles and connectives, but not until "H" is reached can the pronoun "he" and the helper verb "have" be used, and for all but the fourteen chapters between "T" and "T" such virtually indispensable formations as "the," "to," "they," "their," and "this" must be dispensed with. A character called Queen Quat cannot appear until after the middle of the ascending alphabet is reached, and must perish on the downhill side when her letter vanishes. Fortunately, Mr. Abish's style, even when unhampered by artificial constraints, is rather chastened and elliptic, so his fettered progress is steadier than you might imagine…. "I" releases the possibility of self-exposition, "M" brings with it the themes of memory and money and murder, and by "S" only an alerted eye and hypersensitive ear would notice...
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Unpredictability is the key note to all [the stories in Minds Meet]. What is a reader to make of characters who wander in and out of separate stories, who take "trips" to Africa in the desert of an urban apartment, who become engaged to Hitler's daughter? What Abish wants to do is disconnect habitual associations. In the title piece we are led through a series of different variations on the theme of a message. Abish seems to want to show how quickly situations—as well as words—can be sketched, altered, and abandoned. (p. 43)
Abish sees fiction as above all an imaginative dis-association of the moments we take to be real…. As with Barthelme, Barth, Hawkes, and Coover, Abish chooses to confound everyday expectations to draw attention to his art. The subject is language and its autonomy. But more than fiddling with a sterile, artificial environment, Abish … explores how all events are mirrored in one absolute, but infinitely divisible language.
But Abish's creative language is not the language of familiar phrases and conversational ploys we call "communication". It is a pliable system of symbols and suggestions that evokes rather than relays intention. It owes more to Wittgenstein than Hume. Abish specifically styles several fictions (a more appropriate term than stories) after sculptural exhibitions by Terry Fox and Robert Smithson, and he strives to make language work in the same way as those artists'...
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["The English Garden," the first story in Walter Abish's collection "In The Future Perfect,"] is a brilliant flirtation with several complex issues. While it does not resolve these issues—which may not be the business of fiction—it does make them powerfully and suggestively felt.
In "Ardor/Awe/Atrocity," Mannix, the hero of an actual private eye series on television, serves as a metaphor for the fictitious excitement, the violent sensationalism, the fundamental illicitness of life in California. The story is less well-structured than "The English Garden" and not nearly as successful. It stands midway between that first brilliant effort and the relatively aimless posturing of the other five pieces in the book. (pp. 14, 75)
The more "experimental" stories in the present book do not, unfortunately, sound like one-of-a-kind achievements. They strongly resemble quite a few other experimental stories.
Since ordinary reality seems inexhaustible, one might suppose that there would be infinite alternatives to it. Yet a reading of experimental fiction generally discovers only about a dozen devices: free association, motiveless acts, hackneyed incongruities, predictable discontinuities, sensationalism, tricky diction, coyness, self-consciousness, obscurantism, negativism, ponderousness, pretension. Perhaps most experimental literature ought to be read as a warning: If you think your life is dull, just...
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Walter Abish's fictions are hard to remember. One remembers the experience of them because they usually provoke feelings they do not resolve. But if someone asks what they are "about," it is not easy to say. Abish has been developing a style, or a writing process, that identifies a story with the telling of it as closely as possible. There is no synopsizing his recent stories because they enforce the sense that their construction is their narrative substance, that other words would not be another telling of the story, but another story.
The emphasis Abish puts on the constructed aspect of fiction is a rebuke to our worst habits of reading. We read to escape, to forget the present, to visualize, or to kill time. Abish's fiction, especially his most recent work, simply doesn't lend itself to these solipsistic urges, though it keeps us in mind of their temptation. The subversion of "realism" is only the beginning of his achievement. His writing demands that we know the meanderings of our attention as we read, that our reading be a deliberate activity, as tied to the present as the act of looking at something. The demands of Abish's fiction reflect a view of language with definite ethical implications. One aspect of this view is the notion that we know ourselves, as others know us, by the way we use language. On this view, reading, no less than speaking or thinking, is a use of language, and therefore might reveal us to ourselves no...
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Walter Abish is a subversive writer. He is less interested in plot and character—at least what we conventionally mean by these terms—than in the words which contain them. Thus his "stories" [in In The Future Perfect] are narratives in which barely recognizable individuals act in unbelievable ways. He is, if you will, an "anti-realist" who tries to tell us that reality itself is as meaningful(less) as art….
In every story Abish uses the same devices to unsettle us. Coincidences abound; characters appear (and disappear) suddenly; words—and the things they represent—dominate the universe. We do not know how to respond; we can laugh and/or cry at the alarming, playful juxtapositions of tone, character, and scene. (p. 113)
It is useless to give the plot of any Abish story—the very act of retelling the narrative is a kind of "atrocity" because it uses words to flatten and distort effects—without making it seem silly or mad or "funny."… [If] I were to "map" or "chart" the adventures of all Abish characters, I would soon be drawn into the plot. It is his desire, of course, to force me to this realization—any interpretation of chart (criticism, autobiography, or melodramatic narrative) is an attempt to impose "perfection" upon a chaotic world. The title of the collection maintains that perhaps in the "future" (whatever that means) we can find "perfection." But at the same "time" we will have...
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[Within In the Future Perfect] there is a piece entitled, meaningfully enough, "In So Many Words". This story, hardly a story, a fragmentary depiction of a woman, her New York apartment, her environment, her routine, and her emotionless sex life, is rendered in a series of paragraphs, recounted with a dead-pan neutrality of tone which Abish often employs in his stories. But before each paragraph, we find an alphabetic reordering of most (not all) of the words to come in the following grammatically conventional, paragraph. An example:
a absolutely and at America American building certain convulsed croissant delicious eighth elongated floor four from height her in intended irony is it Lee munching no of one perfection perspective quite Sara she splendor standing taking the true windows with
Standing at one of the elongated windows, munching a Sara Lee croissant (quite delicious) she is taking in the American perfection the American splendor—absolutely no irony intended. It is true. From a certain height and perspective, the eighth floor of her building, America is convulsed with perfection.
The alphabetization of narrative of descriptive sequence achieves effects not unlike Burroughs' Cut-ups—both being extensions of the sort of games with words played by the Surrealists...
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Like snow, this novel [How German Is It] accumulates delicately, lulling the mind with an inaudible dream. At the same time, it keeps the reader busy since it permits, indeed requires, at least three kinds of attention, one of which is to keep straight what happens to Ulrich Hargenau, a novelist formerly implicated in a terrorist plot, after he returns to Germany from Paris, where he's been cooling his heels and his prose. The second kind is to watch how the novel drifts and swells into becoming a metaphor for postwar Germany, and in so doing to figure out (if you can) how accurate the metaphor is. The third, implied perhaps in the book's splintery format (words, lines, short paragraphs isolated by deliberate spacing that suggests continual omissions), is to guess at what isn't there, as if you were flying low over a bombed-out landscape. To do all three at once is best, however, because then you're tuning in to the story line while getting its metaphor in full.
The title itself seems a warning. Neither question nor assertion, it re-forms itself in the mind's ear as "How German It Is," which seems a clever way of getting you (again, as if in a dream) to presuppose a conclusion the book never reaches. And can't, because what the book's about is the arbitrariness of labels contrasted with the teeming individualities lumped together in something called, for convenience's sake, a nation.
Take Ulrich Hargenau, or...
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Mr. Abish's mind delights in dualities. His gift for irony feeds on the contradictions in human thought and action. All his writings are an assault on the reassuring familiarity of everyday things. [In "How German Is It"] Mr. Abish seems to be saying that it is the menace lurking beneath the surface that appeals to the new Germans as a way of experiencing, if only deviously, the unassimilated terror of their past.
The novel evolves as a series of encounters, sexual and familial, all designed to probe the unease and guilt beneath the surface of German prosperity and well-being. The unearthing of the mass grave beneath the site of the new town and the dramatic blowing up of a bridge on the East Frisian Islands by Ulrich's former wife are the highlights of the plot.
"How German Is It" can be read as a quasi-quest novel or as a satire on the new Germany, but basically it is an extended short-fiction, a series of travel-log entries pieced together with scissors and paste. Too little scissors, too much paste.
Why not a novel? There are ideas, but no development of ideas. There are characterizations, but no character development. (For example, the brilliant set-piece about Franz, the mad waiter and erstwhile "family retainer" to the von Hargenaus. Franz spends his Sundays constructing a model out of headless matches of the concentration camp on which the town sits. Like Max Frisch's "Man in the...
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In I Am A Resident of An Ivory Tower Peter Handke discusses the relationship of literary fiction to the reality it explores and creates. Literary reality, as Handke sees, it, is not the reality of objects, of things, but rather the reality of words, of language…. Cognition must be mediated through the vehicle of language. But language is at the same time a social institution in which the cultural history of its speakers is deeply imbedded. The word 'tree' signifies an object occurring in nature; but at the same time it evokes a whole series of emotional responses related to the historically determined value of that object in our culture. Thus the artist as writer is constantly confronted with the dilemma of having to form a medium which already contains a pre-conceived notion of reality.
I believe that Walter Abish shares a similarly skeptical view of fiction as language, and that this skepticism is the key to his latest novel, How German Is It….
Abish's unsettling portrait of the New Germany at once confronts the reader with the cold and crystalline topography of a world populated with people and things but devoid of the familiar signposts which guide, direct and comfort. Abish's language merely points at the world, signifies objects and situations, without providing the hierarchy of comparisons and value judgements into which we are accustomed to relating unfamiliar information…. The result is an...
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Can narrative be truly self-referential? Is it possible for a novelist, burdened with the conceptual weight of words and doubly hampered by the sequential order of story, to be as much an abstract expressionist as the painter or the musical composer, whose daubs of paint or notes of sound need not refer to anything other than themselves? One way is to treat the materials of fiction as objects in themselves—not as familiar cues to the reader (which trigger conventional responses and so set formulaic narratives to action) but rather as semiotic integers within the syntax of human behavior. This has been precisely the method Walter Abish has pursued through four books of fiction. (p. 416)
Walter Abish has been showing how the supposed realities of life (the stuff of conventionally realistic, mimetic fiction) are made of purely surface phenomena (the signs of semiologists). Because of this disposition, Abish has been called an irrealist, the polar opposite of a mannerly moralist like Updike or Bellow, with little pertinence for the workaday world.
How German Is It … refutes this charge and shows how Abish has been writing about the ultimate reality all along. Ostensibly a situational narrative about life in "the new Germany," Abish's life study … reflects the manner of his more obviously experimental work. Behavior, Abish shows, is far more than a puppet show devised by a choreographer of popular morals....
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Walter Abish prefaces How German Is It with an epigraph from Jean-Luc Godard, "What is really at stake is one's image of oneself," a remark any novelist (or poet) might use to signal to the reader that the work in hand may be deeper than it appears. Thinking about it after completing Abish's ice-cold tour de force, his vision of contemporary Germany as the Air Conditioned Nightmare, is like finding a blank check signed with an unknown name: is it worth a small fortune, or a few dollars and change? That Godard's is not an unknown name doesn't help much; indeed, I think it's his name Abish is interested in more than his portentous remark, for How German Is It appears to be a homage to Godard, almost a Godard movie in prose, filled with distancing anti-illusionist devices: documentary passages, interviews, deadpan "readings" of still photographs, a police lecture on an antiterroist film. The narrative voice probes the characters, the action, Das Neue Deutschland itself, with a thousand questions, some of which it answers, some of which it leaves sardonically suspended: "The question remains, do the Germans still expect to be asked embarrassing questions about their past and about their present and what, if any, ideas they may have about their future?" Reality itself is under interrogation by a voice that only lets on what it knows when it's to its own political advantage, a voice that plays at will psychiatrist,...
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