Abish, Walter (Short Story Criticism)
Walter Abish 1931–-
Austrian-born American short story writer, novelist, and poet.
Abish is known as an inventive experimentalist intent on examining the role of language in the construction of reality. He brings to his fiction the techniques of games, puzzles, cinema, pop art, and deconstructive textual subversion, as well as skepticism about the capacity of language to convey truth. These techniques create works that, as they present themselves as conceptual, self-referential, and abstract, also anatomize, satirize, and criticize contemporary social institutions and attitudes.
Abish was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1931 to middle-class Jewish parents. The family fled Vienna for Nice, France, in 1938 and sailed to Shanghai, China, in 1940, just ten days before Germany invaded France. There they lived in a European quarter of the city, and Abish attended a European school. In 1949 the family emigrated to Israel. Despite the surrounding danger, turmoil, and dislocation, Abish reports he led a routine and rather monotonous, even stifled, existence in his youth, which he suggests is partly responsible for his rebelliousness as a writer. His mother, he reports, was “efficiently cool and remote,” while his father was an “energetic” businessman. In Israel Abish began writing poetry in English, and, after completing the compulsory military service, studied architecture and worked designing small communities. In Israel, too, he met an American city planner, Cecile Rubin, who was to become an important sculptor and photographer. They were married and moved to England and then to the United States, where Abish worked as a city planner and began writing fiction. After the publication in 1974 and 1975 of Alphabetical Africa and Minds Meet, he taught or was a writer-in-residence at a number of American universities, including Columbia, Brown, Yale, and Cooper Union. He has also been the recipient of many honors and grants, among them awards from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Foundation.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Abish's short stories probe the relationship between language, reference, and representation, and explore the role of fiction in the construction of reality. They also sometimes serve as preliminary versions of Abish's novels. Abish wrote Alphabetical Africa, for example, after Minds Meet, imposing the same discipline upon its composition. How German Is It (1980), considered by many to be his best work, while free of stringent rules of composition, uses the Holocaust as a centering device for perception, experience, and interpretation, as does his short story “The English Garden,” of which it is an expansion. Both works consider problems of memory, treachery, terrorism, and authenticity. The novel Eclipse Fever also owes much to the short form, presenting numerous juxtaposed sections that are unified by montage rather than by a sweeping narrative arc. In addition to being representations of “how we live now,” Abish's short stories also represent formal experimentation, as in 99: The New Meaning, (1990) where text is created from recycling and recombining previous texts from other writers. His short story “This is not a film, this is a precise act of disbelief” is a critical and ironic homage to the French new wave filmmaker Jean Luc Godard.
Abish's early works like Minds Meet and Alphabetical Africa earned him a reputation as an important experimental writer, playful and trenchant. He was awarded the PEN/Faulkner prize for his second novel, How German Is It and the equally prestigious MacArthur “genius” grant. His third novel Eclipse Fever appeared in 1993 to a mixed reception. The daily reviewers found it unsatisfactory, seeing it as a more or less traditional novel with avant-garde quirks, but without the bite they had come to expect from Abish. But critic Harold Bloom called it an essential work of the 1990s, seeing in it important extensions of Marcel Proust and Franz Kafka. Critics have also noted Abish's apparent move away from experimentalism in Eclipse Fever as opposed to, for instance, 99: The New Meaning, the collection of stories that appeared shortly before it.
SOURCE: “Walter Abish,” in The Life of Fiction, University of Illinois Press, 1977, pp. 62–70.
[In the following survey of Abish's fiction, Klinkowitz argues that Abish uses postmodern and absurdist techniques and draws attention to them in order to undermine the uses of language that constrict rather than reveal meaning.]
Despite his foreign background and experiences, Walter Abish is nonetheless thoroughly Americanized. Like Donald Barthelme, he plays with substitutions and inversions in the modern American landscape, taking our habitual mores and exposing the silliness they mask. Knowing he's from Vienna makes it all the more fun. In his story “More by George” from the New Directions #27 (1973) anthology, a couple together with hitchhiker and camper travel from Vienna, Maryland, to Vienna, Georgia (pop. 3,718). There the people are about to celebrate “the anniversary marking the defeat of the Turks, as well as, one hundred fifty years later, the publication of a slim volume of poetry entitled Rambles of a Viennese Poet, a book that was promptly outlawed when it first appeared in print.” For the occasion a replica of the Stefan's Turm has been erected. “It was only one fifth the size of the original, but three times as large as the one in Vienna, Maryland, which had a population of 420.”
Abish is also concerned with language. Often it is the subject of...
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SOURCE: “The Puzzle of Walter Abish: In The Future Perfect,” in Sub-Stance, Vol. IX, No. 2, 1980, pp. 115–24.
[In the following essay, Arias-Misson argues that Abish deconstructs language by using devices like listing and counting the words used in his texts in order to show “the fictitious nature of our truths.”]
Combinations, copulations, permutations, deletions, transferences, transgressions, substitutions, cross-references, doublings: Walter Abish fabricates puzzles—puzzles of sex, puzzles of minds, puzzles of death—and words and images, letters and numbers are the matter of a puzzle. In his first novel, astonishingly amusing Alphabetical Africa, section A is assembled only with words beginning with a, section B only with a's and b's, C only with a's, b's, and c's and so on to Z, then into reverse, deleting first all z words, then z's and y's until in the last section, A, only a's are left again. A fabulous letter-land thus expands and shrinks, even describing a shrinking Africa progressively colored orange in the second part, in a linguistic slapstick where meaning jumps from word to event and character and back again to words and trapdoors fly open in the text with real persons falling through, all with the verse and speed of a Marx Brothers ad-lib. Under the extraordinary constraints exercised on the language, WA displays a virtuoso mastery of articulation; under the...
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SOURCE: “Another Old Atrocity,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4234, March 25, 1984.
[In the following review, Josipovici dismisses Abish's stories as banal and vulgar exercises in “American pseudo-experimentalism.”]
“Remnants of the old atrocity subsist, but they are converted into ingenious shifts in scenery, a sort of ‘English Garden’ effect, to give the required air of naturalness, pathos and hope.” These words of John Ashbery's form the epigraph to the first story in Walter Abish's collection [In the Future Perfect]. They are menacing and haunting precisely because they are so simple, so clear. What old atrocity? we wonder, and who converts and who requires? The passage is troubling precisely because we all seem to be implicated, because it suggests that all patterning, no matter how innocent, is a way of concealing; but, by the same token, that all patterning, however innocent, carries the tell-tale signs of its origins.
Unfortunately this is by far the best thing in the book. Abish follows it, for example, with a story of awful banality, about a writer—not so different, we guess, from Abish himself—who comes to a clean new German town to interview a local author. Of course it turns out that the town is built on the site of an old concentration camp; of course the visitor's ex-wife turns out to have been in this very camp (it is even suggested, with...
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SOURCE: “The Self-Apparent Word,” in The Self-Apparent Word: Fiction as Language/Language as Fiction, Southern Illinois University Press, 1984, pp. 86–95.
[In the following excerpt, Klinkowitz examines the techniques Abish has employed to create an “awareness of the author's role in the composition” of his fictions.]
The novella “This Is Not a Film. This Is a Precise Act of Disbelief” forms the centerpiece to the author's first collection, Minds Meet.1 How we live, what our needs may be, and the form our hopes will take are all determined by the available surface of things surrounding us, this piece of fiction argues. Strongly narrative in form, it uses the methods of city planning (the trade which brought Abish to America after living in Austria, China, Israel, and England) to show how the structures available to us actually create, rather than serve, our needs. The occasion is the planning of a new shopping mall, which a French film director very much like Jean-Luc Godard2 has come to study as an example of decadent American capitalism. The mall developer is part of a group which runs the town; within its population can be found a network of relationships, financial and sexual, which determine how things will happen. “This is a familiar world,” the novella begins, announcing a strategy parallel to Abish's theory in “On Aspects of the Familiar World as...
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SOURCE: “Walter Abish and the Questioning of the Reader,” in Facing Texts: Encounters between Contemporary Writers and Critics, edited by Heide Ziegler, Duke University Press, 1988, pp. 168–85.
[In the following essay, Butler argues that although Abish's fiction challenges the idea that there can be an authoritative, self-centered narrative, it does not surrender a quest for meaning or for representing a reality beyond the text itself.]
The title How German Is It calls attention to a preoccupation, in this case Germany. It's a highly charged issue. Most of us have responses to Germany as we do to so much else. In general, readers compliantly accept what they are offered. Their chief concern is, “how readable is the text”. For the most part, novels about Germany, or those simply located in Germany, without having to raise the question of, ‘How German is it?’ resolve the unspoken question by explaining Germany. In one way or another, they explain Germany away and thereby provide satisfaction. I have avoided an explanation. I have introduced German signs to create and to authenticate a “German” novel.1
One might imagine a collective of writers of innovative fiction getting together in their own Geneva and coming out with a communiqué that says:
At some stage the readers (too few) of our sort of fiction have got to shape...
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SOURCE: “Walter Abish and the Topographies of Desire,” in Contingent Meanings: Postmodern Fiction, Mimesis, and the Reader, Florida State University Press, 1990, pp. 82–108.
[In the following essay, Varsava argues that a major theme in Abish's fiction is the tension between a superficial perfection and a profound moral and emotional void.]
Viennese Jews, Walter Abish and his family fled Hitler's Austria for China. Unbeknown to him, there lurked below Vienna's surface decorum, concealed by the refinement and prosperity of a former imperial center, a most virulent ethno-racial hate. And how did such a world appear to a boy of seven or eight? Life, Abish tells us, was very much an affair of surfaces for him, a mistaking of the apparent for the real. Reassured by the props of his childhood—favorite toys, a comfortable home, a supportive family—Abish viewed life as a harmonious arrangement of people and objects. Writing recently in a lengthy essay on his Viennese roots, Abish, referring to himself in the third person, retrospects:
… from the very beginning he sensed a smoothly functioning world in which his needs were taken care of with a scrupulous attention to detail, a world in which pleasure had to be negotiated, in which the gramophone, the radio, the telephone as much as the tiny bell on the underside of the dining table, the bell with which...
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SOURCE: A review of 99: The New Meaning, in The Literary Review, Vol. 35, No. 1, Fall, 1991, pp. 163–64.
[In the following review, Doreski praises Abish's experimental artifice in constructing narratives from previously used sentences in 99: The New Meaning.]
Walter Abish's new book [99: The New Meaning] invokes the convention of the pensée, the isolated, reified “thought,” to underscore the tendency of all fine or literary writing to privilege the sentence or paragraph and thus undermine the author's intention of rendering cohesive larger entities—short stories or novels. His procedure is to select and arrange fragments of narrative from various authors—ninety-nine of them in the title piece, fifty in “What Else,” and so on—and by juxtaposing these fragments create oddly shifting dramas of emotional introspection. The results suggest novels like Nausea composed of fictional diary or journal entries in which rhetorical discontinuity embodies strain or anxiety.
Abish, somewhat disingenuously, claims an emotional rather than an aesthetic or critical purpose: “In using selected segments of published texts authored by others as the exclusive ‘ready made’ material for these five ‘explorations’ I wanted to probe certain familiar emotional configurations afresh, and arrive at an emotional content that is not mine by design.” Yet the...
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SOURCE: “Among the Casualties,” in American Book Review, Vol. 12, No. 6, 1991, pp. 16, 19.
[In the following review of 99: The New Meaning, Metcalf discusses the importance of displacement and detachment in Abish's work.]
No man can quite emancipate himself from his age and country, or produce a model in which the education, the religion, the politics, usages and arts of his time shall have no share. Though he were never so original, never so willful and fantastic, he cannot wipe out of his work every trace of the thoughts amidst which it grew. … Above his will and out of his sight he is necessitated by the air he breathes and the idea on which he and his contemporaries live and toil, to share the manner of his times.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
On May 31, 1970, an earthquake and avalanche struck Peru, devastating a 125-mile-long valley between two Andean ranges, the Cordillera Negra and the Cordillera Blanca. With an estimated 75,000 casualties, it was the worst disaster in recorded New World history. Emotional and spiritual responses, among the survivors, were manifold, from the suicidal to the euphoric; but one particular reaction came to be known as desprendimiento de las cosas, detachment from things, and this had its counterpart in a kind of “social nakedness,” an experience of anonymity, loss of identity....
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Karl, Frederick R. American Fictions: 1940–1980. New York: Harper and Row, 1983, pp. 551–55.
Discusses How German Is It in a survey of modern experimental fiction.
Messerli, Douglas. “The Role of Voice in Nonmodernist Fiction.” Contemporary Literature 25, No. 3, 1984.
Considers Abish's narrative techniques in a discussion of contemporary narrative voices.
Semrau, Janusz. “Magritte, Godard, and Walter Abish's Architectonic Fiction.” Studia Anglia Posnaniensia: An International Review of English Studies 22, 1989, pp. 141–52.
Considers Abish's method of constructing narratives in the context of self-referential visual and cinematographic art.
Additional coverage of Abish's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 101; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 37; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 22; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 130.
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