Walter Abish

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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.

Richard Howard

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[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 hang-ups, as Abish would say), and he is concerned, he is obsessed to possess, to violate her by this literary fetish, by these words in this order, not to be paraphrased or summarized, merely experienced.

That is the definition of a poem, and of certain psychotic states, and it is Abish's achievement to have stunted the growth of everything that the novel, even on its deathbed, has tried to lay claim to, in order to register, in order to disclose that "one single incident which keeps recurring," which is not so much an action, of course, as a passion, "erased and immobilized in a book."

Richard Howard, "'Alphabetical Africa'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 29, 1974, p. 19.

John Updike

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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...

(This entire section contains 478 words.)

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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 that a quarter of the dictionary is still being abjured…. The attainment, long anticipated by the alphabet-battered reader, of "Z"s total freedom brings a disappointingly short chapter, written in the cramped, clicking tone of the others…. (pp. 349-50)

Each chapter, as it possesses another letter, celebrates its acquisition with a burst of alliteration, so our knowledge of systematic expansion is aurally emphasized; this subtly joyous undertone of organic growth is lost in the book's second half, wherein the subtraction of letters echoes supposed land shrinkage ("Africa's gradual deterioration and Africa's decreasing area"), and some violent events on Zanzibar swallow up Queen Quat (who has painted Tanzania orange to match the maps) and squeeze the novel's protagonists—Alex, Allen, and Alva—into a climax of betrothal. The extremely silly plot begins as a jewel robbery in Antibes and a consequent flight to Angola, Burundi, Chad, etc., and culminates in a kind of people's uprising by the Vietcong-like army ants…. Though the tale is murky as well as absurd, one is tempted to concede that Mr. Abish has performed as well as anyone could, given such extravagant handicaps. "A masterpiece of its kind" does not seem too strong an accolade for a book apt to be the only one of its kind. (p. 350)

John Updike, "Through a Continent, Darkly," in his Picked-Up Pieces (copyright © 1975 by John Updike; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1975, pp. 343-51.∗

Daniel Levinson

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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' materials, suggesting nothing in themselves as inert objects but resonating with meaning as a complex of emotive keys. What has always made literature the queen of the arts is its ready-made language which only needed to be directed, heightened, to create art. The experimentalists are saying that it has been too easy. Language is too easily debased, too prone to cliche to be a pure medium of creative deployment. Literature's greatest asset is now its chief limitation. A writer can't just 'throw' common artifacts into a new 'shape'. The audience is too used to words. Abish does with words what Warhol did to pictorial expectation. Marcel Proust siding with cabbies in a wildcat strike in Albuquerque, New Mexico can be viewed as Abish's Campbell Soup Can.

Perhaps the most successful work in this always amusing—though sometimes excessively aleatory—collection is modeled after another art form, film. With "This Is Not A Film This Is A Precise Act of Disbelief", Abish hilariously parodies the films of Jean-Luc Godard, and brilliantly utilizes cinematic editing techniques to concoct a mystery story that is satisfying for both style and characterizational subtlety…. The flat, objective writing lends a menacing tone to "facts" in a typical story of small-town chicanery and scandal. Just as Godard does in a film with cliched action and crude characters, Abish's information is exposed and withheld from frame to frame; and the detached, ironical attitude of the director/author uncovers new depths in familiar circumstances…. It is a tribute to Abish's skill that words can leave as strong an impression on the mind as colored surfaces in a film can. They both impress in a mute but immediate way. By rendering words as neutral as paint or film, Abish transforms them into whatever emotionally charged surface he chooses. Images, not words or phrases, linger in the mind. Just as words on a page collide, coagulate, and finally coalesce around feelings a description can only suggest.

Such a style can face no greater test than the erotic, and here Abish's suggestive style triumphs. (pp. 44-5)

Perhaps some of the natural significatory richness of language is lost by fracturing it as if its only connection to human life were through technical facility. But by forcing it again to be mysterious, by making it literally truthful through imaginative transformation, Abish and his colleagues are setting the groundwork for a deeper general appreciation of human potential through the most wondrous of all human capabilities, language. (p. 45)

Daniel Levinson, "Books: 'Minds Meet'," in Aspect (© 1976: Aspect), No. 6, January-March, 1976, pp. 43-5.

Anatole Broyard

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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 look at this. (p. 75)

Anatole Broyard, "Writer's Experiment," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 13, 1977, pp. 14, 75.∗

Kenneth Baker

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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 less profitably than acts of speech or thought. This notion upsets the conventional belief that introspection is the privileged path to self-knowledge. Abish's work forces us to consider the possibility that reading, done with the right sort of deliberation, might serve the purposes of self-knowledge better than the solitariness of introspection. For reading, unlike introspection, can make us consider the sense in which words we understand and use are "ours." But making such considerations central to the process of reading, Abish's fiction challenges the popular idea of our best access to ourselves as well as the popular idea of selfhood and its indebtedness to the literary concept of character.

Something that recurs in Abish's work, that sometimes seems to comprise his work, is a contention in the writing itself between linguistic incidents and fictive or narrative ones. Again and again the perception of words as the material of construction interferes with one's attempt to see the prose in terms of larger conventional components, such as character, theme, and plot. One effect of this experience is to make us realize the extent to which the rudiments of literary convention have become internal to us, that they may even be what we read with, features of our perception itself…. The style of reading his fiction recommends is one that makes us aware continually of the constructed nature of prose as the basis of the pleasures and values of reading. This manner of reading is the counterpart to a particular achievement of self-knowledge, namely, the capacity to know and tolerate the linguistic reality of one's own words. By this I mean the capacity both to know one's beliefs and to know that they are beliefs without feeling them vitiated by this awareness. To know the linguistic reality of one's own words is to be fully aware of one's responsibility for them. Abish forces us to be responsible readers by making us confront continually the linguistic reality of what we read.

These remarks might suggest that Abish's work is didactic. It is not. It does have a peculiar rigor, though, in that it requires our sustained attention. There is no better example of this rigor than Abish's extraordinary novel, Alphabetical Africa. In the novel, more than in any of his other writings, what happens is the writing itself. (pp. 48-50)

The decisions that comprise the writing obey no submerged design, no unstated psychological or political concept. For part of the process of reading the novel is sensing the ease or difficulty with which particular words or lines must have occurred to the author as means of solving the problems posed by its alphabetical structure. The book is arid of plot, characterization, and atmosphere, of everything that does not figure directly in the experience of writing and reading. At the same time it is lush with humor and linguistic incidents. (p. 50)

Often the text pretends to the tone and idiom of a journal. (Diaries and dictionaries are mentioned frequently, being ironic counterparts to the novel itself.) The writing in the early and late chapters has a telegrammatic sparseness, and something of the quality of mnemonic jottings….

Alphabetical Africa is a book preoccupied with itself. It is full of acknowledgments of its own form and the process that produced it. (p. 51)

[It] is surely the most entertaining and consistently ingenious phenomenology of the English language that anyone has written. For the book is about what it means to possess the English language, to have its words as one's own. (p. 53)

Kenneth Baker, "Restrictive Fiction: The Writing of Walter Abish," in New Directions: An International Anthology of Prose and Poetry (35) (copyright © 1977 by New Directions Publishing Corporation; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission of the author), New Directions, 1977, pp. 48-56.

Irving Malin

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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 changed so that "perfection" may no longer mean what it means now—"then" it may be "imperfect" because it is humdrum, usual, and normal. There is a wonderful passage in "Ardor/Awe/Atrocity" in which Southern California is described…. Abish does not give us the real California, the center of our new world, because he believes that the place is less real than our notions of it (borrowed from Steinbeck or West or the National Geographic or American Airlines). He views it as an idea—a belief in earthly perfection. He does not stop here. By deliberately repeating certain words and using numbers as flashing signals, he forces us to read "innocently." The whole point is that we can never see "California"—the idea and the word dominate the atmosphere.

Abish is obviously obsessed by measures, numbers, lines, maps; he even implies that artistic delight arises only when we note that narrative itself is another "chart." He will take an arbitrary detail—say a quantity of words—and then write a descriptive passage with precisely the same number of words. The passage itself is usually violent or fantastic. We have a battle, therefore, between the arbitrary choice (say sixty words) and the realistic actions. The tension mounts, of course, when this device is repeated with variations. "In So Many Words" is the "story" which contains this pattern. We can concentrate upon the realistic actions and/or the "many words." We are given the choice, but we are so used to believing that people are more important than words that we are breathless. How dare Abish do this? How dare he mix styles? How dare he make us realize that we are reading?

Abish is not the only employer of various arbitrary/non-arbitrary designs. His various characters tend to mirror him because they also search for clues—say the remains of a concentration camp (as in "The English Garden") or a missing father ("Crossing the Great Void")—and they cross and recross their steps; they "reflect" upon the "center" of things and words. There is wise play at work here. Abish writes "perfect" fictions about the desire for "perfections," and he recognizes in them that such desire itself often leads to madness, violence and death. (pp. 113-14)

I find that I have read the "stories" in a literary way as "anti-literature." The very fact that [psychological and philosophical interpretations] can be offered about Abish's interpretations (about his characters' interpretations) suggests that his art is shrewd, compelling and original.

At one point in "In So Many Words"—the puns are inescapable here and in various other titles—the heroine thinks of her costume as "perfect." She is, however, not satisfied with it. Then juxtaposed to the frivolous costume we have a Whitehead quotation: "To sustain a civilization with the intensity of its first ardor requires more than learning. Adventure is essential, namely the search for new perfections." Abish writes "stories" of passion and ardor and atrocity, but he grounds them in philosophical earth. He is a significant, disturbing, and adventurous artist. (p. 114)

Irving Malin, "In So Many Words," in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1978 by The Ontario Review), No. 9, Fall-Winter, 1978–79, pp. 112-14.

Tony Tanner

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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 and Da-Daists. The new juxtapositions of words can yield unsuspected pseudo-semantic effects which can be funny, surprising, suggestive—or pointless. It is hit or miss, hit and miss—aleatory. The numbers in the quotation, incidentally, refer precisely to the number of words in the paragraph which follows—there are just so many words.

The other stories in the book do not indulge in so much lexical play, though there is a spareness and economy in the assembling of the stories—nearly all in short paragraphs with eloquent spaces in between—which seems to convey an almost constant vigilant irony over words, so that even the most innocent looking phrase seems to be placed with a certain pointed carefulness, making us aware that, in fact, there are no innocent phrases. "The English Garden" is a fairly straightforward account of an American writer's visit to a new-town in Germany which has been built on the site of an old concentration camp. The effects to be derived from this bit of dark archaeological irony could be all too obvious, but Abish is so in control of the tone that the easy irony is bypassed for the more oblique, more disturbing one. The writer arrives with a "coloring book", full of the outlines of things and people, but without the individuating colours of life. In the plastic-perfect German new-town there are outlines and things, but no life. It is, as it were, a city built on death, and despite the immaculate concealment of all traces of that gruesome, unspeakable (and therefore ever-to-be-gainsaid-or-disavowed) foundation, there are death and negation in all the glittering appliances and things and people-things of the new-town. (p. 68)

The only "event" in the story is the disappearance of a girl whose father had been a commander of the concentration camp. She is just found "missing" one day. "I look up the German word for missing. It is abwesend or fehlend or nicht zu finden. I also look up the word disappear. It is verschwinden." The words are still in the dictionary but meanwhile people disappear….

Abish extends his apparently neutral, actually highly subversive, account of the contemporary environment to … the career of a girl who runs away to find success, satisfaction, and finally death in Southern California. This story, entitled "ARDOR/AWE/ATROCITY", is also alphabetized in a different way. Every section is headed by an alliterative triad of words—so we move on to "BOUYANT/BOB/BODY" through "PLEASURE/PUNISH/POSITION" and "UNBOTTONED/UNDERWEAR/UNDERTAKES", finally to "ZOO/ZODIAC/ZERO". (Words are also numbered as to when they appear—e.g. "sign57" which doesn't do much for me, one way or the other). One overall effect of these lexical devices is that by making language and ordering devices unusually prominent (what used to be called "foregrounding") the contents of the story become in some way less prominent; or in current terms, as the signifier is made more visibly dominant, the signified tends to recede, to diminish in "significance": hence the somewhat unreal feeling to many of the stories, often entirely appropriate to their subject matter. (p. 69)

[It] should be made clear that Abish has his own way of deconstructing conventional narrative modes and, at the same time, getting something distinctly said about life, consciousness, and word, in contemporary America. (p. 70)

Tony Tanner, "Present Imperfect: A Note on the Work of Walter Abish," in Granta (copyright © 1979 by Granta), September, 1979, pp. 65-71.

Paul West

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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 his conniving brother Helmuth, a famous architect. They're both German, in a very special way, in that their father was executed by firing squad "early one August morning in 1944" for being one of the Stauffenberg group. Now that's a vintage German fate, having a father to whom that's supposed to have happened; I say "supposed" because I don't believe it—after the instant reprisals of July 20, the day of the attempt on Hitler, no one was executed, but all were interrogated, and when executions resumed, early in August, the method was hanging. Between the attempt and early August, the only conspirators shot were those who shot themselves.

So, in one sense, Ulrich's father's fate is mythical, and I think Abish makes it deliberately so, even though the facts are easily found in history books. In other words, the entire tale may not be "true," at least not on the level of the first kind of attention I mentioned above. So the book shifts, almost at once, into metaphor and splinter, tempting you to keep saying, "How German it all is," as if echoing Helmuth's funeral oration on Brumhold, the famous philosopher after whom the local town was named. Invoking "the German passion for exactitude and abstractions," Helmuth conjures up an image of Brumhold (a thinly disguised Heidegger), "sitting at his worn oak desk in his cabin in the Black Forest … the German forest in which dwells our spirit, our ideals, our cultural past, our poetry, our truth." And so on. Per se, all this may not be true, but successive generations of Germans, all saying it, have made it true; and so, in that sense, both Ulrich and Helmuth, harping on what's German as distinct from what's French or international, are doing the same. Nothing is more German than the discussion of whether a thing (Brumhold's and Heidegger's Ding) is German or not.

Hence, I think, the ambivalence of the book's title. All the dreams about truth become truth, and the clincher comes at the very end when Ulrich, speaking under hypnosis(!), reveals the book's main fact: he isn't his father's son at all…. The whole novel turns inside out at that point, and you realize it's not really about a martyred father's son who turned to terrorism to be somehow heroic like his father, but about a bastard son who failed himself (turning state's evidence to save his skin) because his ostensible father "was not cut out to be a conspirator" either. The effect of this reversal is to make two novels out of one, and to send you back along the course of all its fine cumulative shadings to reinterpret everything Ulrich has said and done and everyone he has known…. (p. 4)

Nothing stays put or intact, and the clincher to the clincher comes when Ulrich, emerging from hypnosis without knowing what he's said, at the doctor's command raises his right hand "in a stiff salute." Both the doctor and Abish's narrator have the advantage of him, retrospectively anyway, in this extraordinary kaleidoscope in which labels, slogans, titles of books and people, reputations and reflexes, flutter about incessantly and mutate in the twinkling of an eye. "Is it possible," the book concludes, "for anyone in Germany, nowadays, to raise his right hand, for whatever the reason, and not be flooded by the memory of a dream to end all dreams?" In a word, this fastidious, honed optical illusion of a book is yet another example of its own theme: individual and national trauma. The net effect is moving, not least because the protagonist, unable to face the truth of his existence, invents for himself a fake identity that's less individual than national. And all that comes his way—the match-stick replica, made by an old Hargenau family retainer, of the nearby death-camp; the mass grave uncovered in the main street of Brumholdstein; almost being knocked down twice in the street by passing vehicles, and being shot in the arm—sharpens the poignancy and makes his fake identity an expendable piece of trash, a figment, a cross.

Abish writes here with some of the meticulous, almost philatelic obsessiveness of what used to be called the French New Novel, but in his hands the technique is never boring or flat, mainly because every shred of the evidence he records has a vast emotional hinterland. Everything is ponderable here because it's mysterious, and the mysteriousness comes in part from the "fact" with which an interviewer confronts Ulrich: "One reads your books, always feeling as if some vital piece of information is being withheld." The missing piece is Freudian, it seems; but the best measure of Abish's skill is the way in which, while giving the reader that same feeling of being denied something, he supplies all you need. Read him once for story, then again for the personification of Germany, and then a third time to fill up the lacunae. The uncanny thing is that, once you know the truth that Ulrich knows about himself, the novel—far from being defused—takes off again, like an erupting guidebook. Note "the magnificent landscapes, die Landschaft" and "the blue sky, der Blaue Himmel," ladies and gentlemen. These things keep the tourist sane and drive the German mad. Abish's masterly novel does a bit of both, and much, much more; it's his finest book to date. (p. 9)

Paul West, "Germany in the Aftermath of War," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), November 9, 1980, pp. 4, 9.

Betty Falkenberg

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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 Holocene," who builds a pagoda out of "crispbread" to elude madness during a flood, Franz's obsessive "hobby" devours him with the inexorable logic of madness.)

The novel as an exploration of language then? This one might expect from Mr. Abish. (pp. 8-9)

Everywhere connective tissue has been added, to the detriment of the text. Incongruous levels of speech are juxtaposed with unintended comic effects…. [It] becomes unclear whether Mr. Abish is trying to parody the convoluted phrasing and stiffness of German or whether he is incapable of writing straightforward English himself. One's discomfort increases when one notes the actual misuse of words: "mechanistic" for "mechanical," "evaluate" for "assess," "limitations" for "limits," "in effect" for "in fact." His redundant phrases—"luminous light," "inundated by a deluge"—are matched in number only by adjectival clusters, generally three, presented in order of diminishing intensity (as in "the startling, the shocking, the unexpected"). Finally, recurrent sloppiness with regard to detail further shakes the reader's confidence in this author. When Ulrich leaves Paris, his clever French friends try to mask their disdain for things German by name-dropping the latest German literary names; but of the names they drop, one is Swiss (Bichsel), one Austrian (Handke), and the third, Kemposki, Mr. Abish misspells.

As a log entry, "This is the place (Switzerland) where Musil died, where Rilke died, where Gottfried Keller lived and died, where Jean Jacques Rousseau was born, and where only a few years ago Nabokov lived," this George Washington-slept-here business may be acceptable. But in the context of a novel, these allusions to literary personae must serve some real purpose if they are not to sound merely pretentious. (p. 9)

Betty Falkenberg, "Literary Games," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 4, 1981, pp. 8-9.

James Knowlton

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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 eerie sense of uncertainty, of being on the verge of recognition without being able to take the final step….

Abish supplies only fragments of actions and situations, never explanations. The reader is left with the frustrating feeling of a person trying to complete a puzzle in which key pieces are missing…. The significance of the novel apparently doesn't lie in what is being narrated, but rather in how it is narrated. The key to the book, I believe, lies in its very mystery, its uncertainty, its unfamiliarity. Abish avoids clearly defined actions and explanations. The narrated world stands for itself, signifies itself. It is truly a world without verisimilitude. If there is to be meaning, it must be supplied by the reader. Nothing can be taken for granted….

In How German Is It Abish has ingeniously moulded narrative technique and narrated reality into a unity which effectively achieves the novel's intent: to break through the monotonous humdrum of everyday existence and thus open up a new mode of seeing. Abish realizes his intention in a twofold fashion: first, he shows a society which has passively succumbed to the lure of harmony and equilibrium as intrinsic values. Secondly, Abish's narrative technique creates in the reader a sense of uncertainty, it defamiliarizes the world so that it can be seen and re-COGNIZED anew.

How German Is It is a literary tour de force, one of those rare novels that manage to combine philosophical perspective with readability. Abish's sociology of the New Germany is haunted with a number of flaws, flaws which, so it would seem, stem from an unfortunate mixture of Austrian (Abish is a born Austrian) and American prejudices against Germany. Nonetheless: a brilliant and thoroughly successful novel, a pleasure for the serious reader.

James Knowlton, "'How German Is It?'" in The American Book Review (© 1981 by The American Book Review), Vol. 3, No. 3, March-April, 1981. p. 12.

Jerome Klinkowitz

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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. Instead, it is a matter of syntax, prime material for the metafictionist. And as the signifiers of language have no inherent relationship to the things they describe, so the patterns of our lives are equally an arbitrary and free-floating grammar, to be analyzed as a topology of surfaces and needs. Morals and manners in the novel are thus manipulated as verbal objects for our post-structuralist times.

Alphabetical Africa … was Abish's first novel, an emphatically abstract work which by its self-conscious construction placed Abish at the farthest remove from the social realists. We can see now how that was a strategy to keep the reader on the page, where the relationship of characters and needs was inescapably artificial. In this early work, Abish proposed a rigorous discipline for both writer and reader. The initial chapter was titled "A," and used only words beginning with that letter. Chapter "B" added words starting with the letter B, and so forth through the alphabet, as the book (and its linguistic possibilities) expanded…. At each point the reader would be aware of just how the book was composing itself—especially from midpoint on when Abish ran his persons, places, and things through a regressive structure of another twenty-six chapters titled backward from "Z," with familiar components dropping out as each letter vanished into the history of Abish's receding alphabet.

A lifeless, antiseptic technique? Not at all, as Richard Howard pointed out [see excerpt above]. Alphabetical Africa, he wrote, was "a novel of erotic obsession, in which language itself has received the transferred charge of feeling" which otherwise might be dissipated in the puppetry of suspended disbelief. The syntax of these characters' lives, by virtue of their expanding and contracting possibilities (the names of subjects available to satisfy their needs), was forever the book's real subject. Alphabetical Africa, then, was that allegedly impossible achievement: an abstract expressionist novel, in which the words referred primarily to themselves yet remained charged with human energy.

How German Is It uses no such obvious device; it has a realistic setting, believable characters, and a theme which bears the test of contemporary history. But the artificiality of the whole enterprise still takes center stage. The novel has a theme and setting, but its realism is constructed to emphasize their provisional, syntactic nature. "How German is the new Germany?" this novel asks, implying an entire set of relationships constructed between one provisional order (The Third Reich) and another (The Federal Republic). The setting for this theme is fully artificial: the planned community of Brumholdstein, a spanking new city of several hundred thousand built to the specifications of current need. Named after a Heidegger-like metaphysician, Brumhold, whose discipline had been the questioning of "the thingness" of things. Brumholdstein is most noted for its surface quality. This new city is laid out on the site of a concentration camp…. (pp. 416-17)

How form alternately expands and constricts meaning was one of the object lessons of Alphabetical Africa, and the topology of Brumholdstein makes the same point. The city's form, like the shape of Abish's earlier novel, is self-evident. No illusions here of random growth or the accumulations of culture over many centuries. Brumholdstein is above all an idea, a statement on the needs and fulfillments of life in postwar Germany, constructed on the boundaries of the very past it seeks to efface. Everywhere the past's temporal and spatial reality is present…. By Brumholdstein's own design, the past feeds the present as if to contradict the future so carefully planned.

Part of Abish's earlier practice was to find ways of emphasizing the words themselves—signifiers, not signifieds—as components in his stories. In Minds Meet … he presented a story based on alphabetical variations ("The Abandoned Message," "Abashed by the Message," "Abashed While Receiving the Message," etc.), which nevertheless enhanced his theme regarding the frailty of human communication. In the Future Perfect … collected stories even more mechanical: one piece featured block paragraphs titled alphabetically with the basic vocabulary of the story ("Ardor/Awe/Atrocity") and had each of its key ninety-nine words identified by a serial superscript as it appeared in the narrative; in another story, block paragraphs of conventional narrative were preceded by their component words ranked alphabetically (so that readers would have all the words in advance of the message). With such an emphasis on the makings of language, its mere assemblage was more obviously a game, and readers could appreciate how artificial and contrived (and hence humanly flawed) that game could be. No wonder the protagonists who emerged from these tales were confused, paranoid souls; no wonder the narrator was forever being excluded from the action; and no wonder everybody else seemed to be satisfied, while the story's personal center remained forlom. Life in Abish's hands was a narrative written by a self-satisfied author willing to plot anyone else right out of existence.

How German Is It uses no such mechanical devices, other than those conveniently supplied by the Brumholdstein situation. But for the making of his narrative Abish selects certain characters for key roles, and runs their lives together in a way that demonstrates the made quality of their enterprise—and how, as in all such situations, intentions can be frustrated, communication blocked, and needs left unfulfilled.

Abish peoples his new Germany with a credible family of characters. Principal are the Hargenau brothers, Helmuth and Ulrich, whose father—now described as a patriot—was executed in 1944 for his part in the officers' plot against Hitler. The brothers are alternately constructing and deconstructing the postwar fatherland: Helmuth through his municipal architecture (sincerely believing that at the end of Greek and Roman and medieval achievement stand his prize-winning post office and police station) and Ulrich by his chance association with a group of young terrorists. The emphasis throughout is how both their actions disrupt the equilibrium and eventually undermine the order of life itself, as Helmuth effaces what remains of life in the thirties and forties, while Ulrich's group in turn destroys his public buildings. (pp. 418-19)

By the end of How German Is It we learn that Ulrich has no substantially real subject at all, just these syntactic projections of lives built on the surface of immediate need. All about him is preached the permanence and continuity of "what is basically German," but life as he lives it presents nothing to him but lies and lurking disorder. He keeps asking, "Could things be different?" and "Is there any other way to live?"—but the limits of syntax allow only this unsatisfying, one dimensional life.

By Ulrich's failure Abish shows how conventional realism cannot be written in our time, given our knowledge of the structures of human communication. But a superrealism is possible. Much like the superrealists in painting—especially Richard Estes and Ralph Goings—Abish depicts his subjects with an eye toward emphatically glossy surfaces. As a result, he defamiliarizes the soporifically familiar, and also draws our attention to those peculiarities of surface which define so many of the objects of our need…. [Running through much of Abish's work is a philosophical quote] that "perfection cannot bear endless repetition." But that's what the surfaces of Abish's world are: endlessly repeated forms with no real content at all, just the shiny and compulsive surfaces of Richard Estes' "Drugstore" or Goings' colorfully painted trucks and cars.

Defamiliarization itself is … a reminder that as we become accustomed to seeing things in their customary light we cease to see them at all. Abish's own unique way of breaking clear from the familiar is to describe his scenes in a copybook manner, a decidedly flat style of writing which is not the result of any suppression of talent but just the opposite: by removing all hierarchal values from his perceptions, Abish sees for once how things really are. Once we humanize, he implies, we become subject to all the flawed rules of human communication from which his characters suffer.

To fully experience persons, place, and event, Abish seeks a neutral value in his writing, by which the reader is able to experience more than a simple pantomime of signs. How German Is It takes one through the paces of modern Germany so that everything is given careful note. (p. 419)

The value of a novel like How German Is It is the picture it gives us of contemporary morals and manners working themselves out in a world strictly defined by historical and philosophical limits. A planned community anticipates human needs, but once built it perpetuates those needs rather than remaining adaptive to new contingencies. In his earlier collection, Minds Meet, Abish used the American mania for shopping malls to consider just how such institutions create the needs they serve, and especially how characters are defined by the surfaces and boundaries within which they exist. Language, Abish shows, follows the same model.

The drama of these fictions? Human beings are larger—and their ultimate needs run deeper—than the structures improvised to contain them. By his fidelity to the surface Abish frames the energy which is always fighting to break loose. He puts that energy in the very structure of his sentences, and so becomes an action writer with words. He is one of the most legitimately expressive writers of our time. (p. 420)

Jerome Klinkowitz, "Waiter Abish and the Surfaces of Life," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1981, by the University of Georgia), Vol. XXXV, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 416-20.

George Kearns

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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, historian, documentary film-maker or sophisticated police investigator, and that can bully when it doesn't get the answer it wants…. (pp. 303-04)

The immediate subjects of interrogation are the brothers Hargenau (once von Hargenau): Ulrich, a writer; Helmuth, a successful architect; and a widening circle of their wives, mistresses, friends, and business and political associates…. Ulrich has returned to Germany after a cooling-off period in France: he has testified in court against members of a radical Left terrorist group of which he was a half-hearted member, drawn into terrorist plotting by his now-estranged wife, Paula, who is still, somewhere, a dedicated Ultra. The terrorists are out to get him, and he fatalistically endures their threatening calls and letters (including a marvelously sinister doctored-up coloring book) and their sporadic attempts on his life. The nonpolitical Helmuth's career, too, is in danger, for the terrorists have taken to blowing up his buildings. Abish is at his best creating a sense of a society where paranoia is rational, a place in which one no longer knows what anyone else's political allegiances may be, nor whether those allegiances are to Left or to Neo-Nazi networks. The girl who moves into the vacant apartment upstairs; the old family retainer who turns up as a waiter in an expensive restaurant one frequents; a surly book-seller; the photo-journalist who arrives to do a piece on you and hangs around to sleep over; a simple bridge-tender; any or all may have terrorist connections. And knowing who's who is made more difficult by the disguises and temptations of radical-chic. Even one's brother may have set one up for an assassination attempt. When Helmuth makes an alliance with a group of scruffy motorcyclists, are we to suspect his politics or a careerist move to protect the buildings he designs?

On the fringes of the action floats the figure of Brumhold, an old metaphysician whose former apologetics for the New Order everyone would like to forget (Heidegger?)—as Abish's Germany industriously forgets, or better, only selectively remembers its past…. Brumholdstein, the New City of which Helmuth Hargenau is leading architect, is a brilliantly realized landscape and metaphor, a savage epitome of Das Neue Deutschland: cleanliness, order, dependability, punctuality, culture organized in museums and concert halls, glass buildings, and mountains of luscious pastries. It is a site for deliberate forgetting, but the main point of Abish's novel appears to be a relentless refusal to allow Germany to forget. For Brumholdstein has been constructed over the site of a concentration camp; its sleek prosperity and numbed self-satisfaction are interrupted by the discovery of a mass grave beneath its main business thoroughfare. The tension of the novel, a taut novel indeed, is captured in that image—as Abish's merciless camera and sound equipment record the life of a whole people attempting to suppress a past that won't lie still, as they incorporate methodically the routinized violence of the present.

Abish is an artist of enormous resources and control, and How German Is It is a most readable book, not only for its bitter comic observation, but for a narrative drive propelled simultaneously by what's going to happen? and what did happen? The mercilessness of it spoils it for me, for there is a thesis guiding it, and that thesis demands that Abish rigorously suppress any extravagant energies, any complexities, any life within his characters, any sign that a German may have moments of sensibility (or folly) that don't support the thesis. We are familiar with this New Wave manner of observing slightly narcotized characters against "dehumanized" landscapes, but there is a difference between film and prose: in the movies there is the chance that the actor may supply some quirky and mysterious presence that may not be suggested in the desiccated script. But Abish has only his prose, and within that prose he won't (can't?) give his people or his "Germany" a chance. There is an unpleasant implied condemnation of a whole people which, not to press the point too hard, can't help reminding us of the very fault Abish won't let Germany forget, Engagé as all get-out, this deft writer (after a flashy coup de théâtre that would be "effective" in a film, but that belies the artistry on every other page) steps forward with his placard: "Is it possible for anyone in Germany, nowadays, to raise his right hand, for whatever the reason, and not be flooded by the memory of a dream to end all dreams?" What is really at stake is one's image of oneself and others. (pp. 304-06)

George Kearns, "'Fiction Chronicle': 'How German Is It'," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1981 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 303-06.


Abish, Walter (Short Story Criticism)