Walter Abish

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(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.

Richard Howard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9,290 words.)