Walter Abish Critical Essays


(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...

(The entire section is 358 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 478 words.)

Daniel Levinson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 657 words.)

Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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...

(The entire section is 229 words.)

Kenneth Baker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 874 words.)

Irving Malin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 769 words.)

Tony Tanner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 772 words.)

Paul West

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1156 words.)

Betty Falkenberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 540 words.)

James Knowlton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 548 words.)

Jerome Klinkowitz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1798 words.)

George Kearns

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 1027 words.)