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.