Walter Abish Abish, Walter (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Minds Meet 1975

In the Future Perfect 1977

99: The New Meaning 1990

Duel Site (poetry) 1970

Alphabetical Africa (novel) 1974

How German Is It (novel) 1980

Eclipse Fever (novel) 1993

Jerome Klinkowitz (essay date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

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 the story itself, as in “Minds Meet.” Other times his characters treat the topic, as in “Crossing Friends,” published for the first time in Minds Meet: “He presses his knife against Doug's throat because he found it difficult to rely solely upon language. Language contains all kinds of secret impediments. Language constricts.”

The characters in Abish's stories who are concerned with or confused about language are usually confused in their personal lives as well. The stories center on this confusion. “All those courses in psychology have not prepared me for a locked door,” the narrator of “The Second Leg” (Paris Review #55, Fall 1972, collected in Minds Meet) confesses. “Logic 1. and 2. has not helped me achieve a measure of tranquility.” Characters such as this narrator are constantly self-reflective, measuring every move they make; since their actions and (more often) musings constitute the core of the story, Abish's fiction itself becomes self-reflective. But never with the ponderous seriousness of Beckett. For some reason when American fictionists use this technique the result is more exuberantly funny. It never happens with the confessional poetry of Lowell, Plath, or Berryman; but put it in prose and the result is literary hysteria. “So far she has not made one single reference to sex. It must be my imagination … my restless, troubled mind that is plaguing me. … It must be my imagination … all the same I can hear her quite distinctly enunciate the ejaculatory words: fuck, balls, cunt. …”

Barthelme puts his characters through similar rigors; like Abish, he is drawn to the paranoiacally self-conscious narrator who undermines the seriousness of what he has to say by the way he goes about saying it. The art, of course, is in the way it is said; that much is held in common with Beckett and the French New Novelists. But as Barthelme has written of them in Location (Summer 1964), “The French new novelists, Butor, Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, Philippe Sollers, have … succeeded in making objects of their books without reaping any of the strategic benefits of the maneuver—a triumph of misplaced intelligence. Their work seems leaden, self-conscious in the wrong way.” There is humor, even of an American variety, in Beckett—Buster Keaton, perhaps, especially as Michael Stephens uses him for Still Life. The appropriate model for Walter Abish's characters, however, would be the comedian Woody Allen, because as the story develops, a self-reflexive narrative figure has been created whose own self-doubting attributes are the story's point.

Abish's protagonists are forever being excluded from the party. It's usually a matter of sex, as in “The Second Leg.” In “The Istanbul Papers” (New Directions #23, 1971, collected in Minds Meet), Abish tells of a minor diplomatic functionary who attended Harvard with John Kennedy and Norman Mailer—and who is forever excluded from that company. “Don't you want to show them up,” a colleague taunts, “and stride shoulder to shoulder with Norman and Jack down the corridors of power?” His ticket of admission is unlikely: an affair with Hitler's daughter. “Hitler Jugend be damned. If Jack can profess to be a Berliner, I don't see why I can't be the lover of Hitler's daughter.” Again, the narrator becomes the excluded party, as the real issue becomes the interests of his colleague and the stamping of the girl's passport. “I often think of those hectic days, standing shoulder to shoulder with Norman and Jack in the quadrangle,” he concludes. “Only their dreams have come true.”

There is a possible reason...

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Alain Arias-Misson (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Gabriel Josipovici (review date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Jerome Klinkowitz (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Christopher Butler (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Jerry A. Varsava (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

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William Doreski (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Paul Metcalf (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


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.


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