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.
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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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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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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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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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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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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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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