Walter Abish - About Africa. Alphabets. Angolans. Animals. Alligators. Ants. Antelopes. Archaeologists. Alva. Alva's abduction. Alex and Allen's arguments about Alva's abduction. Who done it?!


How German is it = Wie Deutsch Ist Es : A Novel - Walter Abish
Walter Abish, How German Is ItNew Directions, 1980.  
read it at Google Books                  


Ulrich Hargenau testifies against fellow members of a German terrorist group in order to save himself and his wife, Paula, and contemplates the nature of his German heritage.
The question How German Is It underlies the conduct and actions of the characters in Walter Abish's novel, an icy panorama of contemporary Germany, in which the tradition of order and obedience, the patrimony of the saber and the castle on the Rhine, give way to the present, indiscriminate fascination with all things American. On his return from Paris to his home city of Würtenburg, Ulrich Hargenau, whose father was executed for his involvement in the 1944 plot against Hitler, is compelled to ask himself, "How German am l?"––as he compares his own recent attempt to save his life, and his wife Paula's, by testifying against fellow members of a terrorist group, with his father's selfless heroism. Through Ulrich––privileged, upper class––we confront the incongruities of the new democratic Germany, in particular the flourishing community of Brumholdstein, named after the country's greatest thinker, Brumhold, and built on the former site of a concentration camp. Paula's participation in the destruction of a police station; the State's cynical response to crush the terrorists; two attempts on Ulrich's life; the discovery in Brumholdstein of a mass grave of death camp inmates––all these, with subtle irony, are presented as pieces of a puzzle spelling out the turmoil of a society's endeavor to avoid the implications of its menacing heritage.

Michael Lewis’s Vanity Fair article on why Germany now calls the shots in the Eurozone is delightfully, mischievously Swiftian. Lewis ties Germans’ relationship to money to, well, their relationship to excrement. As his source, he cites the work of a Berkeley anthropologist, Alan Dundes, whose book “Life Is Like a Chicken Coop Ladder” argues that German folklore is uncommonly obsessed with anality. To support the thesis that this obsession is at the root of Germany’s economic dominance (and its faulty risk-taking), Lewis uncovers myriad examples of fecal focus in German colloquialisms and proverbs.
His archness and playful-yet-vicious-swipes put me in mind of another dissection of the German psyche, Walter Abish’s “How German Is It?” The novel describes a postwar Germany where the Red Army is a growing threat, where modern housing is intended to echo the “massivity and dynamism” of a seaside resort’s former fortifications and where towns like Brumholdstein (named after the philosopher Ernst Brumhold, a stand-in for Heidegger) revel in their gleaming modern buildings even as they struggle to cope with what lies beneath the surface — in this case a mass grave uncovered when a water main bursts. Characters similarly recoil from and embrace their past. The book’s protagonist, Ulrich, has a Nazi father said to have been executed for turning on Hitler at the close of the war. This fact is revealed almost in passing, following a reflection on what a “glorious” German summer it is, the best in 33 years.
When his father, Ulrich von Hargenau, was executed by a firing squad early one August morning in 1944, his father’s last word were: Long live Germany. At least that ‘s what Ulrich had been told by his family. His father had been killed in a tiny cobblestone courtyard. What was the summer of 1944 like? Active. Certainly active.
Ulrich’s own actions produce equally mixed results. He informs on the associates of his Red-Army-faction wife to keep her out of prison, and she responds by going underground and sending her associates after him. Where Lewis’s humor is broad, Abish’s is subtle. The text is punctuated by freighted questions that serve as a kind of ironic chorus: “How to read the writing on the wall?”; “Could it have been any different?”; “Are memories only unreliable when they serve as an explanation?”
I was introduced to Abish’s book by two colleagues at The Times — James Ryerson and Aaron Retica. Unlike Lewis, who visited Germany only once before, Abish had never been to Germany, though his lack of familiarity also didn’t stop him from asking the question What makes a German German? Years ago, Retica interviewed Abish for the online magazine Tablet; you can read the interview here. It reveals, among other things, what Abish really thought of Heidegger and how readers responded to the novel when it was first published. “When ‘How German Is It’ appeared in Germany the reviewers, not knowing how to react, did what people would do elsewhere. They read me instead. They explained me. No problem there: Vienna, fled the Nazis, they’ve got the whole story — why read the book? And there’s a review in The Houston Chronicle, some professor at the University of St. Thomas, and he writes that I end up in America and that’s a happy ending. People really bring their own history to it.” Indeed they do.
How German is it? Who knows? -     

Walter Abish, though he has published relatively late and little, projects a distinct presence in contemporary letters, in part because of the black triangular eye patch that distinguishes his photograph on book jackets. His three novels, three collections of short stories, and lone book of poems have won a number of grants and awards (a MacArthur Foundation grant, the pen / Faulkner Award of 1981) and high praise from such disparate spirits as Harold Bloom, Richard Howard, and Wendy Lesser. Born in Vienna in 1931, Abish, with his mother and father, fled Hitler’s Europe in 1940 for Shanghai, and in 1949 left what was shortly to become Mao’s China for Israel. He came to New York City in 1957, and by the early seventies had begun to publish English-language short stories in cutting-edge magazines like Confrontation, The Element, Extensions, and Statements: New Fiction. These stories partook of American absurdism, à la Donald Barthelme, Guy Davenport, Robert Coover: effects of cryptic collage, hostile whimsy, and learned fancy were presented in a clipped, deadpan style. The tone served, it seemed, to insulate the writer from taking the events described too seriously. Popular culture, so amusingly appropriated in post-abstract painting, flavored the writer’s vision; images filtered in from the glamorous, trendy realms of film, television, and photography. The papery worlds of news items, maps, and classic literature were shuffled together carefreely. For instance, in Abish’s first collection, “Minds Meet” (1975), the story “How the Comb Gives a Fresh Meaning to the Hair” conceives of Marcel Proust living in Albuquerque, where retarded children, cabbies, Pueblo Indians, and a young couple called Mr. and Mrs. Dip flit through short paragraphs bearing titles like “Fingernails” and “Marcel’s Childhood.” In Abish’s second collection, “In the Future Perfect” (1977), several stories (“Ardor / Awe / Atrocity” and “In So Many Words”) adorn narratives of a flat American sordidness with alphanumeric games, Teutonically rigorous in their ingenuity, that addle the reader’s brain like the insistent chimes of a canzone or a villanelle. What the New World means to Abish is restless sex wed to consumerist luxury—a quest for material perfection summed up in his aphorism “Above all America fears the limp prick.”
Abish’s first novel, “Alphabetical Africa” (1974), prankishly takes the reader on an intricate trek through the alphabet, with the first and last chapters both confined to words beginning with “a” and the chapters in between accumulatingly using and then losing words beginning with the remaining twenty-five letters. Of this tortuous opus (akin to certain verbal experiments of Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec), Abish helpfully volunteered on the dust jacket:
Feeling a distrust of the understanding that is intrinsic to any communication, I decided to write a book in which my distrust became a determining factor upon which the flow of the narrative was largely predicated.
Distrust—a dubiety of commitment and avowal—is his ground note. His most admired work, the novel “How German Is It” (1980), harnesses postmodern verbal foolery to a thriller plot and a passionately distrustful concern with modern Germany. Written before his actual return to the German-speaking lands that his immediate family (but not all his relatives) escaped in the late thirties, the novel imagines an Americanized, prospering, democratic Germany sealed over the Nazi past like a deceptively smooth scab. The clean, chic, well-planned new community of Brumholdstein, named after a Heidegger-like philosopher called Ernst Brumhold, has been erected on the bulldozed site of a concentration camp in the town, formerly known as Durst. At one point, symbolically enough, a broken sewage pipe uncovers a mass grave, which emits a terrible stench and is finally cleared away by the government agency that deals with such remnants of the unsavory past. The characters, most of them too young to have participated in the Nazi regime, are nevertheless not at ease. The husbands are compulsively unfaithful and the women unnervingly compliant. The old class distinctions and snobberies still hold, beneath the surface of democracy. Urban terrorist groups recruited from the middle class nag the society with murders and explosions, and “Germany . . . its history, its achievements, its literature, its amazing economic recovery” has something inexpungeably suspect about it. Its very glossiness and timetable order and even the beauty of the summer in which most of the action takes place seem to mask something.
The novel’s main characters, the brothers Helmuth and Ulrich Hargenau, have many reasons for happiness, as a successful architect and novelist respectively. Further, they are (apparently) the sons of an anti-Nazi martyr; their father, Ulrich von Hargenau, participated in the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler and was shot by a firing squad. But Helmuth, so handsome and efficient, has a manicky self-careless streak that produces too many affairs, too many pointed allusions to the Nazi past of respectable families, and too deep an association with a band of motorcycle-riding thugs. Ulrich, the writer, is more recessive and kindly, but he nurses a futile love for his wife, Paula, a terrorist whom he saved from prison by testifying against the eight other members of her gang. He receives threats in the mail and has gingerly returned to Germany after six months in Paris. He encounters a great range of plausible contemporary Germans: the plump, nimble-minded mayor of Brumholdstein; his lean and faithless wife, Vin; Helmuth’s perfect wife, Maria, whom he abandons; their chatty and invincibly curious ten-year-old daughter, Gisela, named after her mother’s close friend, who is half of a swish young couple identified only as Gisela and Egon; the attractive, insatiably intrusive photographer Rita Tropf-Ulmwehrt; the waiter Franz Metz, the Hargenaus’ former servant and a traumatized Wehrmacht veteran who is building a matchstick model of the vanished concentration camp at Durst; his loutish son Obbie; the not-so-prim unmarried schoolteacher Anna Heller; the morose and churlish bookseller Jonke; and a number of others, all rooted in a highly circumstantial small-city landscape. Though the free-and-easy sexual interchanges savor of the swinging Manhattan of the sixties and seventies, and the mouth-wateringly specific German pastries may owe something to Abish’s Viennese boyhood, his feat of imagination makes a persuasive match for the realistically transcribed Germanys of, say, Heinrich Böll and Martin Walser. The novel disdains to tie up all of its many threads, and has some of the improvisatory shagginess of Abish’s shaggy-dog short stories, but it is given coherence and force by a real animus and a real question: How could the Germans have committed these unspeakable acts? How uniquely German was the Holocaust?


Abish has been rather quiet in the quarter century since this compelling, prize-winning, fully stocked novel appeared: in 1990, he published a third short-story collection, “99: the New Meaning,” a limited edition of five collagist stories, and in 1993 a novel, “Eclipse Fever,” set mostly in Mexico, with American and Mexican characters. Now he has issued a wry, contemplative, and oblique experiment in autobiography, “Double Vision: A Self-Portrait” (Knopf; $24). Chapters of reminiscence headed “The Writer-to-Be” alternate with diaristic jottings from his contemporary self, “The Writer.” He sketches his life as a boy in Austria and as a young man in China but says little about his adult years in New York, or exactly when he arrived, or how he supported himself. He does not explain how he came to wear an eye patch. The fully fledged “Writer” is seen largely in terms of his visits, in the wake of “How German Is It,” to Germany and Austria. His parentage and early years are quickly disposed of, in a nervous style of notation and existential questions:  
The oppressiveness of good manners. The emotional repression. My discontent. That’s why my head is shaped the way it is. That’s why my eyes are blue. We are talking about genes. About inherited traits. The way I smile—reluctantly. . . . Is there no freedom at all from the family? The efficiently cool and remote mother and the energetic businessman father. Their distinctly separate worlds, their separate concerns collide uneasily in my brain. 
He alludes, a few pages on, to his “incessant trigeminal headaches,” as if his parents were still colliding in his head. They wound up, he reveals in “Double Vision,” in St. Petersburg, Florida—survivors who had the wit and the wherewithal to maneuver themselves and their only child out of Hitler’s reach. Their virtues are acknowledged a bit stiffly. Abish mentions rebellious behavior on his part without being specific; he confides that he provided his parents “far too little satisfaction, far too little pleasure,” and that he suspected his mother of not finding her role “in any way pleasing or fulfilling.” His father, he feels, loved him wholeheartedly, and, a perfume manufacturer, brought to the house the enchantment of “those tiny, elegantly shaped bottles snugly encased in their pale yellow boxes bearing the name Molinard as well their poetic fragrances: Ambre, Iles d’Or, Habitana, Fleurettes, Orval. Whenever my father would pull out his handkerchief, the entire room, within seconds, was filled with the delicate fragrance of those evocative names.”
So it was a cool, qualified, scented childhood idyll that ended when, in March of 1938, Nazi Germany annexed Austria. Abish’s recollections, diffident to this point, become vivid: 
Soon after, the streets of Vienna took on the appearance of a staged spectacle—one of those beloved operettas that skirt reality—for the frenzied, flag-waving Viennese did not merely proclaim their solidarity with Germany and embrace their Austrian-born Hitler; rather, they embraced the Anschluss, seizing the opportunity to display those tantalizing new emblems, the paraphernalia of Nazism, and in a state of exuberance perform a celebratory dance. . . . A breathless encounter, as the Viennese—whose dialect, after all, is replete with double meanings—absorbed with a shudder of ecstasy the aesthetics of the swastika. 

An oft-told historical tale acquires freshness through these six-year-old eyes. Abish’s mother was thoroughly assimilated and had “sought, if not to disassociate, then to distance herself from the Jewish ceremonies,” while the father’s attempt to communicate their Jewishness to his son remained “ill defined” and “perplexing.” The inevitable persecutions descended almost lightly at first; the day after Kristallnacht, Abish’s father reported to work as usual. When he was arrested, he was vouched for by a businessman who owed him money and was released. The S.A. men who evicted them from their apartment were courteous and low-key, and Abish’s mother packed with her usual calm and efficiency. Abish was permitted to carry away two small toys. That the Gentile society approvingly stood by while, elsewhere in Vienna, Jews were made to scrub the sidewalk with toothbrushes is no mystery: 
I suspect the eventuality of a dividend, a payoff, as a result of this state-generated public debasement wasn’t lost on the gleeful spectators. How could the trickle-down rewards—in the form of academic advancement, the elimination of business competition, the forced sale of businesses, not to mention the vacated apartments, the auctions of the possessions the Viennese Jews were forced to leave behind—not animate the society? 

Small wonder that a child exposed to such a turn of events would continue to distrust appearances, however prosperous and benign, and see with a wary double vision. In “How German Is It,” the mayor of Brumholdstein, commenting upon a carpet that a guest has admired, idly brags, “My father acquired it before the war. Lots of things were quite reasonable before the war, I’m told.” The carpet has an abyss beneath it.
When, in the wake of publishing “How German Is It,” Abish meets real Germans and travels to Germany, distrust is the mood on both sides. “Double Vision” describes how, in New York, he meets, through friends, a visiting German chemical-company executive, “the fixed smile on his sharp-featured face like an unaccustomed adornment,” who declares that Abish’s novel infuriated him: “Alone, the incorrectly spelled German words!” Abish is interviewed by a German journalist, “trim, impeccably dressed, not a blond hair out of place,” who, unable to get him to admit that his novel was “the Jew’s revenge,” has trouble finishing her article, because, she says, “I suspect that deep inside your gut you harbor altogether different thoughts and emotions.” Driven by another journalist from Amsterdam into Germany for the first time, Abish distrusts the scenery along the Rhine: “Everything on view seemed slightly exaggerated . . . almost staged—like a reproduction of the original.” He asks himself, “At what stage in the reconstruction of Germany, at what point in this tremendous effort will the turbulent past fade, enabling the visitor to Germany to once again view the society with that credulous gaze of a nineteenth-century traveller?” Never, for this visitor. He sees tidy houses out of “How German Is It,” “so orderly, so clean, so characteristically German,” though the border guard is less neatly dressed than he expected. The “Wagnerian Germany” of craggy castles and dark woods that his host seems to want to present fails to register with Abish, who discovers that the Pentax with which he has been “nailing [his] first impressions of Germany” is empty of film.
On a later excursion, as he employs his rusty German in dialogue with fellow-writers and cultural operatives, the empty-camera feeling persists. He doesn’t like his editor, Gunther Maschke, a former left-winger turned right, and rejects the hotel that has been chosen; at a party he counterattacks the somewhat anti-Semitic prattle of an actor who petulantly asks, “Must we still feel guilt? Hasn’t the time come when we are able to speak our minds?” Not infrequently, the guest writer provokes “that by now familiar wisp of a smile I’ve noted on faces whenever a ticklish subject is brought up.” Rarely does he hear “a welcome, unequivocal voice of condemnation,” as he does from a schoolteacher leading his students through the camp at Dachau: “Das war eine Todesfabrik!—“That was a death factory!” But at Dachau, too, Abish feels an “inexplicable detachment,” a failure to feel, “even though, for all I knew, members of my own family were entombed here.” He can’t shake what others criticize as the “tendency to overinterpret everything German through the limited prism of the Hitler years.” Waking each day to songbirds, he wonders if the concentration-camp inmates heard them, and finds, in the memoir of a Buchenwald inmate, that “the acrid, poisonous stench of burning corpses drove the birds away.”
The two extended sections devoted to his years in China and in Israel have their interest, of course, as his evolving awareness prepares him for a future as a writer. In China, at the age of fifteen, he enters “a mazelike building in which Chinese jugglers, puppeteers, actors, magicians, singsong girls, and storytellers in long gowns and carrying folding fans entertained the audience,” and realizes that he is the only non-Chinese in the crowd. His friends show no curiosity about this place of entertainment, and China itself, the vast country that is their host, is ignored in their school textbooks. Shortly before Abish’s departure, as the approach of Communist armies emboldens young Chinese, he is attacked on the street and chased by three of them. “I couldn’t even bring myself to mention the assault to anyone—suddenly, to discover myself to be the enemy!” Several years earlier, when American servicemen helped oust Shanghai’s Japanese occupiers, he had been enchanted by our brand names, our movies, our hit parade. American sailors, “mostly good natured if somewhat bored, still possessed the attractive shine of all things American.” But they, too, suffered from a “total lack of curiosity.” The writer-to-be is by nature curious, and in Israel he continues his self-education, both romantic and literary. He gets a part-time job with the United States Information Agency and prepares for a career as an architect. He finds, after many false starts, that he can read Proust with pleasure. He has a serious affair, and even gets married, but just so that his bride, Bilha, can be spared the obligatory year’s military service. The formality over, they soon divorce, and yet he visits her at their old apartment, “determined that nothing . . . spark a Proustian recollection.” There is more here than is being said, and the Israel chapter is the vaguest and least memorable. Abish’s heart, at least for the length of this autobiography, is engaged by Germany, that deadly and dislikable land. In describing the Sabras, the native-born Israelis, whose famous directness and candor seem to him simply discourtesy, he cannot resist adding, “Ironically, it was in Germany, in the eighties—the last place in the world that I expected to be reminded of Israel—that I encountered a similar bluntness and lack of tact.”

In 1987, Abish spent six months in Berlin, as a guest of the German Academy Exchange Service. He confides, “I travelled blindly to the walled-in city, quite unprepared to dismantle the wall I had erected within myself.” This final installment of “The Writer” chapters bristles with disagreeable little encounters: 
A Berlin bus driver wordlessly indicated his displeasure with the way I positioned my ticket on the smallish metal tray by pointedly straightening it before he stamped it—all the while glaring furiously at me. What German lesson was being communicated? 
When, pragmatically, he crosses a deserted street against the light, a motorist stops to loudly upbraid him; Abish, adopting local manners, shouts back, “What business is it of yours?” and is told, in an aggrieved tone, “You’re wearing an eye patch. . . . your eyesight is impaired. You might get hurt!” He finds that artists, critics, and writers he encounters “scarcely differ from the ones I know in New York” yet seem “weighed down by an incommunicable mental fatigue.” The thriving, pre-Hitler German-Jewish community has left “a diffuse and attenuated memory” in contemporary Germans, though mansions and department stores once owned by Jews still stand. At parties, he feels approached as a curiosity, “a Jew at the party,” and a fellow-writer, Klaus Stiller, “cannot refer to Jews without an involuntary twinkle in his eyes. I can only conclude that for many people Jews must still be such an oddity.” Though Abish is warned, “Don’t go that way. It’ll destroy you,” he accumulates in Berlin a stack of books on Germany and genocide, including diaries kept during the Nazi era, which are with rare exception devoid of any reference to the Jews and their doom. He exclaims of a Turkish waitress, “Her foreignness was such a welcome sight,” and takes satisfaction in learning from an Ethiopian male nurse that among his patients “a majority of the elderly daydream of the Hitler days and still cast blame on the Jews for everything that has transpired.” He observes police attacking protesters “with methodical rage.” He notes how on the Berlin streets “the young appear laid-back,” while a two-hour photographic session in his apartment amounts to “an accurate assessment of my uptightness.”
An American visitor to Germany does not have to be Jewish to feel there a frisson, a shudder of fascination at the abyss beneath the carpet. I was raised among the hardworking, pork-loving, sometimes bossy, sometimes jolly Pennsylvania Germans of eastern Pennsylvania and am altogether German on the maternal side of my ethnic heritage; visiting Germany, I expect to feel at home, and do, especially in the tourist’s cosseted microcosm of efficient service and excellent English. Yet I am wary, on this terrain where madness ruled and commanded loyalty to the end. The extensive reconstructions in reunified Berlin have an uncanny suggestion of re-stating again, in boastfully huge Kaiseresque terms, an aesthetic that didn’t bode well the first time. The tourist, after his visits to Frederick the Great’s elegant retreat Sans Souci and the world-class painterly treasures of the Gemäldegalerie, gets out of the bus and stands on a huge vacant lot, the Schlossplatz, where the vast palace of the Hohenzollerns, having undergone extensive war damage in 1944-1945, was razed by Walter Ulbricht’s German Democratic Republic in 1950. Now that free enterprise again controls all of Berlin, there is talk of rebuilding the Schloss—as the great Lutheran Dom nearby has been—though the expense would be titanic. Standing on the dusty Schlossplatz, beside the dilapidating Palast der Republik erected by the Communists, the tourist gazes across the Great Elector’s private gardens, the Lustgarten, at a building that looks familiar from old newsreels. It is the low white Altes Museum, the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s masterpiece of 1830, with its eighteen Ionic columns. From a platform in front of it, Hitler used to speak to his followers, massed on the garden site, which had been cleared of flowers by the Nazis in 1935. For a moment, with a dark thrill, one feels on the rim of that ecstatic rally. Schinkel’s superb neoclassic architecture has a certain serene iciness, and, as central Berlin fills in with reconstructions and new structures, one thinks of the megalomaniacal architectural dreams that Albert Speer and his Führer projected for the capital of the Thousand-Year Reich.

Now sixty years have passed, the surviving participants in the Second World War are fewer and fewer, and Germany is populated by people who had nothing to do with the Nazi regime; millions of them are not even ethnically German. At times, Abish, like Fassbinder in some of his films, implies that there is something disgusting and scandalous in Germany’s reconstituting itself as a viable capitalist democracy. Some young Germans have felt this also; the Baader-Meinhof gang, from an angle of leftist indignation, rephrased the insatiable shrill rage of Hitler and Goebbels. Whence this love of extremes, this intemperance? Thomas Mann, in a 1904 short story, “At the Prophet’s,” says of a young Nietzschean orator, “A fevered and frightfully irritable ego here expanded itself.” The German tribes did not succumb to the Roman Empire but remained outside its laws, and, for all the achievements and decorum of contemporary Germans, a potential for lawlessness—for going beyond the merely decent and workable—still hangs in the air. In “How German Is It,” Helmuth Hargenau, the model German gone awry, speaks eloquently of the link between the passion for abstract thought that the philosopher Brumhold exemplified and his passion for “the thick forest, his beloved forest, a forest . . . that is and remains spiritually close to us . . . the German forest in which dwells our spirit, our ideals, our cultural past, our poetry, our truth.” Earlier in the novel, Abish mentions “the innate German upper- and upper-middle-class instinct to combine what is essentially ‘perfection’ with the ‘menacing.’ ” In feeling the menace, and reifying it with anecdotes and fiction, he is, in his own voice, giving the news. One must accept this news with the reservation that, as history has shown more than once, blanket distrust of any group is a seedbed for massacre. - John Updike

How German Is It attempts to come to terms with what it means to be German post 1945; it describes the quest a nation must face in sorting out its identity; a generation of national bastards seeking the face of their father and understanding the responsibility, even those born after the war have for their own historical context.  A Germany coming to terms with the growing threat of the Red Army and attempting to understand how the past happened in order to avoid a similar future.
Written in 1980, through dreamlike post-modern prose, Abish covers this question from many different angles. From the point of view of the Hargenaus, a once respected and admired family, whose patriarch was shot in 1944 as a traitor. Or criminal? The two Hargenaus brothers must confront their own past and discover where and how they fit into a historical context.
The older brother Helmuth is an architect living in Brumholdstein, a posh new town, built over the remains of what used to be Durst, one of Germany's many concentration camps. Now all that remains of Durst is a small abandoned train station and rusty tracks that lead in both directions to nowhere. Helmuth designs sleek modern buildings for the New Germany, they cover up a depressing history and present a new and exciting future, a chance to move beyond the confines of the past. His buildings represent the miraculous rebirth of Germany and its new sense of satisfaction and completion. Its love of clean lines and efficiency.
Helmuth has designed a house for Egon and Gisela that has made the cover of the lasted edition of Treue. They are represented as members of a flourishing German society. "And what - one may ask - could be more spontaneously joyous, more filled with expectation and promise."  Yet under the facade, these two people represent a different sort of Germany. One where the husband must define and redefine what it means to be a German man, constantly seeking his identity and his sense of worth which he assumes must come from his desirability.  After the photo shoot, he runs away with the photographer Rita, while Gisela cowers in a corner unsure of how she can keep her husband interested, seeking endlessly a sense of stability.
Rita, as a photographer, tries to capture the Germany behind the facade. She is constantly seeking out the mundane and banal - hoping that new observation of a previously unobserved moment could provide a sense of revelation. Who are we between the cracks? Where are we behind the disinfected history? She attempts to make the familiar strange and unfamiliar simply by looking at it from a new perspective, by reaching into the familiar and making the unseen seen again.
A mass grave is discovered under Brumholdstein, which could only possibly be filled with victims from the concentration camp...but is this something a new Germany can admit? Is this a past they can acknowledge happened? And while the younger generation assumes the mass grave is filled with German heroes shot down by the Russians, the older generation debates the benefits of telling them the truth. Rita, in her ceaseless quest for documentation, sneaks behind the crew removing the bodies and photographs a pile of skeletons that have been removed from the mass grave. Then a shot of a single railroad boxcar on a siding nest to an unloading platform. What is she doing? Trying to leave the viewer with a bad taste in his mouth? Or searching out a past that has generated the everyday lives they must all come to terms with.
Brumholdstein is a metaphor for the rest of the country struggling to answer the question "what is being? what is thought? What is existence?"  Everything about this city is familiar, "But then, the intent to begin with was not to design or construct a city that would strike anyone, inhabitant or visitor, as unfamiliar."  What does it mean to be intrinsically German? How does one comprehend the nature of that "German restlessness and that intrinsic German striving for order and for tranquility as well as for perfection?" What is this sense of being that at its roots cannot be divorced from the German passion for exactitude and abstraction. Is there's a universal history? Were they merely replicating a period of disaster that is simply part of the human narrative...using only a slightly more efficient and precise method?
As Helmuth manages to tear the photographs from Rita's hands and begins ripping them up he is consciously performing the role of protector, we don't have to remember the past because it does not define us. You can extract the qualities of the German people that, yes perhaps in excess have the tendency toward the barbaric, but when they are distilled in the correct formula they leave a people striving for greatness and order, able to accomplish the unimaginable. If everyone could just have a new perspective how different could everything be? How different could everything have been? -
Dean W. 


Walter Abish, Alphabetical Africa, New Directions, 1974.
read it at Google Books

“Walter Abish has dovetailed his novel within a Procrustean scheme that has the terrifying and irrefutable logic of the alphabet. Alphabetical Africa is in the line of writers such as Raymond Roussel, Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec and Harry Mathews, who have used constrictive forms to penetrate the space on the other side of poetry.” — John Ashbery

Alphabetical Africa, Walter Abish's delightful first novel, is an extraordinary linguistic tour de force, high comedy set in an imaginary dark continent that expands and contracts with ineluctable precision, as one by one the author adds the letters of the alphabet to his book, and then subtracts them. While the "geoglyphic" African landscape forms and crumbles, it is, among other things, attacked by an army of driver ants, invaded by Zanzibar, painted orange by the transvestite Queen Quat of Tanzania, and becomes a hunting ground for a pair of murderous jewel thieves tracking down their nymphomaniac moll.

Excerpt:
Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex's admonition, against Allen's angry assertion: another African amusement . . . anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa's antipodal ant annexation. Albert argumentatively answers at another apartment. Answers: ants are Ameisen. Ants are Ameisen?

Africa again: Antelopes, alligators, ants and attractive Alva, are arousing all angular Africans, also arousing author's analytically aggressive anticipations, again and again. Anyhow author apprehends Alva anatomically, affirmatively and also accurately.

Ages ago an archeologist, Albert, alias Arthur, ably attended an archaic African armchair affair at Antibes, attracting attention as an archeologist and atheist. Ahhh, atheism . . . anyhow, Albert advocated assisting African ants. Ants? All are astounded. Ants? Absurd.

Africa again: Albert arrives, alive and arguing about African art, about African angst and also, alas, attacking Ashanti architecture, as author again attempts an agonizing alphabetical appraisal . . . asked about affection, Albert answers, Ashanti affection also aesthetically abhorrent, antagonizing all. As alien airforce attacks Angola, Albert asks, are anthills anywhere about, agreeing as Alex asserts, all Angolans are absolute asses.

Are all archeologists arrogant Aristotelians, asks author, as Angolans abduct Alva. Adieu Alva. Arrivederci.

After air attack author assumes Alva's asexuality affected African army's ack-ack accuracy, an arguable assumption, anyhow, army advances, annihilating antelopes, alligators and ants. Admirable attrition admits Ashanti admiral as author all alone autographs Ashanti atlas, authenticating anthill actions. Actually, asks Alva, are all Ashanti alike.

Apprehending Africa: always, as an afternoon abates an ant advances, also antelopes, alligators, archeologists, African ankles, African amulets and amorous Angolan abductors. Abductors all agreed about abhorrent acts, about air attacks, about Alva and Alex and Allen all apart.

Africa again: Angolans applaud author, after author allegedly approached an American amateur aviator, and angrily argued against America's anachronistic assault. Afterward all applaud as author awarded avocado and appointed acting alphabet authority.

Alex and Allen alone, arrive in Abidjan and await African amusements.



Alphabetical Africa is one of the wittiest, most cleverly constructed books I've ever read.  Here's why:   The first chapter, "A,"only contains words that begin with the letter "a"; the second chapter, "B," only contains words beginning with either the letters "a" or "b"; and so on and so forth goes the rest of the novel, chapters C, D, E, F, G and on to chapter "Z".  Then, the novel starts erasing itself, so to speak, as it contracts from having access to the full gamut of the English alphabet in chapter "Z" back to hyper-restrictive chapter "A", filled with alliterative paragraphs like this:
"After air attack author assumes Alva's asexuality affected African army's ack-ack accuracy, an arguable assumption, anyhow, army advances, annilihating antelopes, alligators and ants.  Admirable attrition admits Ashanti admiral as author all alone autographs Ashanti atlas, authenticating anthill actions.  Actually, asks Alva, are all Ashanti alike."

Alphabetical Africa's self-restricted artifice helps make it one of the funniest "experimental" novels or "avant-garde" novels or whatever you want to call these unconventionally structured novels that Walter Abish and other Oulipo-type writers tend to produce; novels whose narratives employ radically unorthodox devices in communicating their contents to the reader.  Maybe I'm strange, but I think it's hysterical that the first person narrator of Alphabetical Africa can't appear until chapter "I" and then disappears after the apex of chapter "Z" has been reached and the novel, having incrementally lost access to the complete English language, segues from chapter "I" to chapter "H".  Bye bye first person narrator, and welcome back "author".
 I'm aware that many folks might automatically turn their noses up at the label "avant garde" or "experimental" as it does regrettably tend to signify that the book labeled such is just so precious ...  so cutting edge, conceived by the artsy-fartsy pretentious highbrowed elect as "pushing fiction beyond heretofore preconceived limits to lofty new literary heights of visionary grandeur and artful excellence blah blah blah," or some blurbish bullshit like that; when in fact all the book has "accomplished" is come up with some cute, minutely original contrivances or gimmicks to coverup the fact of its fated (and deserved) remainder-pile-mediocrity, the focus of its promoters being on its supposed "innovaton" because solid, compelling storytelling, it lacks.
Not so, Alphabetical Africa.  Though "avant-garde" and "experimental" it is, it's nevertheless a novel experiment worth reading.  Worth reading twice or three times even just to figure out what Abish had to excise with his self-imposed letter limitations.  Even with the letter restrictions early on in the novel and at its conclusion, Abish's poetic prose constantly rings true, no matter how many letters are available to him.  The writing never sounds forced to fit its artifice.  No faux prose.  Genuine narration.  Pure poetry.  True, it's mildly uncomfortable, at least to this reader, reading non-stop alliteration for two and three pages at a shot, but you get used to it like watching sub-titles of a foreign film after awhile; you forget they're even there on the screen, caught up as you are in the drama of the film.  In the same way, what you have to interpret in Alphabetical Africa -- with its self-restricted artifice -- does not detract either, remarkably, from following an increasingly engrossing and funny plot.
What's it about?
About Africa.  Alphabets.  Angolans.  Animals.  Alligators.  Ants.  Antelopes.  Archaeologists.  Alva.  Alva's abduction.  Alex and Allen's arguments about Alva's abduction.  Who done it?!
And about a ... a Tanzanian transvestite too! - Enrique Freeque


Alphabetical Africa, Walter Abish's first novel, is famous for the tight constraint under which it is written. Though not a member of the Oulipo, Abish has almost literally taken a page out of their book.
       The novel has 52 chapters, headed, alphabetically, A through Z, and then Z through A. The first chapter ("A") contains only words beginning with the letter A, the second ("B") only words beginning with the letters A or B, all the way up to the 26th and 27th chapters (both "Z"), which can include words beginning with all letters of the alphabet. Then the letters disappear again: Z-Y-X-W-V, etc. The 31st chapter (the second "V"-chapter) again no longer has any words beginning with the letters W, X, Y, or Z, for example. This continues all the way down to the last chapter (the second "A"-chapter), which again consists only of words beginning with the letter A. (Each chapter also begins with a word beginning with the letter-heading -- so the 26th and 27th chapters both begin with words starting with the letter Z, for example.)
       As it turns out, Abish didn't quite live up to his self-imposed constraint -- see our list of Alphabetical Errata. This makes it bit more difficult to take the endeavour entirely seriously (maybe it should be An Almost Alphabetical Africa ?), as well as posing the perplexing question of whether or not the slips were slipped in on purpose (and if so, why ?).
        The constraint is an integral part of the text. There is no way around it. The limitations are tremendous: no I or he for more than a third of the book, no she or you for nearly all of it. No the (and then and why and who and what) for most of the novel. A central figure is Queen Quat, but predictably -- indeed inevitably -- her presence is carefully circumscribed.
       Abish manages surprisingly well. Even the most constrained chapters make at least some sort of sense. So, for example, early in the first chapter:
Ages ago an archaeologist, Albert, alias Arthur, ably attended an archaic African armchair affair at Antibes, attracting attention as an archaeologist and atheist.
       There is a flow to novel, a definite build up as more and more becomes possible and expressible until the apex (or rather: the zenith) is reached. Then comes the reversal, with its inexorable decline, leading to the desperate final chapter, a list of "another"s ending in: "another Africa another alphabet" -- a brief gaze forwards as these ones are done with, withered away into silence and nothingness.
       Like the alphabet, Africa too shifts shape in this novel. "Bit by bit I have assembled Africa" the narrator admits when he can finally intrude on the scene (in the first I-chapter). Throughout -- even as the book grows -- there is always the awareness that Africa is shrinking, vanishing. "The Africa I know is getting smaller, said the Consul morosely." (Though note that, apparently: "It is also, quite inexplicably, turning orange.")
       The novel is not a post-colonial commentary on the state of the continent -- or at least that is not its primary focus. Among other things, it is also about recording events -- where again the African experience -- history without a record -- is central. "All history in Africa is hearsay", Abish writes. This complicates matters, but it does not make African history less useful than other forms and approaches -- indeed, as Abish knows: "history can conceal assumptions. It can confound historians, authors, booksellers, and also doom armies."
       Alphabetical Africa is also about finding language and being able to express oneself. How sad, early on, when Abish notes:
How does a German express himself. He has a dictionary. Consequently he has a certain hope
       But, Abish also notes: "Alas, a German dictionary hampers African contemplation." It is not merely German dictionaries he is speaking of, of course, or African contemplation. Words alone don't suffice for any and all contemplation, words are a barrier to any and all expression. Words are both tool and hindrance. And Abish makes this very clear by presenting his novel with these odd constraints, finding that the words from an arbitrary section of the dictionary are no more or less capable of expressing what needs be expressed than all the words in the world.
       Abish's Africans also have clicking languages that can't be reduced to the written word and thus remain outside his fiction. He also takes words from African dictionaries, listing them -- but this too provides little additional insight. Even the threats the narrator receives are "veiled" and "muffled" (while actions speak a bit more clearly than words, as his enemies then blow up his car and garage).
       "I am an unreliable reporter", the narrator eventually acknowledges (though the reader will have long suspected it). "I measure my deliberate advance into Africa", he says -- forced by his limited vocabulary to advance very deliberately. As the book progresses and the number of permissible words grows, he finds: "I can speak more freely. I find fewer and fewer impediments." But he is just fooling himself: it is an illusion of less impediments. There are more words available with each chapter, but all the words in the world aren't enough. Stoically he faces their loss then too, realizing that they offered less than he had originally hoped.
        There are also other plots to the novel. There is ant-warfare (of a very colourful sort). There are all sorts of shady characters, and above all there is the elusive Alva. The book is about her, in many ways. At least it is meant to be, but all sorts of other things come up as well (while Alva proves particularly difficult to pin down). There are conflicts galore in this Africa. Chases. Sex.
       Queen Quat figures prominently for a while -- though the narrator finds, looking back over newspaper clippings, that "her name has been omitted" -- a common fate for characters in this novel, one suspects.
        Form, in Alphabetical Africa, is inseparable from content. The content alone, rewritten in everyday prose, would probably not make for a great read. The storyline is too haphazard, the events occasionally forced, the progress illogical. But the form -- the constraint that holds Abish back -- is actually a huge advance.
       Part of the fun is in watching to see whether and how he can sustain it. (The fact that he fails a few times is particularly worrisome -- how could that happen ? or did it happen for a reason ?) But it also gives a lot to the story. One literally breathes easier as the chapters progress and the language is progressively less constrained. Then the tightness returns, near the end.
       And Abish writes well within the constraints. The taut early (and late chapters) are particularly good.
       One can see where Abish is going, and it is entertaining to go with him. Part of the pleasure is like that of reading a rhymed poem, of knowing what must come at the end of the next line, but there is more to it here, since it is a larger constraint.
       Alphabetical Africa is, quite surprisingly, a riveting read. It is certainly something completely different. It is also an unexpected success. Recommended. - The Complete Review


A: An authorial assertion, an A-list (another’s) at Alphabetical Africa’s (author: Abish) adjournment: “Another abbreviation another abdomen another abduction another aberration another abhorrent ass another abnormal act another aboriginal another approach another absence…” (Abish 151). And another “another.” And another. And another. Advances ahead. Accumulates. An alphabetical assonantal archive? An alternative apologue arrangement?
B: Bombings by American airforce begin. An alliterative analogue: big, breakneck ‘B’ bursts, as, “Bach’s brother, Bach’s blackguard brother Butoni, bemused by Bach, by Boccherini, Beethoven and Brahms, blunders a bit by baldly boasting about backing Beatles” (4, 3, 3). Are A’s and B’s, bound big-time, best book bits?
C: Consonance continues - clack clackety clack - coaxes cackles and claps. “Author” as character appears at book’s beginning, contrives circumstances, characters, and anecdotes aplenty. Colonialist connotations come about. Consider: “Arriving at Chad, Alex and Allen coldly consider childlike Chad attitudes, and calculate, can Chadians afford American cosmetics” (6). Alphabet as authoritarian? As colonial and cultural apparatus?
D: Don’t disremember ants, crucial dramatic actors. Ants denote chores, diligence, drudgery. Donkeywork, basically. Activities colonists don’t deign do. Ants absorb attacks, also, as Author alerts book browsers: “defiant Dogon divisions advance against anthills, capturing Dogon bush and dust, creating dangerous canals, designing Africa again and again” (9). Antward assault compels asking: does design, customarily constructive, always come at a considerable cost?
E: Electric coital episode commences between Emperor and Edna. Awkward, constrained descriptions add considerable excitement. An example: “Elatedly Emperor enters Edna believing Edna could be Alva, as Edna, a bit deferentially, a bit dishonestly admits coming eight consecutive colossal and definitely contagious climaxes” (11). Electricity arises because climaxes aren’t conventionally consecutive, colossal - contagious. But climaxes are authentically contagious. As are eccentric expressions, conspicuous communication chains, abnormal discourses. Are constraints a deliberate botch?1
F: First chapter evidencing constraint curtailment: everything a bit easier, a bit freer, for Author. Entire dictionary chapters emancipated. First character erased by Author: Ferdinand, an autochthonous African. For? For francophilia, apparently: “Ferdinand flies back, discovers France, embraces flag, father and aunts. Ahhh, Flaubert, Céline, Balzac. Disgusted author eliminates Ferdinand” (13). Are all foreigners “actors for an African continent” (132)? Are all characters and events auxiliary compared against Author’s constraint dance?
G: Goodbye constant consonance. Goodbye around-the-clock assonance and alliteration. Each extra graphic character allowed diminishes chances for frontal alphabetical echoes. Disappointing, certainly, but agreeable circumlocutions abide. For example: “gastronomical gladness” (14). Are circuitous expressions always amusing? Can amusement ever become arid, bromidic, calculable?
H: Here, chapter H, Author admits deliberate absences, admits eliminating “a few emotions” from his book (19). A cogitation: constraint could be a contrivance for coping, for hiding - for evasion. Calamity, cataclysm, catastrophe, death, deficiency, depletion, deprivation, disappearance, disaster, dispossession, failure, fatality: all afflictions constraint can circumvent. Even - especially - aphasia. A final counter-consideration: constraint a compulsion?
I: “In” and “is” allowed in, finally. An important development: Author becomes an “I,” begins current chapter “I haven’t been here before” (21). “Eventually,” Author declares, “I’m convinced every ‘I’ imparts its intense experience before it is erased and immobilized in a book” (131). “I” as a character has immense implications for all-important act of appellation. Ed Dorn, in his anti-epic Gunslinger (also has “I” as a character), calls an appellation a “handle” - ie, a convenient carrying case for an identity (9). I (critic Bury) crave additional analysis here, but an arbitrary dictionary edict forbids imperative idioms. An interrogative instead: does Author’s inclusion as character foreground, even allegorize, constraint?
J: Jump ahead: just a brief, irrelevant excerpt here, followed by a compulsory inquiry. “Alex justifies himself by jotting down in his journals everything he does” (25). Concise, indifferent entry an avoidance, a feeble dodge?
K: Keen distinction between book-knowledge and blood-knowledge: “Knowledge derived from books hardly ever improves killing efficiency because even illustrated books containing diagrams aren’t as instructive, as deadly, as calculating, as desperate as an actual experience in bush, in jungle, deep in any African interior, aren’t as capable as a human hand as it grips a knife in its five fingers” (123). Above distinction avoids any easy equation between knowledge and killing, both key colonialist concepts in K chapters, in book. A koan: can a knife carve apart an alphabet?
L: “Letters,” a longed for locution, available at last. Alphabetical Africa can be considered a book about letters, a book about loss and gain in language. “In losing letter after letter,” asseverates Author, “I had lost an entire African legacy including invaluable diagrams and cuneiform code books” (121). A German logician called Ludwig claims, approximately: linguistic limits demarcate an I’s entire available extra-linguistic domain, an I’s imaginative and earthly habitat. Do arbitrary, astringent linguistic boundaries also limn a distinct atmosphere? A cosmos?
M: Maps. Alphabetical Africa frequently mentions maps, but does not contain many maps for inexperienced adventurers. Geographical hot-spots are mentioned, as are African continent’s disappearing landmass. Blueprints and drawings, however, are entirely absent. A book-incident map - charting characters, actions, events, etc. - could be infinitely helpful. Maybe I can draft it in another entry. Meantime, a citation: “Making memory more meaningful in darkest Africa, a certain Chief Auwik measures all meaning in his former life. By measuring his life he is clarifying his Europeanized morbidity” (118). Connection between mapping and measurement? Between mapping and memory?
N: Neglected mentioning concerning chapter M: Author now becomes a “My,” also. Not a nugatory development: chapter after chapter, Author continues inhabiting newer and newer grammatical ground, becomes a full-fledged character, a full-fledged écrivain. Lounging in his bedroom, Author composes a curious line: “Africa doesn’t need invention, doesn’t even need new interpretation” (34). Bit about interpretation I comprehend, but bit about invention is confusing. Isn’t Author’s austere alphabetical constraint an invention for apprehending and inhabiting Africa?
O: Onward motion of my alphabetic catalogue makes meticulous lingering onerous: only enough elbowroom for one motif in each entry. I’d love expatiating on Author’s notion of his occupation being “essentially and necessarily a hazardous one,” a notion of no minor import, but, on other hand, “objectification” just now enters my lexicon and I can finally delve into implications of “I” as character (37). Of course, Hamletizing on my either-or conundrum obviates need for engaging any issue in-depth. Are cursory glances inherently more fun? More inviting?
P: Perhaps, but here is a chapter I cannot gloss or ignore. Author professes: “I have an interest in books and in paper. An overwhelming interest, an interest exceeding my interest in Alva and Alex and Allen” (39). Above passage indicates Author is much more interested in generative act of composition than he is in its products. An implication: complete devaluation of plot. He continues: “Paper is essential for me. But Africa has existed for centuries independent of paper. It makes one ponder” (39). Here Author expresses an awareness of fiction’s coercive nature: an imagined Africa, conjured out of ink, can only ever be a construct, perhaps ersatz, perhaps credible. Colonial implications abound. Author explains further: “In general authors are provided a certain liberty. I’m no exception, as everyone happily gives me a certain freedom, and anticipates fabulous distortions. But Africa is not my invention by any means” (40). A distinction arises: invent, as Author employs it, means make new, make fabricated. It does not invoke notions of constraint, does not invoke colonial methods and principles imposed on an exotic, putatively backwards, African continent. Freedom, as Author figures it, is actually a negative attribute: it indicates a dangerous absence of guidelines, of moral and artistic precepts. A possible ethic of constraint here?
Q: Questions. “Everything I did evoked a great many questions” (42). A questionable quest?
R: Reading, naturally. “Reading is a most rewarding exercise. One can learn a lot from books” (103). Agreed, but does reading pose any risks, any dangers?
S: Self-referentiality: “Summarizing Africa: I can speak more freely. I find fewer and fewer impediments. Soon I’ll reach my destination. Soon I’ll also complete my documentation and my book” (47). For all Author’s new-found freedom, a certain stiltedness remains. A sample: “Added comments: nothing is concealed” (49). Or: “He also showed me his house, quite splendid, cars, expensive Italian racer and a German limousine, his mistress, sexy, slim, black dress, kept crossing her legs, kept licking her lips, kept smiling, also his family, standing at my arrival, standing obediently as if for an inspection” (47). At current book juncture, said sentences could certainly be stated more smoothly. Instead: excision, silence, stumbling, asyndenton. Solecism really necessary here? A syntactic and grammatical relic of a stiffer rhetorical state?
T: Tracking back, briefly. Regarding Queen Quat, author admits: “Occasionally I make a mistake and change his gender” (44). Tracking elsewhere: a massive list, spoken by Quat, at the end of chapter S, beginning: “Same shit same scenery same suffering saints same soup same spiel same safaris same safeguards…” (100). Same cycling through the dictionary as in chapter A. Tracking towards T, a list of Swahili terminology, the second of three in the book:
Tamba is to creep, crawl, or move slowly.
Tambavu is something hung over the chest, a charm or an amulet to protect one
from danger.
Tangaza is to make known or publish.
Toshea is to be amazed, astounded or staggered.
Toma is to fuck. (96)
And it immediately continues, “On the island Alfred is compiling a list of his recent errors, his gaffes, his blunders” (96-97). Elsewhere, chapter R, Alfred keeps comprehensive inventories. Relationship twixt constraint and the list? Are lists merely effective mediums for maneuvering around constraints? Or is there something else to it?
U: Unreliable narrators. Aren’t they ordinarily mad? A bit unhinged? Poe’s narrators immediately come to mind as archetypes. Author claims to be “an unreliable reporter,” one who “can’t be depended upon for exact descriptions and details” (56). An unspoken premise, however: he is unreliable by design, not by deficiency or psychological disease. Constraint imposes omission and contortion as an ontological given of communication, foregrounds the processes of distortion latent in all textual transmission, unearths unadulterated undulating undercurrents of ecstasy. Unfair? Unnecessary? Or merely a bit unwieldy?
V: Vocabulary. “I also hoped to enrich my vocabulary, and there’s no better place for that than Africa” (57). Vocabulary: an exotic invitation. Vocabulary: an assonantal account. Vocabulary: an arbitrary agenda. Vocabulary: an aleatory archive. Vocabulary: an alternative arrangement. Vocabulary: a bulleted ballot. Vocabulary: a creative calendar. Vocabulary: a cogent catalogue. Vocabulary: a censorious census. Vocabulary: a chocolate checklist. Vocabulary: a dramatized dictionary. Vocabulary: a dire directory. Vocabulary: a docile docket. Vocabulary: an elongated enumeration. Vocabulary: a fickle file. Vocabulary: an indefinite index. Vocabulary: an inveterate inventory. Vocabulary: an inviolate invoice. Vocabulary: a lovable lexicon. Vocabulary: a monumental memorandum. Vocabulary: a mixed menu. Vocabulary: a political poll. Vocabulary: a punctilious program. Vocabulary: a reliable register. Vocabulary: a rollicking roll call. Vocabulary: a rawboned row. Vocabulary: a slippery schedule. Vocabulary: a sentimental screed. Vocabulary: a scrupulous scroll. Vocabulary: a stubborn series. Vocabulary: a slant slate. Vocabulary: a static statistic Vocabulary: a sly syllabus. Vocabulary: a timorous table. Vocabulary: a totalizing tabulation. Vocabulary: a tall tally. Vocabulary: a thick thesaurus. Vocabulary: a trim timetable. Vocabulary: a viable viaduct?
W: Whiteness. Author set to climb Kilimanjaro’s snow-capped peaks with companions. Says: “We are all white, and although our skins are not the same shade of white, had we been here a hundred years ago, we would most likely have been trading in guns or slaves” (59). Do they now trade in words instead?
X: Xenophon. Initial X chapter in its entirety: “Xenophon showed a misplaced courage. Instead of founding a new city, or settling down, or simply heading for Africa, he and his cast of ten thousand headed back home, as if there existed no other alternative. Xenophon’s hold on history is clearly slipping. His tomb is cracking” (61). Why is Xenophon’s courage “misplaced”? Wouldn’t settling down somewhere entail some sort of colonization? What, exactly, are Alphabetical Africa’s politics? And what are the politics of constraint?
Y: You. Reader implicated as character, as Author encounters “You” in a bookstore, leafing through his book: “The book you are holding in your hand happens to be one I wrote” (62). A final shift in grammar, in perspective. A necessary query: what longings does the vocative conceal?
Z: Zeugma: “Zambia helps fill our zoos, and our doubts, and our extrawide screens as we sit back” (64). “Extrawide screens” another vestige of the constraint. If “languages form attitudes,” what desires, what Africas, do our alphabets articulate (72)? - Louis Bury


Alphabetical Africa Errata -- With Possible Patches




Eclipse Fever : Nonpareil Books - Walter Abish
Walter Abish, Eclipse Fever, David R Godine, 1995.
read it at Google Books

This truly magnificent achievement (William H. Gass), Walter Abish s first novel since the award-winning How German Is It, set in the high-gloss world of contemporary Mexico s societal and intellectual elite. Eclipse Fever explores the reaches of corruption and the limits of political, economic, and cultural power. Underlying its concern with art, with emotional attachments, and with the differing needs of men and women is a perpetual current of suspense and psychological tension.
Among the multifaceted characters whose lives interlock are Alejandro, a once-prominent literary critic fallen into disfavor; his estranged wife, Mercedes, whom he suspects of openly conducting an affair with an American writer; Bonny, the writer s runaway daughter, who is made to witness a calamitous sequence of events that culminates in murder; Preston, an American industrialist, and his sexually frustrated wife, Rita; and the unscrupulous art dealer Pech. As the lives of these people press together, as they buckle and collapse, the novel holds up a mirror to a moment in which we lived the end of a millennium, of an era and to the perils, temptations, and hysteria that lie just below the surface of the so-called American century.

"May well be one of the handful of essential American works emanating from the decade preceding the end of the second millennium." -  Harold Bloom



Abish's best-known work, How German Is It (which won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1980), was hailed for its complex portrait of modern German society--its slick, rational surfaces and aggressively antiseptic architecture built upon a terrain shifting with historical and pyschological doubt. In his first novel since then, Abish applies the same aesthetic to modern Mexico with equally beguiling if less momentous results ( How German Is It ended with a revolutionary, under hypnosis, raising his hand in a Seig Heil! salute). Alejandro is a Mexican literary critic, urbane and sophisticated; his estranged wife Mercedes, a translator, leaves him, ostensibly to teach in the U.S., but Alejandro believes she is actually having an affair with Jurud, a Jewish-American novelist in New York. Alejandro's crisis unfolds against a backdrop of art theft, political chicanery and pernicious intellectual gossip-mongering among the cultural elite of Mexico City. As with most of Abish's work, the dramatic qualities of the plot are mildly diverting, but what fascinates most is its dynamic: the overall narrative structure (representative of History?) is dependent upon individuals solemnly pursuing the satisfaction of their own needs (capitalism?). How this comes to resemble art and story--and how it eclipses the reality of historical forces--is underscored by the purposefully melodramatic ending. - Publishers Weekly

Preston Hollier, a wealthy American developer, has traduced two young rising-star Mexican intellectuals into doing his bidding under the guise of undertaking restoration and conservation of the Mayan pyramids and antiquities. Hollier means to loot everything, of course (``Ownership in Mexico is a frame of mind''), and has a network that includes a rotten American pre-Columbian art dealer; his wayward wife, Rita; various museum administrators and high government officials. The relative ease with which clerks bow to power is a theme here. But what comes over more strongly, annoyingly for the reader, is the postmodernist (and passÇ-seeming) stylistics. Abish--no surprise from the author of How German Is It (1980)--loves question-sentences so much that he constructs whole paragraphs made of them). There are fractured narrative, hard-bitten dialogue, banal and barren landscapes (``The corroded gas pumps in front had not seen service in years, despite the misleading sign: CHEVRON--SERVICE WITH A SMILE. Above the entrance, the sign in red, its first two letters missing, announced RAGE''), the high-culture milieux of restaurants and galleries. The atmospheric chill is glacial, stiffly enforced (at the cost of a reader's wondering why certain characters, such as a reclusive American novelist and his teenaged daughter, are even in the book in the first place). Everyone's a shard, a fragment of the generalized paranoia--but in the crazing, Abish shatters his novel as well, and you read uninvolved, from too far back, undisturbed (except, easily, by scenes of cruelty). Working with a basic Manichaean palette used before (and better) by William Gaddis, Robert Stone, and Evan Connell, Abish seems to struggle throughout to pull together what he aesthetically prefers to keep separate--and the strain shows. Intelligent but inert. - Kirkus Reviews

Here and there in "Eclipse Fever" there are references to La Malinche, the Aztec woman who supposedly betrayed her people to Cortes and his men. The book makes her the symbol of its deracinated Mexican intelligentsia, supine before the imperialisms of multinational culture and finance, and the corrupt chokehold of the politicians.
Walter Abish's novel, told with the manicured disquiet of an Antonioni film, portrays corruption under an urbane surface, and a terror that barely shows itself. When Alejandro, the spineless literary critic who figures as one of La Malinche's epigones becomes briefly enmeshed in the schemes of the political police, his young interrogator cursorily beats him. Upon Alejandro's release, the interrogator tells Alejandro that he had been his student at the university and had enjoyed his Cervantes course.
Alejandro is involved, in one way or another, in all of the book's interlocking plots.
One involves Preston Hollier, a shady American millionaire developer who wants to build an elevator up one of Mexico's historic treasures, the Pyramid of the Sun. Hollier asks Alejandro to use his cultural prestige to write in support of the project. Alejandro becomes entangled, peripherally, with an adulterous affair between an old writer-friend and Hollier's wife and with Hollier's illegal effort to buy an ancient manuscript. This results in a murder and in Alejandro's arrest as part of a politician's plot to force Hollier into cutting him in on one of his deals.
Alejandro is to conduct a television interview with a famous American novelist named Jurud, who is Jewish but writes penetratingly about WASPs. An amalgam of John Updike and Philip Roth, perhaps; his name, like one or two in the book and like the book itself, is less earthly than inter-galactic. Abish's Mexico, though rendered in exacting detail, gives us the odd frozen sense that it is made of anti-matter.
To continue the interlockings: Alejandro's wife, Mercedes, is Jurud's translator and mistress. At the book's start, in fact, Alejandro drives her to the airport so she can meet her lover. Just one example of Malinche-like prostration before the foreigner.
And finally, Jurud's 16-year-old daughter, Bonny, flees her home upon Mercedes' arrival--she can't stand her perfume--and begins a disastrous odyssey through California and Mexico, in the course of which she becomes the love-slave of a California Christian fundamentalist. Alejandro gets considerable detailing as a symbol of neocolonial exploitation. His exalted position in the literary Establishment comes almost exclusively from reviewing famous foreign authors. His lineage is mestizo (mixed blood). His father runs the city's leading European movie theater and dies watching a Bunuel film. When he is about to marry Mercedes, whose wealthy family is from old Spanish stock and despises mestizos, his mother warns him that his fiancee will deprive him of his vitality.
True enough, though Abish's images of repressed national vitality are too insistent and crude. A number of them involve food.
The story's intersecting webs, its secrets and conspiracies, its sudden gusts of violence around Alejandro's haplessly revolving weather vane, are intriguing from time to time, but they never really engage us. They are not, strictly, intended to. Rather, they aim at suggesting the sick weather of our times.
In some ways, "Eclipse Fever" recalls one of Graham Greene's novels of political conspiracy and existential poison, with a chiaroscuro of ambiguity playing among the characters. There is even that very Greene-like figure, the innocent and abused young wanderer.
Abish does succeed in suggesting the poison of a corrupted culture. But unlike Greene, the figures he uses to play the roles of corrupter, innocent and fool are inert, even at their most strenuously active. Neither Alejandro in his guilt-stricken cultural complexity, nor Mercedes in her flight, nor Hollier in his cold schemes has even a touch of charm, that fictional quality that is as mysterious as original sin.
Bonny, the waif and falling star, ought to touch us, but she doesn't. "I am the source of my father's creative imagination," she tells her California abuser. "Do you realize you're only making love to a text?" For all its marshaling of the world's disquiet, reading "Eclipse Fever" is like having a text make love to us. - Richard Eder
    
Abish's first novel since the acclaimed 1980 PEN/Faulkner Award-winning How German It Is ( LJ 9/1/80) is a complex, powerful depiction of the wealthy and intellectual in Mexico City and an exploration of the connection between fiction and history. The self-absorbed characters, both Mexican and American, pursue their obscure and shifting desires for material, sexual, and even gustatory pleasures against a backdrop of historical, literary, artistic, and cinematic references, somehow beyond reach of the crumbling Mexican infrastructure. Their disjointed conversations, misheard or deliberately misleading, take place in the fashionable cafes and expensive homes of Mexico City. Several plot lines advance at once; throughout, mistaken identities underscore the interchangeability of our love objects. The novel culminates in acts of incomprehensible, though not surprising, personal and political violence. Highly recommended. - Eleanor Mitchell

ONE OF the more asinine arguments advanced during the recent 'death of fiction' debate was that of Gilbert Adair, who opined that in the production of 'artemes' - key artistic ideas which graft themselves, as motifs, onto the lives of the mass - literary fiction has become notably defunct. In the 20th century, Adair asks us to believe, the torn shower curtain in Psycho has trumped any potential literary artemes from the off.
Walter Abish is a writer who hatches artemes the way a frog spawns - with apparent ease and in great quantities. He is also a writer who takes from film and renders unto it. In three slimmish works of fiction, some poetry and now this relatively chunky novel, he peers into the lens of the projector as it spews out imagery. Thematically, he has circled around the core of the United States, though at a careful distance - like Kafka, who wrote Amerika without visiting the country.
In Abish's earlier Minds Meet the central character, Marcel, opts for extra-literary retirement in Alberquerque. With Eclipse Fever, Abish goes further south still, to Mexico itself, using a traditional narrative lens to focus his thematic beam to a scintillating point. Alejandro, the hero, is at the tip of a pyramid of deracination. He is doubly compromised, having betrayed the American financier Preston Hollier in one of the shuffles of the corrupt tarot that constitute the auspicatory game of Mexican politics, and also lost both his critical and sexual integrity to Jurud, the American novelist who has been screwing Alejandro's wife Mercedes. Mercedes also happens to be Jurud's Spanish translator.
Alejandro may faintly despise the work of Jurud, a New York Jewish intellectual, but this doesn't stop him agreeing to fete Jurud on his forthcoming trip to Mexico. By the same token Franciso, Alejandro's best friend, cannot resist a commission to 'write something favourable' about Preston Hollier's plan to put a lift in the Pyramid of the Sun. Meanwhile, Jurud's daughter Bonny, a 16-year-old runaway, experiences both the US and Mexico at a more visceral level. Her tangent takes her from a fundamentalist motel-owner, via a Hassidic Felasha to the Yucatan. Here, sick in her hotel room, she witnesses the eclipse of the novel's title on CNN.
Alejandro is like a quicksilver bead of self-consciousness moving through the historical self-forgetting of the 20th century. He has never visited the US, but has built up a picture of its magnificent ordinariness entirely from film. Nevertheless, when he summons up an image of his own cuckolded self, it is the cretinous husband in Chabrol's Le Femme Infidele that Alejandro seizes on: 'Idiot, idiot, he kept repeating. The epithet an expression of his chagrin, aimed at what he had not explored.'
There is nothing arch about the way Abish intrudes such allusions into his work. When Bunuel's use of two actresses to play the same character in That Obscure Object of Desire makes its appearance here as the substance of an argument between Alejandro and his best friend Franciso, it is greeted by the reader as an old acquaintance. In Eclipse Fever film is eaten up by life and then expelled in little farts of recollection.
Throughout the novel Alejandro's identity folds in on itself. So does his memory, and so do the very sub-clauses that Abish rivets together with his functionalist punctutation. Speech here is always reported in the historical present. Parentheses are abandoned - this is the realm of the interjection - where dashes intersperse the banal, the ridiculous - and the profound.
For Abish, language is still freighted with the technical taint of the Tractatus. Words are so many little pictures, each corresponding to another reality. Emotion cannot be fixed by them - it can only well up between them. It is a mark of a great cinematographer that when you leave the cinema you find yourself cutting, panning, tracking and composing in the same manner. How much more heady is the impact of a novelist who can do this at the level of ideas?
But Abish, unlike a populist film maker, doesn't simply produce snapshots to be passed among the mass. He tears treasured portraits from our culture's family album and thrusts them into his cunning slide carousel. Clicking from one page to the next, we reflect not on the death of literary fiction but on its vitality. - Will Self

WALTER ABISH arrived on the literary scene some 20 years ago with a tour de force called "Alphabetical Africa," in which the opening chapter is made up entirely of words beginning with the letter "A." Thus: "Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes." In subsequent chapters, "B" words enter the narrative, followed by "C" words, until -- at the pivotal "Z" -- the process is reversed. The book ends (I hope I'm not giving anything away): "Another Alva another Alex another Allen another Alfred another Africa another alphabet."
Within the confines of this rather harrowing narrative constraint, Mr. Abish (did the first two letters of his own name suggest the idea?) actually managed to produce a compelling narrative about the adventures of a transvestite queen, a pair of jewel thieves and other shadowy figures -- a kind of post-Dadaist lark.
In his subsequent works, Mr. Abish has allowed himself the full run of the alphabet, preferring to limit his options in less obvious ways. A writer of widely recognized gifts (his second novel, "How German Is It," won the PEN/Faulkner Award, and he's lately been the recipient of a MacArthur grant), Mr. Abish is an unapologetically "literary" novelist. His work is militantly experimental. Brief chapters, a discontinuous narrative, fragmentary dialogue without quotation marks: the whole enterprise has a vaguely nouveau roman air about it. The cover of "Alphabetical Africa" featured a photograph of Mr. Abish himself, in a safari jacket and sporting an eye patch -- the author as auteur.
His new novel, "Eclipse Fever," bears what could be described by now as the Abish trademark -- short chapters with enigmatic titles ("And Now?," "The Meeting," "Like an April Morning in Summer") and a jumpy narrative that's often hard to follow. The setting, as in the earlier novels, is ominously exotic: in this instance, Mexico.
The main character, Alejandro, is a literary critic who suspects his wife of carrying on a very public and humiliating affair with Jurud, a well-known American novelist whose work she's been commissioned to translate. Intertwined with this unhappy development is another, more convoluted plot involving a rich American industrialist with a penchant for collecting stolen pre-Columbian artifacts who gets entangled in a murder. There's also a third plot involving the novelist's daughter, Bonny, who has run away to Mexico and fallen in with one of the industrialist's suppliers. The inexorable convergence of these various parties makes for a tale of considerable suspense.
Unfortunately, Mr. Abish's precious avant-garde conceits distract us from this otherwise gripping story. The prose is at once gratuitously ambiguous -- "She purchased Time or was it Newsweek"; "Was it in 1983 or 1984 . . .?" -- and maddeningly precise. The American novelist's daughter wears "Tony Lama western boots"; a piano in a villa is a "dark, high-gloss mahogany Bosendorfer baby grand." Mr. Abish has a mania for describing the exact make of vehicles: "a metallic blue '86 Isuzu Trooper," "a 26-foot Gulfstream Conquest class C RV," an " '84 yellow Cutlass Supreme." After a while I felt as if I were reading Car and Driver.
Stilted discourses on Mexican history and literary theory abound. ("I equate criticism with energy. It's an assertion. A form of domination, whether we admit it or not.") And Mr. Abish's protagonist is, even for a literary critic, something of a bore. Alejandro is weak, vacillating, pedantic. When his mother, who disapproves of his wife, Mercedes, demands to know what they have in common, he replies: " 'Don Giovanni,' Manet's 'The Funeral,' Spohr's Octet, Saint-Saens's Piano Trio in F major, Opus 18, 'Le Mepris' by Godard, Bunuel's 'That Obscure Object of Desire,' etc., etc." It's a chic catalogue of cultural touchstones, but an odd basis for marriage. (Alejandro himself admits, "You should never have married a critic.")
Despite this self-imposed tedium, there are flashes of insight in "Eclipse Fever." Mr. Abish's portrait of a certain stratum of Mexico City intelligentsia, of their salons and elegant flats and expensive restaurants, has an authentic feel to it, and he subtly evokes the threat of casual violence that lurks just beneath the surface of a society wearing thin.
He's also very good at conveying the sexual buzz that insinuates itself, unacknowledged but there, into the texture of daily life. At the airport, Alejandro encounters an old flame who brashly makes a play for him; a woman at a reception slips him her card. Still another, with "a sultry, sexy voice," offers to stop by and drop off her novel. The industrialist's wife has an affair with one of Alejandro's colleagues. A hotel waiter (who a few pages later turns into a cook -- or is this another employee?) has a heavy flirtation with one of the guests. The novelist's daughter sleeps with a seedy innkeeper in Baja California. No wonder Alejandro speaks of "the interchangeability of our love objects."
For all its intermittent brilliance, "Eclipse Fever" is not an easy read. Mr. Abish has succeeded in making literature "difficult." But maybe that's in the nature of the enterprise. Writing a novel about a literary critic, it turns out, is even more of a challenge than writing a novel in which entire chapters are composed of words beginning with the letter "A." - James Atlas                 



Image result for Walter Abish, In the Future Perfect,
Walter Abish, In the Future Perfect, New Directions, 1977.                            

Walter Abish, 99: The New Meaning, Burning Deck, 1990.

5 texts that use collage as an instrument to probe the nature of fiction, narrative continuity, structure, tone, language, even the concept of authorship. They do not give us a make-belief "world", but as it were invite the reader to come onto the scaffolding and participate in the process of construction.
Walter Abish's peregrinations have led him from Vienna to New York City, via China and Israel. He has received many prizes, including the Pen Faulkner for How German Is It and a MacArthur Fellowship.


          Cecile Abish's installations and photo work have been widely exhibited. Recent exhibitions include "Say When," Center for Creative Photography in Tuscon, AZ and "Landmarks" at Bard College, NY.


"Abish is obsessed with language... Each text contains sentences from other texts... There is a tension between the arbitrary text and the conscious placement of the text in the overarching structure."         --Irving Matlin

"Abish requires the reader to suspend the conventional idea of fiction as continuous narrative, to suspend as well the ordinary notions of creativity, and to confront the challenge of the text as endlessly manipulable object rather than inviolable whole. Other authors, from Joyce to Beckett have asked something of the sort, but Abish, with a panache already familiar to admirers of his earlier work, pushes the boundaries of fiction still further, challenging settled notions of language and structure and redefining the generic possibilities of his art." - William Doreski



99: The New Meaning is an oddly original unoriginal work. It collects five works that were, as Abish explains "not actually "written" but orchestrated". Abish takes short fragments (between 2 and close to 200 words in length) from the works of a large number of authors and reassembles them into a new text. Each excerpt is printed separately, one after the other, with a word-count at the beginning of each segment (a particularly strange touch). It makes for an oddly numbered sequence of constantly shifting passages.
       In the titlepiece Abish offers 99 segments from 99 works by 99 authors -- each appropriated piece being taken from "a page bearing that same, to me, mystically significant number 99".
       What Else appropriates materials from "self-portraits, journals, diaries, and collected letters", making for an unusual examination of self and other.
       Two of the pieces -- Skin Deep and Reading Kafka in German -- focus on specific authors (without restricting themselves to using only excerpts by those authors): Flaubert and Kafka, respectively.
       It is a peculiar, if not entirely uninteresting exercise. Abish's creations make some sort of sense taken purely literally (though there isn't much narrative drive here). But much more comes into the reading of these pieces: unavoidably it also becomes a guessing game, as one tries to place the unattributed borrowings. And the echoes of the originals -- the novels, memoirs, letters, etc. from which these selections have been taken -- also come to bear on Abish's texts. Consciously and unconsciously, readers fill in the huge blanks left by the tiny excised texts.
       Reactions presumably differ, varying greatly (and probably closely) with exactly how much is readily (or even just vaguely) identifiable. The Flaubert and Kafka texts seem the most successful -- perhaps because they are the most comfortingly familiar. Here the reader pretty much knows what might be going on. 99, insisting on The New Meaning, is considerably more unsettling -- which is presumably something Abish is also striving for.
       There is also some pleasure in the excerpts themselves, some of which are very fine examples of writing. Certain pieces are particularly fitting:
Do these lines perplex you ? [...] Doubts may be a good spur to the imagination, but you may have abused it and me.
       One brief excerpt suggests: "He probes the details, over and over." It is, however, a close analysis and reading (and reading-which-becomes-writing) that is perhaps more entertaining to the author than to the reader. Indeed, as a literary game, Abish's orchestration has something going for it. It's probably a good thing to keep those MFA-"creative writing" students busy with -- though once each one has embraced their "mystically significant" page number and gone to out-Abish Abish the literary world might find itself in even greater trouble. So we suggest it should be a private pleasure, treasured all the more for not being shared with others (at least outside the classroom).
        Abish "writes":
I live, not with my own story, but just with those parts of it that I have been able to put to literary use.
       It's a neat idea. Fully (or perhaps only partially) realized, it still doesn't make for the most exciting work.
       It is a fun concept, but the five texts collected in 99: The New Meaning are, ultimately, only of limited enjoyment. It is like some bizarre misshapen jigsaw puzzle, pieces from a vast number of other jigsaw puzzle forced together in one (or, in this case, five) unwieldy ones. It is more thought-piece (or concept-piece) than literature. There's some value to that -- but readers should be aware of what they're in for. - The Complete Review
203509



Walter Abish, Double Vision: A Self-PortraitKnopf, 2004.                            


Does one ever escape from the family? How much do we understand about our own past? How do we come to be who we are?
Walter Abish, the internationally acclaimed author of How German Is It, examines these questions through the prism of his own experience, and confronts and encapsulates the historic upheavals of the mid-twentieth century in this brilliant, deceptively simple, and quietly wrenching account of his two journeys.
The first begins in Vienna, where Abish was born in the 1930s in the Jewish, but not-too-Jewish, household of a prosperous perfumer. Then it ricochets around the world as his parents flee first to France (his mother had to sneak alone across the Italian border), then to war-torn Shanghai under Japanese occupation, just ahead of Mao’s army, then to Israel.
Incapable of understanding his family’s desperate situation, Abish as a boy creates his own private world, filtering out precarious and terrifying realities.
Abish describes fantastic events in the coolest tones. In precise, haunting detail, he records the perceptions of a child who registers and remembers what he will only later understand. He writes of the day in the park when a stranger suddenly screams “Jews out!” and he and his frail grandmother run for the exit in a panic as the other children and grandmothers stand and watch; the day his father is released by the Gestapo because a man in the room owes him money that he has never tried to collect and says, “Let Abish go—he’s okay”; of the time his father speaks to him about inheriting his perfume business, as they stand on the deck of a ship bound for China.
The first journey recounts the flight; the second journey chronicles the return: Abish writes about how, in the 1980s, he went on a tour to Germany to launch the translation of his award-winning novel How German Is It—a book he wrote without ever having set foot there, deliberately, because he wished to elicit the idea of Germanness in what was “a fantasy of Germany.” This tour of what to him is an unfamiliar society includes a side trip to Vienna, where he glimpses the life he might have experienced and has the horrifying feeling that he never left.
Double Vision is a book that cuts to the quick. With unflinching candor, humor, and affection, Abish re-creates the way it feels to be a child and to look at your parents and wonder who they are. To be an adult and catch them in every corner of your personality. To look back on the world of your youth and realize both what you noticed and what you missed. It is a stunning achievement.


Abish (How German Is It, etc.) intercuts the story of his early years with a modern account of his first visit to Germany and his return to his birth city, Vienna. He was six in 1938 when Hitler annexed Austria and the Jews were expropriated. He remembers a precise number of suitcases being packed at a precise time, with no one explaining why his nicely secular, Jewish bourgeois family was suddenly undesirable. His family fled to Italy and then France before shipping to Shanghai, where they lived until 1948, when the Chinese Red Army forced a move, to Israel. At each stop, Abish watched European Jews recreate their familiar cultural fabric-their preoccupation with ironic repartee, their coffeehouses, even their synagogues for those still inclined to pray. He watched and listened everywhere, almost as if spying on his own life. So, too, in his travel back to Europe, his cultural radar tests the familiar for falseness, looking beneath cultural arrangements for their meaning. Wandering German cities, visiting the concentration camp at Dachau or his former home in Vienna, he's constantly trying to pierce the polite facades of denial by which modern, intellectually fashionable Germans evade the truth of their extermination of the Jews and their continuing anti-Semitism. He insists on complexity, noticing the smallest gesture, the little laugh, the comment not made. What emerges is a sense of how nations construct their identities by very careful editing. To read human history through the lens of one's own life is memoir at its best-and Abish is magnificent. - Publishers Weekly   

The prizewinning author of How German Is It? (1980) and other fiction tells his personal story here of early childhood in Vienna in an elite Jewish family, escape from the Nazis, growing up in Shanghai during World War II, and his years in Israel as a young army recruit, librarian, and always "writer-to be." In an alternating narrative, he describes his return visit to his birthplace on an author's tour in the 1980s. Abish is so careful not to be melodramatic or self-important that he distances everything with ironic postmodernist comment about writing about writing about becoming a writer. How does a writer-to-be fall in love? Is it more pleasurable to experience love or to write about it? The jumpy, difficult narrative works best in the unforgettable details that capture the young person's bewildered viewpoint as well as the "bizarre incongruities" of the contemporary scene, especially the jovial tourism at the old Nazi sites. "Must we still feel guilt?" a weary German complains.  - Hazel Rochman

"Like many pioneering efforts, the new book is deeply flawed, but the flaws are interesting, and in their own way add to the experience. (...) Mr. Abish’s syntax is so clumsy, his phraseology so convoluted and even his word choice so frequently questionable (...), that vast swaths of Double Vision read like a bad translation of itself.(...) Double Vision hints at what a new generation of memoir might be capable of—though when it comes to fulfilling its own promise, it blinks big time." - Daniel Asa Rose


"(A) wry, contemplative, and oblique experiment in autobiography" - John Updike, The New Yorker

"Abish's vision of Germany holds the two memoirs together. (...) Abish's memoir lays bare the fraught nature of the Jewish émigré relationship to the Nazi past of Germany and Austria in ways the author cannot perceive. He cannot see modern Germany (or Vienna, for that matter) for what it is, rather than what it was. It is a case of double vision in more senses than one." - Steven Beller

Double Vision is a two-track memoir: in the first part (covering most of the book) alternating sections describe The Writer-to-be -- Abish's life through early adulthood -- and his (relatively) contemporary experiences in Europe as The Writer he is now (or was a few years ago -- specifically the author of How German Is It, visiting Germany for the first time in the 1980s, as well a few other European countries). A much shorter second part describes a later stay in Europe -- in Germany and, briefly, Italy --, followed by a brief reflective section on The Scribes' Dilemma (set in Uxmal, Mexico), and a short afterword.
       Abish was born in Vienna in 1931, and fled with his parents via Italy and Nice to Shanghai, where they lived from 1940 to 1948. From there they went to Israel, where Abish stayed for another decade or so. He eventually came to the United States in the late 1950s, but in Double Vision covers only his formative years leading up to that final geographic move.
       Throughout these reminiscences Abish sees himself as the 'writer-to-be', a destiny that, if not always obvious to him at the time is so in retrospect. Solitary, observant, Abish's world is self-centred (and, in part, self-critical). Among the most interesting aspects is a childish incomprehension of what is happening around him: the world (and his parents) are puzzling, and much remains a mystery. From what Jewish identity (or at least the label) means to intra-family politics, the young Abish is faced with a world largely beyond understanding or logic -- but he also doesn't try to impose any logic or meaning on it, accepting things largely as they are. (He remains generally uninvolved throughout the years described here: he remains almost entirely apolitical, even as he matures, and, for example, shows no interest in learning either Chinese or Japanese while living in Shanghai for almost a decade.)
       These reminiscences of his early years are often fascinating: from pre-Nazi Vienna through the Anschluss, then flight, then the odd exile in Shanghai, and finally life in Israel in the fifties, Abish's experiences are of interest simply for the unusual path his life took. (Many others' lives did follow similarly unusual paths, and the glimpses of these Abish provides -- often just in brief mentions -- give a good sense of the prevailing atmosphere around him.)
       These looks back at his early years alternate with sections in which Abish describes his first visit to Germany, in the 1980s. He travels as the author of How German Is It, a book of particular interest in Germany for its take on German-ness. There are also sections describing his first visit to Vienna since before the war, and to Munich.
       How German Is It is a novel about how Germany (and most things German) are perceived, and Abish is constantly comparing perception to the reality he faces -- a matter that is made all the more complicated by how the German's perceive him (specifically as author of this book).
       The contrast to his native Vienna is also striking, as Abish believes:
Vienna is the very antithesis to Germany, for everything in Vienna retains an odd mix of humor and understatement. 
       The Germany he describes is still the divided state of the 1980s, and when he lives for some time in Berlin in 1987 the Wall is still a major presence. Several times in Double Vision Abish acknowledges the near-present, when he is writing this book, noting how things have changed since the time he was in Berlin, for example. But it is not a book about 'now and then': both parts -- his account of his formative years, and his account of the trips to Europe in the 1980s -- are in the past. The distance is a noticeable one: Abish clearly did not just need time before he could describe his youth, but also to come to terms with (re-)visiting Germany, Austria, and Italy.
       Double Vision is full of observation -- small scenes, encounters with people --, many of which are attempts to ground identity and understanding. Abish also poses many (rhetorical) questions in the text, especially at the beginning, as if to emphasise the constant uncertainty and ambiguity. There's little judging here, despite the questions many of these things he describes raise; there's also little sympathy for most of the people he encounters (but he also asks for little for himself). There's also fairly little emotion to be found in these pages.
       The overlap of the two main strands presented here never really fits together: as in actual double vision it's more a dizzying blur. The stories are fascinating, especially the first encounters of the author of How German Is It with Germany, as well as his life-story. Other parts, while still of some interest, don't fit as well: Abish gives the sense of grasping for pieces that might fit in his puzzle, acknowledging that it's a hit-or-miss approach -- an effective idea, but not terribly compelling given the power of the other material.
       A worthwhile memoir, it isn't quite as sharply focussed as one might have wished for. - The Complete Review

It must have seemed perfectly natural to Walter Abish, famous for experimental rather than straightforward narrative, to imagine that the talent that has served him well as a fiction writer might easily, and with equal success, be applied to a memoir. And why, after all, should it not?
Abish was born in Vienna in 1931 into a family of middle-class assimilated Austrian Jews who, in flight from the Nazis, found themselves on one journey after another into refugee status: first to Nice, then to Shanghai, then to Israel, and finally to the United States. In America, Walter became an English-speaking teacher and writer, producing one well-received postmodernist fiction after another throughout the late '70s and '80s. His best-known work is How German Is It, for which he was given the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1981. Now, in his seventies, he sets out to tell a tale taken directly from life.
Double Vision is composed of discrete prose sections that alternate between recollections of family life�in Vienna, Shanghai, and Tel Aviv�and episodic accounts of two European trips that Abish took in the '80s. In the first of these sections we are told that until the Nazis arrived in Vienna, the family was prosperous, had servants, took summer vacations, and wore beautiful clothes. Walter's father was kind, generous, and silent; his mother cold, capable, dissatisfied; and he himself a bored, smug, supercilious brat whom Abish regularly characterizes as the "writer-to-be." Whatever their secret longings, the family organized relentlessly around bourgeois correctness. In Shanghai, they joined a community of exiled Jews that "rigorously upheld what were essentially European values and maintained its hierarchies, with its attendant respect for the Professor, the Lawyer, and the Doctor."
On the trips back to Europe in the '80s, Abish is, of course, concentrated on his return as a Jew to the German-speaking countries. Listening to a man on a train headed for Vienna, he notes, "He had the Viennese gift of gab, the rich, pliant Viennese language enabling him to shift back and forth from irony to seeming candor, from self-deprecation to ridicule. . . . I knew I was approaching . . . a city of misleading intimacy." In Berlin he muses, "Many Germans find it inconceivable that a German Jewish working class ever existed, so determined are they to identify their former fellow countrymen as successful physicians, lawyers, art historians, businessmen, or publishers." At the same time, German novelist Klaus Stiller "cannot refer to Jews without an involuntary twinkle of his eyes. I can only conclude that for many people Jews must still be such an oddity."
Unfortunately, both sets of recollections are informed by a pair of rhetorical devices that dominate the structure of the book and, as such, strongly influence both intent and outcome�negatively, to my way of thinking. The first device is the musing question sentence that never gets answered, the kind that, in modernist fiction�How was it that I . . . ? Could it have been that she . . . ? Had he not wanted me to . . . ?�is meant to anchor the work in haunting suggestiveness. Here, in Abish's memoir, such sentences translate oddly into "How is it that being Jewish remained so ill defined? . . . Was my father so uncommunicative that I couldn't ever picture him in any close relationship? . . . What prompted me to enter the antique store . . . and then . . . ask if [the tin soldiers] were German, knowing perfectly well that they were?"
Abish's other device is to repeat variations on the phrase "writer-to-be." As in, "I was only their child [but] . . . in my role as writer-to-be, little escaped my attention. . . . Deceitful. Liar. A prig to boot. The price one is made to pay when one is developing into a writer. . . . I watched [in Shanghai as a policeman beat four delinquents], memorizing every detail of this designed cruelty . . . storing it away for the future. After all, that's what writers do."
Here is my problem: The question sentence does indeed slow the reader down, as if in preparation for a passage of reflection; but as the question is merely being asked rhetorically, it soon comes to seem a literary posture rather than an entr�e into developing thought. There's a scene in the book where the dilemma of the unanswered question approaches silliness. Walter's parents are dancing in a caf�, and he, six or seven years old, persists in wedging himself between them. Abish describes the scene and closes with "Did I resent being left by myself at the table to watch them dance in a tight embrace? . . . But how to explain this resolve of mine to join them on the dance floor?" I found myself staring at these sentences, thinking uncharitably, Are you kidding? You're over seventy, and you don't have the answer to this one?
As for the writer-to-be device: This is so often applied to generic childhood experience (the kind common to missionaries, architects, accountants, and actors)�as though these experiences might be specific to the making of an emergent artist�that it, too, begins to seem an affectation. Certainly it does not work as a means of drawing us into a deeper understanding of the narrator: who he is and how he came to be.
Classically, one of the joys of the personal narrative�the term that best describes a memoir�has been the employment of a lucid intelligence in service to an inborn capacity for reflection, commentary, and analysis, coupled with considerable powers of description. The key word is "reflection." The central pleasure of a truly satisfying memoir is the narrator's ability to reflect, artfully and persuasively. It is reflection in a memoir, on the part of a reliable narrator, that enriches and deepens the prose.
Many famously accomplished poets or novelists have failed miserably at memoir writing because they have no real respect for the task at hand. Their books are shabby affairs because all the while they are writing them, they are paying superficial attention to the creation of the narrator, in essence telling the reader, "This is an inferior genre, one for which I actually have no use." Conversely, it must also be said, sometimes a poet or a novelist of moderate talents will approach the writing of a memoir, only to discover a real gift for bringing the narrator within to strong, unforgettable life. Two magnificent examples of this unexpected development occurred with Edmund Gosse's Father and Son and Storm Jameson's Journey from the North. Gosse wrote reams of Victorian verse that have gone down into oblivion while his memoir lives on, and Jameson wrote forty-five forgettable novels while her two-volume memoir is recognized as a work of remarkable strength.
Reflection does not, of course, occur only in straightforward narrative. Two remarkable practitioners of associative prose�albeit vastly different, one from another�were Marguerite Duras and W.G. Sebald, both of whom wrote brilliant personal narrative, simply because the "story" that each one had come to tell grew out of a set of inner concerns taken directly from life, and mined deeply. Duras's great work is The Lover, billed at the time of publication as a novel but clearly a memoir. This is a work in which the questions being "asked" are "answered" through a set of subliminal associations that make the apparently mysterious transitions between discrete passages feel extraordinarily "right." The sections haunt one another, and the reader is drawn, ever more ineluctably, inward. There is no doubt that what we have on the page is an act of reflection as reflection is experienced in a poetic being. In her own altogether strange way, the narrator is really asking, Who am I, and how did I get to be as I am? The same goes for Sebald. In Rings of Saturn the act of reflection on the part of a narrator who is clearly the writer is also accomplished through the mystery of transitions that, on the surface, resemble a peculiar sort of free association but are soon felt as a powerful reflectiveness of mood�bleak but not melancholy, cold but not withdrawn, scholarly but not detached�that is, in itself, the "story" this narrator has come to tell. For me, this mood, so fully delivered, is memoir enough.
Double Vision opens ambitiously: "That's why things happened the way they did. The oppressiveness of good manners . . . My discontent . . . The way I smile�reluctantly. The way I reveal my anger . . . Is there no freedom at all from the family?" Those words obligated their author to create a narrator who guides readers into an ever-deepening investigation of inner experience. No easy task. Abish is an intelligent, skilled writer, informed and observant, and his desire to write honestly is never in question. But his book reminds us that memoir writing depends on the excavation of a storytelling self whose engagement is as acute as that of any fictional narrator.  -Vivian Gornick


Known primarily for his novel ''How German Is It,'' Walter Abish revisits much of the same material in this brief, unconventional memoir. He organizes ''Double Vision'' around a set of key locales from his early and adult life (Vienna, Shanghai, New York, Berlin), alternating chapters devoted either to ''the writer'' or to ''the writer-to-be.'' By turns introspective, provisional and fragmentary, the book develops into two distinct, if overlapping, narratives: the story of his childhood, with various portents of his adult life, and a series of animated and somewhat vexing accounts of a book tour in Germany during the 1980's. Far less nuanced in his depiction of contemporary Germany than of prewar Austria, Abish occasionally favors cliché and caricature over a balanced understanding of the world he observes. Indeed, at several notable junctures in his work he appears all too happy to recount anecdotes evocative of ostensibly unreformed tendencies from Germany's dark past -- ominous tales of ''a fierce-looking Doberman,'' ''students in preposterous Burschenschaft uniforms holding up huge steins of beer,'' an elderly female museum guard who delights in announcing what is ''verboten!'' By contrast, his reflections on his birthplace and the other places from his childhood are poignant. As he notes in a rueful key, ''There was something about Vienna that, like a soft, inviting bed with an eiderdown blanket, encouraged one to take a brief nap -- for just a few hours or a lifetime.'' - Noah Isenberg

We’re all impatient for the memoir to evolve—who needs more cross-eyed mirror-gazing?—but don’t expect the first stabs at a less narrowly focused generation of autobiographical writing to be 20-20, or even particularly legible. Case in point is Walter Abish’s Double Vision, a memoir that doesn’t content itself with a single narrative but ambitiously seeks to lend resonance and perspective to its subject through stereoscopic storylines. Mr. Abish tells two stories meant to enlarge each other: one an account of how he and his Jewish parents fled Vienna in 1938, the other a travelogue of his first visit back to Vienna in the 1980’s, a few years after he published his prize-winning novel, How German Is It (1980). Like many pioneering efforts, the new book is deeply flawed, but the flaws are interesting, and in their own way add to the experience.
First, because they are severe, the shortcomings. For a writer generally considered "elegant," Mr. Abish here uses English so infelicitously that you wonder how long he’s been speaking it. The book is filled with sentences you have to slug your way out of, like this description of his "exuberant" uncle Phoebus: "Even his dubious integrity in business matters excited in me a sympathetic response—for wasn’t Phoebus confirming my picture of him as the black sheep, who finally, as Phoebus did, moved to Sydney, Australia?" Mr. Abish’s syntax is so clumsy, his phraseology so convoluted and even his word choice so frequently questionable (is "unappealing" the right word for torture that includes the plucking out of fingernails?), that vast swaths of Double Vision read like a bad translation of itself.
There’s also the egregious overuse of the rhetorical question. "Isn’t history a form of story telling?" he asks on page 8. "How could I possibly have apprehended that I was being rigorously trained to be a writer? … Was I not being trained in obduracy to wage war on the impediments, such as the blank pages, I was to face years later? Was I not being trained to surmount the hurdles of the text? Did they not see it? How could they have missed it? … Did I not detest myself as a result? … Is it any wonder I sought refuge in play?" he asks—also on page 8. When he’s in full throat, the Old World oratory ringing out, Mr. Abish can pack a half-dozen or more self-interrogatives onto a single page. The effect is comical, if you happen to enjoy having an Austrian grandfather clutch you by the shoulder and spray your face with magniloquence.
Some of Mr. Abish’s observations have outlived their sell-by date: "Until recently I considered the declaration ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ above the [Dachau] concentration camp gates as more malevolently ironic than a solemn avowal," he writes. "I now understand that the intent was primarily utilitarian. For … the misleading signs were essential to the smooth operation of the facilities … intended to allay the apprehension of the new arrivals." As if to make up for these stale banalities, other observations are overblown: "As I left the monument, an exhausted collarless German shepherd limped past, trailing blood …. Clearly, it has to be a message beamed at me!" Relentlessly, everything must signify, until by force of habit he turns the grilling back on himself: "I keep persuading myself that everything I see, every conversation I have, is potential material for future use. But is that so? Most exchanges are oddly dissatisfying; it’s as if an unseen caution prevails—on my part? on theirs?"
Wait, it gets worse before it gets better. To say that most of the characters in this book are unlikeable is letting their creator off too easily; it’s more that Mr. Abish perversely denies them even a molecule of likeability. One after the other they are supercilious, spiteful, petty, humorless, often sneering and always inscrutably ironic. Irony, in fact, is the prevailing mood, when it doesn’t surrender to lassitude. ("There is, I suppose, a certain satisfaction to be derived from the fact that my earliest memory is that of being bored.") Is the reader to blame if he’s put off? Precisely how much alienation can we be expected to tolerate? Is that question unfair? What is unfairness, anyway? Why isn’t it capitalized, the way it would be in German? How German Would That Be, Huh?
This is the stand-up version of Teutonism, less Fassbinder than Saturday Night Live.
And yet … and yet, it’s all of a piece. Consciously or not, the strained syntax serves to underscore the disaffection Mr. Abish suffers—having been uprooted at the age of 6—as both a geographical exile and an exile from his native tongue. The tone-deafness adds to the poignancy of a protagonist who is at home nowhere. And the parade of creeps who never get warmer than a lover with "a wan smile of chagrin"—who else was Mr. Abish supposed to encounter, having grown up isolated from other children, suffocated by bourgeois trappings and afflicted by the sense that he was the wrong child for his parents, a remote, grudging mother and a weak, embarrassed father? "I had known that I was merely a capricious factor and not the ineluctable concept that fed their notion of a family," he remarks with wooden pathos.
Personally, I blame the mom, an aloof, psychically numb character. But if the almost inhuman restraint he endured as a child cramps his emotional connection to the reader, and the stilted syntax mirrors the discomfiture he continued to feel as a displaced adult, the architecture of the book nonetheless comes to the rescue. The book is constructed in alternating chapters: "writer-to-be" sections (young Walter fleeing Vienna for Italy, France, Shanghai and then Israel) taking turns with "writer" sections, in which the adult author returns to his native ground on a kind of extended book tour. What we get are fascinating peekaboo glimpses. A raucous young Tel Aviv, for instance, is filled with colorful embezzlers and spies and Holly Golightly women (barely fleshed out, but maybe that’s how it is with Holly Golightly women), a place where thievery is rampant and discourtesy is worn as a badge and "equated with candor," while politeness is "rejected as servile and cosmopolitan—reminders of a disdained European past."
Even better are the rare shots of Shanghai during and after the Allied bombing, when the entire city "lay there, submissive, patiently waiting to be occupied, waiting to place its bottomless resources, its harbor, its bars and whorehouses at the feet of the victors. Shanghai waited the way a courtesan, having just rid herself of a former lover, might timorously await the arrival of the next, still uncertain as to his taste, his experience, his desire for love, determined, however, at all costs, to overcome any doubts she may have had about her fading beauty."
If all his sentences were that pretty, we’d have no problem. As it is, however, we have to rely on the memoir’s innovative structure, which lends a kind of expressive credence to the content: Mr. Abish not only gives us acute glimpses of a world in flux, but also has us experience them viscerally through the back-and-forth configuration of the narrative. Match a 1980’s scene of self-congratulatory Germans with a 1938 scene in which Vienna is being invigorated by Nazism, and suddenly the whole is larger than the sum of its parts.
It’s ballsy for a man who wears an eye patch to talk about double vision. But Mr. Abish has proven himself a ballsy writer more than once before. His latest book gives us greater depth perception than a single line of focus would provide, and proves that the memoir is a more flexible form than it has lately seemed. Double Vision hints at what a new generation of memoir might be capable of—though when it comes to fulfilling its own promise, it blinks big time. - Daniel asa Rose

Houston Chronicle 


989200

Walter Abish, Minds Meet, w Directions, 1975.                    


Comments

  1. Would you mind attributing my review of Alphabetical Africa to me please?

    Enrique Freeque

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Daniel Y. Harris has composed a wild poetic drama through realms of eros and spirituality. His writing is simultaneously playful and profound, transmuting ancient symbols and concepts into a contemporary wisdom, heretofore unknown in poetry

James Reich - Giving voice to one of the most enigmatic characters in the literary canon, Reich presents meticulous and controversial solutions to the origins, mystery and messianic deterioration of Mistah Kurtz: company man, elephant man, poet, feral god

Anne Boyer - a book of mostly lyric prose about the conditions that make literature almost impossible. It holds a life story without a life, a lie spread across low-rent apartment complexes, dreamscapes, and information networks, tangled in chronology, landing in a heap of the future impossible