Abish, Walter 1931-
Abish, Walter 1931-
∗ Indicates that a listing has been compiled from secondary sources believed to be reliable, but has not been personally verified for this edition by the author sketched.
PERSONAL: Born December 24, 1931, in Vienna, Austria; son of Adolph and Frieda (Rubin) Abish; married Cecile Gelb (a photographer and sculptor). Religion: Jewish.
CAREER: Adjunct professor at State University of New York Empire State College, New York, NY, 1975; Wheaton College, Norton, MA, writer in residence, spring, 1977; visiting Butler Professor of English at State University of New York—Buffalo, fall, 1977; Columbia University, New York, NY, lecturer in English, 1979–88. Guest professor, Yale University, New Haven, CT, spring, 1985, and Brown University, Providence, RI, spring, 1986; guest professor, Cooper Union, New York, NY, 1987, 1993, 1994. Military service: Served in the Israeli Army, 1949–50.
MEMBER: International PEN, PEN American Center (executive board, 1982–88), New York Foundation for the Arts (board of governors, 1990–93), American Academy of Arts and Sciences (fellow, 1998–).
AWARDS, HONORS: Fellow of New Jersey State Council for the Arts, 1972; Rose Isabel Williams Foundation grant, 1974, and Ingram Merrill Foundation grant, 1977; fellow of National Endowment for the Arts, 1979 and 1985; Guggenheim fellowship, 1981; CAPS grant, 1981; PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, 1981, for How German Is It; D.A.A.D. fellowship, Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, Berlin, Germany, 1987; John D. MacArthur Foundation fellowship, 1987–92; Award of Merit Medal for the Novel, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1991; Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund fellowship, 1992.
Alphabetical Africa, New Directions (New York, NY), 1974.
How German Is It, New Directions (New York, NY), 1980.
Eclipse Fever, Knopf (New York, NY), 1993.
Minds Meet, New Directions (New York, NY), 1975.
In the Future Perfect, New Directions (New York, NY), 1977.
99: The New Meaning, Burning Deck (Providence, RI), 1990.
Duel Site (poems), Tibor de Nagy Editions, 1970.
Double Vision (memoir), Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
Work represented in anthologies, including Individuals: Post-Movement Art in America, Dutton (New York, NY), 1977, Best American Short Stories, Hough-ton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1981, 60 Years of Great Fiction from Partisan Review, Partisan Review Press (Boston, MA), 1996, and Postmodern American Fiction, W.W. Norton & Company, 1997. "Is This Really You," an excerpt from As If, appears in Facing Texts, edited by Heide Ziegler, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 1988. Contributor to literary journals, including New Directions in Prose and Poetry, Partisan Review, Antaeus, Conjunctions, Paris Review, Salmagundi and Granta. How German Is It has been published in France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Poland, England, Norway, Sweden, Yugoslavia, Israel, Brazil, Russia, Turkey, Japan, and Holland.
WORK IN PROGRESS: I Am the Dust under Your Feet.
SIDELIGHTS: Walter Abish is the author of novels and short stories that combine experimental literary techniques with themes that explore serious moral and ethical issues. Maarten van Delden stated in the Dictionary of Literary Biography that "Abish has been an important presence in contemporary fiction since the publication of his first novel, the playfully experimental Alphabetical Africa," and noted that Abish's subsequent volumes of short stories "confirmed his reputation as a master of nonconventional form." Many of his writings are broken into numbered or titled short sections, and "the apparently arbitrary imposition of some type of formal constraint upon the material of the text is characteristic of Abish's work," observed van Delden. According to Jerome Klinkowitz, writing in Contemporary Novelists, "Abish has devised his own techniques by which the language of his stories explores itself in search of the ironies of human communication and behaviour." New York Times Book Review critic James Atlas characterized Abish as "an unapologetically 'literary' novelist. His work is militantly experimental."
Abish was born in Austria to a middle-class Jewish couple who fled from the Nazis—first to France, then China—and later moved to Israel in 1949. After meeting and marrying an American woman, Cecile Gelb, Abish moved with his wife to New York City in 1957. He began publishing fiction in the early 1970s while working as an urban planner in New York. While his first book was a collection of poems, most of his early work consisted of short stories, except for his first novel, written in 1974.
"Like breathing in and then breathing out, the reader has experienced the expansion and contraction, the life and death of a work of fiction," declared Klinkowitz about Abish's first novel, Alphabetical Africa. The novel's first chapter consists of words beginning with the letter "A", the next chapter brings in words beginning with "B", and following chapters go through the alphabet until "Z" and the order is reversed. James Atlas summarized the book by saying: "Within the confines of this rather harrowing narrative constraint, Mr. Abish … 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 1975, Abish published a collection of twelve short stories called Minds Meet. In these stories, Abish once again plays not only with language but with form. Some characters walk in and out of stories, some of them not their own; others take improbable trips without leaving their apartments. Abish's purpose is to shake the reader's reliance on the habit of expecting the ordinary to happen as a way to draw attention to the words and associations that he is creating. Daniel Levinson, in an article for Aspect, described Abish's use of language in this collection as "a pliable system of symbols and suggestions that evokes rather than relays intention."
Abish's second collection, In the Future Perfect, contains stories with neither fully developed characters nor plot. Irving Malin, for the Ontario Review, offered a generalized description of this collection by stating that Abish tells stories about "barely recognizable individuals [who] act in unbelievable ways." Abish overuses coincidence, for example, to the point of disbelief. Characters never act in ordinary ways, and as always, it is words that "dominate the universe" in Abish's works. One of the stories in this collection, "The English Garden," which portrays an imagined German city built on top of the remains of a concentration camp, could be said to be the seed for a novel that Abish would write three years later, How German Is It.
Van Delden claimed Abish "obtained recognition as a major figure in contemporary American fiction" with his second novel, How German Is It, published in 1980. The novel, winner of the first PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1981, is about "contemporary Germany's relationship to its past," claimed van Delden. The book gained wider readership for Abish because "it contained distinct characters, several plots and a protagonist that you could practically identify with," wrote Wendy Lesser in the New Republic.
Whereas How German Is It and his subsequent third novel, Eclipse Fever, work toward a more familiar form, in Abish's third collection of short stories, 99: The New Meaning, like his previous collections of shorter works, he continues to experiment with all standard and accepted aspects of writing fiction. Many of the pieces in this collection are re-sorted passages from previously published works of other authors. The number "99" comes from the title piece of this collection, in which Abish lifts ninety-nine segments from ninety-nine different works by ninety-nine various authors. All segments are also taken from the ninety-ninth page of each particular book.
Lesser declared that Eclipse Fever, Abish's third novel, "marks Abish's departure from the avant-garde ghetto" and "can almost be read as a straightforward corporate-conspiracy thriller." The central characters are Alejandro, a Mexican literary critic concerned about whether his wife, Mercedes, is having an affair with American novelist Jurud; Preston Holler, executive of an American firm scheming to build projects in Mexico and whose wife is having an affair with Alejandro's best friend; and Bonny, Jurud's runaway teenage daughter. "Where novels usually proceed by showing the interaction of events with the development of the hero's character, here incidents of random peril erupt like sinister mushrooms independent of the characters, evoking the modern world," remarked New York Review of Books critic Diane Johnson. "At once disturbing and wildly entertaining, this ironic novel may well be one of the handful of essential American works emanating from the decade preceding the end of the second millennium," suggested Harold Bloom in Washington Post Book World. Lesser pointed out that beneath the "plot lies a wealth of implicit references to Abish's long-held obsessions: his strangely detached view of sex, his sense of how authors cannibalize lives, his perceptions about troubled father-daughter relations, the connections that he draws between geography and alienation, his interest in buildings and other structures, his repetition compulsion and so on."
"The economy, seriousness, and intensity of his work, combined with an oblique, sly sense of humor, set Abish's work apart from" his postmodernist contemporaries with whom he has been grouped, maintained van Delden, who concluded: "In its international orientation, Abish's work offers an interesting challenge to the habit of looking at works of literature as though they belonged to a single national tradition." Eclipse Fever is most assuredly not another baffling, multireferential, intertextual game of fiction, wrote W.M. Hagen for World Literature Today. Rather, "it is strangely realistic." Hagen found that Abish's 1993 novel also raised some very important social issues, such as his concerns about the minority Indian culture, the morals of the intelligent and cultured elites. "It also creates characters who behave more or less consistently and suffer consequences accordingly." This does not mean that Abish has sworn off his "postmodernist tendency." However, Hagen concluded that Eclipse Fever "strikes one as creating the sort of naturalism possible in the post-modern moment."
During the latter part of the 1990s, Abish won several cash awards that allowed him to take time off from teaching and focus entirely on his writing. During that time he produced another collection of short stories, and a collection of essays.
In 2004 Abish published his memoirs, titled Double Vision. Like Abish's previous work, the book is structured somewhat experimentally. The chapters alternate between the "Writer-to-Be"—tales of Abish's childhood and young adulthood in Austria, China, and Israel—and the "Writer"—stories of Abish's first trip to Germany and his return to Austria in the 1980s, after he had written How German Is It. Double Vision is more about Germans and Jews, the construction of national identity, and the distrust of appearances than it is about Abish's biography, which means, some reviewers noted, that one is left with many holes in Abish's life story after completing the book. However, reviewers were more positive about the work as a way of coming to terms with the events of the twentieth century. As a Publishers Weekly critic concluded: "To read human history through the lens of one's own life is memoir at its best—and Abish is magnificent."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Abish, Walter, Double Vision, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
Caramello, Charles, Silverless Mirrors: Book, Self and Postmodern American Fiction, University Press of Florida (Tallahassee, FL), 1983.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 22, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1982.
Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 130: American Short-Story Writers since World War II, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993.
Gregson, Ian, Postmodernist Literature, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 2004.
Karl, Frederick, American Fictions, 1940–1980, Harper (New York, NY), 1983.
Klinkowitz, Jerome, The Self-Apparent Word, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1984.
Klinkowitz, Jerome, The Life of Fiction, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1977.
McHale, Brian, Postmodernist Fiction, Methuen (London, England), 1987.
Orban, Katalin, Ethical Diversions: The Post Holocaust Narratives of Pynchon, Abish, Delillo, and Spiegelman, Routledge (Oxford, England), 2005.
Updike, John, Picked-Up Pieces, Knopf (New York, NY), 1975.
Varsava, Jerry A., Contingent Meanings, University Press of Florida (Tallahassee, FL), 1990.
Aspect, January-March, 1976, Daniel Levinson, "Books: 'Minds Meet'," pp. 43-45.
Booklist, January 1, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of Double Vision, p. 808.
Contemporary Literature, summer, 1999, Thomas Peyser, "How Global Is It: Walter Abish and the Fiction of Globalization," p. 240.
Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2003, review of Double Vision, p. 1431.
Library Journal, May 1, 1993, Eleanor Mitchell, review of Eclipse Fever, p. 113; February 1, 2004, Valeda F. Dent, review of Double Vision, p. 85.
Nation, March 1, 2004, Benjamin Kunkel, "Killing Time," p. 32.
New Republic, June 21, 1993, Wendy Lesser, review of Eclipse Fever, pp. 44-45.
New Statesman, July 16, 1993, Guy Mannes-Abbott, review of Eclipse Fever, p. 42.
New Yorker, February 16, 2004, John Updike, "All about Abish," p. 188.
New York Review of Books, September 23, 1993, Diane Johnson, review of Eclipse Fever, p. 39.
New York Times, May 6, 1993, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Eclipse Fever, p. B2(N).
New York Times Book Review, June 27, 1993, James Atlas, review of Eclipse Fever, p. 16; May 9, 2004, Noah Isenberg, review of Double Vision.
Ontario Review, fall-winter, 1978–79, Irving Malin, "In So Many Words," pp. 112-114.
Publishers Weekly, March 1, 1993, review of Eclipse Fever, p. 36; December 22, 2003, review of Double Vision, p. 45.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 1993, Irving Malin, review of Eclipse Fever, p. 206.
Southern Review, summer, 1994, Ihab Hassan, review of Eclipse Fever, p. 627.
Sub-Stance: Current Trends in American Fiction, fall, 1983, Alain Arias-Misson, "The Puzzle of Walter Abish: In the Future Perfect."
Times Literary Supplement, July 9, 1993, David Mon-trose, review of Eclipse Fever, p. 23.
Washington Post Book World, May 9, 1993, Harold Bloom, review of Eclipse Fever, p. 5.
World Literature Today, winter, 1995, W.M. Hagen, review of Eclipse Fever, p. 137.
BookForum, http://www.bookforum.com/ (February 15, 2006), Vivian Gornick, "How German Is He."