Abish, Walter

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ABISH, Walter

Nationality: American (originally Austrian: immigrated to the United States, 1956, granted U.S. citizenship, 1960). Born: Vienna, 24 December 1931. Military Service: Israeli Army: tank corps, 1949-51. Family: Married Cecile Gelb. Career: Writer-in-residence, Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts, Spring 1977; visiting professor, State University of New York, Buffalo, Fall 1977, Yale University, Spring 1985, Brown University, Spring 1986, and Cooper Union, Spring 1987, 1993, and 1994. Lecturer, Columbia University, 1979-88. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1979; C.A.P.S. grant, Guggenheim fellowship, and Pen/Faulkner award, for How German Is It, all in 1981; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1985; MacArthur fellowship, 1987-92; American Academy and Institute of Arts & Letters award of merit medal for the novel, 1991; Lila Wallace Reader's Digest fellowship, 1992-95. D.Litt.: State University College, Oneonta, New York, 1996. Agent: Donadio & Olson, Inc. Literary Representatives, 121 West 27th Street, Suite 704, New York, New York 10001, U.S.A.



Alphabetical Africa. 1974.

How German Is It. 1980.

Eclipse Fever. 1993.

Short Stories

Minds Meet. 1975.

In the Future Perfect. 1977.

99: The New Meaning. 1990.


Duel Site. 1970.


Critical Studies:

"Present Imperfect: A Note on the Work of Walter Abish" by Tony Tanner, in Granta, Spring 1979, pp. 65-71; "The Puzzle of Walter Abish: In the Future Perfect," in Sub-Stance, 27, Fall 1983, pp. 115-24, and "The New Novel and Television Culture: Reflections on Walter Abish's How German Is It, " in Fiction International, 17(1), Spring 1987, pp. 152-64, both by Alain Arias-Misson; "Walter Abish's Fictions: Perfect Unfamiliarity, Familiar Imperfections" by Richard Martin, in Journal of American Studies (England), 17(2), 1983; pp. 229-41; "The Disposition of the Familiar (Walter Abish)" by Regis Durand, in Delta Magazine (France), 1983, pp. 73-83; "Walter Abish's How German Is It: Language & the Crisis of Human Behavior" by Dieter Saalmann, in Critique, Spring 1985, pp. 105-21; "Walter Abish and the Questioning of the Reader" by Christopher Butler, in Facing Texts, edited by Heide Ziegler, 1988; "Walter Abish's How German Is It: Representing the Postmodern" by Paul Wotipka, in Contemporary Literature, 30, Winter 1989, pp. 503-17; "Walter Abish and the Topographies of Desire" by Jerry A. Varsava, in Contingent Meanings, Postmodern Fiction, Mimesis, and the Reader, 1990; "Walter Abish's How German Is It: Postmodernism and the Past" by Maarten Van Delden, in Salmagundi Magazine, 85/86, Winter/Spring 1990, pp. 172-94; Novel Arguments: Reading Innovative American Fiction by Richard Walsh, 1995; "How Global Is It: Walter Abish and the Fiction of Globalization" by Thomas Peyser, in Contemporary Literature, 40(2), Summer 1999, pp. 240-62.

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Walter Abish, best known for his P.E.N./Faulkner-winning How German Is It (1980), is the author of three novels, numerous short stories, and a volume of poetry, Duel Site (1970). Alphabetical Africa (1974), a novel that bears out the Abish entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica ("American writer of experimental novels and short stories whose fiction takes as its subject language itself"), consists of 52 chapters—the first chapter contains only words beginning with "A," chapter two adds "B" words, and so on through "Z" and then back through the alphabet. It also deftly plays with the reader's preconceived notions about Africa and documents the dynamics of linguistic appropriation of a space often considered exotic in the West. Eclipse Fever (1993), Abish's most plot-driven novel, combines his continued concern with the representational properties of language with a sophisticated examination of moral and ethical questions: the novel exhorts the reader to think about colonialism; global capitalism; the relation between history and fiction; and identity, both personal and national.

How German Is It displays Abish's dual concern with language and the reality it purports to represent and the ways in which history informs the present. "The English Garden" (published in In the Future Perfect [1977]), a precursor to How German Is It, has an epigraph from John Ashbery's "The New Spirit," which reads, "[r]emnants of the old atrocity subsist, but they are converted into ingenious shifts in scenery, a sort of 'English Garden' effect, to give the required air of naturalness, pathos and hope." Both the short story and the novel reflect how the German present is always pregnant with the past, particularly the Nazi past, and chronicle the various modes of self-delusion post-World War II Germans engaged in to avoid confronting their recent past.

How German Is It is unequivocal about the role the reader has to play in answering the thorny questions associated with how Germany is perceived, how Germany perceives itself, how the past figures in the German present, how Germany chooses to deal with the Holocaust, and how mechanisms of denial and acceptance might manifest themselves. The novel is more interested in posing questions than in providing definitive answers, and readers are left to their own devices regarding the search for meaning underneath the surfaces Abish so detachedly describes. This deferral of meaning on the novel's part does not imply that there exists no meaning at all; it merely points out the need for readers to become acutely aware of the ethical significance of the answers they provide to questions about the Holocaust.

While not overtly about the Holocaust, How German Is It acutely registers the event's aftershocks in Germany—a feature that is shared by a number of uncollected short stories that Abish initially intended as a sequel novel (As If ) to How German Is It. "I Am the Dust Under Your Feet" (1987) features the dialogue between two German Jews (an art historian and an architect) buried in a mass grave (both were killed during a death march at the end of the war) who try to explain the Germany outside—and their Germany—to a fetus buried with them. The story has a pronounced caustic edge: it indirectly examines the claim German Jews could possibly have to their Germanness when speaking from a mass grave. It also ruminates on the state of contemporary Germany, when in one strand of the story the game warden protecting the plot of land where the mass grave is located is murdered by Turkish poachers—who curse their task of disposing of the body in German. The irony of this situation lies in the game warden's SS past: a representative of Nazi Germany's drive to purify the German body politic is killed by the "other" now present in postwar Germany. "Just When We Believe That Everything Has Changed" (1985), "House on Fire" (1990), "Is This Really You?" (1988), and "Furniture of Desire" (1989) similarly examine the intellectual and epistemological subterfuges Germans employ in the wake of their most recent past. One typical passage from "Is This Really You?" reads:

By now Selten has reestablished a firm grip on the day-to-day… On weekends it is only thirty minutes by car to the countryside—the vine-covered hills, everything almost unchanged. One can visit medieval villages untouched by the war. People still speak the local dialect. One can sit back lazily in the tiny garden of one of the restaurants and drink several glasses of the excellent local white wine. One can, if so moved, follow with sensuous detachment the outlines of the hills and then, retaining a mental picture of the tenth-century church steeple and the upper section of the archway, the entrance to this tiny community, focus on a cloud or, being alerted by a faint hum, finally locate the origin of the familiar sound, a distant plane, without evincing—and why on earth should one?—the slightest apprehension that the plane might carry a number of those formidable 500-pounders earmarked (that is the nature of paranoia) for this very picturesque spot. In 1943, '44, and '45, life was less predictable.

How German Is It, together with the short stories mentioned, forms a testament to "the past that will not pass" and to the specific instantiations of that past in the present, as well as to the Sinneslücken (gaps of meaning), both in the transmission of cultural memory and, literally, in the country's rebuilt fabric, created by the deliberate attempts to erase the past from the present. The part of Abish's work that has the Holocaust as its often unarticulated, yet nevertheless present, backdrop is characterized by a narrative approach in which mimeticism is replaced by a network of associative stimuli that evoke a certain picture of Germany and that construct an image of the place. This image has no special claim to representational accuracy but also refuses to relinquish the possibility that this bricolage of signifiers can reveal profound truths.

—Stefan Gunther

See the essays on "The English Garden" and How German Is It.