Walter Abish, a widely admired if not widely read American author of experimental fiction whose youth drew a parable of hasty escapes from hostile forces in Nazi-era Austria and revolutionary China, died in Manhattan on Saturday. He was 90 years old.
Amos Gelb, his nephew, confirmed the death Tuesday at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital, but did not specify a cause.
“Although he published relatively late and little,” John Updike wrote in a review of Mr. Abish’s memoir, “Double Vision: A Self-Portrait,” in The New Yorker in 2004, he “projects a distinctive presence in contemporary letters. ”
Mr Abish was in his early 40s when his first novel, ‘Alphabetical Africa’ (1974), was published, striking a provocative and iconoclastic tone. Its first and last chapters use only words beginning with the letter A, and the passages in between perform other linguistic contortions.
A passage under pattern “A” goes like this:
“Long ago, an archaeologist, Albert, alias Arthur, shrewdly witnessed a case of archaic African armchairs in Antibes, attracting attention as an archaeologist and atheist. Ahhh, atheism… anyway, Albert advocated helping the African ants. Ants? All are amazed. Ants? Absurd.”
Reviewing “Alphabetical Africa” in The New York Times Book Review, poet and translator Richard Howard wrote that the book was “something more than a stunt, even if it is a stunt, and Walter Abish is a fearless stuntman, eager to reveal his sleight-of-pocus at every turn.
Overall, Mr. Abish has published three novels, three collections of short stories, a volume of poems and the memoirs.
His most acclaimed novel was “How German Is It” (1979), which explored the complex interplay between modern Germany, with its strong post-war economy and orderly society, and its roots in the Nazi era. . The book won a PEN/Faulkner Prize for Fiction in 1981 – one of many honors that have marked Mr. Abish’s life as a writer and researcher at several American universities and colleges. He became a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1998.
“How German Is It” is set in a newly created fictional community, Brumholdstein, which turns out to have been built on the site of a German concentration camp. The story centers on two brothers, Ulrich Hargenau, a writer estranged from his wife, Paula, a left-wing radical and terrorist, and Helmuth Hargenau, an architect. The brothers’ father was executed by firing squad in 1944 for plotting against Hitler. (The name Hargenau seems to be a play on the word “haargenau”, meaning complete precision.)
At the start of the book, Ulrich “looks gravely at his face in the mirror and sees Germany’s past flash before his eyes,” Mr. Abish writes. The suggestion is that modern Germany, sanitized as it may seem, cannot shake off its long and often dark heritage.
In the final scene, Ulrich visits a hypnotist, who persuades him to raise his right arm in a “stiff salute”.
The novel concludes: “Is it possible for anyone in Germany nowadays to raise their right hand, for whatever reason, and not be flooded with the memory of a dream to end to all dreams?
The novel portrays Germany as having “something inextricably suspicious about it”, writes Updike, adding that it is “given coherence and strength by real animosity and a real question: how did the Germans been able to commit these unspeakable acts? How uniquely German was the Holocaust? »
Writing about the novel in The Times Book Review in 1981, essayist Betty Falkenberg wrote of Mr. Abish: “All of his writing is an attack on the comforting familiarity of everyday things. Now, Mr. Abish seems to be saying that it is the threat lurking below the surface that attracts new Germans as a way to experience, if only sneakily, the unassimilated terror of their past.
In “Double Vision”, Mr. Abish recounts his first visit to Germany to promote the German edition of the novel. He describes driving through the western town of Wuppertal and photographing “pretty German houses straight out of ‘How German Is It’ – could it get any better?”
It was not until his arrival in Cologne that he discovered that his camera did not contain film. “In a way,” he wrote, “it seems fitting that I nailed my first impressions of Germany with an empty camera.”
In the memoir, Mr Abish does not mention his black triangular eyepatch – easily seen in the photographs on his book covers – which led to the title of the book.
“Obviously,” he wrote, “the fact that I have double vision was an added incentive in choosing the title.” (The medical condition’s double vision is sometimes treated with an eye patch.)
“My work invites interpretation,” Abish told Tablet magazine in 2004. “To provide explanation is to inhibit reader interaction. Often, to explain is to explain.
Walter Abish was born on December 24, 1931, the only child of a prosperous Jewish family in Vienna. His father, Adolph, was a perfumer whose products his mother, Friedl (Rubin) Abish, scorned in favor of French perfumes from the luxury brand Guerlain, Mr. Abish wrote in her memoir.
In the book, Mr. Abish portrays his parents as disconnected from each other, which makes him feel uneasy. While his father celebrated Jewish traditions, he writes, his mother saw them as an obstacle to his assimilation into Austrian Gentile society.
Young Walter was vacationing with his mother in the Alps when Germany annexed Austria in 1938, and they soon returned to Vienna. He remembers being chased from a Viennese playground by brownshirt Nazis shouting “Juden raus!” — Jews outside. Her family was ordered out of their comfortable apartment and they soon began planning an escape.
In December, they fled to Nice, France, then boarded a ship for Shanghai. There, after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese forces sent up to 18,000 Jewish immigrants to an area called Hongkew, which Mr Abish described as a ghetto.
He recalled that at the end of the Second World War, Allied warplanes attacked docks, warehouses and airfields in Shanghai and sometimes also civilian targets, including an open-air market in Hongkew, where 250 people were killed, including 30 Jews. A few weeks later, after the Japanese surrender, the U.S. Seventh Fleet sailed to Shanghai to begin what turned out to be a coasting, albeit relatively brief, interregnum before revolutionary Communist forces took control.
In the late 1940s, as the inevitability of Mao Zedong’s victory over the ruling Kuomintang became apparent, hostility towards foreigners increased. And in December 1948, the Abish family sailed for the newly created State of Israel, circumnavigating Africa and reaching Israel via the Mediterranean Sea to avoid a perilous passage through the Suez Canal.
He traces this period in his memoirs, a narrative plotted on two intertwined tracks with chapters titled “The Writer-to-Be” and “The Writer”.
“It’s a book about the making of a writer,” he observed in his interview with Tablet.
Mr Abish described his years in Israel as part of his literary evolution, recalling his time as a reluctant young conscript in an army tank unit and then as a librarian at the American Library, run by the defunct United States Information Agency.
“Is it inevitable that the future writer, variable, inconstant, even disloyal when it comes to obtaining an idea for a story, will consider his old friends and lovers as potential material for a future text”, he writes in a passage about a woman he called Allison. And, later, in a passage about a woman called Bilha, he asks: “Does the future writer consider love the ideal future text?
In 1957 the family moved again and he arrived in New York; he became an American citizen in 1960. During the following decade, he published a collection of poetry, “Duel Site” (1970), as well as “Alphabetical Africa”. He also published three collections of short stories: “Minds Meet” (1975), “In the Future Perfect” (1977) and “99: The New Meaning” (1990).
A final novel, “Eclipse Fever,” set primarily in Mexico City, appeared in 1993. The book, centering on a Mexican literary critic who suspects his translator wife is having an affair with an American novelist, provides a window into the social and intellectual world of a privileged Mexico City intelligentsia. Reviews were lukewarm at best.
“Mr. Abish’s protagonist is, even to a literary critic, something boring,” critic James Atlas wrote in The Times Book Review.
Mr. Abish, who lived in Manhattan, married Cécile Gelb, an American photographer and sculptor, in Tel Aviv in 1953. She survives him. They had no children.
Among his accolades, Mr. Abish was a Fellow of the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts. He has held academic positions at Columbia, Brown, and Yale; the University at Buffalo and Empire State College, both part of the State University of New York; Cooper Union, in Manhattan; and Wheaton College, Illinois.
Perhaps some of the most poignant moments in Mr. Abish’s memoir relate to a six-month stay he spent in still-divided Germany in 1987, visiting the Dachau death camp near Munich and relaying impressions instantaneous. When he visited Berlin, two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, he wrote: “I traveled blindly through the walled city, quite unprepared to dismantle the wall I had erected within myself .
In “How German Is It?”, Mr. Abish also explores in fiction the strains that history places on modern Germans, leading some to deny or question the Holocaust record as it is preserved on film, on paper and elsewhere.
“What do we think of it?” he asks. “Viewers young and old are faced with the grim problem of whether or not to accept the old film footage of skeleton-like men and women in their striped prisoner uniforms, staring blankly at the camera. Did this really happen, or were these photographs carefully doctored, ingeniously concocted simply to denigrate anything German?
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