Walter Abish, Haunted, Defamiliarized, Fascinated: A Master of Experimental Fiction Passes into the Dark Night

Abish is, for me – and several others like John Updike, Harold Bloom, et al, – one of the greatest fiction writers in America in the 20th century…that (not) many people knew about. He is a writer for writers, for those of us who love language. In a truly Derridian sense, Abish was a master of the “play of language.” His words are a delightful “double session.”

In his book, Alphabetical Africa, he writes each chapter dedicated, primarily, to words with the same alphabetical letter. Each chapter he adds and another letter. Chapter two is “A” and “B.” This goes on too, and returns back too, all words with “A” in the last chapter.

But it’s more than this. Abish’s ingenuity is to take this language into a place that is deeply mystical, comical – in his wildly imaginative and surreal prose – and even violent.

It is, to be sure, theatrical. All of this while the narrator “explores” …. Africa.

Let’s listen in to this passage, in his book Alphabetical Africa:

By complete accident come across a courier ant carrying ant code. Crush ant, and alone attempt cracking cipher. Am a bit astonished because apparently code also contains a coupon. Calmly concentrate cracking cipher. Code cleverly conceals a choice between cream cheese and chocolate-coated biscuits. Am confounded by clever camouflage. (147)

In this novel, his scientist/mystical/comical explorer is, without a doubt, a schlemiel of sorts. A Quixote.
The “S” chapter is a great example of a schlemiel writer at work.

Same shit same scenery same suffering saints same soup same spiel same safaris same safeguards same saffron sauce same sailboats same salads same salamis same saliva same salesman same salutations same samples same sanctimonious shit same sanctuaries same sandals.

This goes on for two pages. What is fascinating about this moment of language is that it has a rhythm and cadence to it that is much like Hebrew prayer. It signifies as a comical rant but also a kind of confessional plea. It also make me think of a Derridian or Bataillian gesture, which loathes homogeneity or sameness. It is a rant that is made to redeem sameness through creative repetition. What Bataille called “excess.” It is, at once, childish and violent.

The last chapter is hopeful, however. It focuses directly, rather than obliquely on the infinity of language and the experience of it in this world. It is a world of n + 1. But this language world – the “Alphabetical Africa” – is not pure, it is not without violence. It is a world where we must move on and leave behind one for “another.” As in IB Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” or his Magician of Lublin, or Paul Celan’s Gross, in his “Conversation in the Mountains,” the schlemiel, the little-man comical prophet, must move on:

Another abbreviation another abdomen another another abduction another aberration another abhorrent ass another act another aboriginal another approach another absence another abstraction another abuse another acceptance another accent another accessory another accident another accolade another accomplishment another accord another account another accretion another accusation….another africa another alphabet (151-152).

He is most well known for his book, How German is It, a book he wrote after Alphabetical Africa, in 1974, five years later (his second novel for New Directions Press). The book imagines Germany. Abish has never been there, but he, an Austrian Jew by birth, imagines German life and culture in the context of a subplot, narrative – in the spirit of radical politics in the late sixties and early seventies – about a terrorist group that wants to take down the government.

Abish’s mastery of language and tone are so brilliantly creative that he is able to convince the reader that the narrator’s feelings and observations about Germans he meets are an accurate and real representation of Germans.

As an Austrian Jew, whose family had to flee Vienna to Singapore after the Nazi Anschluss into Austria. His book sees a kind of violence under the image of perfection. He takes in a kind of Heideggarian way of looking at things and shows some kind of hidden violence behind a Heideggarian kind of obsessions with earth, sky, and the “fourfold,” the “origin of the work of art,” the Greek temple.

Abish’s short story, the “English Garden,” gave birth to How German is It.

In this short story, in his In the Future Perfect, Abish’s narrator takes a chidren’s colorbook of Germany as a guide to the country, which hides the Holocaust.

It occurs to me that several pages of this coloring book could easily have been intended to depict parts of Brumholdstein where I am staying. With a few minor alterations it could very well become Brumholdstein. And why not. Perhaps the designers of the coloring book had Brumholdstein in mind when they designed the book. Brumholdstein named after the greatest living German philosopher, Brumhold. Somehwhere in the coloring book his replica can be seen lecturing to a class. Written behind him are the words: What are we doing today? The philosophical implications of this sentence may be lost on the students, who are only eight or nine years old at most. This in turn would make it unlikely that the man behind the lecturn is Brumhold. Nevertheless, by focusing on the professor and excluding the rest of the class, one can almost hear Brumhold spaking in this quiet controlled low voice, a voice that is also capable of expressing deeply felt emotion, for instance when Brumhold speaks of the many Germans who, following the First World War, seem to have in the confusing process of what we call history lost their homeland, or at least a section of it. A process, it might be added, that was repeated in the Second World War….He spends his days thinking and writing …writing about why humans think, or try to think, or flee from thought, thereby compelling everyone who reads or tries to read his rather difficult books to think about whether or not they are really thinking or pretending to think. (4)

All of this is situated in a dramatic story about the narrator’s experience of Germany and Germans. His descriptions are intimate but something is missing from them. The reader doesn’t know what to think about the Germans around this narrator. One who, is estranged as he is from everything, as Heidegger might say, “unheimlich” (uncanny – un-home). He doesn’t feel at-home in Germany. The secret to his agitation, which we need to seek out (in some fashion) is his Jewishness. It sees the facade by way of his descriptions and leaks out memories of the Holocaust:

After a careful search that afternoon I found the old railroad tracks. They run parallel to the highway. There was very little traffic that hour. I parked my car on the side of the highway and followed the tracks on foot for a mile or so. No one saw me. I encountered no one. In the distance I could make out the taller buildings of Brumholdstein. On a siding I passed an old railroad freight car. It’s sliding doors wide open. It was a German freight car. For no reason at all I scratched a long row of numbers on its side. (19)

The coloring book, the philosopher, the hidden railroad tracks. And the discovery of a photo hidden in a desk, at the very end of the story, establish the Holocaust as the secret that all of his imaginary Germans seem to be hiding, especially the philosopher who, ironically, is asking us what thinking is and why we – as Heidegger says in What is Called Thinking? – are “still not thinking.”

Going through her desk drawers I came across a photo of a group of skeleton-like men standing in a row, posing for the photographer. Wilhelm studied the photograph, the building in the rear was of one the buildings of the Durst concentration camp. The men were smiling incongruously. They were learning against each other for support. Under the magnifying glass I could clearly the numbers tattooed on their forearms.

This photo must have been taken a day or two after the camp was liberated by the Americans, said Wilhelm. I made absolutely no move to stop him as he carefully and deliberately torn the photo into tiny shreds. I did not lift a figure to stop him from effacing the past. (21)

At the end of the story, he throws the coloring book and crayons into the garbage of the airport before takeoff. The story ends with a kind of dark irony that one sees in some of Paul Celan’s poetry, as Celan calls death a “master from Germany.” There is no correlation between the childlike image of Germany and what it hides. The torn up photo says it all.

In 2004 Abish published a memoir called, Double Vision: A Self Portrait. This a book that is based – schematically – on the places he traveled in his diaspora from Austria and back and way from Austria: Vienna, New York to Germany, Nice, Cologne, Frankfurt, Wurzburg, Shanghai, Vienna, Israel, Munich, Berlin, Italy , Mexico. Each of these places is a subset of becoming a writer: The Writer-to-be, the Writers, The Writer-to-Be, the Writer, the Writer-to-be, The Writer, etc. Back and forth, his life, another place, another repetition of the same crisis. Each a place of memory.

Inside the book, we learn about his parents, his history, his life, in surgical prose. Each word, well weighed. Haunted by history and origins.

I will recall one of his traumatic memories recorded in this memoir, of when the Nazis came to Austria. He was a young boy who was astonished by how much was kept from him about the Nazis and how bad things were. His parents hid it. When he finds out, Abish depicts his astonishment in the wake of Kristalnacht. He depicts the haunting moment when his child’s world is “defamiliarized” by sheer anti-semitism that made him and his family the targets of its monstrous evil:

How could I fail to comprehend what was going on? Didn’t my parents unease rub off of me? The one day I vividly recall at the Jewish school, the only school I was permitted to attend, was the final day. At first the clamour from the street was barely audible. As the noise increased, our apprehensive teachers kept consulting each other, no knowing what to do. Despite the escalating commotion on the street below, we left the school at the customary hour without receiving any warning. Not that it would have made a difference. As we exited the school, I recall a sprinkling of SA wearing their power-affirming swastika armbands standing by impassively as a swarm of jeering screeching women and truculent neighborhood kids, catching sight of us, surged forward…our invincible maid stepped forward…with an expression of someone not to be trifled with….Her fury more than matched that of my antagonist….While playing with several boys, I recall, one of them asked: “Bist du narrish?” When I inquired at home, my parents were amused at my having confused arish, which means Aryan, with narrish, meaning daft or nuts. The incident hardly registered until a few weeks later, when several grim-faced SA enforcers, driven by self-righteous anger, invaded the tiny enclave screaming, “Juden Raus!” (Jews Out!)….Overnight my familiar world was defamiliarized. Could this be the origin of my fascination with the quotidian – the familiar everyday world? (25)