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Walter Abish, daring writer who pondered Germany, dies at 90
In provocative, sometimes linguistically playful experimental fiction, a Vienna-born American traced the complex interplay of modern Germany and its Nazi past.

by Alan Cowell

NEW YORK, NY.- Walter Abish, a widely admired if not widely read American author of experimental fiction whose early life drew a parabola of hasty escapes from hostile forces in Nazi-era Austria and revolutionary China, died Saturday in the New York City borough of Manhattan. He was 90.

Amos Gelb, his nephew, on Tuesday confirmed the death, at Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital, but did not specify a cause.

“Though he has published relatively late and little,” John Updike wrote in a review of Abish’s memoir, “Double Vision: A Self-Portrait,” in The New Yorker in 2004, he “projects a distinctive presence in contemporary letters.”

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 intervening passages perform other linguistic contortions.

One passage under the “A” motif goes like this:

“Ages ago an archaeologist, Albert, alias Arthur, ably attended an archaic African armchair affair at Antibes, attracting attention as an archaeologist and atheist. Ahhh, atheism … anyhow, Albert advocated assisting African ants. Ants? All are astounded. 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, though a stunt it is, and Walter Abish is an intrepid stuntman, eager to disclose his hocus-pocus at every turn.”

Overall, Abish published three novels, three collections of short stories, a volume of poems and the memoir.

His most acclaimed novel was “How German Is It” (1979), which explored the complex interplay between modern Germany, with its strong postwar economy and ordered society, and its roots in the Nazi era. The book won a PEN/Faulkner prize for fiction in 1981 — one of a string of accolades that punctuated Abish’s life as a writer and scholar 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 fictional, newly minted community, Brumholdstein, which turns out to have been built on the site of a German concentration camp. The narrative centers on two brothers, Ulrich Hargenau, a writer who is separated 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,” signifying total precision.)

Early in the book, Ulrich “gravely stares at his face in the mirror and sees Germany’s past sweep before his eyes,” Abish writes. The suggestion is that modern Germany, however sanitized 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 his right hand, for whatever reason, and not be flooded by the memory of a dream to end all dreams?”

The novel portrays Germany as having “something inexpungeably suspect about it,” Updike wrote, adding that 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?”

Writing about the novel in The Times Book Review in 1981, essayist Betty Falkenberg wrote of Abish: “All his writings are an assault on the reassuring familiarity of everyday things. Now Mr. Abish seems to be saying that it is the menace lurking beneath the surface that appeals to the new Germans as a way of experiencing, if only deviously, the unassimilated terror of their past.”

In “Double Vision,” Abish recounts visiting Germany for the first time to promote the German edition of the novel. He describes driving through the western city of Wuppertal and photographing “neat German houses straight out of ‘How German Is It’ — could anything be better?”

Only when he reaches Cologne does he discover that his camera has no film in it. “Somehow,” he writes, “it seems appropriate that I’d been nailing my first impressions of Germany with an empty camera.”

In the memoir, Abish does not mention his signature black triangular eye patch — readily visible in photographs on his book jackets — which led to the book’s title.

“Obviously,” he writes, “the fact that I have double vision was an added inducement to pick the title.” (The medical condition double vision is sometimes treated with an eye patch.)

“My work invites interpretation,” Abish told Tablet magazine in 2004. “To provide explanations is to inhibit the reader’s interaction. Often to explain is to explain away.”

Walter Abish was born Dec. 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, disdained in favor of the French fragrances of the luxury brand Guerlain, Abish wrote in his memoir.

In the book, Abish depicts his parents as disconnected from each other, leaving him uneasy. While his father celebrated Jewish traditions, he writes, his mother saw them as a hindrance to her assimilation into Austria’s gentile society.

Young Walter was on vacation with his mother in the Alps when Germany annexed Austria in 1938, and they quickly returned to Vienna. He recalled being chased from a Viennese playground by Nazi Brownshirts shouting “Juden raus!” — Jews out. His family was ordered to leave their comfortable apartment, and they soon began plotting an escape.

That December they fled to Nice, France, then boarded a ship for Shanghai. There, after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese forces ordered as many as 18,000 Jewish immigrants into an area called Hongkew, which Abish described as a ghetto.

He recalled that as World War II wound down, Allied warplanes attacked the Shanghai docks, warehouses and airfields and sometimes civilian targets as well, including an open-air market in Hongkew, where 250 people were killed, among them 30 Jews. Weeks later, after the Japanese surrender, the U.S. 7th Fleet sailed into Shanghai to begin what turned out to be a freewheeling, if relatively brief, interregnum before revolutionary communist forces took control.

By the late 1940s, as the inevitability of Mao Zedong’s victory over the ruling Kuomintang became unmistakable, hostility toward foreigners increased. And in December 1948, the Abish family sailed for the newly created state of Israel, circumnavigating Africa and reaching Israel by way of the Mediterranean Sea to avoid a perilous passage through the Suez Canal.

He traces this period in his memoir, a narrative mapped out on two intermingled 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.

Abish portrayed his years in Israel as part of his literary evolution, recalling his time as a reluctant young conscript in an army tank unit and subsequently as a librarian at the American Library, run by the now-defunct U.S. Information Agency.

“Is it inevitable that the writer-to-be, variable, inconstant, even disloyal when it comes to obtaining an idea for a story, will view his former 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 writer-to-be view love as the ideal text-to-be?”

In 1957, the family moved on again, and he arrived in New York; he became an American citizen in 1960. In 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 mostly in Mexico City, appeared in 1993. The book, centering on a Mexican literary critic who suspects that his translator wife is having an affair with an American novelist, offers a window on the social and intellectual world of a privileged Mexico City intelligentsia. The reviews were lukewarm at best.

“Mr. Abish’s protagonist is, even for a literary critic, something of a bore,” critic James Atlas wrote in The Times Book Review.

Abish, who lived in Manhattan, married Cecile Gelb, an American photographer and sculptor, in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1953. She survives him. They had no children.

Among his honors, Abish was a fellow of the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations and of the National Endowment for the Arts. He held academic posts 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, in Illinois.

Perhaps some of the most poignant moments of Abish’s memoir concern a six-month spell that he spent in the still-divided Germany in 1987, visiting the Dachau death camp near Munich and relaying snapshot impressions. When he visited Berlin, two years before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, he wrote, “I traveled blindly to the walled-in city, quite unprepared to dismantle the wall I had erected within myself.”

In “How German Is It,” Abish also explores in fiction the strains that history imposes on modern Germans, leading some to deny or question the records of the Holocaust as preserved on film, in print and elsewhere.

“What is one to make of them?” he asks. “The viewers, young and old alike, are faced with the grim problem of whether or not to accept the old film footage of the skeleton-like men and women in their striped prisoners’ uniforms, vacuously staring at the camera. Did this really occur, or have these photographs been carefully doctored, ingeniously concocted simply in order to denigrate everything German?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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