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Walter Abish (1931–2022)

Teoksen How German Is It tekijä

12+ teosta 993 jäsentä 13 arvostelua 8 Favorited

Tietoja tekijästä

Walter Abish was born in Vienna, Austria. Much of his childhood was spent in China. He became an American citizen in 1960. Abish's fascination with human communication led him to write works focused on the use of language. His first novel, Alphabetical Africa (1974), was an experiment in näytä lisää alliteration, moving forward and backward through the alphabet while telling the story. Throughout the 1970s, he wrote short stories that demonstrated a variety of unique writing formats. His second novel, How German Is It (1980), a more conventionally written book, received the 1981 PEN/Faulkner award, an honor bestowed by his peers. In Eclipse Fever (1993), Abish continues to play with language, this time within the context of a suspense story about Mexico's social and intellectual elite. Abish lives in New York where he is a lecturer in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. (Bowker Author Biography) näytä vähemmän

Sisältää nimet: W ABISH, Walter Abish

Image credit: Joyce Ravid

Tekijän teokset

How German Is It (1982) 432 kappaletta
Alphabetical Africa (1974) 237 kappaletta
Eclipse Fever (1993) 114 kappaletta
In the Future Perfect (1977) 74 kappaletta
Minds Meet (1644) 43 kappaletta
Double Vision: A Self-Portrait (1841) 30 kappaletta
Thomas Demand: Nationalgalerie (2009) 7 kappaletta
Contemporary American Fiction (1983) 2 kappaletta
Duel Site (1970) 2 kappaletta
Renegade #1 1 kappale

Associated Works

Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology (1997) — Avustaja — 278 kappaletta
Granta 28: Birthday: The Anniversary Issue (1989) — Avustaja — 150 kappaletta
Granta 4: Beyond the Crisis (1989) — Avustaja — 36 kappaletta
The Best American Short Stories 1981 (1981) — Avustaja — 34 kappaletta
Individuals: Post-Movement Art in America (1977) — Avustaja — 24 kappaletta
New Directions in Prose and Poetry 27 (1973) — Avustaja — 3 kappaletta
New Directions in Prose and Poetry 35 (1977) — Avustaja — 3 kappaletta
New Directions in Prose and Poetry 33 (2010) — Avustaja — 3 kappaletta
Personal Injury Magazine, no. 4 — Avustaja — 1 kappale

Merkitty avainsanalla


Kanoninen nimi
Abish, Walter
Vienna, Austria
New York, New York, USA
Vienna, Austria
Nice, France
Shanghai, China
New York, New York, USA
Holocaust survivor
short story writer
librarian (näytä kaikki 7)
International PEN
Palkinnot ja kunnianosoitukset
Guggenheim Fellowship
MacArthur Fellowship (1987)
American Academy of Arts and Sciences (fellow, 1998)
Lyhyt elämäkerta
Walter Abish was born to a prosperous Jewish family in Vienna, Austria. His parents were Friedl and Adolph Abish, a perfumer. After Nazi Germany's Anschluss (annexation) of Austria, they fled the country, traveling first to Nice, France, before taking a ship to Shanghai, China. They lived there in a Jewish ghetto from 1940 to 1948. In 1948, they moved to Israel, where Abish served in the army and then worked in the American Library. In 1957, the family emigrated to the USA. He was in his 40s when he published his debut novel, Alphabetical Africa, in 1974. It was the first of his experimental fiction works, and was quickly followed by his first collection of short stories, Minds Meet (1975). His second novel, How German Is It?/Wie Deutsch ist es? (1980), is his most celebrated work and won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1981. Abish received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1979, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1981, and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1987. In his career, Abish published three novels, three collections of short stories, a volume of poems, and a memoir, Double Vision (2004). He also worked and taught at Empire State College, Wheaton College, the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, Columbia University, Brown University, Yale University, and Cooper Union. He sat on the contributing editorial board of the literary journal Conjunctions, and served on the board of International PEN from 1982 to 1988. He was on the Board of Governors for the New York Foundation for the Arts. Abish was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1998. He married Cecile Gelb, a photographer and sculptor, in Tel Aviv in 1953.



How German Is It was a welcome surprise. It addresses the German culture and identity in the post WWII era, a subject about which I have been curious and have tried to learn, especially during a vacation to Germany in the fall of 2018. Published in 1980, this novel can only address these questions as of that point in time, and as I found out 38 years later the German people are still working out the answers to these questions, and still working on who they are. But 38 years after publication, How German Is It doesn't feel dated. The language is fresh, crisp. The issues brought to the front by the novel do not feel resolved, in fact they feel very relevant.

Where I struggled with the novel and wasn't completely satisfied was with the characters and the plot. Many of the characters are left partially developed. Perhaps this is intentional. Perhaps this is how some of the German citizens today feel. The plot never really happened. It went off in several different directions, all of which were interesting, but none of which was really seen through to the end, except one that felt too minimally developed. This was almost an incredible reading experience, but it was a very enjoyable one and very enlightening as well; it helped me look at the issues in new and different ways.
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afkendrick | 4 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Oct 24, 2020 |
I heard about this book a few years ago and was intrigued by the constraints Abish put on himself while writing: using only words that start with A in the first chapter, then A and B in the second, then A, B, and C in the third, until he get to Z and then to remove letters one chapter at a time, leaving the last chapter with only words that begin with A. It's a rather amazing feat to attempt and when I found the first word that didn't fit the pattern, I was crushed. Never have I been disappointed to see the word "in." It's so innocuous a preposition that you don't even think about using it, but that innocuousness makes the challenge all the greater: he wasn't able to us "the" for 2/3 of the book! Once I found one mistake I tracked another 23 (mostly prepositions, why his editor didn't catch them or tell him is beyond me) over the course of the 152 pages, which is still astounding.

I'm not entirely sure what the story was about, except that it was some rather undefined travels through an unrealistic Africa. Characters kept appearing and then disappearing and I wasn't ever sure if the "ants" were a metaphor for soldiers or not. As letters were added to the alphabet the story became clearer, but never to an extent that I was intrigued by it. What kept me going was to see how well Abish dealt with the challenge, which I think he did admirably well.

… (lisätietoja)
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Bodagirl | 5 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Dec 23, 2017 |
I enjoyed this a great deal. It was funny, engaging, and interesting. The oulipian constraint gave the book an interesting narrative drive: as the letters disappeared, one knew the characters would disappear as well. Reaching P2, I knew that Queen Quat would be gone. At H2, the first-persona narrator would morph into the more abstract "author." In the end, there would be only Alex, Allen, and Alva.

It also worked well that Africa shrank with the vocabulary.
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le.vert.galant | 5 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Jan 26, 2015 |
This book isn't simply "in the line of writers such as Raymond Roussel, Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec and Harry Mathews," as Ashbery says in the back cover copy. That's because, unlike those authors, Abish does not try to match his stories with the constraints he gives himself. His linguistic constraints are "terrifying and irrefutable," as Ashbery says (chapters from A to Z and back to A, each one containing only a subset of letters of the alphabet), but the stories he tells are carefree and funny.

I think this matters because in the Oulipo tradition, the stories that are told have some correspondence, in tone, philosophy, pointlessness, absurdity, and so on, to the rules the authors imposed on themselves. That correspondence is the glue that binds the books together: otherwise Perec and others could have simply taken existing novels or newspaper accounts (as Goldsmith and others do now) and subjected them to predetermined rules. The lack of correspondence in "Alphabetical Africa" is its principal characteristic, I think: after you have marveled at what he's done with his alphabetical rules, and after you've laughed at his stories, you're left wondering whether the two have collided randomly, or for surrealistic purpose, or whether, in fact, Abish never thought through the possible meanings of the lack of correspondence between his insouciant stories and his rigid rules. More on this at the end.

In Perec's "Life: A User's Guide," for example, the elaborately constrained writing is in close harmony with the stories of the people in the apartment building. Just as the principal character tries to make a life that will sum to nothing, so the writer's constraints produce a distorted narrative that cannot conform to ordinary novels. In Roussel, the elaborate rules (which are, in contrast to Perec's, largely unknown, despite Roussel's own book on the subject) are in intricate and partly hidden harmony with the acephalic or obsessive or autistic behavior of his principal characters and his implied narrator.

"Alphabetical Africa" is often very funny. Its humor is a kind I recognize, without difficulty, from other authors of the 1970s. He is interested in Africa's politics ("But can Alva's claims also cure Americans bombing Chad beaches. Anyhow, all concur America's angst cannot corrupt Chadians," p. 6), in the absurdity of the places he visits, and in the ridiculous continuation of colonial and tourist expectations; but he is insouciant about most of it. He is untroubled about mentioning that his characters take acid: they are who they are. The result is a politically invested but carefree tone that reminds me, in a different sphere, of Arlo Guthrie. He spins cliché plots about dictators, spies, and murders, and he weaves in tourist impressions and fears, all in a kind of deadpan colloquial collage.

Meanwhile, each chapter in the first half of the book adds another letter, and each chapter in the second half subtracts one, and the machinery of that expansion and contraction works alongside the stories but almost never to any determinate purpose. A reader watches the first letters of many words, and also attends to the stories. The result is not a surrealist juxtaposition, because it so often seems that Abish is simply trying to write well, in spite of his own constraints. The first chapter "M" is not at all exceptional in this regard:

"My memory isn't accurate anymore. Mentioning my memory makes me feel insecure. A few months ago Alex and Allen kidnapped a jeweler in Antibes and killed him almost inadvertently..."

Because this is chapter "M," a reader will be watching for Abish to display as many m's as he can. So the second sentence here, with four m's, stands out. But the sentence immediately following serves the purpose of furthering one of his stories. So it is not clear how we are expected to attend to the alliterations. Are we to read as Oulipeans for part of one sentence, and then forget that regimen, and think instead about the plot? When "Alphabetical Africa" is funny, it is so in spite of its linguistic constraints. (The first chapter "C" is an excellent example: it's really funny, and doesn't suffer, but also doesn't gain, by being constrained to words beginning with "a," "b," or "c.") Same when it's violent, or absurdist, or intentionally hackneyed.

The principal expressive option here would be surrealism: the stories would be juxtaposed in unexpected and irrational ways with the language used to express them. But that does not happen often, or consistently, and sometimes it seems not to happen intentionally. In most cases, Abish's narrator seems to have one set of concerns, and his compositor another.

In the end, it seemed to me that this is a lighthearted spoof about American attitudes to Africa in the 1970s, placed, for reasons I think the author himself never entirely analyzed, into the "terrifying and irrefutable" Procrustean frame of a linguistic game. It is an example of a book that reveals a crucial criterion for constrained writing: there needs to be a nameable connection between the linguistic constraint and whatever stories are being told. That connection can be a contrast (irrational, surrealist, or satiric) or a harmonious correspondence (between constrained lives and rule-bound writing, between partly unknowable psychologies and partly private constraints, etc.) -- but it has to be something the reader can conclude was planned and controlled, or at least observed, by the writer.


Reading this on Facebook July 2014, Andrei Molotiu noted that some Oulipo writers seem to be great "despite" their Oulipean interests. I might not be interested in such a writer. There should be a strong connection between story and constraints: it can be a strong contrast, or dissociation, or affinity, but it really has to work as a whole: otherwise it seems to me the interest of any constraint is diminished. Note the constraint in this book, by itself, isn't interesting. Anyone can invent a constraint: not everyone can write a book based on a constraint, but that's not a very interesting goal anyway. Relatively few people can figure out how to link or contrast the constraint to the material (story, subject matter, voice, mood).

And just to be clear about the argument I'm proposing: I am not especially interested in organic, harmonious, "coherent" (Ruskin's word) relationships between form and content, or in the humanist or romantic traditions that require such relationships. I do find I want the relationship between form and content to be acknowledged in some manner: form and content can exhibit a radical disconnection, disharmony, incoherence, randomness, surrealism, or irrationalism; regardless of the kind of relationship, I am most engaged when the author (or the narrator, or the text) demonstrates that the problem has been considered. Abish doesn't seem to notice, or care.
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JimElkins | 5 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Jul 9, 2014 |



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