Walter Abish: "Double-Vision: A Self-Portrait"
(First published in The New York Observer)
We’re all impatient for the memoir to evolve—who needs more cross-eyed mirror-gazing?—but don’t expect the first stabs at a less narrowly focused generation of autobiographical writing to be 20-20, or even particularly legible. Case in point is Walter Abish’s Double Vision, a memoir that doesn’t content itself with a single narrative but ambitiously seeks to lend resonance and perspective to its subject through stereoscopic storylines. Mr. Abish tells two stories meant to enlarge each other: one an account of how he and his Jewish parents fled Vienna in 1938, the other a travelogue of his first visit back to Vienna in the 1980’s, a few years after he published his prize-winning novel, How German Is It (1980). Like many pioneering efforts, the new book is deeply flawed, but the flaws are interesting, and in their own way add to the experience.
First, because they are severe, the shortcomings. For a writer generally considered "elegant," Mr. Abish here uses English so infelicitously that you wonder how long he’s been speaking it. The book is filled with sentences you have to slug your way out of, like this description of his "exuberant" uncle Phoebus: "Even his dubious integrity in business matters excited in me a sympathetic response—for wasn’t Phoebus confirming my picture of him as the black sheep, who finally, as Phoebus did, moved to Sydney, Australia?" Mr. Abish’s syntax is so clumsy, his phraseology so convoluted and even his word choice so frequently questionable (is "unappealing" the right word for torture that includes the plucking out of fingernails?), that vast swaths of Double Vision read like a bad translation of itself.
There’s also the egregious overuse of the rhetorical question. "Isn’t history a form of story telling?" he asks on page 8. "How could I possibly have apprehended that I was being rigorously trained to be a writer? … Was I not being trained in obduracy to wage war on the impediments, such as the blank pages, I was to face years later? Was I not being trained to surmount the hurdles of the text? Did they not see it? How could they have missed it? … Did I not detest myself as a result? … Is it any wonder I sought refuge in play?" he asks—also on page 8. When he’s in full throat, the Old World oratory ringing out, Mr. Abish can pack a half-dozen or more self-interrogatives onto a single page. The effect is comical, if you happen to enjoy having an Austrian grandfather clutch you by the shoulder and spray your face with magniloquence.
Some of Mr. Abish’s observations have outlived their sell-by date: "Until recently I considered the declaration ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ above the [Dachau] concentration camp gates as more malevolently ironic than a solemn avowal," he writes. "I now understand that the intent was primarily utilitarian. For … the misleading signs were essential to the smooth operation of the facilities … intended to allay the apprehension of the new arrivals." As if to make up for these stale banalities, other observations are overblown: "As I left the monument, an exhausted collarless German shepherd limped past, trailing blood …. Clearly, it has to be a message beamed at me!" Relentlessly, everything must signify, until by force of habit he turns the grilling back on himself: "I keep persuading myself that everything I see, every conversation I have, is potential material for future use. But is that so? Most exchanges are oddly dissatisfying; it’s as if an unseen caution prevails—on my part? on theirs?"
Wait, it gets worse before it gets better. To say that most of the characters in this book are unlikeable is letting their creator off too easily; it’s more that Mr. Abish perversely denies them even a molecule of likeability. One after the other they are supercilious, spiteful, petty, humorless, often sneering and always inscrutably ironic. Irony, in fact, is the prevailing mood, when it doesn’t surrender to lassitude. ("There is, I suppose, a certain satisfaction to be derived from the fact that my earliest memory is that of being bored.") Is the reader to blame if he’s put off? Precisely how much alienation can we be expected to tolerate? Is that question unfair? What is unfairness, anyway? Why isn’t it capitalized, the way it would be in German? How German Would That Be, Huh?
This is the stand-up version of Teutonism, less Fassbinder than Saturday Night Live.
And yet … and yet, it’s all of a piece. Consciously or not, the strained syntax serves to underscore the disaffection Mr. Abish suffers—having been uprooted at the age of 6—as both a geographical exile and an exile from his native tongue. The tone-deafness adds to the poignancy of a protagonist who is at home nowhere. And the parade of creeps who never get warmer than a lover with "a wan smile of chagrin"—who else was Mr. Abish supposed to encounter, having grown up isolated from other children, suffocated by bourgeois trappings and afflicted by the sense that he was the wrong child for his parents, a remote, grudging mother and a weak, embarrassed father? "I had known that I was merely a capricious factor and not the ineluctable concept that fed their notion of a family," he remarks with wooden pathos.
Personally, I blame the mom, an aloof, psychically numb character. But if the almost inhuman restraint he endured as a child cramps his emotional connection to the reader, and the stilted syntax mirrors the discomfiture he continued to feel as a displaced adult, the architecture of the book nonetheless comes to the rescue. The book is constructed in alternating chapters: "writer-to-be" sections (young Walter fleeing Vienna for Italy, France, Shanghai and then Israel) taking turns with "writer" sections, in which the adult author returns to his native ground on a kind of extended book tour. What we get are fascinating peekaboo glimpses. A raucous young Tel Aviv, for instance, is filled with colorful embezzlers and spies and Holly Golightly women (barely fleshed out, but maybe that’s how it is with Holly Golightly women), a place where thievery is rampant and discourtesy is worn as a badge and "equated with candor," while politeness is "rejected as servile and cosmopolitan—reminders of a disdained European past."
Even better are the rare shots of Shanghai during and after the Allied bombing, when the entire city "lay there, submissive, patiently waiting to be occupied, waiting to place its bottomless resources, its harbor, its bars and whorehouses at the feet of the victors. Shanghai waited the way a courtesan, having just rid herself of a former lover, might timorously await the arrival of the next, still uncertain as to his taste, his experience, his desire for love, determined, however, at all costs, to overcome any doubts she may have had about her fading beauty."
If all his sentences were that pretty, we’d have no problem. As it is, however, we have to rely on the memoir’s innovative structure, which lends a kind of expressive credence to the content: Mr. Abish not only gives us acute glimpses of a world in flux, but also has us experience them viscerally through the back-and-forth configuration of the narrative. Match a 1980’s scene of self-congratulatory Germans with a 1938 scene in which Vienna is being invigorated by Nazism, and suddenly the whole is larger than the sum of its parts.
It’s ballsy for a man who wears an eye patch to talk about double vision. But Mr. Abish has proven himself a ballsy writer more than once before. His latest book gives us greater depth perception than a single line of focus would provide, and proves that the memoir is a more flexible form than it has lately seemed. Double Vision hints at what a new generation of memoir might be capable of—though when it comes to fulfilling its own promise, it blinks big time.