How Personal Is It

By Daniel Septimus

Published April 23, 2004, issue of April 23, 2004.
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Double Vision: A Self-Portrait
By Walter Abish
Alfred A. Knopf, 220 pages, $24.

Walter Abish’s latest book is subtitled “A Self-Portrait,” and though this description suits it better than the usual “A Memoir,” “Self-Portraits” might have been even more accurate.

“Double Vision” combines two alternating narratives, “The Writer-To-Be” and “The Writer.” The former details Abish’s childhood in pre-Nazi Vienna, his family’s escape to France, Shanghai, and eventually Israel. The latter chronicles Abish’s 1982 trip to Austria and Germany after the publication of “How German Is It,” his most important novel. As their titles imply, the two narratives are concerned with the conception and life of a writer. This is the angle of Abish’s self-portrait, and it both illuminates and obscures.

Abish analyzes his memories in relation to his future career. For example, he introduces a formative love affair with the question, “Does the writer-to-be view love as the ideal text-to-be?” About his parents, he writes, “Each contributed to the doubt and uncertainty that permeate the life of a writer.” This microscopic portrait of Abish-the-Writer adds nuance and intrigue to his story, but it’s shadowed by the omissions and distortions it necessitates.

To be fair, for Abish, a writer is not merely one who writes. Being a writer means being afflicted with a condition, one rooted in instability and duality. Indeed, the double vision of the book’s title refers to a number of things, but it is, most importantly, a reference to this state of being. Abish’s nomadic life triggered his double vision. As a child, his identity was constantly subverted and questioned. “We were fleeing the Germans, but in Nice, where I was enrolled in school, given the strong anti-German sentiment, I became ‘the Bosch’ — a derogatory word to designate a German.” Later, Abish describes his British friends in Shanghai donning red armbands with the letter “B.” Abish writes, “I was made acutely aware that I had no such symbolic letter to feel the least bit proud of.”

Abish’s early experiences may be the source of his identity problem, but “The Writer-To-Be” sections of “Double Vision” are the least problematic. His tales of life during World War II and the infancy of the State of Israel are remarkably fresh. This is an astounding feat given how much literature has been devoted to these topics. Indeed, Abish takes many of the prevailing images of Jewish life in the 1940s and turns them on their head. His depiction of an Israeli army where petty thievery and incompetence abound is both informative and amusing. His evocation of German Jews recreating cultured, bourgeois communities in exotic Shanghai and Tel Aviv engenders inspiration and sympathy.

“The Writer” sections are not as successful. Abish’s first trip to Germany should be climactic for both the writer and reader. His controversial yet widely-acclaimed 1980 novel “How German Is It,” was set in Germany even though the novelist had never set foot in the Fatherland (the goal, he writes in “Double Vision” was, “to elicit a multiple, if indeterminate response. I was inviting the reader to bring his or her accumulated German material, his or her particular version of Germany, to the text.”) Unfortunately, the narrative is rather lifeless. There are some affecting moments (“Neat German houses straight out of ‘How German Is It’ — could anything be better?”), but for the most part, Abish seems unenthused by what he finds.

“Double Vision” is, at times, intimate and insightful, and at other times insipid and detached, and the angle of the self-portrait is partly to blame. When Abish considers his lover a potential text, for example, it dehumanizes both Abish and the lover. Moreover, though Abish is an extraordinary writer, sometimes “Double Vision” reads like an extraordinary first draft. It contains scenes of evocative virtuosity (“Chinese policemen…laughingly kicking a bulky package — actually a dead infant neatly wrapped in newspaper and tied with cord”) and others that seem copied from personal journals (“Evening, I attend a brass-quintet concert with Kirk Brafford. Several of the musicians were his friends. Later, dinner at Tre Colonne.”).

Then again, “Double Vision” is a self-portrait — the creation of an artist viewing himself at a given point in time, in a certain light, with certain colorations. Idiosyncrasy is inevitable. And in case the idiosyncrasies weren’t obvious enough, “Double Vision” concludes with a chapter set in — of all places — Mexico, with Abish contemplating Mayan civilization and the relationship between its achievements and barbarity.

One might interpret this as a meditation on German culture, and given the dualities that suffuse “Double Vision” it might be, but these final thoughts are also directed inward. No doubt, Abish is contemplating the paradox of his existence, the destructive and catastrophic conditions that made him the writer — the creator — he’s become.

Daniel Septimus is a freelance writer and editor. He lives in Brooklyn.

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