Double Vision: A Self-Portrait

Double Vision: A Self-Portrait

by Walter Abish

Walter Abish confronts and encapsulates the historic upheavals of the mid-twentieth century in this deceptively simple, and quietly wrenching account of two journeys.

The first begins in Vienna, where Abish was born in the 1930s in the Jewish, but not-too-Jewish, household of a prosperous perfumer. Then it ricochets around the world as his parents flee first to

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Walter Abish confronts and encapsulates the historic upheavals of the mid-twentieth century in this deceptively simple, and quietly wrenching account of two journeys.

The first begins in Vienna, where Abish was born in the 1930s in the Jewish, but not-too-Jewish, household of a prosperous perfumer. Then it ricochets around the world as his parents flee first to France (his mother had to sneak alone across the Italian border), then to war-torn Shanghai under Japanese occupation, just ahead of Mao's army, then to Israel.

Incapable of understanding his family's desperate situation, Abish as a boy creates his own private world, filtering out precarious and terrifying realities.

Abish describes fantastic events in the coolest tones. In precise, haunting detail, he records the perceptions of a child who registers and remembers what he will only later understand. He writes of the day in the park when a stranger suddenly screams "Jews out!" and he and his frail grandmother run for the exit in a panic as the other children and grandmothers stand and watch; the day his father is released by the Gestapo because a man in the room owes him money that he has never tried to collect and says, "Let Abish go - he's okay"; of the time his father speaks to him about inheriting his perfume business, as they stand on the deck of a ship bound for China.

The first journey recounts the flight; the second journey chronicles the return: Abish writes about how, in the 1980s, he went on a tour to Germany to launch the translation of his award-winning novel How German Is It - a book he wrote without ever having set foot there, deliberately, because he wished to elicit the idea of Germanness in what was "afantasy of Germany." This tour of what to him is an unfamiliar society includes a side trip to Vienna, where he glimpses the life he might have experienced and has the horrifying feeling that he never left.

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Editorial Reviews

Noah Isenberg
By turns introspective, provisional and fragmentary, the book develops into two distinct, if overlapping, narratives: the story of his childhood, with various portents of his adult life, and a series of animated and somewhat vexing accounts of a book tour in Germany during the 1980's.
The New York Times
The Washington Post
Abish's memoir lays bare the fraught nature of the Jewish émigré relationship to the Nazi past of Germany and Austria in ways the author cannot perceive. He cannot see modern Germany (or Vienna, for that matter) for what it is, rather than what it was. It is a case of double vision in more senses than one. — Steven Beller
Publishers Weekly
Abish (How German Is It, etc.) intercuts the story of his early years with a modern account of his first visit to Germany and his return to his birth city, Vienna. He was six in 1938 when Hitler annexed Austria and the Jews were expropriated. He remembers a precise number of suitcases being packed at a precise time, with no one explaining why his nicely secular, Jewish bourgeois family was suddenly undesirable. His family fled to Italy and then France before shipping to Shanghai, where they lived until 1948, when the Chinese Red Army forced a move, to Israel. At each stop, Abish watched European Jews recreate their familiar cultural fabric-their preoccupation with ironic repartee, their coffeehouses, even their synagogues for those still inclined to pray. He watched and listened everywhere, almost as if spying on his own life. So, too, in his travel back to Europe, his cultural radar tests the familiar for falseness, looking beneath cultural arrangements for their meaning. Wandering German cities, visiting the concentration camp at Dachau or his former home in Vienna, he's constantly trying to pierce the polite facades of denial by which modern, intellectually fashionable Germans evade the truth of their extermination of the Jews and their continuing anti-Semitism. He insists on complexity, noticing the smallest gesture, the little laugh, the comment not made. What emerges is a sense of how nations construct their identities by very careful editing. To read human history through the lens of one's own life is memoir at its best-and Abish is magnificent. (Feb. 9) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The author of a variety of novels, short stories, and poetry, Abish caused quite a stir when his best-known novel, How German Is It?, was released in 1980. Despite its realistic depiction of German life and psyche, he wrote the novel never having actually traveled to Germany. In this memoir, he details the process of writing and promoting How German Is It?, along with many of the other experiences that shaped his life and set him apart as a novelist. The memoir begins with a glimpse of his family life as a young child. His experiences were similar to those of many displaced families at the time: They fled Austria in 1938 and eventually went on to live in Italy, France, China, and Israel. Each of these stays was peppered with adventures-both unique and harrowing. Abish's vivid imagery provides the reader with a sense of Europe during the late 1930s and 1940s, with all of its chaos, confusion, and uncertainty. The story moves back and forth between Abish's childhood and his journeys as an adult, but the stories of his youth have the most impact. A wonderful addition to any library, public or academic.-Valeda F. Dent, Hunter Coll., New York Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Free-floating memories of a Viennese Jewish childhood and flight from the Anschluss, roughly stitched together in a strappingly formal voice and counterpointed by Abish's later visit to Austria. Readers are brought directly into the custard of novelist Abish's (Eclipse Fever, 1993, etc.) fraught youth and pummeled with runaway questions: "What, then, did I find so disquieting? Was it the logic that dictated their shared agenda? The practical motives?" Disquiet for sure, as Abish rolls in ambiguity, indeterminacy, and equivocation like a dog in something long dead. "Was this, I wonder, my very first awareness of self-deception?" he asks when considering his family's poor excuse for a Christmas tree in his youth. Upon returning to his childhood home years later, he "experienced a satisfaction at feeling so indifferent. It was just another house!" Surely his flight from the Nazis was a scary event, but Abish chronicles it as a series of glancing encounters: the night his family was told to leave their home in one hour's time; his game of catch with the ghetto's administrator, "a maniacal individual whose actions frequently bordered on unbridled lunacy." This approach can be frustratingly elliptical, but there are some remarkably sharp isolated tableaux. Forget the evocations, look at the shadows being thrown: surviving inmates from death camps, "marched by maniacal guards . . . across the devastated landscape of Poland," or the author's grim realization that as an Austrian Jew he is the enemy in Israel. Anselm Kiefer provides a loophole into an episode of self-recognition for Abish, as does a tightly knit synagogue community, a mnemonic center of gravity "swaying in prayer, their voicespitched high, filling the air with such acute urgency, such passion that for once I, by heart a skeptic, a doubter, felt my resistance fade." Images and emotions indistinct and unresolved, presented as if glimpsed from a seat in a passing train. Even when they burn, Abish provides a protective distance. Agency: Donadio & Olson

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Product Details

Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.84(w) x 9.52(h) x 0.70(d)

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