The New York Times
Double Vision: A Self-Portraitby Walter Abish
Walter Abish, the internationally acclaimed author of How German Is It, examines these questions through the prism of his own experience, and confronts and encapsulates the historic upheavals of the mid-twentieth century in this brilliant,/i>
Does one ever escape from the family? How much do we understand about our own past? How do we come to be who we are?
Walter Abish, the internationally acclaimed author of How German Is It, examines these questions through the prism of his own experience, and confronts and encapsulates the historic upheavals of the mid-twentieth century in this brilliant, deceptively simple, and quietly wrenching account of his 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 thereturn: 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 "a fantasy 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.
Double Vision is a book that cuts to the quick. With unflinching candor, humor, and affection, Abish re-creates the way it feels to be a child and to look at your parents and wonder who they are. To be an adult and catch them in every corner of your personality. To look back on the world of your youth and realize both what you noticed and what you missed. It is a stunning achievement.
Walter Abish is the author of three novels, three collections of short stories, and a book of poems. He has been the recipient of a grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation as well as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. His other awards include a Lila Wallace–Reader's Digest Writer's Award and the 1991 Award of Merit Medal from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He lives in New York City.
The New York Times
- Knopf Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 5.84(w) x 9.52(h) x 0.70(d)
Read an Excerpt
That's why things happened the way they did. The oppressiveness of good manners. The emotional repression. My discontent. That's why my head is shaped the way it is. That's why my eyes are blue. We are talking about genes. About inherited traits. The way I smile—reluctantly. The way I reveal my anger. The reason I walk in a certain way. Is there no freedom at all from the family? The efficiently cool and remote mother and the energetic businessman father. Their distinctly separate worlds, their separate concerns collide uneasily in my brain. I would like to think that together, though each not communicating his or her desire to the other, they managed, if you will, to fabricate a writer. They, who essentially did not and could not know how a writer functions, by their approach, their passion, their view of everyday life, combined to turn me into one. It was their unspoken plan—a desire they had never voiced. Evidently a desire so secret that after I became a writer they continued to withhold their approval for fear that I might yet change my mind. "Ah, a writer!" My father glanced doubtfully at me, not wishing to say anything that might wound me. "A risky business!" On the other hand he couldn't restrain his enthusiastic approval at my driving skill—"You're a far better driver than Frank"—when, on one of his infrequent visits to New York in the early seventies, I picked him up at La Guardia and drove him to our home. It may have been the first time he had seen me at the wheel of a car. From him, this favorable comparison to Frank—a close friend of the family and, in the U.S., his business partner—was theultimate compliment. Was it that he had never been led to expect much from me? Observing me drive well may have given him a little more confidence in my general capabilities. Driving was one thing he could judge me by. Clearly, in that respect I had passed with honors.
How readily I was able to identify with my sophisticated mother, and yet, in retrospect, it's my father I love unabashedly. No complications there. I love him, I have to admit, because he is so easy to love. He concealed his complications, if any. He didn't burden anyone with the intricacies of his thoughts. He hid everything but his overwhelming affection and generosity. His readiness to help, to give of himself: today he'd be labeled a softie. Not infrequently he was censured for this. All the same, for many he was exemplary—ideal, special. Yet, wasn't there also underlying this near-unanimous esteem and praise ("Ah, Herr Abish, a wonderful man!") a mild condescension? As if his conscientiousness and trustworthiness—or more likely, his reluctance to shine—implied a deficiency? Indeed, he disliked being the center of attention. Receiving gifts made him uncomfortable. He was easy to love. He was emotionally predictable—by that I mean he didn't ever seem to question or measure the degree to which he was fond of someone. There was a perseverance to his attachments. In his uncomplicated way he did not seem to waver in his commitments. Whereas for my mother, attachment, like so much else, was transitory. It had first to be examined for probable flaws, for defects. So much seemed to be at stake—above all, one's self-esteem, one's picture of oneself. My mother preferred to control the display of her emotions, control—to the degree this was possible—any expression or even sign of love. I suspect to heighten the love she might have felt, it needed to be made more tangible, it needed to be staged. Then, only then, like any well-rehearsed performance, it could be both exquisite and irresistible. For one thing, it enabled me, as the infrequent recipient of her love, to appreciate the setting in which the emotions were given their release—in order to what? Wasn't it to love as tentatively and as provisionally but with a kind of exquisite grace?
But why did they have me? I was the wrong child for them. I provided far too little satisfaction, far too little pleasure. Everything in me spelled out a meager diet. It was as if, all along, I had known that I was merely a capricious factor and not the ineluctable concept that fed their notion of a family. True, my presence permitted them to perform their roles more effectively. My presence—trying as it may have been at times—encouraged them to go on with their daily lives, safe in the knowledge that as "parents" they now would be free of criticism. I arrived to regulate their lives, to accentuate the "willed" normality of their coexistence. When I arrived, there was already a schedule awaiting me. Every possible eventuality was taken into consideration. Was it not from a need to avoid the unexpected? I neatly slipped into a niche, my everyday needs and expectations anticipated—or so it seemed. In turn my mother gracefully glided into a caring maternal role, while my father, lacking my mother's innate skill and intuition, adopted the role of father in the way he had come to accept business opportunities that came his way, gravely and responsibly. Not much personal involvement was required of him. To think that they accomplished this without any prior rehearsal, without any prior instructions! There must have been a Viennese Dr. Spock or Dr. Skinner to guide them. But did they prepare for me the way one apprehensively prepares for a relative who for months has threatened to visit—a visit that has no end in sight? They furnished my room—so confident were they of my arrival. Yes, shortly after their wedding, when the apartment was being redecorated, my future tastes were already being taken into consideration. My mother was preoccupied with the selection of an appropriate name for me. Was it to be Günther, Peter, Fritz, Georg, Ernst, Franz, Adalbert, Maximilian, Magnus? No easy matter, for did not the name define everything that was to take place? As far as my father was concerned, without his having to give the matter a great deal of thought, I was destined to step into his well-polished shoes and, in time, become a successful perfumer. My mother, I surmise, may have had more elaborate and high-minded designs. Each contributed to what I presently am. Each contributed to the doubt and uncertainty that permeate the life of a writer.
I accepted them as parents and yet, in the innermost recess of my mind, I must have remained bewildered to see them together. United. For I sensed they were not—at any rate, not then. Later, much later, yes. What was it that I failed to recognize? I did not see them together often and long enough to recognize anything. What, then, did I find so disquieting? Was it the logic that dictated their shared agendas? The practical motives? The monotonous yet reassuring routine? The harmonious—isn't that the appropriate word?—routine of everyday life? Was there something about this pattern that enraged me? Was my spitefully divisive rebelliousness a prewriterly criticism of the then-prevailing bourgeois values: an awareness that the rules of conduct my parents observed so religiously were rules that would, if one permitted them, also flatten all joy in life? Maybe so. All my tantrums accomplished was to bring my parents closer together. My father regarded me with serious concern. He could not decipher the symptoms. And my mother? Ah, she decoded everything: every sidelong glance, every hesitant pause, each time I gritted my teeth, every time I clenched my fist.
I was their product. Their first and, it turned out, their sole product. They showed a total lack of interest in trying once more, if only in order to improve the model. "Certainly not!" my mother replied sharply to the gentleman who with great presumption had inquired (in my presence, no less) if she wasn't intending to have another child. I couldn't be sure if her marked look of distaste was directed at the man who had so tactlessly raised the question or if it might not be a natural reaction to the thought, the mere suspicion, that my identifying mark, my supercilious smirk, would be stamped like a trademark on the face of the next child. In any event, her terse response was entirely consistent with my prescient view of myself. Largely isolated from the company of other children, I daily breathed the air of my mother's sharp, uncompromising skepticism and my father's unreasonable optimism. It was an optimism that withstood our many challenges—the invincible optimism that continued to defy us, soaring high above our heads, my mother's and mine, flourishing there despite our ceaseless attempts to ground it. How fortunate my father was not to share our interests—not to speak our language! For was it not always a censorious and fault-finding language, a language replete with subtexts befitting a critic?
I was their only child. I was there to observe them, to watch their comings and goings. I was put there to fuel my mother's frustration. In that respect, each one of us managed to give a flawless performance. My enterprising father, in and out of the house like clockwork. Undemanding, unobservant. Alert only to what interested him. There was little in the house—my mother's domain—that held his attention. He preferred the tranquillity of his beloved Viennese cafes, these cozy retreats where he could read his newspapers and journals undisturbed. I suspect that the cafes ranked second in importance only to his business, to his treasured perfumes—those tiny, elegantly shaped bottles snugly encased in their pale yellow boxes bearing the name Molinard as well their poetic fragrances: Ambre, Iles d'Or, Habanita, Fleurettes, Orval. Whenever my father would pull out his handkerchief, the entire room, within seconds, was filled with the delicate fragrance of those evocative names. My mother did not conceal her preference for Guerlain. At what age did I understand her choice to be an outright rejection—what else?—of my father's taste?
In my role as writer-to-be, little escaped my attention. Did they sense it? I was grotesque, I was poisonous. How I came to hate the shrill, spiteful sound of my voice! From the age of three I was conscious of everything that impeded my freedom. I was continually prevented from doing what I wanted. I couldn't leave the house because it might be windy and cold. I couldn't play because it was time for my bath. I was encouraged to eat when I had little desire to. Forced to sleep when I didn't wish to. Compelled to take a walk when by far I would have preferred to do something else instead. Even my bowel movements were scrutinized the way the ancients studied the entrails in the hope of extracting from them my uncertain future—as if my scarce and reluctant output might be made to disclose my fate. Ein Bemserl, I'd gleefully report—a minimum requirement. Barely a passing grade. How could I possibly have apprehended that I was being rigorously trained to be a writer? And that, in turn, my unease and resistance to the unswerving rules imposed upon me might be viewed as nothing but a preparation for the obstructions to come. 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? It was so obvious. My writerly concerns were, after all, printed all over my hideously distorted face. Deceitful. Liar. A prig to boot. The price one is made to pay when one is developing into a writer.
Did I not detest myself as a result? No. Hardly. To escape self-hatred I learned to like myself the way an inept writer comes to delude himself that what he has written will stand up to criticism, comes to reassure himself by saying, "But this is not too bad!"
Already at an early age I was given to understand that Geschichte was the strand of intelligence that intricately ordered and conclusively connected all events. This weighty, double-edged German word, appropriately combining "story" and "history" (for isn't history a form of storytelling?), was still treated with near-reverence. The adults around me repeatedly alluded to their immediate past, as if to indicate their willing association to that ongoing pageantry of history—whereas I, a child, was still far apart from history. In fact, Geschichte, a compilation of small and large events, seemed to pose a definite threat. I knew I'd have to measure up. Is it any wonder I sought refuge in play? Under the circumstances, it seems hardly surprising that the few children I encountered seemed, like me, to be out-of-step misfits, dwarfs, midgets, little grown-ups that were dependent for all their wants on the adults and, like pet cocker spaniels, though pampered, tolerated, and protected, were essentially an irritant and occasional source of amusement.
How was I to understand the adults who spoke so wistfully of their childhood as the best time in their lives? The best time? Surely not? The games they had played, the fun they had, the friendships: had every grown-up lived a life so different from my own? From the way it was described to me, childhood was an almost chimerical poetic event, an unending dream. They spoke of it yearningly, intending to elicit some corresponding spark. Either they were out-and-out self-deceivers, I decided—and the look on my mother's face led me to conclude that to be the correct conclusion—or they belonged to another planet, a world I had never encountered, a world enviably free of constriction, of plans and schedules, a world free of tests.
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