From its unification in 1871 until its comprehensive defeat in 1945, Germany was the most bellicose and nationalistic of modern countries. Nowadays it seems just about the most reliably pacific and cosmopolitan. Yet the image of the German has hardly changed over a century and more. Aren’t the Germans neat, correct, industrious, pedantic and a trifle over-respectful of authority? And doesn’t their apparent humorlessness entitle us to laugh at them? Germany under Hitler indulged, to the point of genocide, a weakness for generalizing about other peoples. Our small revenge is to exempt the Germans from our usual strictures and to feel fine generalizing a little about them.
Besides, it’s hard not to think about the Germans as such. The unequaled dimensions of the Second World War, the remarkable extent of both German culture and German barbarism, the special evil of the Holocaust, followed by the postwar economic miracle, and finally even the stupendous excellence of German cars and coffee makers–all of these make the Germans seem, against our better judgment, a kind of magical, symbolic people. We wonder what about them is unique, what if anything specifically German.
The question has preoccupied Walter Abish more than most. As a Jew who with his parents made a timely escape from Austria in the late 1930s, Abish has had his life shaped by a country he had, until mid-life, never visited. It was Germany that sent his family fleeing from Vienna to Nice to wartime Shanghai and then to Tel Aviv. In Double Vision, Abish alternates memories of this scattered exile with an account of his narrowing approach to Vienna, in 1982, by way of several German cities: As the narrative is structured, he gets closer and closer to home at the same time that he is getting farther and farther away. Abish would like to know who the Germans are or were to have had such a decisive effect on his life. He would also like to know who his parents were to have made him who he is. One effect of this scrupulous memoir is to suggest that the importance of these questions adds nothing to their answerability.
Abish traveled through Germany and Austria not only as a tourist but as an author promoting his book. In 1980 he had published How German Is It, a scabrous fantasy about the new Germany. (It turns out that the sleek, bourgeois city of Brumholdstein has been built directly atop the ruins of a death camp.) The novel bears a subtitle (Wie Deutsch Ist Es) translating its title proper, and Abish elaborates scenes of horror and confusion with that “cool ironic tone” he identifies, in Double Vision, as the register of classical German. Readers might be forgiven for imagining that the book has been translated. In fact, Abish is an American who writes in English, and How German Is It was composed without his having set foot in the country in question. As he explains in his memoir, “My intention in writing How German Is It was to present an equivocal yet neutral text to which the reader would convey his own emotional Germany.”
On the face of it, this account of the novel seems off. Here is a bald statement of intention–about a book whose signal feature, as a psychological novel, is its refusal to ascribe definite motives to its characters. Why should Abish be any clearer on his own motivation? (As he says elsewhere in Double Vision, “Sometimes, motives are simply an afterthought.”) It also seems a stretch to characterize How German Is It as neutral. Its various German characters, almost all deceitful, share a predilection for changing the subject whenever something uncomfortable comes up. Helmuth von Hargenau, the architect of a museum to be erected atop the buried past, flies into a rage when he finds his girlfriend has taken photographs of exhumed bones. And even Ulrich, Helmuth’s decent-seeming brother, can’t escape the prevailing contamination. Placed under hypnosis, the first thing he does is raise his right arm in that helpless Dr. Strangelove way. Much of Abish’s sarcastic narration is similarly unsubtle: Confronted with footage of the camps, his Germans can’t help wondering, “Did this really occur or have these photographs been carefully doctored, ingeniously concocted to denigrate everything German?”
The Germans have often been explained as a case of repression. D.H. Lawrence: “[D]as Heimatland [the homeland], der Tannenbaum [the fir tree]…das Bächlein [the streamlet]–the very words send a German into a swoon of love, which is as often as not entirely false. They make up their feelings in their heads, while their real feelings all go wrong. That’s why Germans come out with such startling and really, silly bursts of hatred.” As a thumbnail psychoanalysis, this seems insightful and even–in 1929–prescient. In How German Is It, on the other side of the war, things are much the same. Helmuth gives a public address rhapsodizing over “the German forest in which dwells our spirit, our ideals, our cultural past, our poetry, our truth,” and full of narcissistic allusions to Teutonic cleanliness and order. The suggestion is that what sentimentality and hygiene once disguised, they might disguise still. Abish makes the point explicit when the breakage of a sewer main discloses the Lager beneath the city. (Anus mundi, some of the Nazis called the camps.)
In Double Vision Abish reacts suspiciously to German readers who doubt the neutrality, the looking-glass quality, of his novel. Doesn’t their defensiveness reveal an unwillingness to own up to the past? The trouble with this idea is that it is unfalsifiable. The Germans either admit their worst traits–or they deny them. Either thing is taken as proof.
And yet Abish’s skepticism wins out over mere suspiciousness in both How German Is It and Double Vision. He is rigorously and regretfully uncertain as to why people, whether real or made up, behave as they do. Abish belongs to the metafictional school of postwar American fiction; his work, like that of Barth, Gass, Coover and Hawkes, is a sort of virtuoso demonstration of the inadequacy of language, in which the words pretending to deliver the sweet truth are revealed as a bill of goods. If How German Is It has aged better than other metafictions, it’s largely because of the pathos of Abish’s uncertainty. There are, he steadily implies, answers to our questions of national and personal identity, but they lie outside of reach, so that our only contact with the truth is to long for it. The problem is particularly acute in the case of the Germans: It is vital to know why they did what they did and also, strictly speaking, impossible.
The other reason to read Abish is for his language, with its chilled comedy and rueful precision. In Double Vision he illustrates the tragicomic strangeness of a refugee community in Japanese-occupied Shanghai like this: “I can recall being made to memorize a long list of Israelite kings following the split under King Rehoboam, but not once did I hear mention of a Chinese emperor. After all, why study China? The thinking went that one could look out the window and pretty much absorb all there was to see of China.” Amused in spite of his family’s precarious situation, Abish as a narrator combines the reported traits of his parents–“the efficiently cool and remote mother” and the almost absurdly good-natured father. (Imprisoned temporarily in a Vichy French camp for “enemy aliens,” Abish’s father “maintained that the outdoor life was a pleasant change.”)
Through most of its pages, Double Vision seems oddly unthematic, even disorganized. Abish presents his memories exquisitely, but what do they add up to? In the end you see that this open question is itself his theme. As both “The Writer” (visiting Germany) and “The Writer-to-Be” (fleeing the Germans), Abish wants experience to confirm his literary anticipations–as if to take photographs to which he’s already written the captions. Real photographs, an obsession in both the memoir and novel, can therefore distress him. “Where was I when this photograph was taken?” The snapshot depicts his parents in France. “Who took it? It invalidates so much of what I have described. Did they feel a need to keep their affectionate relationship a secret from me?”
It’s as easy to accept the premise of psychoanalysis–that the half-forgotten experience of our parents makes us who we are–as it is difficult to accept most of the conclusions. And something like this goes for the world of history and politics as well. Moreover, it will be some time before the Germans strike us, as our parents never do, as mere ordinary people. Samuel Beckett defined the problem of many sophisticated postwar novelists when he said that “there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, together with the obligation to express.” Substitute “know” for “express,” and you get some sense of Walter Abish’s dilemma and his achievement.