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?”