It must have seemed perfectly natural to Walter Abish, famous for experimental rather than straightforward narrative, to imagine that the talent that has served him well as a fiction writer might easily, and with equal success, be applied to a memoir. And why, after all, should it not?
Abish was born in Vienna in 1931 into a family of middle-class assimilated Austrian Jews who, in flight from the Nazis, found themselves on one journey after another into refugee status: first to Nice, then to Shanghai, then to Israel, and finally to the United States. In America, Walter became an English-speaking teacher and writer, producing one well-received postmodernist fiction after another throughout the late '70s and '80s. His best-known work is How German Is It, for which he was given the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1981. Now, in his seventies, he sets out to tell a tale taken directly from life.
Double Vision is composed of discrete prose sections that alternate between recollections of family lifeóin Vienna, Shanghai, and Tel Avivóand episodic accounts of two European trips that Abish took in the '80s. In the first of these sections we are told that until the Nazis arrived in Vienna, the family was prosperous, had servants, took summer vacations, and wore beautiful clothes. Walter's father was kind, generous, and silent; his mother cold, capable, dissatisfied; and he himself a bored, smug, supercilious brat whom Abish regularly characterizes as the "writer-to-be." Whatever their secret longings, the family organized relentlessly around bourgeois correctness. In Shanghai, they joined a community of exiled Jews that "rigorously upheld what were essentially European values and maintained its hierarchies, with its attendant respect for the Professor, the Lawyer, and the Doctor."
On the trips back to Europe in the '80s, Abish is, of course, concentrated on his return as a Jew to the German-speaking countries. Listening to a man on a train headed for Vienna, he notes, "He had the Viennese gift of gab, the rich, pliant Viennese language enabling him to shift back and forth from irony to seeming candor, from self-deprecation to ridicule. . . . I knew I was approaching . . . a city of misleading intimacy." In Berlin he muses, "Many Germans find it inconceivable that a German Jewish working class ever existed, so determined are they to identify their former fellow countrymen as successful physicians, lawyers, art historians, businessmen, or publishers." At the same time, German novelist Klaus Stiller "cannot refer to Jews without an involuntary twinkle of his eyes. I can only conclude that for many people Jews must still be such an oddity."
Unfortunately, both sets of recollections are informed by a pair of rhetorical devices that dominate the structure of the book and, as such, strongly influence both intent and outcomeónegatively, to my way of thinking. The first device is the musing question sentence that never gets answered, the kind that, in modernist fictionóHow was it that I . . . ? Could it have been that she . . . ? Had he not wanted me to . . . ?óis meant to anchor the work in haunting suggestiveness. Here, in Abish's memoir, such sentences translate oddly into "How is it that being Jewish remained so ill defined? . . . Was my father so uncommunicative that I couldn't ever picture him in any close relationship? . . . What prompted me to enter the antique store . . . and then . . . ask if [the tin soldiers] were German, knowing perfectly well that they were?"
Abish's other device is to repeat variations on the phrase "writer-to-be." As in, "I was only their child [but] . . . in my role as writer-to-be, little escaped my attention. . . . Deceitful. Liar. A prig to boot. The price one is made to pay when one is developing into a writer. . . . I watched [in Shanghai as a policeman beat four delinquents], memorizing every detail of this designed cruelty . . . storing it away for the future. After all, that's what writers do."
Here is my problem: The question sentence does indeed slow the reader down, as if in preparation for a passage of reflection; but as the question is merely being asked rhetorically, it soon comes to seem a literary posture rather than an entrée into developing thought. There's a scene in the book where the dilemma of the unanswered question approaches silliness. Walter's parents are dancing in a café, and he, six or seven years old, persists in wedging himself between them. Abish describes the scene and closes with "Did I resent being left by myself at the table to watch them dance in a tight embrace? . . . But how to explain this resolve of mine to join them on the dance floor?" I found myself staring at these sentences, thinking uncharitably, Are you kidding? You're over seventy, and you don't have the answer to this one?
As for the writer-to-be device: This is so often applied to generic childhood experience (the kind common to missionaries, architects, accountants, and actors)óas though these experiences might be specific to the making of an emergent artistóthat it, too, begins to seem an affectation. Certainly it does not work as a means of drawing us into a deeper understanding of the narrator: who he is and how he came to be.
Classically, one of the joys of the personal narrativeóthe term that best describes a memoiróhas been the employment of a lucid intelligence in service to an inborn capacity for reflection, commentary, and analysis, coupled with considerable powers of description. The key word is "reflection." The central pleasure of a truly satisfying memoir is the narrator's ability to reflect, artfully and persuasively. It is reflection in a memoir, on the part of a reliable narrator, that enriches and deepens the prose.
Many famously accomplished poets or novelists have failed miserably at memoir writing because they have no real respect for the task at hand. Their books are shabby affairs because all the while they are writing them, they are paying superficial attention to the creation of the narrator, in essence telling the reader, "This is an inferior genre, one for which I actually have no use." Conversely, it must also be said, sometimes a poet or a novelist of moderate talents will approach the writing of a memoir, only to discover a real gift for bringing the narrator within to strong, unforgettable life. Two magnificent examples of this unexpected development occurred with Edmund Gosse's Father and Son and Storm Jameson's Journey from the North. Gosse wrote reams of Victorian verse that have gone down into oblivion while his memoir lives on, and Jameson wrote forty-five forgettable novels while her two-volume memoir is recognized as a work of remarkable strength.
Reflection does not, of course, occur only in straightforward narrative. Two remarkable practitioners of associative proseóalbeit vastly different, one from anotherówere Marguerite Duras and W.G. Sebald, both of whom wrote brilliant personal narrative, simply because the "story" that each one had come to tell grew out of a set of inner concerns taken directly from life, and mined deeply. Duras's great work is The Lover, billed at the time of publication as a novel but clearly a memoir. This is a work in which the questions being "asked" are "answered" through a set of subliminal associations that make the apparently mysterious transitions between discrete passages feel extraordinarily "right." The sections haunt one another, and the reader is drawn, ever more ineluctably, inward. There is no doubt that what we have on the page is an act of reflection as reflection is experienced in a poetic being. In her own altogether strange way, the narrator is really asking, Who am I, and how did I get to be as I am? The same goes for Sebald. In Rings of Saturn the act of reflection on the part of a narrator who is clearly the writer is also accomplished through the mystery of transitions that, on the surface, resemble a peculiar sort of free association but are soon felt as a powerful reflectiveness of moodóbleak but not melancholy, cold but not withdrawn, scholarly but not detachedóthat is, in itself, the "story" this narrator has come to tell. For me, this mood, so fully delivered, is memoir enough.
Double Vision opens ambitiously: "That's why things happened the way they did. The oppressiveness of good manners . . . My discontent . . . The way I smileóreluctantly. The way I reveal my anger . . . Is there no freedom at all from the family?" Those words obligated their author to create a narrator who guides readers into an ever-deepening investigation of inner experience. No easy task. Abish is an intelligent, skilled writer, informed and observant, and his desire to write honestly is never in question. But his book reminds us that memoir writing depends on the excavation of a storytelling self whose engagement is as acute as that of any fictional narrator.
Vivian Gornick's most recent book is The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002).