The Topography of the Familiar

DISCUSSED: The Third Reich, Emotional Numbness, Alphabetical Travels, The Inspiration of Constraint, Rubble Literature, The Aesthetics of Process, Erotic Obsession in the Sahara, Exorcising the Fascism out of Language, The Topography of Terror, Concentration Camps, Disrupting the Familiar

The Topography of the Familiar

Benjamin Lytal
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Someone who knows more about books than I do told me to read How German Is It (1979) by Walter Abish. I had never heard of it, but I immediately wanted it. What a title! I rushed right out—at lunch—and bought it. The cover featured a black-and-white photograph of a man on a horse. This same photograph is described in the novel itself: “a horse standing in a lake, in one or two feet of water, with its muscular erect bareback rider wearing a visored military cap and looking into the camera’s lens.”

How German is that? Not very, at first glance. But the military hat does, inevitably, connote the Third Reich, and a rider’s bare legs against a horse’s wet hide might be an image from a German health magazine. These are just generalizations—but what I admired about the cover of How German Is It, and its title in particular, was its seeming willingness to play with stereotypes. The book, I expected, would be either a conceptual parody, or a high-camp travelogue.


In his recent memoir, Double Vision (2004), Abish mentions how friends have taken frequent pains to introduce him to real Germans since the publication of How German Is It. “When I entered the Helmsley Palace Hotel, where [Werner and I] were to meet, I saw the man I took to be Werner, monklike in a voluminous forest-green loden coat, pacing the empty lobby.” This Werner has just read Abish’s novel and is exasperated— “Alone, the incorrectly spelled German words!” he exclaims.

Werner is especially suspicious of the novel’s closing scene, in which the protagonist, Ulrich, visits a hypnotist. Eyes closed, he raises his right hand in what resembles a Nazi salute but is actually, Abish tells Werner, “a routine test by means of which a hypnotist determines his subject’s susceptibility to hypnotism.” Given the context, this gesture has a double meaning, an ambiguity that drives Werner crazy. Abish explains, “I intended How German Is It to elicit a multiple, if indeterminate, response. I was inviting the reader to bring his or her accumulated German material, his or her particular version of Germany, to the text, for is there anyone outside of Germany who doesn’t hold a decided view of Germanness?”

Abish’s explanation might be read as an excuse, a piece of sophistry that diffuses his tart indictment of the German soul. But he makes an inarguable assertion: everyone has a decided view of Germanness, even those who have never visited Germany.

Abish himself had never been to Germany when he wrote How German Is It. In Double Vision, he tells how he was born in Vienna in the 1930s, a Jew, a son of an established perfumer. After Germany occupied Austria in 1938, Abish and his parents fled to Shanghai. He lost nearly half his family in wartime Europe, ostensibly to death camps. “Their loss was somehow evanescent,” he writes about his family members’ fates. In his memoir, as in his fiction, Abish refuses—without much hesitation—to be sure of the facts.With similar remove, Abish describes his visit to Dachau while on a book tour for How German Is It:“Standing at one of the several burial sites, I felt numb, distanced, emotionally untouched by what was in evidence, even though, for all I knew, members of my family were entombed here.” Abish knows that being “emotionally untouched” is an unexpected, if not unheard-of, response to a place like Dachau, but he makes no attempt to explain or excuse this response. Given Abish’s past, his friend Werner expects How German Is It to be a revenge book. But Abish’s past has made him placid. He will not, to borrow a metaphor from acting, hit his points or attend to his blocking. He will not cry when it is expected of him—and that, more than his perceived vengefulness and bitterness, marks him as suspicious in Werner’s eyes.

Abish’s cool distance extends to self-analysis. His memories of his parents are precise, not cuddly; he delineates, with strange fairness, how much he loved each of them, and why. His father was “so easy to love. He concealed his complications, if any.”Abish feels he was the wrong child for his parents.“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.” Abish’s remote response to Dachau suits a man who is preoccupied with expectations, preconceptions, and prejudice. He must resent the weepy social contracts of public memorials. He will think of himself in the third person, in order to anticipate how others will think of him. He will hold his own expectations at arm’s length. He will develop an aversion to conclusions. As his awareness of expectations sharpens, and the air around him becomes hectic with different people’s biases and presumptions, he will naturally assume a quiet, uninvolved posture—and become an observer.


Abish and his family left Shanghai for Israel in December of 1948, when Abish was almost seventeen years old. He spent two desultory years in the military before moving to Tel Aviv, where he made literary friends. Abish recalls a telling exchange with an older intellectual: “He stated that a discussion between two people should evolve into a deeper understanding of oneself and the other.To which I replied that the surest way to obstruct any exchange was to dissect and scrutinize it. ‘It’s impossible to pin you down on any subject,’ he complained.‘Why would you wish to?’ I responded mildly.” Mild Abish.This self-possessed young man, who grew up to write such harrowing books, was simply pointing out that definitive answers are like obstructive barricades, and that his interlocutor’s quest for understanding was indeed akin to pinning something—like a dead butterfly—down.

There is a blind spot in Double Vision: between Abish’s post-adolescence (the early 1950s) and the reception of How German Is It (1979), we know only that he eventually emigrated to New York City and set himself up as a writer. We are left with a trio of cities— Vienna, Shanghai, and Tel Aviv— blinking in our minds. Insofar as our long-term conception of an author includes biographical facts, this zigzag geography of his childhood accentuates what many readers will notice in Abish’s work: an eye for the exotic.

To call Vienna, Shanghai, and Tel Aviv exotic is to reduce them to their signature acting-prop essentials: a monocle and a cup of coffee in Vienna; rickshaws and prostitutes in Shanghai; sand, eons of religion, and machine guns in Tel Aviv. But this essentializing is native to Abish’s work. How German Is It explicitly asks what is quintessentially German, just as his most recent novel, Eclipse Fever (1993), explores the supposed quintessences of the Indian, Spaniard, and American blocs operating in and around Mexico City.

The determinism of a place can overwhelm visitors’ and even inhabitants’ expectations: in the scrappily titled “This Is Not a Film This Is a Precise Act of Disbelief” from Abish’s short-story collection Minds Meet (1975), a European film team condescends to document the ways in which a shopping mall destroys the fabric of a suburban American community, but the sophisticates are soon beguiled by routine small-town politics and banal sexual opportunities, and the film is never made.Their surroundings get the better of them; they become the stupid Americans they had intended to observe.

But Abish can, just as frequently, roam beyond questions of literal geography in his search for quintessence. A late collection of his prose experiments, 99: The New Meaning (1990), explores a different kind of contextual determinism. “Ready-made” prose excerpts from unnamed authors are selected by Abish, in one case to evoke “the sexual bravado of Flaubert’s letters,” and in another to attempt to have “Kafka’s disturbing and often uncanny prescience activate and determine the reading” of prose segments not written by Kafka. Has Abish, with the skill of a perfumer like his father, selected just that bouquet of texts that will evoke the smell of Kafka’s? Or, more likely, will the reader’s expectation of the Kafkaesque—the piece is titled, cagily, “Reading Kafka in German”—make every selection read like Kafka? The way to capture a quintessence—that elusive thing— is to convince the reader that it is there, and she will find it, as sure as a tourist will see the sights as her tourist guide tells her to see them.

Which brings us to another dust jacket:Abish, already in his forties, on the cover of his first novel, Alphabetical Africa (1974). He is wearing a safari jacket; his eye patch is the focal point of the image. Hand on hip, leaning confidently against a museum gallery wall, the author appears to regard several African sculptures on display. He is activating the quintessence of place, of colonized Africa in this case, albeit in farce, dressed up in a safari jacket in a gallery space.

Alphabetical Africa, however, is more concerned with the alphabet than with Africa. The novel comprises twice twenty-six chapters. All the words in the first chapter begin with the letter “a,” the words in the second chapter begin with either “a” or “b,” in the third chapter “c” is available, and so on, until the entire alphabet is available in the twenty-sixth chapter. Then there is a second a-through-z chapter, after which Abish begins to remove letters, until in the fifty-second chapter, as in the first, every word begins with the letter “a.”

John Updike wrote in a New Yorker review of Abish’s travels through the alphabet, “The hardships of such a journey should not be underestimated.” The first few chapters of Alphabetical Africa are, naturally, odd. In the first chapter, Abish, referring to himself as “author,” underlines the “agony” involved in experimental writing of this kind: “Albert arrives, alive and arguing about African art, about African angst and also, alas, attacking Ashanti architecture, as author again attempts an agonizing alphabetical appraisal.”

On just the first page of Alphabetical Africa, four characters arrive at Antibes, witness an army attack an anthill, argue about an annexation, and apprehend the appealing Alva, while an archaeologist attends an armchair affair. Alphabetical Africa reads like a collection of plot summaries. With the reduction of available letters comes a reduction in the very scale of story.The novel is peopled by miniatures, not characters. A random page (30) is full of the tin tropes of a literate James Bond movie1: a killing, a kidnapping job, a briefcase, a dead jeweler, elephant grass and dying antelopes, Flaubert, a jungle, a hut. Richard Howard called Alphabetical Africa a “novel of erotic obsession.” Under the pressure of his alphabetical constraint, Abish’s perennial obsessions—with geography and stereotypes—are quickened; the novel’s mise-en-scène is a map of the African continent studded with icons of ants, diamonds, revolutionaries, and other natural resources.

In this work and others, Abish demonstrates his affinity to the OUvroir de LIttérature POten-tielle, or Workroom for Potential Literature, commonly known as the Oulipo. A primarily French group including Georges Perec,2 Raymond Queneau, and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo produces new forms by putting strict constraints on composition: a famous example is Perec’s La Disparition (1969), translated as A Void (1994), a detective novel written without using the letter “e.”

The Oulipians defined themselves as “rats who must build the labyrinth from which they propose to escape.” They resist whatever in literature is aleatory: they seek to constrain everything from the whims of inspiration to the multiplicities of interpretation. Founder François Le Lionnais explains, “Every literary work begins with an inspiration which must accommodate itself as well as possible to a series of constraints and procedures that fit inside each other like Chinese boxes. Constraints of vocabulary and grammar, constraints of the novel or of classical tragedy, constraints of general versification, etc.” These constraints are what transform a writer’s intention into a literary text. But any modern author will recognize that the meanings found in any text extend far beyond her intentions. In order to minimize the element of chance in a literary text and maximize intention, Oulipians intensify the constraints put on the act of composition. In fact, some Oulipians would say that the constraints themselves are the literary text. Raymond Queneau once remarked, “We may consider the day when the Carolingians began to count on their fingers 6, 8, and 12 to make verse, they accomplished an Oulipian task. Potential literature is that which doesn’t exist.”

The Oulipian project is carefully balanced on the contradictory crux of “potential literature.” On one side is their ardor for pre-determined literature, with maximal intent and minimal happenstance. But on the other side is a liberation, an exchange of conventional constraints for unconventional ones, after which anything can happen. “I anticipated everything, absolutely everything,” claims Abish in the “i” chapter of Alphabetical Africa. But this cannot be true! He may have adopted certain rules that limited possible outcomes, but within those rules he was completely free to write his story—which must have led to certain unanticipated results. If anything, his eccentric alphabetical rules release him from more common obligations: to plot, to character development, to narrative arc.

Abish’s affinity for Oulipian methods derives, perhaps, from the interplay between what has potential and what is expected. The stiff salute at the conclusion of How German Is It has a certain potential—in its varying interpretations—in the same way that Oulipian rules and formulas beg to be implemented. Furthermore, the rules of Alphabetical Africa’s composition, apparent to any reader, fold the reader’s expectations into Abish’s own act of writing. A rhyming couplet invites us to consider which end-word had first priority, and which was selected to rhyme with its mate; so each word in Abish’s sentences invites us to wonder, quite automatically in the strictest chapters, “What other word, given the letters allowed, might Abish have considered?”


The same aesthetics of process and interaction turn up in Abish’s two subsequent short-story collections, Minds Meet and In the Future Perfect (1977). In one story, “Life Uniforms,” a building inspector’s German camera causes the buildings it photographs to collapse, as if the camera is interested in extending Germany’s postwar tradition of “Rubble Literature.” (As practiced by Günter Grass, Rubble Literature sought to take the German language apart and put it together again after exorcising its fascist connotations.) The camera, usually an instrument of passive observation, becomes farcically Heisenbergian. In another story, “Parting Shot,” a photographer and an art buyer vie for the imagined regard—not of a model—but of the photograph of a model.

Abish’s paradoxes of perception are always at their best when expressed in geographic terms. Confusion of figure and ground drives “Crossing the Great Void,” in which a child regards a map of the Sahara as a stand-in for his lost father, who disappeared in the Sahara during a war. He is so obsessed with writing about deserts that his English teacher complains.“For one thing,” she says, “deserts are not quite as empty and blank as you seem to believe. For another, as metaphors,they leave a great deal to be desired.” Abish’s characters acknowledge the role geography plays in their epistemologies. In “Non-Site,” a beneficiary of one Bert Eon introduces the story by explaining, as if helpfully, that “the few landscapes that have been included [in the story] are framed and hanging on the walls of Mr. Bert Eon’s home and office.” 3 Abish insists that the human mind cannot help but be organized according to its surroundings: in the story “In So Many Words,” he describes the mind of a Manhattan woman:

In her brain the location of the park coexists with the building where she lives, and the building in which she has an office, and the building that houses Bendel, and so forth. Looking at a map of the city is like peering deep into her brain.

Abish has a flair for peering deep into his characters’ brains. How German Is It is narrated by an omniscient voice that dips in and out of characters’ voices and thoughts, alternating without sign-posts between the narrator’s rhetorical questions and the “real” questions of dialogue—there are no quotation marks, and no demarcations between the narrator’s notions and those of his characters. Indirect discourse segues into real time narration in a single sentence:

Helmuth modestly stated that he planned to speak briefly—flashing a smile at the mayor, a public reassurance that he would not take up more than his allotted twelve minutes on the significance of Brumhold’s philosophy and on the broader implication of Brumhold’s metaphysical writings to this community, named after the late great thinker whose work, most likely, was only familiar to a handful of the people sitting patiently on the hard wooden folding chairs (laughter from the audience) in the midday sun through hours of speeches.

These ambiguities—questions of who thinks what—matter most when considering the question of stereotypes. Are they the self-fulfilling dreams of a nation? Or are they the misleading slogans of a nation’s critics?

As How German Is It begins, Ulrich Hargenau arrives at a German customs desk, having returned from a six-month stay in France, and contemplates the reasons a tourist might visit Germany.

There is no earthly reason why anyone should not come to Germany purely for the sake of pleasure.To admire Germany’s remaining castles, churches, cathedrals.Undeniably, whatever it is that brings people to Germany, it does not preclude the inspection of magnificent Baroque and Gothic architecture, a trip to a few romantic-looking castles along the Rhine, a day or two attending one of a number of Wagner or Beethoven music festivals, and once there, with the Bavarian mountains providing a scenic backdrop, several hours reclining on the sweet-smelling grass while listening to the heavenly music.

This is a set piece—something from a tourist bureau, perhaps, but also a scene from that disturbing “story,” told by some Germans, in which World War II was just an aberration. In How German Is It, beginning with the curious horseback rider on the book’s cover, Abish’s interest in stereotypical topography becomes quite political. He juxtaposes the romantic German idyll with “the pounding of beer mugs” and “meaty anger… with its accompanying black leather coat and black leather gloves.”These clichés are not summoned to satisfy alphabetical requirements, but to pose tough questions: Where do cultural stereotypes come from? What purpose do they serve? Whom do they comfort?

Abish and his characters are joined in a diction of interrogation. The first seven sentences of the book (the title of which conspicuously lacks a question mark) are questions.“The Edge of Forgetfulness,” the short first section of the novel, ends with a little fugue:

What is well known?

What is not known?

What is surmised?

What is omitted?

What is distorted?

What is clarified?

What is sensed?

What is dreaded?

What is admired?

What is concluded?

What is rejected?

What is visible?

What is disapproved?

What is permitted?

What is seen?

And what is said?

The target of all these questions is what Abish calls “the topography of the familiar.” Much of How German Is It is set in the town of Brumholdstein, a town whose “things, houses, and people seemed to correspond to houses and people elsewhere. Everything was, so to speak, familiar. But then, the intent to begin with was not to design or construct a city that would strike anyone, inhabitant or visitor, as unfamiliar.” Brumholdstein aspires to instant familiarity because its planners and leaders wish to efface the past. As local schoolteacher Anna Heller 4 tells her class, “If we think about the past… aren’t we to some extent thinking about something that we consider familiar?” Brumholdstein’s past is an evil one; the town is built on the former site of Durst, a World War II concentration camp. Miss Heller explains further: “When something becomes terri bly familiar we stop seeing it.” If something becomes very familiar, it ceases to produce new interpretations. It doesn’t allow questions. It lacks Oulipian potential.


Pitching his narrative into the past, Abish describes the Brumholdsteinians’s failure to ask questions about the concentration camp. “The only evidence of life on the passing trains was an occasional scarecrow face framed in the tiny cutout window of a freight car… Once in a while, the scarecrow face of a man or woman would be seen shaping, with its mouth a word, or several words. It could have been ‘Where?’ or ‘When?’ or ‘Why?’ Some people… maintained that thousands upon thousands of people were being shipped to Durst.What they would do there was anyone’s guess. Work at the I. G. Farben plant? Who knows? Best not to ask. Best not to pry into this matter.”

Here Abish casts heroic questions vis-à-vis Fascism, but he is not insensible to the vain and annoying—jesterlike—role questions play in quotidian reality. Ulrich and his brother Helmuth assume polar roles that illustrate both the heroic and the foolish: Ulrich is querulous, introverted, and tentative, while Helmuth is cajoling, gregarious, and strong. Helmuth, for better or for worse, dominates Ulrich, who is full of doubt and lacks initiative. Several characters accuse Ulrich of being “devious,” and his estranged wife has complained that she cannot trust him, because he does not know what he really wants. In contrast, Helmuth, who gets along well with others and has a successful career, seems to have a firmer grasp of reality, and if he is not obsessed with Germany’s dark past it is only because he sees the necessity of doing business in the present tense.

But Helmuth has sinister moments, as when he sarcastically refers to the brothers’ “hero” father, an aristocrat who was executed in 1944 after a failed conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, or when he chums around with corrupt mayors and chiefs of police. But Helmuth is essentially a benign, if disparaging, realist.When his friends appear on the cover of a stylish magazine, posed as the perfect couple with their dog, car, and house, Helmuth’s reaction is censorious: “Oh, what pure unadulterated shit.” Ulrich is an inadequate inquisitor because he resists the cynicism that allows his brother to function and flourish; he cannot get his mind around the “meaty anger” of Brumholdstein, and remains an outsider; his suspicions can be shrill.

The truth is probably that no one in fictional Brumholdstein is a crypto-Nazi all the time, and that the sinister side of the town is mercurial, darkening and lightening like the weather. The questioning voice that sometimes speaks through Ulrich also belongs ambiguously to Abish and to the community at large. This voice is big enough to accuse and defend simultaneously: Abish’s questions hector, but they also eke. Questions are not only a means of disrupting the topography of the familiar, they are also the most precise way to target the ghostly guilt of a community.

“Why would you want to pin me down?” asked the young Abish in Double Vision. His interest in stereotypes and in the essential, iconic images of a national character is not conclusive, but heuristic. In How German Is It, he indicts not the German people, but any conclusions about themselves that they may want to draw.

It hardly seems possible not to acknowledge or recognize in everything German the intrinsic Standpunkt, the German point of view, the unique German way of seeing and appraising an object…and also the way in which this appraisal, this mere looking at as well as recognizing the true property or quality of what is seen, can be said to reflect a society, a culture, a particular people.

The idea of “the true property or quality” of a thing is a classic concept of German philosophy, but it’s anathema to Abish. He wants the novel to “elicit a multiple, if indeterminate, response.” He suggests that an observer must remain balanced on the brink of judgment; in this he resembles the Oulipo in their preference for the formulae and constraints that could produce a text over the text itself. The moment of “potential” judgment must be paused and held onto indefinitely. ✯

1 Or a coloring book. The essentialized, iconic images of the exotic that pepper Abish’s work have analogies in the simple, almost Platonically generic drawings seen in children’s coloring books and in rebuses. Interestingly, the visual artist that makes the most use of this iconography is Trevor Winkfield, whose illustrations Dalkey Archive Press utilizes for the book covers of Harry Mathews, the only American in the Oulipo.
2 George Perec’s memoir, W, or The Memory of a Childhood (1975), is a clear formal ancestor to Abish’s Double Vision. Abish certainly alludes to Perec’s work: translator David Bellos notes that in French the letter “w” is pronounced double-vé. Both memoirs comprise two interleaved narratives, and in both books one of the two narratives concerns a childhood spent taking refuge from the Nazis. Perec’s other narrative concerns an Olympic dystopia, in which all male adults are full-time athletes.They glory and they suffer, alternately allegorizing citizens of Nazi Germany and the inmates of their concentration camps. Interestingly, in his preface, Perec refers to the “unidentifiable expectation” as the “point of departure” for the book.
3 Abish notes that this story was named for an exhibit of earth projects by Robert Smithson, the artist who created the famous “Spiral Jetty” (1969–1970) on the Great Salt Lake. Abish and Smithson have in common a dominating interest in the determinism of place. In a message on a postcard he sent to his parents from the Yucatan—which Abish later visited with Eclipse Fever—Smithson decries the oppressiveness of stereotypical landscapes with a defeatism Abish never touches:“It never looked quite like this— but very like a postcard to me. Being beaten to death by post-card [sic] landscapes. ‘Wish you were here.’”
4 Anna Heller is the lover of first the mayor of Brumholdstein, then Ulrich’s brother Helmuth, then Helmuth himself. In much of Abish’s work, women are the variables, or ambiguities, that each male protagonist must interpret as he will.
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