Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Walter Abish | How German Is It?

Walter Abish
How German Is It? 
New York City, USA: New Directions, 1980
252 pp., 5.2 x 0.8 x 8.1", softcover 
Edition size unknown

The fifth book and second novel by Walter Abish asks two questions: the standard "How could the German people have committed such atrocities?", and the even more complicated "How uniquely German was the Holocaust?". 

The premise brings to mind a scene in the 1986 film Hannah and her Sisters, in which Max Von Sydow's reclusive artist character describes his afternoon to his increasingly frustrated girlfriend:

"You missed a very dull TV show on Auschwitz. More gruesome film clips, and more puzzled intellectuals declaring their mystification over the systematic murder of millions. The reason they can never answer the question "How could it possibly happen?" is that it's the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is "Why doesn't it happen more often?"

And then, "Of course it does, in subtler forms."

Author Dennis Cooper describes Abish's prose style here as "cinematic", and the book opens with a quote from filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard ("What is really at stake is one's image of oneself"). In Abish's autobiography he describes watching movies of Wim Wenders for inspiration.

I've been reading The Sense of Semblance: Philosophical Analyses of Holocaust Art by Henry W. Pickford.The general premise is that Holocaust artworks must fulfill at least two criteria: Artistic (lest they be merely historical documents) and historical (lest they distort the Holocaust, or become merely artworks). The book opens with a scene at the airport and I was reminded of my first visit to Berlin, several years ago. How every tour guide addresses the Holocaust on the first page, such an unfamiliar reckoning. I couldn't fathom any tourist book to the US coming to grips with the genocide of indigenous populations in such a forthcoming way.

Abish explores the dangers of repressing the past but also the more general generation gap. How German Is It? follows two prosperous brothers - an architect and novelist. They are the children of an anti-Nazi martyr, Ulrich von Hargenau, who was executed by firing squad for his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944. They have abandoned the elitist "von" from their aristocratic last name, much to the disapproval of the residents of Brumholdstein, a modern new community they live in, built over a former concentration camp. A sewage pipe breaks and reveals a mass grave. 

The book also features motorcycle gangs and terrorist groups, lingering fascist mindsets and a generation's attempt to shake off its dark heritage. 

Walter Abish died in May of this year. 

"His most admired work, the novel “How German Is It” (1980), harnesses postmodern verbal foolery to a thriller plot and a passionately distrustful concern with modern Germany. Written before his actual return to the German-speaking lands that his immediate family (but not all his relatives) escaped in the late thirties, the novel imagines an Americanized, prospering, democratic Germany sealed over the Nazi past like a deceptively smooth scab. "
- John Updike, The New Yorker

“All his writings are an assault on the reassuring familiarity of everyday things. Now Mr. Abish seems to be saying that it is the menace lurking beneath the surface that appeals to the new Germans as a way of experiencing, if only deviously, the unassimilated terror of their past.”
- Betty Falkenberg, the New York Times

"As in Abish’s former works, How German Is It is enamoured with verbal tomfoolery, of which the cumulative effect is to constantly wrong-foot the reader, making us as wary of modern German as both Abish and his characters seem to be. Ulrich Hargenau, the novels ‘hero’, is a successful writer, estranged from his wife, Paula, a female terrorist, whom he saved from prison by testifying against the other members of her group. Ulrich, returned to Brumholdstein (named after Ernst Brumhold, a Heidegger-type philosopher), begins to suffer occasional death threats and attempts are made on his life. His brother, Helmuth, a successful architect who designed the police station in Brumholdstein (only to see it blown up by the terrorist group operating in the area), begins to suffer from similar concerns. The Hargenau’s – a very Americanised family – represent modern Germany, in a very old German town. Brumholdstein was the site of a notorious gas chamber and concentration camp, now buried beneath the modern facade.


For Abish, How German Is It is a novel that questions the very identity of a nation in transition, trying to face up to its troubled past. "

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