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Double Vision: A Self-Portrait [Hardcover]

Walter Abish
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Book Description

Feb. 3 2004
Does one ever escape from the family? How much do we understand about our own past? How do we come to be who we are?

Walter Abish, the internationally acclaimed author of How German Is It, examines these questions through the prism of his own experience, and confronts and encapsulates the historic upheavals of the mid-twentieth century in this brilliant, deceptively simple, and quietly wrenching account of his two journeys.

The first begins in Vienna, where Abish was born in the 1930s in the Jewish, but not-too-Jewish, household of a prosperous perfumer. Then it ricochets around the world as his parents flee first to France (his mother had to sneak alone across the Italian border), then to war-torn Shanghai under Japanese occupation, just ahead of Mao’s army, then to Israel.

Incapable of understanding his family’s desperate situation, Abish as a boy creates his own private world, filtering out precarious and terrifying realities.

Abish describes fantastic events in the coolest tones. In precise, haunting detail, he records the perceptions of a child who registers and remembers what he will only later understand. He writes of the day in the park when a stranger suddenly screams “Jews out!” and he and his frail grandmother run for the exit in a panic as the other children and grandmothers stand and watch; the day his father is released by the Gestapo because a man in the room owes him money that he has never tried to collect and says, “Let Abish go—he’s okay”; of the time his father speaks to him about inheriting his perfume business, as they stand on the deck of a ship bound for China.
The first journey recounts the flight; the second journey chronicles the return: Abish writes about how, in the 1980s, he went on a tour to Germany to launch the translation of his award-winning novel How German Is It—a book he wrote without ever having set foot there, deliberately, because he wished to elicit the idea of Germanness in what was “a fantasy of Germany.” This tour of what to him is an unfamiliar society includes a side trip to Vienna, where he glimpses the life he might have experienced and has the horrifying feeling that he never left.

Double Vision is a book that cuts to the quick. With unflinching candor, humor, and affection, Abish re-creates the way it feels to be a child and to look at your parents and wonder who they are. To be an adult and catch them in every corner of your personality. To look back on the world of your youth and realize both what you noticed and what you missed. It is a stunning achievement.

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From Publishers Weekly

Abish (How German Is It, etc.) intercuts the story of his early years with a modern account of his first visit to Germany and his return to his birth city, Vienna. He was six in 1938 when Hitler annexed Austria and the Jews were expropriated. He remembers a precise number of suitcases being packed at a precise time, with no one explaining why his nicely secular, Jewish bourgeois family was suddenly undesirable. His family fled to Italy and then France before shipping to Shanghai, where they lived until 1948, when the Chinese Red Army forced a move, to Israel. At each stop, Abish watched European Jews recreate their familiar cultural fabric-their preoccupation with ironic repartee, their coffeehouses, even their synagogues for those still inclined to pray. He watched and listened everywhere, almost as if spying on his own life. So, too, in his travel back to Europe, his cultural radar tests the familiar for falseness, looking beneath cultural arrangements for their meaning. Wandering German cities, visiting the concentration camp at Dachau or his former home in Vienna, he's constantly trying to pierce the polite facades of denial by which modern, intellectually fashionable Germans evade the truth of their extermination of the Jews and their continuing anti-Semitism. He insists on complexity, noticing the smallest gesture, the little laugh, the comment not made. What emerges is a sense of how nations construct their identities by very careful editing. To read human history through the lens of one's own life is memoir at its best-and Abish is magnificent.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

The prizewinning author of How German Is It? (1980) and other fiction tells his personal story here of early childhood in Vienna in an elite Jewish family, escape from the Nazis, growing up in Shanghai during World War II, and his years in Israel as a young army recruit, librarian, and always "writer-to be." In an alternating narrative, he describes his return visit to his birthplace on an author's tour in the 1980s. Abish is so careful not to be melodramatic or self-important that he distances everything with ironic postmodernist comment about writing about writing about becoming a writer. How does a writer-to-be fall in love? Is it more pleasurable to experience love or to write about it? The jumpy, difficult narrative works best in the unforgettable details that capture the young person's bewildered viewpoint as well as the "bizarre incongruities" of the contemporary scene, especially the jovial tourism at the old Nazi sites. "Must we still feel guilt?" a weary German complains. Hazel Rochman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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5.0 out of 5 stars Double Vision : A Self-Portrait May 12 2004
The author of a variety of novels, short stories, and poetry, Abish caused quite a stir when his best-known novel, How German Is It?, was released in 1980. Despite its realistic depiction of German life and psyche, he wrote the novel never having actually traveled to Germany. In this memoir, he details the process of writing and promoting How German Is It?, along with many of the other experiences that shaped his life and set him apart as a novelist. The memoir begins with a glimpse of his family life as a young child. His experiences were similar to those of many displaced families at the time: They fled Austria in 1938 and eventually went on to live in Italy, France, China, and Israel. Each of these stays was peppered with adventures-both unique and harrowing. Abish's vivid imagery provides the reader with a sense of Europe during the late 1930s and 1940s, with all of its chaos, confusion, and uncertainty. The story moves back and forth between Abish's childhood and his journeys as an adult, but the stories of his youth have the most impact. A wonderful addition to any library, public or academic.-
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