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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiography

Double Vision

Walter Abish

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Double Vision

Title: Double Vision
Author: Walter Abish
Genre: Autobiography
Written: 2004
Length: 220 pages
Availability: Double Vision - US
Double Vision - UK
Double Vision - Canada
  • A self-portrait
  • Parts of this book were previously published in Antaeus and Conjunctions

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Our Assessment:

B+ : an interesting life, fairly well presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . Spring/2004 Vivian Gornick
The LA Times . 4/4/2004 Michael Frank
The Nation . 1/3/2004 Benjamin Kunkel
The NY Observer . 15/3/2004 Daniel Asa Rose
The NY Times Book Rev. . 9/5/2004 Noah Isenberg
The New Yorker . 16/2/2004 John Updike
The Washington Post . 21/3/2004 Steven Beller

  From the Reviews:
  • "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 outcome -- negatively, to my way of thinking." - Vivian Gornick, Bookforum

  • "Far less nuanced in his depiction of contemporary Germany than of pre-war Austria, Abish occasionally favors cliché and caricature over a balanced understanding of the world he observes." - Noah Isenberg, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Like many pioneering efforts, the new book is deeply flawed, but the flaws are interesting, and in their own way add to the experience. (...) Mr. Abish’s syntax is so clumsy, his phraseology so convoluted and even his word choice so frequently questionable (...), that vast swaths of Double Vision read like a bad translation of itself.(...) Double Vision hints at what a new generation of memoir might be capable of—though when it comes to fulfilling its own promise, it blinks big time." - Daniel Asa Rose, The New York Observer

  • "(A) wry, contemplative, and oblique experiment in autobiography" - John Updike, The New Yorker

  • "Abish's vision of Germany holds the two memoirs together. (...) Abish's memoir lays bare the fraught nature of the Jewish émigré relationship to the Nazi past of Germany and Austria in ways the author cannot perceive. He cannot see modern Germany (or Vienna, for that matter) for what it is, rather than what it was. It is a case of double vision in more senses than one." - Steven Beller, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Double Vision is a two-track memoir: in the first part (covering most of the book) alternating sections describe The Writer-to-be -- Abish's life through early adulthood -- and his (relatively) contemporary experiences in Europe as The Writer he is now (or was a few years ago -- specifically the author of How German Is It, visiting Germany for the first time in the 1980s, as well a few other European countries). A much shorter second part describes a later stay in Europe -- in Germany and, briefly, Italy --, followed by a brief reflective section on The Scribes' Dilemma (set in Uxmal, Mexico), and a short afterword.
       Abish was born in Vienna in 1931, and fled with his parents via Italy and Nice to Shanghai, where they lived from 1940 to 1948. From there they went to Israel, where Abish stayed for another decade or so. He eventually came to the United States in the late 1950s, but in Double Vision covers only his formative years leading up to that final geographic move.
       Throughout these reminiscences Abish sees himself as the 'writer-to-be', a destiny that, if not always obvious to him at the time is so in retrospect. Solitary, observant, Abish's world is self-centred (and, in part, self-critical). Among the most interesting aspects is a childish incomprehension of what is happening around him: the world (and his parents) are puzzling, and much remains a mystery. From what Jewish identity (or at least the label) means to intra-family politics, the young Abish is faced with a world largely beyond understanding or logic -- but he also doesn't try to impose any logic or meaning on it, accepting things largely as they are. (He remains generally uninvolved throughout the years described here: he remains almost entirely apolitical, even as he matures, and, for example, shows no interest in learning either Chinese or Japanese while living in Shanghai for almost a decade.)
       These reminiscences of his early years are often fascinating: from pre-Nazi Vienna through the Anschluss, then flight, then the odd exile in Shanghai, and finally life in Israel in the fifties, Abish's experiences are of interest simply for the unusual path his life took. (Many others' lives did follow similarly unusual paths, and the glimpses of these Abish provides -- often just in brief mentions -- give a good sense of the prevailing atmosphere around him.)
       These looks back at his early years alternate with sections in which Abish describes his first visit to Germany, in the 1980s. He travels as the author of How German Is It, a book of particular interest in Germany for its take on German-ness. There are also sections describing his first visit to Vienna since before the war, and to Munich.
       How German Is It is a novel about how Germany (and most things German) are perceived, and Abish is constantly comparing perception to the reality he faces -- a matter that is made all the more complicated by how the German's perceive him (specifically as author of this book).
       The contrast to his native Vienna is also striking, as Abish believes:

Vienna is the very antithesis to Germany, for everything in Vienna retains an odd mix of humor and understatement.
       The Germany he describes is still the divided state of the 1980s, and when he lives for some time in Berlin in 1987 the Wall is still a major presence. Several times in Double Vision Abish acknowledges the near-present, when he is writing this book, noting how things have changed since the time he was in Berlin, for example. But it is not a book about 'now and then': both parts -- his account of his formative years, and his account of the trips to Europe in the 1980s -- are in the past. The distance is a noticeable one: Abish clearly did not just need time before he could describe his youth, but also to come to terms with (re-)visiting Germany, Austria, and Italy.
       Double Vision is full of observation -- small scenes, encounters with people --, many of which are attempts to ground identity and understanding. Abish also poses many (rhetorical) questions in the text, especially at the beginning, as if to emphasise the constant uncertainty and ambiguity. There's little judging here, despite the questions many of these things he describes raise; there's also little sympathy for most of the people he encounters (but he also asks for little for himself). There's also fairly little emotion to be found in these pages.
       The overlap of the two main strands presented here never really fits together: as in actual double vision it's more a dizzying blur. The stories are fascinating, especially the first encounters of the author of How German Is It with Germany, as well as his life-story. Other parts, while still of some interest, don't fit as well: Abish gives the sense of grasping for pieces that might fit in his puzzle, acknowledging that it's a hit-or-miss approach -- an effective idea, but not terribly compelling given the power of the other material.
       A worthwhile memoir, it isn't quite as sharply focussed as one might have wished for.

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Double Vision: Reviews: Other books by Walter Abish under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Walter Abish was born in 1931. He has written several works of fiction, and taught at Columbia, Yale, Brown, and Cooper Union, among others. He has received many prestigious fellowships, including an NEA fellowship, a Guggenheim, a MacArthur, and a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest fellowship.

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© 2004-2021 the complete review

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