HOW GERMAN IS IT by Walter Abish


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Abish is one of the few contemporary writers willing to risk a reference-list novel (Alphabetical Africa); his contexts tend to be like orgone boxes, energizing plots and characters by first stifling them. And here he's written a book of modern Germany with not a single American character in it, although the Germans' models are all American--their lives are sleek wealthy wracked by sexual unease, and interchangeable. Helmuth Hargenau, son of an executed nobleman-officer involved with the 1944 Stauffenberg plot to kill Hitler, is a prosperous architect, a philanderer, a desperate climber. His friends Egon and Gisela, for whom he's built a house that earned them a cover story in a lifestyle magazine, are even glossier. And they all live in Brumholdstein, a new town for the chic named after the Heidegger-like idealist philosopher Brumhold. (When a water main bursts, however, it's revealed that the town has been built over the mass graves of the Durst concentration camp.) But the key character here is a visitor to Brumholdstein--Helmuth's novelist-brother Ulrich, who's apparently guilty of having turned in his first wife's terrorist cronies (writers can afford no loyalties): Abish gathers his rather deadly view of contemporary German life around--rather than through--this alienated writer-figure. German self-satisfaction, violence, self--abasement, rigidity, idealism--all ruffle the pieces here. But pieces they are: this may be Abish's most freeze-dried, cubist book, often fascinating as it teases, ultimately boring when that brigade of teasings fail to take a single lockstep. Like the obsession of one of the characters here-a waiter who is building a model of the Durst concentration-camp out of matchsticks--the book is shrunken, air-shot, fragile. . . and determinedly un-answering of its title's question.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1980
Publisher: New Directions