Botho Strauss

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Botho Strauss 1944–

German playwright, novelist, and short story writer.

Strauss's critiques of modern European bourgeois culture have prompted comparisons with the work of Peter Handke and Luis Buñuel, and make him a major figure in contemporary West German theater.

R. Exner

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Strauss, if he would treat himself (and his reader [of Marlenes Schwester: Zwei Erzählungen]) to some continuity, could surely tell a gripping story; he is wonderfully exact at times. If it were all intended the way it reads, one would have to question the solidity of [its] "narrative means." As it is, there is much faddish non sequitur in all this which leads to little else but disruption of many well-spun threads in a narrative web which the reader is never allowed to contemplate in its entirety.

R. Exner, "German: 'Marlenes Schwester'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter, 1977, p. 98.

John Hess

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The title of [Trilogie des Wiedersehens (Three Acts of Recognition)] causes a confusion that informs the entire work. It's not so much a trilogy as one three-part play with a single set, a unity of time and the same cast. The Wiedersehen in the title, I suppose, refers to the fact that this group of acquainted and related artists and art patrons has gathered for an opening at the art museum. In fact, however, what takes place can only be called Wiedersehen in the strict, literal sense of seeing one another again. As in Theatre of the Absurd, a tradition to which Strauss consciously attaches himself, these characters have never "seen" one another. They talk nonsense which slides by any possible listener; their moods change erratically, but the changes have no effect on anyone. There is, as the saying goes, a failure of communication.

But how tiresome and pointless! When absurdist theatre appeared in the 1940s as a conscious extension of the European avant-garde, it was innovative and interesting. It clearly expressed the chaotic and fragmented state of postwar Europe. It was a stinging critique of bourgeois mores in a period in which the left had been crushed, leaving no positive morality or unifying ideology for people to hang on to. But now that socialism is clearly on the agenda in a Europe being slowly destroyed by capitalism, Strauss's play represents a massive avoidance of the real world and can only bore. The characters are dull and inane, totally removed from the massive changes going on all around them.

Unlike Beckett's characters, Kiepert finally arrives at the very end. But no one has the moral fiber to wait for him. In Strauss's world even that is gone. (pp. 436-37)

John Hess, "German: 'Trilogie des Wiedersehens'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 3, Summer, 1977, pp. 436-37.

Christian Grawe

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[Strauss] can write very well indeed, and this is not a small compliment to bestow. His language [in Die Widmung (Devotion)] is clear, precise and modern…. [The] few encounters with people which his pathetic and isolated hero Richard conjures up in retrospect … stir the reader's imagination, and there are a number of fine aphoristic thoughts.

However, Richard's problems are less convincing. He is mourning the loss of his girl friend H., who walked out on him one day without giving any reasons. This event has thrown him into such a state of confusion that he hides in his apartment, gives up his job in a bookshop and even stops buying food. He comes down step by step, until he is a human wreck. Finally he decides to give an account of his sufferings. (Therefore, it seems, the wavering between...

(This entire section contains 349 words.)

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"I" and "he" in the narrative.) When he does meet H. one more time and gives his written pages to her, she absentmindedly leaves the manuscript in a taxi. It is handed back to him, and he is thrown back into his hermetic world.

Thus the story explores a well-known psychological (and social, for that matter) problem: the discrepancy between the progressiveness of the human mind and the conservatism of human feelings, the adaptability of our ego and the intransigence of our id—and from a different angle, the change which feelings undergo when raised to the level of consciousness…. But while I am aware of the problem in Strauss's story, Richard's fate does not move me. There is too much fashionable suffering in his account of his desperation. It appears exaggerated to me. What he so eagerly disclaims is only too true: namely, that although many will have had experiences similar to his own with H., none of them would recognize in him a kindred spirit, for he is no Leidensgenosse [fellow sufferer]. But he is; his feeling that his case is different is only part of the syndrome.

Christian Grawe, "German: 'Die Widmung'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1979 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 53, No. 1, Winter, 1979, p. 106.

Franz P. Haberl

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The subtitle of [Gross und klein (Big and Little)] is simply "Scenes," and the titles of these ten scenes are quite disparate ("Morocco," "Night Watch," "Ten Rooms," et cetera). Given these indications and the stage setting of the first scene (a hotel dining room with a partially shuttered window, with one character overhearing a conversation carried on outside), the wary reader expects yet another series of disjointed utterances about the present malaise and the lack of communication between people. In fact, the play does incorporate such statements, and it is so disparate that, except for one central character, none of the many other characters appears in more than one scene.

But what a central character! Her name is Lotte, she is in her mid-thirties, separated from her husband, was once a physical therapist and is now a graphic artist of sorts. As one watches her wandering from place to place and from milieu to milieu, one becomes increasingly fascinated by her ever more desperate attempts at establishing or reestablishing meaningful human contacts…. The rebuffs [to her] are not intentionally cruel; they result from the fact that people are too busy, too tired or too preoccupied with their own affairs. Lotte's loneliness is reflected by that of all the other characters and by the sterility of their relationships…. By continually contrasting Lotte's loneliness to that of the other characters, the author achieves a poignant and well-integrated statement about loneliness in our contemporary world.

Strauss's use of the German language is masterful. Most of the play is in standard colloquial German with a slight regional (Saarbrücken) coloring. He often uses significant and ironic double entendres…. Occasionally Lotte's language rises to remarkable levels of lyricism…. Strauss's remarkable antiheroine, his superb use of language, his piercing insights into contemporary society and the ingenious locales of the dramatic action all combine to make Gross und klein a first-rate play.

Franz P. Haberl, "Theatre: 'Gross und Klein'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1979 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 53, No. 3, Summer, 1979, p. 499.

Lore Dickstein

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[Devotion] is a dialogue of the writer with himself, and a brilliant, hard-edged analysis of the act of writing itself. As in his play Big and Little …, Strauss is interested here in the difficulties of communication.

Richard Schroubek, the main character of Devotion, is a West Berlin bookseller whose lover, Hannah, has left him for reasons never explained. His act of devotion to Hannah is the writing of this novel, Devotion; Schroubek introduces it and dedicates it to "H." In a sputtering series of epigrammatic sentences and vignettes that are not more than a paragraph in length, he tells of his misery.

Schroubek's writing is the only action in the novel. The presence of the other characters (Hannah, the cleaning lady, another of Hannah's lovers) is so ephemeral that they seem like Schroubek's private hallucinations…. "Getting a fix on reality never quite worked out," he tells us as the outside world becomes increasingly meaningless to him….

The spare abstract quality of Strauss's language is the reflection of his subject: the isolation of the self/artist in a world where no one really listens. While some readers will prefer the more richly furnished world of a novelist like V. S. Naipaul, this book by Botho Strauss is like a sculpture by Giacometti—clean, pared-down, and without a shred of unnecessary flesh.

Lore Dickstein, "Books in Brief: 'Devotion'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1979 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 6, No. 15, July 21, 1979, p. 50.

Joyce Crick

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[Devotion] is the first novel of a highly literary and self-conscious young man. The reader's heart sinks. But, after all, so was Goethe's Werther…. It begins and ends in the real world of the third person; the centre is a passage through a hell of first-person introspection. From regressive flight inwards, it turns into a solitary's dialogue with a missing partner and into (almost) independent essays and reflections. Some of these last—on Kleist and the historicity of sensibility and moral values, for example—are actually interesting in themselves and not merely because they are part of a novelist's demonstration of though freeing itself from subjective obsession. But that is part of the strategy. It is a very clever novel.

Delicate, intelligent, sometimes even humorous, with more variation than this summary would suggest, Devotion is a surprising throw-back to earlier German literary models of inner sensibility…. In some ways this novel is a Werther at second hand. The sensibility of both fictitious heroes is nourished by their reading, Werther turning in his despair from Homer's clarity to Ossian's clouds while Richard in his recovery moves from Novalis the Romantic to Turgenev the Realist. More than that, the act of literary therapy is now internal to this novel, fictional; whereas for Goethe, writing to free himself of his own sense of loss, it was external, real. This kind of Chinese-box fiction does call into question the ontological status of the author. Goethe had a life; Richard has his memoir. What, I wonder, has Botho Strauss? He has brought us very deep into fiction. But as the invisible stage-manager of this fiction, in the "real" framework of the book, he contrives to remind the reader that, outside, invading soldiers are rescuing hostages from a mad tyrant.

Joyce Crick, "Writing It Out," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4023, May 2, 1980, p. 510.