|Excerpts > Spring 2001|
|Botho Strauss, Living
Glimmering, Lying, Northwestern University Press
Reviewed by Douglas Clayton
Botho Strauss's Living, Glimmering, Lying appears on the American literary marketplace as both an anomaly and a provocation. Much acclaimed in his native Germany and throughout Europe, Strauss is a novelist and playwright whose works sometimes seem fated to be regarded in the United States as strange, recondite, and (for many readers) plain irritating. His conspicuous interest in ideas—and parallel avoidance of fully developed characters and coherent narrative—assures his work of what we now reflexively call a "niche audience" in contemporary America. And yet Strauss's books have their rewards, even if they are gloomy and unnerving, for those readers patient enough to discover them.
Living, Glimmering, Lying exemplifies much of Strauss's work. A series of loose, seemingly random vignettes, ranging from one to twenty pages in length, the book gradually assembles an oblique, somber portrait of contemporary German life. Most of the characters that surface throughout its pages remain nameless, and we glimpse only moments in their lives. Rarely do we gain more than the vaguest intimation of a full life's story.
Nor do the fragments do much more than hint at connections with each other. The sole discernible common feature among these characters is that they are all well-educated Germans who have come of age in the past few decades, a time of unfulfilled (and apparently unfulfilling) expectations. These are the fortunate sons and daughters of a democratic and enlightened West Germany, those who (in the words of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl) have enjoyed the "blessings of a late birth": Germans born in the after-shadow of the Nazi era, and thereby spared any responsibility for World War Two and the Holocaust. Yet if these men and women have eluded the nightmare of modern German history, they are just as surely cursed in their own small ways. World war, the partition of Germany, the Cold War—these are at most shadowy presences in the lives of Strauss's characters. Even the collapse of East Germany and the nation's subsequent (re)unification makes only the most fleeting, and meaningless, appearance in this book. History itself has no discernible presence in the lives of Strauss's characters, sparing them, to be sure, from overpowering guilt, but also from any tangible relation to each other, and to the world in which they live.
The book opens with a solitary hiker, sitting alone in a deserted rural
train station, unable (or unwilling) to grasp the fact that the station
has long since been abandoned, and that no train will ever stop there again.
It ends with a long diatribe against contemporary life by an angry, bewildered
(and very likely drunk) intellectual. Between these disorienting,
haphazard endpoints lie fragments of disjointed lives: characters
in and out of touch with estranged lovers and spouses;
While Strauss's men and women often seem anonymous, and even faceless, he occasionally turns the light up full blast, subjecting an isolated character to withering, ironic scrutiny. It is in this remorselessly skeptical spirit that he presents a self-righteous father who bitterly reproaches his defenseless young daughter for getting sick during Berlin's six-hundredth-birthday celebration. The father had prepared for the birthday parade by fashioning an elaborate robot costume—what he breathlessly describes as a "bitter and elaborate indictment of the technology that inexorably leads to the exploitation of the working man." But the child—"this good-for-nothing little brat," the father rages to his wife—has forced him to leave the celebration early, spoiling his moment of ostentatious, premeditated political virtue with her trivial stomach ache.
Such episodes suggest that Strauss's book is not altogether different from much contemporary American fiction. And it is true that his vain and aimless characters do sound at times like those we find in novels written closer to home. Taken at face value, in fact, Strauss's litany of contemporary ailments of self and soul can sound all too familiar at times, prompting some American readers to complain, of earlier books at least, that there is a routine, even clichéd character to his themes.
But this objection misses much that is arresting, and distinctive, about Strauss's work. Most notable is his adamant refusal to compromise—or vindicate, or redeem—the plight of his sundry characters. Nobody finds his or her way out of the prevailing gray weather of this book, emerging with even a momentarily renewed sense of self or personal integrity. And just as Strauss rejects any gesture towards redemption or revitalization, he traces the persistent disintegration of his characters' identities without a flicker of hope or healing. The paradoxical redemption of the solitary, defeated soul, so familiar a feature in American novels (and films), makes no appearance here. Rather the book ends as bleakly as it began, as somehow we knew it must all along.
The Northwestern University Press deserves no small credit for making
Strauss's disconcerting vision available to an English-language readership.
Ably translated by Roslyn Theobald, Living, Glimmering, Lying is
actually the third Strauss title to appear from Northwestern in the past
half decade. Along with other translations of works by German-language
novelists, including the Nobel Laureate Heinrich Böll and the celebrated
Austrian novelist Ingeborg Bachmann, Northwestern's publication of Botho
Strauss represents a distinct service to contemporary American readers.
At a time when the number of translated titles in the United States is
approximately half what it was a quarter-century ago, and when preoccupation
with our own cultural diversity has largely distracted us from the literary
life of much of the rest of the world, the appearance of a novel such as
Living, Glimmering, Lying reminds us of why we have always read
literary works in translation, and why we need to continue to read them
today: precisely because they are in some ways familiar, and because
they are strange—and foreign—too.