Devotion – Die Widmung by Botho Strauss – A 1977 Club Review

I’m notoriously bad these days when it comes to participating in blogging events, but I always try to read at least one book for Karen and Simon’s “Club” – no matter what year they choose. This week was dedicated to 1977. It was a particularly good year and I could have chosen many books from my piles. I picked Botho Strauss’ novella DevotionDie Widmung because I’ve had it for ages and because it was said to be a stellar piece of writing.

Botho Strauss was first known as a playwright before he started to write fiction. DevotionDie Widmung is considered one of his best works. It tells the story of Richard Schroubek who has been abandoned by his girlfriend Hannah and can just not get over it. It’s 1976, a brutally hot summer in Berlin. In an attempt to fully immerse himself in his feelings of loss and abandonment, he takes leave from his work as a bookseller and stays at home where he spends endless days exploring every facet of his grief and writes it down. The bookseller has turned writer. While writing and tormenting himself, he hopes Hannah will return eventually. Latest, when he gives her his writing.

This is a stunning short novel. It’s neither plot- nor character- but mostly language-driven. It might be the best piece of writing, style-wise, I’ve read in quite some time. The book is in many ways a rant. The rant of a man who has been left and doesn’t understand why. But also of  man who is very different from most people and very isolated. This may sound a bit like Goethe’s Leiden des jungen Werther but it’s not like that at all. Here, the tragedy always veers towards the satirical and the book is often funny. Especially during the rare moments when Richard interacts with someone else. Richard is an astute, sharp observer. He dissects people’s behaviour, their opinions, things he reads or watches on TV and his feelings of loss and grief. While not as lyrical as Swann in Proust’s work, he’s just as analytical.

The longer the story progresses, the more his feelings vanish and that is a new source of sorrow. Celebrating his despair filled the void that the loss of dialogue and companionship left.

Richard is a character-type that I’ve come across several times in literature. He is one of those, like Melville’s Bartleby, who refuse to take part. Naysayers who don’t want to participate in our society. In Richard’s case it’s the loss that catapults him out of his normal life and makes him look at the world around him and at himself with critical eyes. Only Hannah is perfect. In his memory that is.

Because this is so language-driven and because I’ve read it in German, it’s hard to convey how brilliant it is. I can only say, I don’t envy the translator. This must have been extremely difficult to translate.

I’m not sure why this book is called Devotion in English. The German title means “Dedication” and I don’t see why it wasn’t kept. There’s an instance, in which Richard writes about his devotion, but I don’t think it justifies the change of title.

I found a lot to admire in this book and the observations, expressions, figures of speech, are all brilliant, but it was not an entirely accessible book. Not because of the lack of plot or because it’s language-driven but because it very often changes from first to third person and it’s not always clear why and who is the narrator. I should have read it more closely to avoid this type of confusion. I mention this, so future readers know, this needs very attentive, close reading.

Here’s a photo of Botho Strauss and Cate Blanchett. She played Lotte in his play Big and Small.

14 thoughts on “Devotion – Die Widmung by Botho Strauss – A 1977 Club Review

  1. I think that the “Club” concept of reading books from a specific year is really neat. Devotion sounds so good. Ruined relationships can prompt such great literature. I find myself liking language driven works more and more as I get older.

    • I think so too. It was the first. Many of the titles are plays though and some of the novels seem too inaccessible but there are a few that sound amazing. I wish my German lit piles weren’t already so high.

  2. I wasn’t sure this was for me, I wondered if I might find the narrator overly self-indulgent. But when you said it was satirical and often funny, I changed my mind. It sounds really interesting and I’m sure some points of humour will keep its appeal going for me!

  3. The lroject that Karen and Simon do is fun. 1977 was an interesting year to pick. This book sounds interesting. Imagine taking time off feom your job to dwell on the grief of a broken relationship. I envy your ability to read a book in German.

    • It is a fun project. This book was A discovery style-wise. I didn’t expect it to be this great. A friend of mine at work took weeks off. Pretending it was something else, of course.
      I was certainly glad to read it in the original. There were many instances in which I wondered if that could even be translated. I hope he got the tone right.

    • It’s very well written. A bit special but the use of language is stellar. I hope the translator did a good job. I’m very picky when it comes to books written in German but mediocre in English isn’t great either.

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