How does a writer think

Love was once a question of smell

The romantic feelings experience their disenchantment in the practical test. Botho Strauss collects her remains.

Oh, love. It's not easy because it's so easy to get. And because it can be loosened up so quickly, you can get rid of it just as quickly. One of the unsympathetic side effects of the acceleration of existence is certainly high-speed love. When people used to talk about love frenzy, then they meant a somewhat overheated passion, which was usually not particularly digestible for everyone involved. Today it sounds more like blitz chess, where the pieces fall every second, or blitzkrieg: a coup de foudre - and in the next instant the divorce judge is already at his feet.

Perhaps the most serious and consequential thing about modern love is that it can be ended so without consequences. This not only damages the people involved, as collateral damage, the idea of ‚Äč‚Äčlove is affected in general. Non-committal is the watchword of the hour, anyone who talks about devotion only shows how old the school he or she went through is.

One cannot say of Botho Strauss that he is an optimist for progress. But does that make him an incorrigible nostalgic? Someone who reflexively mourns the past times with their different manners and customs? Yes, he sifts through the stocks that slip between our fingers. Maybe he is trying to hold onto them and keep them safe. Above all, however, he simply names them so that he can perhaps say in astonishment: All of this once existed. And all of that is being lost right now.

Dying love species

In Botho Strauss' new book under the curious title "Too Often Smiled For Free", an old writer explains his perhaps last, but at least late literary intentions in these words: "Always on the trail of extinct types of love". It would be a ars amandi or love art, which would consist of nothing but loss reports. And in fact, a herbarium of the rare plants in times of extinction is being created here. A somewhat eccentric collector brings together what he finds in his memories or in his diverse readings in the form of strange forms of love.

One of the strangest episodes in this book is a story from the Caucasus based on a character from a documentary by Stefan Tolz. In a godforsaken nest in the most remote mountains of the Caucasus, a few stalwarts persist, even if they are always snowed in and cut off from the environment in winter: because they cannot or do not want to leave (which are both the same).

One of them - Sergej is his name at Botho Strauss - stays because he mourns his wife, whose death he was not entirely innocent of. "I will never leave my wife's grave," he says. "Even if everyone else leaves the village." Indeed, he dies in his village. The death mask is removed from him and, to everyone's astonishment, it bears the face of his deceased wife. "At the first stroke of infinity he had become what he had loved most in life."

What should we be amazed at now? About the shaky story of a never-ending love with astonishing consequences? Or about an almost forgotten phrase that has long since disappeared from the vocabulary, which returns here as a memento mori for the fact that we will soon be lacking words for the extinct types of love?

Magic of language

However, one must remember who speaks in this book: It is the old writer who still lives with both feet in an earlier century and perhaps even in his younger years cultivated an attachment to what has been handed down. And in any case, he has a preference for those stories in which the magic of language plays the decisive role in love affairs. One goes like this: A man tells his girlfriend that there is a young actor in love with her. He told him in turn that his girlfriend was in love with him. "Within a short time his words created the very fact that they invented."

The old man tells such stories with such malicious pleasure that one immediately has to wonder what such Schmonzetten are supposed to have to do with his dying types of love. Immediately one begins to doubt its seriousness, one distrusts the high tone and now brushes the elegance of his miniatures against the grain. But to the extent that pathos collapses, another key becomes audible: is it comedy or parody?

Just don't confuse the old man with Botho Strauss, he is rather his tilted figure. He shows in it that the pathetic always drifts a little into the ridiculous. But anyone who, to apply a sentence from the book to this old man, "holds him against the light of his understanding" will recognize a shadow. The shadow counts, not the figure in the foreground. Basically, the pathetic is always the tragic-comic who knows that he will come too late. In times, for example, when the question of smell no longer plays a role in love: because we have lost the sense of smell for it.

Botho Strauss: too often smiled in vain. Carl-Hanser-Verlag, Munich 2019. 213 pp., Fr. 31.90.