Paul Sullivan explores 60s-80s West Berlin through the novels of Jörg Fauser…
“They were all the same, communists, Nazis, parents, church, book reviews, features section, editorial, revolutionary struggle, Baader-Meinhof, capital, television, Club Voltaire, pacifism, guerrilla, Mao, Trotsky, Red Student Action, the underground scene and Germania Security. They were all part of the same idea, they knew how things ought to be, they had a monopoly on consciousness, love, human happiness.”—Jörg Fauser (Raw Material)
Jörg Fauser was nobody’s man. He very much walked his own route through life and continued to walk it right into death too, sauntering drunkenly onto a Munich motorway in front of a speeding lorry at the age of 43.
Although relatively young when he died, Fauser had already lived several lives. Born in Frankfurt am Main to an artist father (Arthur Fauser) and actress mother (Maria Razum) while the city’s historic centre was being violently pounded by Allied air raids in 1944, he began writing in his teens, publishing in the Frankfurten Neuen Presse and, later, the Frankfurter Hefte.
By the age of twenty he had declared himself a conscientious objector, preferring to work in a Heidelberg hospital, where he became addicted to heroin. Having broken off his academic studies (Ethnology and English), he next travelled to Istanbul where his opiate addiction continued, sustained by casual jobs: labourer, airport baggage handler, night watchman.
In the late sixties he returned to Germany, bouncing between West Berlin, Frankfurt, Göttingen and Munich. Replacing the heroin with a steadily escalating booze addiction, he managed to pick up writing again. Along the way he became influenced by beat literature; as well as meeting William S. Burroughs (who helped him quit heroin), he later became friends with Charles Bukowski after interviewing him, in 1977, for German Playboy in Los Angeles.
Fauser ended up translating some of Bukowski’s short stories into German, and the two remained pen pals; when Fauser died, Bukowski wrote a poorly composed but heartfelt homage called ‘Joe’, paying tribute to Fauser’s ‘authentic’ inner toughness—calling him ‘Cement Man’, ‘Human Tank’, and ‘Iron Guts’—in contrast to his own ‘fake’ tough guy reputation.
But to call Fauser a ‘beat writer’ or leader of the ‘German beat generation’, as many have, is to do him a disservice. Fauser had his own distinctive writing style that was distinct from the likes of Bukowski and Burroughs, more akin overall to the American crime writers like Raymond Carver and Dashiell Hammett that he also admired.
Throughout the seventies and eighties Fauser produced several novels—mostly fast-paced thrillers featuring underdog protagonists—alongside co-editing literary newspapers and penning short stories, poems, radio scripts, essays and articles. A self-confessed ‘gun for hire’ with a special passion for underground counter-culture, he also found time to translate works and song lyrics by John Howlett, Joan Baez and the Rolling Stones into German, even hitting the German pop charts with lyrics written for rock singer Achim Reichel: one of their songs, Der Spieler (The Player) from the Blues in Blond album, made it into the German top ten.
His collected journalism alone, published in 2009 by Berlin’s Alexander Verlag extends to almost 1600 pages of essays, book reviews and feuilletons. But his commercial breakthrough came in 1981 with the hardboiled crime novel Der Schneemann (The Snowman), which sold over 200,000 copies and was made into a film in 1984. He followed up with the semi-autobiographical Rohstoff (Raw Material, 1984), Das Schlangenmaul (The Snake’s Mouth) in 1985, and—just before he died in 1987—Kant, which appeared in installments in the Wiener newspaper.
It was Raw Material that broke Fauser outside of the German-speaking world, thanks to an English translation by Jamie Bulloch published in 2014 by London’s Clerkenwell Press. The story, which has no conventional plot as such, follows Fauser’s alter ego Harry Gelb as he drifts casually around Fauser’s old haunts—Istanbul, Frankfurt, West Berlin—with an old typewriter and a novel-in-progress (Stamboul Blues), which he tries to sell to various small and generally luckless publishers. He works dead-end jobs to pay the bills, undertakes occasional romantic and sexual encounters, lives in squats, hangs out in dive bars—all the time searching for that ‘raw material’ that will keep his writing alive.
The novel is set between 1968 and 1973, a volatile time in Germany—especially in West Berlin—which was walled in by the GDR and attracted a heady mix of students, left-wing activists and underground artists, largely thanks to it being the only place in the country where military service was not compulsory. This alternative culture included left-wing societal experiments such as Schöneberg’s Kommune 1, the first political commune in Germany, and peaked politically during the student protests of 1968 and the rise of the Baader-Meinhof gang (founded in 1970).
Fauser himself lived in two different left-wing communes in West Berlin during ’68, before moving to Göttingen in 1969. Raw Material features plenty of insights from this time, such as a student protest in and around Charlottenburg that turned violent:
“Stones were being hurled at America House, but word got round that we were to take the Kurfürstendamm, and so we charged onwards, past Zoo station. Stones were everywhere on the ground; I’d picked up a couple myself – smooth, grey cobbles. I’d soon forgotten the LSD, and Sarah too. I charged with the crowd. There was the Ku’damm, the colourful facades, the onlookers, the massive vehicles with their water cannons. We were coming from all sides, we were storming. There was Cafe Kranzler, temple of the bourgeoisie, there were the police, chains of uniformed men that entangled us. No sooner had the echoes of our war cried died down than the first screams of those being beaten by truncheons resounded in the street.”
Even though the book contains vivid depictions of Berlin’s counter-culture at this time, Fauser refrains from making it a celebration or romanticisation of left-wing politics or drug/low-life culture. Rather, Gelb wryly reports on whatever is happening around him wherever he washes up, maintaining a safe ironic distance from the carousel of characters he encounters—hippies, anarchists, revolutionaries, communists, artists—and their ideologies.
“I was sick of all of them, the studded jackets like the turtlenecks, the drooling of one and the other, Sodom and Gomorrah or Marxism-Leninism, jacket and pants, but if everyone was staring at me where I would sit, then I took it I prefer to stay with those who no longer have a building society contract, a party congress mandate and no political illusion to lose, just their molars.”
Indeed, Fauser makes outright fun of the lefties in places. In an underground Kreuzberg bar, where Gelb finds work for an avant-garde magazine, he describes a table-tennis table as an essential item of office furniture because ping-pong “represented the defeat of capitalist heteronomy, social democratic lethargy and Russian hegemonic self-importance”.
He then goes on to give the reader a sense of how that bar, and many others at the time, would have felt and looked during this unique time.
“Mister Go had rock music and a light show. The most popular images were snapshots from the Vietnam War. The walls flickered with GIs launching attacks and dying, monks on fire, Vietcong being executed. To a soundtrack with music that was new to me: The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, Jimi Hendrix. Dealers with flowing hair and Mao badges on their Indian shirts; wrestling types with earrings and musk aftershave; ethereal graces from Siemensstadt or Neheim-Huesten who wanted to swap their hairdressing apprenticeship for free love or a speed bomb, but instead woke up in a basement flat in Kreuzberg with a rusty needle sticking out of their arm; future political commissars with white nylon shirts and the collected works of Enver Hodsha committed to memory as well as complete lists of people to be lined up and shot; and street kids in search of their first rush – all of these huddled under the light show with its reminders of the Asian revolution, and The Doors trying to give the child a name: ‘Father, I want to kill you.’ When you left the building, there were the police cars on the corner, their flashing blue lights like a scornful commentary on the exploding collages in your head.”
Another thing Fauser avoids, to his credit, is sentimentality. Despite Gelb’s constant navigation of—and inability to rise above—society’s fringes, the book steadfastly rejects any self-pity. The fighting spirit of Gelb, the novel, and Fauser himself is succinctly revealed in a scene where, having been knocked to the pavement outside a bar, Gelb takes note of a blade of grass growing upwards through a crack in the asphalt: “If that’s the case, I told myself, you can get up too”.
After leaving Berlin for a while, Fauser returned in 1981 to work with the Tip editorial team, among other assignments. He lived in Schöneberg (Goebenstrasse 10) and enjoyed exploring Potsdamer Strasse and bars like Slumberland on Göltzstrasse (which is still there). Like his alter-ego Gelb, Fauser generally stuck to the peripheries of the city, seeking out fellow drinkers, gamblers and survivors, and it’s these kinds of experiences that found their way into Das Schlangenmaul, which is set almost entirely in the German capital.
The protagonist this time is a downtrodden journalist-turned-private-detective Heinz Harder, whose mission is to find the missing daughter of a wealthy West German politician. Featuring criminals and prostitutes, dimly-lit gambling dens and shady backyard clubs—not to mention a demonic pimp dwarf and an actual snake cult—the novel is a crime thriller in theory but doubles up as a devoted depiction of everyday life in the divided city.
After working at the Tip offices, Fauser would often wander along Kantstrasse after work, exploring its numerous bars and brothels.
“At night, Kantstrasse is the paradise of fleeting dreams. Then the lights of the Turkish luncheonettes and the Egyptian snack bars, of the Chinese and Spanish restaurants, of the brandy shops and neon cafes, the discotheques and striptease-joints offer the right illumination for the stories only the city can tell – and only with a raspy voice and forked tongue. At night a man believes that in this street he will find everything he needs in life; what cannot be bought he can imagine, and if he’s out for justice he can drink up the way to the Charlottenburg district court and wait for the blindfold to fall from Lady Justice’s eyes. The Currywurst at the snack bar opposite is supposed to be one of the best in Berlin. I don’t like Currywurst.”
Another favoured haunt was the Paris Bar (also still open), which had opened in 1979 and quickly became an artist and celebrity hangout right up until the mid-1990s, drawing in the likes of Sigmar Polke, Jack Nicholson, David Bowie and Iggy Pop, and building up an art collection on its walls that still today includes works by Werner Büttner, Julian Schnabel, Matthias Schaufler, and many more—all of them patrons over the years. Fauser spares the bar’s pretentious clientele no quarter.
“After midnight at Paris-Bar the habitués are squatting. Playwrights from East Berlin on the way to the brothel, lifestyle-journalists looking for an opportunistic fuck or a portion of coke, up-and-coming avant-gardists from Swabia or the suburbs of Graz waiting for the connecting flight to New York, fashion designers creating the beggars’ look of the eighties in Kreuzberg backyards, a tipsy movie producer wincing at every call: ‘If it’s Hollywood, I’ll call back’.”
Fauser wrote much more about Berlin in his various articles, essay and columns, including under the pseudonym ‘Caliban’ for Tip. He left the city, and his position at Tip, for good in 1985 to move to Munich with his wife, Gabriele Osswald, and her two sons from a previous marriage, to start working for TransAtlantik magazine. His final visit to West Berlin was in April 1987, when he dropped in on many of his writing and artist friends.
Back in Munich in July, after celebrating his 43rd birthday at the Schumann’s bar, he somehow wound up on autobahn where he was cut down by a truck. Due to the strangeness of his death, rumours began immediately: was he murdered? Abducted by someone and pushed into the motorway? Perhaps he had family problems no one knew about, and wanted to kill himself. Maybe his latest novel hadn’t been going well?
It was, and remains, pure speculation, with no evidence available for any of these theories—just a sudden, gaping absence where a unique persona and remarkable writer once was.
German readers can explore Fauser’s entire bibliography, wonderfully put together by Diogenes, including a collection of his ‘Caliban’ writings. All photos via the official Jörg Fauser website, unless otherwise stated.
Special thanks to Marcel Krueger for his help with research and translation.