Like so many others before and after him, Jörg Fauser was an outsider in Berlin. To this day, the novelist, essayist and journalist remains one of the main figures of German outsider literature of the 1970s and 1980s, and his time in the divided city influenced his work significantly.
Born in Frankfurt am Main in 1944 into a family of artists (his father Arthur was a painter, his mother Maria an actress and radio host), Fauser decided from early on that he wanted to be a writer. He broke off his academic studies to work and travel, living in Istanbul and London as a casual labourer, airport baggage handler and night watchman while cutting his teeth as a writer. Without academic education, coming of age in the 1960s and increasingly uninterested in German high literature, he started publishing in sub- and counterculture magazines and fanzines. Fauser was heavily influenced by Beat literature and American crime stories; and like his contemporary Hunter S. Thompson he was also deeply disillusioned by the failure of the ideals of the 1960s. His writing remained that of a driven man searching for something always just a few inches from his grasp. During his travels he also developed a heroin habit, which he was able to shed at the age of 30 (with the help of William S. Burroughs), and spent much of the rest of his working life struggling with alcoholism. He met Charles Bukowski in Los Angeles in 1977 to interview him for German Playboy, and the writers remained penpals for the rest of Fauser’s life.
Fauser is a writer who truly deserves the ‘prolific’ adjective – he always aimed to be able to make a living from his writing, and to be independent from other types of work. So he wrote for whatever publication would take him on (and roughly fitted into the counterculture category). His collected journalism, published in 2009 by Alexander Verlag in Berlin contains 1593 pages of essays, book reviews and feuilletons alone.
Fauser was a constant wanderer: until his death, he only ever spent a few years in each of the German cities he called home after Istanbul and London: Munich, Göttingen, Frankfurt – and Berlin. He first came to the divided city in 1968, and lived in two different leftist communes before moving to Göttingen in 1969. In his seminal novel Rohstoff (Raw Material, 1984), in which he distills travels and a writer’s search for the eponymous raw material, he records his first impression of the city: “We arrived at Berlin Tempelhof at eight o’clock in the morning. It was the beginning of December and the sky was a lead plate from which icicles hung.” Over the next years, Fauser kept returning to the city where many of his counterculture acquaintances remained during the 1970s. In 1981, with multiple radio plays, a Marlon Brando biography and almost ten years as a journalist under his belt, he finally returned to Berlin to work for the Tip city magazine as an editor. Fauser best describes his love/hate relationship with the city in his essay Blumen für die Mauer (Flowers for the Wall, 1984):
And as I had recently been scrutinizing this Germanness with a new curiosity, I realized that the Federal Republic I was living in was no home to me, that, on one hand, this homelessness was a wall that prevented me from escaping to foreign places where I would waste away without language, while on the other it prevented me from finding a different home with language; and this is why I now watched the allotments of Reinickendorf, the factories of Siemensstadt and finally the wet tarmac of Tegel Airport appear under the wing of the Pan Am Clipper.
Fauser also remained a somewhat ambiguous figure: one the one hand he always wrote on against the establishment and was highly critical of the German literary scene throughout his life, on the other he fiercely strove to make a living as a writer. “I’m just a businessman peddling my wares,” he once said in a TV interview.
Maybe this is why he preferred writing pulpy, fast-paced thrillers about underdogs. It allowed him to earn money (his 1981 Der Schneemann sold over 200,000 copies), while writing things that would never be considered German high literature. Fauser’s submission to the 1984 Ingeborg Bachmann Prize received a devastating critique on live TV by legendary Germany literature critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who called it “bad commercial fiction, ready-to-wear.” Besides his essays about the divided city, Das Schlangenmaul (The Snake Mouth, 1985) is Fauser’s Berlin legacy. The capitalist island city surrounded by the Red Army and its peculiar energy fascinated him like no other, and so it is no wonder that he decided to set his next book after Rohstoff almost completely in Berlin.
Following the exploits of downtrodden journalist cum private eye Heinz Harder searching for the missing daughter of a rich West German politician, Fauser paints an unflinching portrait of the underbelly of Cold War West Berlin. Complete with a femme fatale, demonic pimp dwarf and snake cult, this is no mere pulp product however, but a tableau of the everyday life in the divided city, a snapshot of the crumbling concrete and cheap neon already captured by Christiane F. at Bahnhof Zoo ten years before. Many of Fauser’s own Berlin haunts are depicted: the Tip office was located on Kantstrasse, and he often wandered down that street 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 cafés, 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.
Like in Rohstoff, Fauser did not shy away from weaving many of his own experiences into his fiction, and of all characters in his novels Heinz Harder is closest to his own creator – a disillusioned hack who has seen everything, making the first person narrative sound extremely genuine. One of Fauser’s favourite haunts was the Paris Bar, also on Kantstrasse. Opened in 1979, it is regarded to date as a legendary institution for both its extravagant list of patrons (Sigmar Polke, Jack Nicholson, Madonna, David Bowie and Iggy Pop have all hung out here) and the art collection on its walls, which includes works by Werner Büttner, Matthias Schaufler, Hubert Kiecol and many more – all of them regular visitors over the years. The bar became one of the main artist hangouts near the Bahnhof Zoo in the 1970s, so it is no wonder that Fauser sketched the scene there at midnight in Das Schlangenmaul:
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 avantgardists from Swabia or the suburbs of Graz waiting for the connecting flight to New York, fashion designer creating the beggars’ look of the Eighties in Kreuzberg backyards, tipsy movie producer wincing at every call: ‘If it’s Hollywood, I’ll call back.’
Besides an unflinching look at the city, politics and corruption is the main theme of the novel. West Berlin and its declining morals are preserved by the Wall around it, while the real politics of the day are made in Bonn, the new capital far out to the west.
Fauser always was a critical and unbiased observer of his country and contemporaries, a champion of the little man like Hans Fallada – known for his blunt yet affectionate society portraits Little Man, What Now? (1932) and Alone in Berlin (1947) – and he is not afraid to criticize the capitalist morals of West Germany in the early 1980s.
Upon first glance and in retrospect, Fauser’s descriptions of West German politics and the petty issues of his protagonists seem like complete fiction, small fry compared to the onslaught of global news that keeps hammering into us 24/7 on Facebook and Twitter. But what he describes was the real thing as he witnessed it – after all, he had covered Berlin politics long enough for Tip, and his reports (like Berliner Wirtschaft from 1983) read like blueprints for all the machinations Heinz Harder unearths, and a mere crime novel almost becomes a historic document for us today.
Das Schlangenmaul is a fast-paced, alcohol-fuelled thriller with dark humour, and at the same time a penetrating observation of those at the edge of West German society and a lively picture of a period when Berlin was viewed by the rest of West Germany as not being in the centre of Europe, but on its periphery. It remains, however, a work of genre and is not completely free of stereotypes – written with a large market in mind. Dialogue is not necessarily Fauser’s strength, and his prose is strongest whenever Harder is sketched as a hard man out of luck:
The old building on the other side of the road lay deserted, only two windows were illuminated. In front of the discotheque opposite a group of youths, rattling mopeds, shrieking girls. One threw a beer bottle, barely missing the arc lamp on the corner. The bottle crashed in front of a passing car, fragmenting. The car stopped, but the kids were already splitting, finally some action, fantastic. The car drove on. LAUNDRY… KLEBBA. I sipped the vodka and went to top up my glass in the kitchen. My notes on the table. Harder, Heinz, profession: flayer of words. The wind howled around the concrete.
This could be my home, I thought. At least if I would clean and take out the empty bottles and clear away the rubbish from the balcony and set up the books and buy a wardrobe to put my clothes in and polish the spy hole and make my bed and scrub my bathroom and the floor, it would be the beginning of a home. The trouble with you, Harder, is that you always prefer the beginning of a story over the beginning of a home.
Fauser’s phrasing in Das Schlangenmaul is also sometimes anachronistic, using vernacular and prepositions hardly heard in an increasingly anglicised German these days.
In a similar vein, the names of many of his protagonists almost sound ironically exaggerated, speaking of a long-gone conservative West German middle class – there’s Nora Schäfer-Scheunemann and Doctor Gesine Frenkel-Ahimsa, and politicians carry names like Harald F. Myslich and Hertha Stahl. In the end, Das Schlangenmaul remains a fascinating genre yarn that depicts Cold War Berlin without make-up.
Schlesisches Tor. He parked underneath the overhead railway, and we strolled down to the Spree. The Oberbaum Bridge lay ahead, a brightly illuminated island where snipers guarded sleeping pigeons. Searchlights drilled through the fog over the river. As we climbed down to the water the night spyglasses were aimed at us. The wooden cross with the barbed wire stood out against the river and the bridge like a prop in a neo-realist movie: Christ only came to Oberbaum Bridge. A white finger of light brushed us and then creeped further on to the pair of lovers at the end of the esplanade, which they had chosen to exchange their midnight secrets. In the semi-darkness I accidentally kicked against a tin can which an angler had left, and it clattered across the promenade and into the river. Between the brightly-lit barracks at the eastern shore the outline of dilapidated harbour sheds were visible, and the lance of a crane protruded into the night sky. The girl between us shivered despite her sheepskin coat. And yet it wasn’t cold. It’s never cold when you realise on what type of people your life depends. You are cold later.
Fauser increasingly tasted commercial success in the years after Rohstoff and Das Schlangenmaul. His next novel Kant (also a thriller), appeared in installments in the Wiener newspaper, and he even made it into 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. Fauser left Berlin and his position at Tip for good in 1985 and moved with his family (he had married Gabriele Osswald, with two sons from a previous marriage, in the same year) to Munich where he started working for the TransAtlantik magazine. His last visit to West Berlin was during a journey around Germany in April 1987, visiting many of his writing and artists friends, among them actress Y San Lo. In May he returned to Munich. On 16 July 1987, he had been out celebrating his 43rd birthday in the many bars of the Bavarian capital. At dawn, instead of going back home, he wandered down a stretch of highway where, by chance or by choice, he was struck by a heavy goods truck. He died instantly. On hearing of Fauser’s death, Bukowski dedicated a poem to him, titled ‘Joe’:
sometimes there’s just one chance and
when you waste that, that’s it.
Jörg Fauser (1944-1987) was a prolific German novelist, essayist and journalist. Heavily influenced by beat literature and American crime stories, he produced three successful novels, including the hardboiled crime novel Der Schneemann (1981, published in English as The Snowman by the Lemon Press in 2004), and a plethora of short stories; he also translated works and song lyrics by John Howlett, Joan Baez and the Rolling Stones into German. Acclaimed as the best crime thriller ever written in German, Der Schneemann was made into a film starring German rock musician Marius Westernhagen. His breakthrough novel Rohstoff (1984), describing the journey of his alter ego Harry Gelb through the Europe of the sixties and seventies between heroin abuse and alcoholism and between Istanbul and Frankfurt, has been republished in English in 2014 by the Clerkenwell Press as Raw Material.
Marcel Krueger (born 1977) is a writer, translator and editor living in Ireland who writes about places, their history and the journeys in between. For Berlin – A Literary Guide for Travellers (out on I.B. Tauris) he has provided new translations of such diverse German writers as Wolfgang Borchert and The Brauseboys. His articles and essays have been published in the Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Slow Travel Berlin, and CNN Travel, amongst others. He is currently working on a translation of Jörg Fauser’s Das Schlangenmaul.
Image (book): Marcel Krueger