BY Dominikus Müller in Profiles | 25 AUG 16
Featured in
Issue 25

Beat Happening

On the counter-cultural icon Hubert Fichte, founder of German-language Pop literature

BY Dominikus Müller in Profiles | 25 AUG 16

It’s 2 October 1966 at Star-Club, in Hamburg’s red-light district St. Pauli. On stage are the Mersey Beat band Ian & the Zodiacs and the folk singer Ferre Grignard. The writer Hubert Fichte steps to the microphone and starts to read (someone is filming the whole thing, you can see it on YouTube): ‘Jäcki’s first visit to the Palette: Jäcki walks across Gänsemarkt. Jäcki goes down four steps. Jäcki shuts the door again. The first visit lasts five minutes. Die Palette doesn’t mind. Those five minutes could be 29 visits or 900, each lasting 12 hours or one second – between the opening and the closing of Die Palette. At Die Palette everything is always present.’

In Hamburg in the 1960s, Palette was the bar where you went if you were a freak, beatnik, hustler, hooker, layabout, docker, intellectual, artist, pothead, alcoholic, drug addict, or all of the above – if you didn’t want to go home or if you didn’t have a home to go to, if you were different or wanted to go somewhere different. Palette was an alternative world beyond the post-war West German mainstream. 

That evening, Fichte presented his novel Die Palette that was published two years later, in the epoch-making year of 1968. At the Star- Club, the place for hip new music at the time, established literary circles mixed with outsiders from Palette, rebellious beatnik bourgeois kids mixed with local youth, text mixed with party. With Fichte, then, German literature had finally arrived in the present, and the counterculture. His book became famous (and notorious), and he became Germany’s first Pop author. A writer in tune with the times who kept a written record, filling his books with observation after observation in an almost shorthand style.

‘German history is not exactly rich in precisely pin-pointable pop moments’, says Detlef Diederichsen, ‘but that evening at the Star-Club is such a moment.’ This October, to mark the 50th anniversary of Fichte’s Star-Club reading, Diederichsen, music curator at Berlin’s House of World Cultures, is organizing re-enactments of the evening at Berlin’s ACUD club – and the following evening – at Golem in Hamburg. It is the first in a series of events on Fichte’s work due to run until 2019 including symposia, exhibitions and translation projects. ‘With our re-enactment,’ Diederichsen adds, ‘we don’t want to celebrate Fichte, or the bar Palette, or the book, or the Star-Club, but rather how all this comes together in a singularity in 1966.’ It was a historical nexus: an aspiring writer who went on to become one of the most interesting and diverse, but also one of the most enigmatic voices in the West German literary scene; the first sighting of a new ‘underground’; the milieu of a music club in the red-light district; the coupling of intellectual pretensions with something previously considered below them; the potential for politicized otherness and the emphasis on the present that came to be known as pop.

Fichte was born in 1935 and died in 1986. During his life, he was famous in certain circles while remaining somehow obscure, an avowed autodidact who never allowed himself to be fully integrated into the canon of post-war West German literature. Since his death, he has been rediscovered more than once and contextualized differently each time. ‘This summer I gorged hungrily on the work of Hamburg’s great local writer Hubert Fichte’, wrote Detlef Diederichsen’s brother Diedrich in his 1993 book Freiheit macht arm. Das Leben nach Rock’n’Roll 1990-93 (Freedom Makes You Poor. Life After Rock’n’Roll): ‘… at last, a post-war German writer for me. Who did everything right. Whose work focuses on the themes of one’s own life and becoming what one is, homosexuality, literature, subculture, criminality, voodoo, Haiti, Brazil, his girlfriend, Hamburg.’ This is a good summary of Fichte’s heterogeneous programme. In more detail, there is the scene Fichte from Palette, the pop Fichte from the Star-Club, the interview Fichte who spoke with the same empathy and honesty to Hamburg S&M leather men and prostitutes as he did to Salvador Allende and Léopold Sédar Senghor. There was Fichte the ethnographer, who toured the world with his partner the photographer Leonore Mau, 20 years his senior, who left her husband and children for him, traveling to Brazil, Haiti, Belize or Miami in search of ‘Afro-American religions’ (the subtitle of a multipart series) and the syncretism of voodoo or Candomblé; who developed an almost manic interest in synthesizing cults and made it their task to witness the ‘great bloodbath’ at the centre of some of these clandestine cults and document it, he in writing, she in pictures. But there is also the radio feature and magazine Fichte who, not least to fund further voyages, reworked his travel reports for West German state broadcasters and for magazines like Stern and even Playboy. And there is the bisexual Fichte who worked on the ‘gayification of the world’, whose partner was a woman but who nonetheless had a huge amount of gay sex, which in turn features with great frequency in his novels, described with a precision and openness unparalleled in post-war West German literature (and probably elsewhere). ‘I’m fucking a lot, hope you are too’, he wrote in a letter to Mau from Morocco (published for the first time in a volume of letters entitled Ich beiße dich zum Abschied ganz zart – I Bite You Tenderly Farewell).

It is this colourful elusiveness and diversity that allows Hubert Fichte to still seem ‘fresh’ today. Both his personality and his work are a ‘river without banks’, to quote the title of a book by his one-time mentor and role model Hans Henny Jahnn. For decades, Fichte worked on what he called his ‘roman fleuve’, a sprawling project that found its expression in his posthumously published 19-volume Geschichte der Empfindlichkeit. This ‘History of Sensitivity’ is Fichte’s À la recherche du temps perdu – except that unlike Marcel Proust, Fichte was interested not in rediscovering things past but in grasping the present through writing, between West German counterculture, New York intelligentsia, Brazilian voodoo cults, Salazar’s Portugal and psychiatric facilities in Africa.

Most of Fichte’s books tell the story of Jäcki and Irma as they make these trips. They are easily identifiable as the author and the photographer. But this is literature – Fichte had a lifelong aversion to the ‘diary’ and ordered that his own private writings should be destroyed after his death. The constant crisscrossing of author and narrator, of the writer and the character he is writing, ultimately leads to a flickering reality effect, an interlocking of levels that can never be fully grasped.

As the photographer, Mau’s role was often to ‘prove in pictures the authenticity of what Fichte presents in his texts as inauthentic and contrived’, as the writer Thomas Meinecke put it in an interview. For his novel Lookalikes (2011), Meinecke followed in the footsteps of Fichte and Mau, travelling to Brazil and overwriting their voyage with his own. The photographs helped not least to sell the stories to magazine editors back home in West Germany. ‘One need only take the great cultic bloodbath that the two of them chase after in Brazil. Fichte writes again and again of the way he and Mau were deceived and put off until tomorrow. And in the end it turns out to be a shimmering, insane business. Even if there is fetishism at work, a wish to find the origin, a quest and desire for the Other, the experience of reading Fichte is many-layered. He’s not the confident author who has everything worked out. In his descriptions, he is scanning the surface.’ This interplay of an almost manic searching for the Other and the registering of surfaces, of photographer and writer (the differences between the two media are discussed repeatedly in the books) gives the work the strangle flickering quality Meinecke mentions. 

Reading Fichte today, staging him, discussing him in symposia and translating his works, reflects a primarily historical interest. But in terms of complexity, literary refinement and the ability to charge the inauthentic and constructed with a searing honesty, he is still unmatched. ‘What he drinks, he simultaneously tastes’, he writes in Die Palette. On YouTube, I see Hubert Fichte reading these words on the evening of 2 October 1966 at the Star-Club. As a mode of experiencing the world, this approach still holds.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

50 Jahre Beat und Prosa – reenacting Hubert Fichte takes place on 1 October at ACUD, Berlin, and on 2 October at Golem, Hamburg. Ich beiße dich zum Abschied ganz zart: Briefe an Leonore Mau was published in July by S. Fischer Verlag.

Dominikus Müller is a freelance writer based in Berlin.