[This page by Robert Gillett]
Hubert Fichte is certainly the most underrated and arguably one of the greatest German-language authors of the period between 1945 and 1989. He was born to a Jewish father in 1935; he died at the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1986. In between he produced over 50 books and several hundred articles, interviews, features, and other texts in which he not only minutely observes his own West German reality, but also extends it to encompass virtually the whole of the black diaspora as represented by the syncretic religions, and compares it with the experiences of an astonishing range of other people, from Presidents to prostitutes, from across the globe.
Although he is often treated as an outsider, Fichte in fact made unique and outstanding contributions to each of the main trends and tendencies of his time. His first collection of short stories, Der Aufbruch nach Turku (Escaping to Turku) 1963 gives a new twist to the pared down prose of the so-called ‘Kahlschlag’. His first novel Das Waisenhaus (The Orphanage) (1965) is a novel of National Socialism which engages critically with the tendency of Vergangenheitsbewältigung or ‘overcoming the past’ by showing how totalitarianism is endemic in the way individuals and hierarchies use language. With Die Palette (The Palette) (1968) he rode the wave of Pop literature and created a bestseller which can also be read as a big city novel, an underground novel, and an outstanding example of the linguistic experimentation of the time. Detlevs Imitationen “Grünspan” (Detlev’s Imitations) (1971) brilliantly refutes Sebald’s peculiar thesis that the Germans had not written about the bombing of their cities and turns completely inside out the so-called ‘search for identity’ which literary historians see as the dominant theme of the decade. In his Interviews aus dem Palais d’Amour (1972) and Wolli Indienfahrer (1978) he extends the scope of documentary literature to the world of pimps and prostitutes, noting in the latter title the new-found fad for travel to the third world. In Versuch über die Pubertät (Essay on Puberty) (1975) he cocks a snook at the so-called ‘new subjectivity’ by counterpointing his own puberty with the rituals of the Afro-American religions and the torture of political prisoners in Latin America. And in Hans Eppendorfer, Der Ledermann spricht mit Hubert Fichte (Hans Eppendorfer, the Leather-Man Talking to Hubert Fichte) (1977) he straddles the genres of interview, radio feature and theatre play while engaging in complicated ways with the topical themes of justice, violence, sexuality and sensationalism.
In 1976 Fichte and his partner, the photographer Leonore Mau (1916-2013), produced the first of three two-volume multi-media projects, which make much (West German) literature seem narrowly parochial. Xango (1976), Petersilie (Parsley) (1981) and the posthumous Psyche (1990 and 2005) use photographs, newspaper items, diary entries, excerpts from interviews, lists, litanies, statistics, fragments of narrative, dialogue, and discursive prose, together with a variety of other forms to create a carefully structured open montage which seeks not to recolonize the ritual remains of the religions of Africa as preserved in the black diaspora, but to document the process by which a white writer and a white photographer seek to come to terms with the experience of researching them. The questions raised – about tourism, dictatorship and constellations of exploitation, about ethnographic research and the dangers of monologic thinking, about magic and rationalism, knowledge and power, and about the unspoken sexual component in all these debates, are if anything even more urgently relevant now than they were then. And the form in which they are cast uncannily prefigures post-colonial debates about hybridity, subaltern speech and the third space.
Meanwhile, Fichte had started work on an auto-fictional project which makes the recollections of his contemporaries seem virtually unreadable. The posthumous Geschichte der Empfindlichkeit (1986-2006) is a History of Sensitivity understood as: a quality of photographic paper and other recording instruments; a quality of human interaction opposed to the heteropatriarchal imperialist history of domination and subjugation; a quality of an individual endowed by circumstances (a Jewish father, a non heteronormative sexuality) with unusually raw nerves and acute perceptions; and a quality of the human body which enables it to respond to pain and tenderness alike. The work published under this title offers all the pleasures of a good autobiography: gossip and pen-portraits, insights into the genesis and reception of literary works, an alternative narrative to set alongside the fiction, forthright opinions and a full-blown family romance. Almost by accident it includes collections of Fichte’s award-winning Radio Plays (Schulfunk – Schools Broadcasting, 1990) and of his feisty literary criticism (Homosexualität und Literatur – Homosexuality and Literature, 1987 & 1988). But it also engages, in a characteristically subversive manner, with a wide variety of familiar themes: the tourist novel (Eine Glückliche Liebe – A Happy Romance, 1988), (Forschungsbericht – Research Report, 1989), the parent novel (Geschichte der Nanã – Story of Nanã, 1989), the novel of Islam (Platz der Gehenkten – Hanged Men’s Square, 1989), the Third World novel (Explosion, 1993), the New York novel (Die schwarze Stadt – The Black City, 1990), the Hamburg novel (Der kleine Hauptbahnhof oder Lob des Strichs – The Little Central Station or in Praise of Renting, 1990), the Pop novel (Lil’s Book, 1991) and the AIDS novel (Hamburg Hauptbahnhof. Register – Hamburg Central Station. Index, 1995). It also contains programmatic and explicit accounts of the encounters its bisexual subject has with both men and a woman. Like Xango, Petersilie and Psyche, it deliberately adopts multiple perspectives and makes use of a variety of found material, including whole works by Fichte himself. Mercilessly honest and acutely self-aware, it is constantly relativizing statements made and positions adopted, and never allows the point of view to reify. Indeed it works tirelessly to subvert precisely the kind of imperialism predicated on being unironically right. To that extent, the Geschichte, like the rest of Fichte’s oeuvre can be seen as being indicatively, and thoroughly, queer.
Hubert Fichte, The Orphanage, trans. by Martin Chalmers (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1990)
Hubert Fichte, Detlev’s Imitations, trans. by Martin Chalmers (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1992)
Hubert Fichte, The Gay Critic, trans. by Kevin Gavin, intro. by James W. Jones (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1996)
Further Reading in English
Diedrich Diederichsen, Anselm Franke and Haus der Kulturen der Welt (eds), Love and Ethnology: The Colonial Dialectic of Sensitivity (after Hubert Fichte) (London: Sternberg Press, 2019)
Robert Gillett, ‘On not Writing Pornography: Literary Self-Consciousness in the Work of Hubert Fichte’, German Life and Letters 48:2 (1995), 222-40
Robert Gillett, ‘An Index and Its Chronicle: Hubert Fichte’s Hamburg (Hauptbahnhof)’, in Cityscapes and Countryside in Contemporary German Literature, ed. by Julian Preece and Osman Durrani (Bradford Series of Colloquia on German Literature, Bd. 8) (Oxford and Bern: Peter Lang, 2004), pp. 67-83
Robert Gillett, ‘Fichte: Detlevs Imitationen „Grünspan“’, in Landmarks in the German Novel 2, ed. by Peter Hutchinson and Michael Minden (Bern and Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010), pp. 43-60
Robert Gillett, ‘Writing queer performance: Hubert Fichte's inimitable Imitations’, Sexualities 15:1 (2012), 42-52
Christian Gundermann, ‘Hubert Fichte 1935-1986’, in Encyclopedia of German Literature, ed. by Matthias Konzett (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn 2000), vol. 1, pp. 286-87
B. Martin Kane, ‘A Note on Hubert Fichte’s New Novel’, 20th Century Studies (December 1969), 106-08
Craig B. Palmer, ‘Fichte, Hubert’, in The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage. A Reader’s Companion to the Writers and Their Works, from Antiquity to the Present, ed. by Claude J. Summers (New York: Henry Holt, 1995), p. 271
Debbie Pinfold, ‘The Tainted Voice: Hubert Fichte’s Das Waisenhaus’, in Debbie Pinfold, The Child’s View of the Third Reich in German Literature: The Eye among the Blind (Oxford: Clarendon Press 2001), pp. 199-203
Jeffrey L. Sammons, ‘Hamburg Dropouts. Hubert Fichte, Die Palette’, Novel 2:3 (Spring 1969), 280-281
Further Reading in German
Hartmut Böhme, Hubert Fichte. Riten des Autors und Leben der Literatur (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1992)
Peter Braun, Eine Reise durch das Werk von Hubert Fichte (Frankfurt/Main: Fischer, 2005)
Robert Gillett, “Aber eines lügt er nicht: Echtheit”: Perspektiven auf Hubert Fichte (Hamburg: Textem, 2014)
Karin Krauthausen and Stephan Kammer (eds.), Hubert Fichtes Medien (Zürich: Diaphanes, 2014)
Hubert Fichte: Love and Ethnology. Online journal (in English and German)
Interviews with contemporary German authors based on Hubert Fichte’s St. Pauli interviews of the 1970s