On the death of ernst augustin: fantastic fantasist

The unique, satirical, underrated writer Ernst Augustin is dead. He stood for a narrative that expanded genre and thought categories.

The writer Ernst Augustin at the Frankfurt Book Fair, 2003 Photo: Erwin Elsner/dpa/picture alliance

Ernst Augustin almost became famous. In 1966, he had been invited to the Group 47 conference in Princeton. In this shark tank of critics, he read an excerpt from a novel that was very well received. People talked about him a lot and praised him.

But then, on the same day, a Carinthian youngster with a Beatles haircut spoke up, insulted the assembled group of authors – and no one paid any attention to Ernst Augustin anymore. Peter Handke had clearly hijacked the conference; even then he was good for a scandal.

Ernst Augustin didn’t much contest that. The experience was a nice anecdote that he could tell later. He had never depended on the literary business and writing for a living, and a modest fame among connoisseurs was quite enough for him. After all, the author, who was born in 1927 in Hirschberg in the Giant Mountains, had learned a decent profession that provided him with a decent living.

First he worked as an accident surgeon in Wismar, later as a psychiatrist at the East Berlin Charite. In 1958 he moved to the West, and he took full advantage of the freedom he had gained. For three years he directed an American hospital in Afghanistan; during this time he wrote his first, experimental novel, "Der Kopf," which was published by Piper Verlag in 1962.

Reality and delusion, the conscious and the unconscious

Finally, he worked for decades as a psychiatric consultant and repeatedly undertook long journeys to the remotest parts of the earth. Both the psychological abysses he confronted professionally and his exploration of the world had a considerable influence on his writing.

In his books, from early novels such as "Mamma" (1970) or "Raumlicht" (1976) to his late adventure novel "Robinson’s Blue House" (2012), the boundaries between reality and delusion, fantasy and the fantastic, the conscious and the unconscious often become blurred.

For him, literature was like a building with a thousand doors, and behind each one could be hidden a completely separate, intricate room, in turn leading to quite a few more rooms. It is a narrative that expands all genre and thought categories, and with his language Augustin managed to penetrate into the deepest inner provinces of his characters as well as to create complicated architectural structures.

The house he had designed with his wife in Munich was virtually a materialization of his literary imagination: a labyrinth of the most diverse places of experience, including an English library, trough vaults, a tanning bed in the form of a sleeping car compartment, an antique-looking loggia, or a disco cellar where Augustin could indulge his passion for dancing.

Consolation and transcendence

In his novel "The American Dream" (1989), Ernst Augustin impressively demonstrated what literature was capable of for him – consolation and transcendence: We are in 1944; a boy is riding his bicycle towards Schwerin when an American Douglas targets him as an enemy object and hits him fatally. While his life is snuffed out, his imagination carries him far away once again.

Because he was a great reader of American detective novels, in his final moments he transforms himself into Private Eye Hawk Steen, who pursues his killers in a turbulent chase across the USA. A few seconds thus expand into a 270-page gangster story. Hawk Steen, of course, is a play-by-play version of Augustin: on Sunday, this unique, fantastic, satirical, language-loving, yes, and also funny author passed away at the age of 92. Certainly, in the last minutes of his life, he conceived an entire novel.