In Germany, the name Marcel Reich-Ranicki carries more weight than that of any other literary figure alive. But if the adjective “greatest” means anything (you can imagine him saying that it obviously means something better than “not so great”) then Marcel Reich-Ranicki is the greatest literary critic not only in Germany, but in the world today. Readers of my book Cultural Amnesia, in which Reich-Ranicki plays a starring role, often ask me where they can make a start with him. If they do not read German, they can make a start on the translation of his autobiography, which carries the full horrifying story of his near-death early life as a Jew on the run, with the Warsaw Ghetto bulking large. The book was a bestseller in Germany, but it doesn’t give you the essence of the man, which is in his copious journalism: colloquial yet immensely learned, generous in praise, hilarious in attack.
Unfortunately none of it has been translated, and whoever tried would have to write English at the level of MRR’s German. (In his homeland the monogram is customarily used.) So one is reduced to recommending translations of his press interviews, where he comes through with at least something of his full, bristling individuality. His best recent interviewer was Julian Schütt, literary editor of Die Weltwoche. The review was run in English translation by Signandsight, and there is a link for it here. Typical of MRR’s capacity to put a whole critical argument into a single sentence is his reply to the question of how he deals with the subject of anti-Semitism when it comes to culture. He says that Wagner was the biggest anti-Semite in German culture but that Tristan is the best opera in the world. At the age of 85, the irascible patriarch can still deal something like that off the bottom of the deck before you even see his hand move.
For readers whose German is good enough to follow the language when it is spoken, the second link leads to a video of MRR’s already classic appearance at this year’s ZDF television awards ceremony, where he got so impatient with the long evening leading up to his lifetime achievement award that he told them where they could put it. Between 1988 and 2002, his weekly cultural television programme Die Literarische Quartett had united Germany in the same way that Bernard Pivot’s Apostrophe united France, but now MRR was making it brutally clear that all bets were off. His rejection speech is a revue sketch for the Gods.
I have chosen the clip that preserves not only the whole speech, but the standing ovation that led up to it. Try to imagine any other country where an auditorium full of glitterati would rise to their feet and applaud a literary critic for minutes on end. Then watch their faces as they register, with various degrees of shock and awe, that he is telling them their whole national television system is in the toilet. Even before the smoke had cleared, he was already being interviewed on the subject by everybody in the German media. One of the best interviews, so far not translated into English, was conducted by Faz.net, the website of his old newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Another appears on the Welt am Sonntag website WeltOnline. The Germans love him. He is their raging bull who has always refused to be a sacred cow. Every living German writer wants his praise but it has always been hard to get: the reason, of course, why they would like to have it. His long-term project to edit the canon of German literature, in many volumes and several boxes, is nearing its end, and one can only hope that he will live to put the finishing touches to what might well prove to be its most fascinating instalment: the one with all the best essays, feuilletons and critical journalism in the language. If he is not the preponderant figure in it, he will have pulled a punch for the first time in his life.
(photo by Herlinde Koelbl)
Read Julian Schütt’s interview with MRR in Signandsight
Watch MRR rejecting the ZDF Fernsehpreis
Read the Faz.net interview with MRR
Read the WeltOnline interview with MRR
The novelist Günter Grass once questioned Mr. Reich-Ranicki at a literary conference.
“What are you really — a Pole, a German or what?” Mr. Grass asked.
“I am half Polish, half German and wholly Jewish,” Mr. Reich-Ranicki replied.
He later said that the statement was untrue, that he felt himself an outsider everywhere. It was a lifelong tension with his own identity that energized his work.
Mr. Reich-Ranicki could be an irascible critic, fearless in defense of scathing judgments. Mr. Grass became a particular target. In 1995, four years before Mr. Grass won the Nobel Prize, a photograph of Mr. Reich-Ranicki appeared on the cover of the newsmagazine Der Spiegel showing him physically tearing apart Mr. Grass’s latest novel, “Too Far Afield,” which dealt with Germany’s moral struggle to reconcile itself with its terrible past. Asked at the time by a correspondent for The New York Times whether he understood that he had insulted Mr. Grass, Mr. Reich-Ranicki said, “Of course.”
“He wrote a book that he considers to be the most important of his life, and he has to read in every newspaper that it’s junk,” Mr. Reich-Ranicki added.
And in 2012 — six years after Mr. Grass stunned Europe when he revealed that he had been a member of the Waffen SS during World War II — Mr. Reich-Ranicki lashed out at Mr. Grass again, this time over a poem he had published, “What Must Be Said,” accusing Israel of being a threat to world peace. Mr. Reich-Ranicki called it “disgusting.”
Mr. Reich-Ranicki was born Marcel Reich on June 2, 1920, in the industrial town of Wloclawek, Poland. When his father’s business failed in 1929, Mr. Reich-Ranicki was sent to live with relatives in Berlin, where he attended high school, became fluent in the language and grew enthralled by German literature and music. He read voraciously and attended the opera, even as conditions grew harsher for Jews in the 1930s.
As a Jew he was not permitted to attend college; his sweeping grasp of German culture since the Enlightenment was a product of his own self-study. In 1938, the Nazis arrested and deported him to Warsaw, where he rejoined his parents and brother.
In the ghetto, he saw German soldiers kill Jews on the street. Working as a translator, he was a witness to crucial meetings between the Jewish and Nazi authorities. In one instance he typed out the transcript of a July 1942 meeting as a Nazi SS officer, Hermann Höfle, ordered Jewish leaders to assemble thousands of Jews every day for “resettlement” to death camps. Recounting the episode later, Mr. Reich-Ranicki noted that Nazi troops waiting outside in the streets had set up a gramophone to amuse themselves with Viennese waltzes.
Hearing that translators, and their wives, were exempt for the time being, Mr. Reich-Ranicki married his sweetheart, Teofila, that same day. (The marriage lasted seven decades; his wife died in 2011.) In September 1942, Mr. Reich-Ranicki watched his own parents board cattle trucks bound for Treblinka.
“My father looked at me helplessly, while my mother was surprisingly calm,” he wrote. “I knew I was seeing them for the last time.”
Escaping the ghetto in 1943, Mr. Reich-Ranicki and his wife were taken in by Polish peasants, who hid them in a cellar until the war’s end. Grateful to the Soviet Army for liberating Poland, Mr. Reich-Ranicki joined the Polish Communist Party and, posted as a diplomat in London, worked for Polish intelligence, a mission for which he assumed the pseudonym Ranicki. He later merged his two last names.
He was thrown out of the party for “ideological estrangement” in 1949 and jailed for a time. Afterward he worked for a government publisher and eventually as a freelance literary critic, writing in Polish. In that role he met prominent German writers, from both East and West, including Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich Böll, Siegfried Lenz and Mr. Grass.
Immigrating to West Germany in 1958, Mr. Reich-Ranicki leaned on his Rolodex of German authors and established himself as one of the nation’s most incisive critics.
From 1959 to 1973 he lived with his family in Hamburg, writing for the newspapers Die Welt and Die Zeit. In 1973 he moved to Frankfurt to head the literary section of The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a post he held through 1988. He continued to write and edit literary columns for that paper almost until his death.
Mr. Reich-Ranicki testified in at least two war crimes trials, including the 1962 proceedings against Mr. Höfle, the SS officer who had coordinated the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto. But he “did not dwell on” those searing wartime experiences during the early postwar decades while he was building his literary reputation, according to his son, Andrew Ranicki, a mathematics professor at the University of Edinburgh.
“My mother and myself eventually urged him to write his autobiography before it was too late,” Dr. Ranicki said last year by e-mail from Scotland.
The book, “Mein Leben,” published in 1999, became a best seller in Germany, and the Israeli director Dror Zahavi filmed an adaptation for broadcast on German television in 2009. By then Mr. Reich-Ranicki had been a household name for years, having since 1988 been the host of “Literary Quartet,” a prime-time talk show broadcast on German public television. He remained host until 2002.
The show magnified his influence so much that his comments could make or break young writers. Newspapers called him Germany’s “literary pope.” On Holocaust Remembrance Day in January 2012, Mr. Reich-Ranicki addressed the German Parliament, with Chancellor Angela Merkel and lawmakers listening in hushed silence.
On Wednesday, Ms. Merkel issued an unusually personal statement of mourning, saying of Mr. Reich-Ranicki: “We lose in him a peerless friend of literature, but also of freedom and democracy. I will miss this passionate and brilliant man.”
Mr. Reich-Ranicki discovered or promoted many talents, and made numerous enemies. In the 2002 book “Death of a Critic,” the novelist Martin Walser portrayed the murder of a fictional critic — clearly modeled on Mr. Reich-Ranicki — by an aggrieved author.
“On his television show Reich-Ranicki often played the clown, a mixture of Milton Berle and Jack Benny, but you always had to take him seriously because his knowledge of German culture was so comprehensive,” said Jack Zipes, a University of Minnesota professor emeritus who wrote the foreword to the English translation of “Mein Leben.”
Mr. Reich-Ranicki worked for many years editing a multivolume anthology of what he considered to be Germany’s greatest novels, short stories, plays, poems and essays, published from 2002 to 2006 as “Der Kanon.”
He is survived by his son and granddaughter. The London painter Frank Auerbach is a cousin.
Mr. Reich-Ranicki continued to produce criticism and commentary into his 90s, including writing a weekly column in The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, “Ask Reich-Ranicki,” in which he answered readers’ questions about world literature.
He also remained conflicted about Germany, as he wrote in his autobiography, in describing his youth in 1930s Berlin.
“On my first day at school in Germany, I experienced something that I never quite managed to shake off, something that accompanied me all of my life,” he wrote. “Perhaps I should say ‘has accompanied me.’ I mean fear — fear of the German cane, of the German concentration camp, of the German gas chamber, in short, fear of German barbarism. And what about the German culture which Miss Laura” — his teacher in Poland — “had so emphatically and longingly promised? That was soon revealed to me.
“Quite quickly I fell under the spell of German literature, of German music. Fear was joined by happiness — fear of things German by the happiness I owed to things German.”Continue reading the main story