A Literary Life

‘The death of Marcel Reich-Ranicki highlighted how ill at ease the German intelligentsia still is with its Nazi past’

Sometimes a person’s death speaks more loudly than the person did during their lifetime. I felt the moral force of this truism when Marcel Reich-Ranicki died in September. A Pole, a German and a Jew, he was a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, an influential literary editor and a successful talk show host. The reactions to the death of this towering figure shone a light on how ill at ease the German intelligentsia still is with the near-extinction of its Jewish heritage by the Nazis. 

I need to stress that Reich-Ranicki, or “MRR” as he was often called, was exceptional, not only in his achievements but in the sheer power of his life story. His literary judgments were always delivered in his trademark husky voice with a rolling “r” and a slight lisp, accompanied by lively gestures. He either loved or hated a book — there was nothing in between. 

The news of his death at the age of 93 revealed that, uniquely for a literary critic, Reich-Ranicki had become a household name. For a day or two it seemed as if a sombre mood had taken hold of the whole country. There were page-long obituaries and his picture appeared on the front page of almost every newspaper and magazine. 

“Wait, he was a literary critic?” an American friend asked, slightly baffled. “But this man is getting a state funeral!”

“Well,” I explained, “he was known as the ‘Literaturpapst‘, the ‘Pope of literature’ — what else would you expect?” 

Yet I couldn’t quite convince myself that this was the reason for the national outburst of mourning. A particularly grief-stricken article exclaimed: “We can’t live on without him!”

I began scouring for clues to this reaction in his 1999 autobiography Mein Leben (translated as The Author of Myself). Born in Poland in 1920, Reich-Ranicki was sent to Berlin to study. “With every year he discovered more joy in, and love for, Thomas Mann and Brecht and Gründgens and Goethe,” wrote Frank Schirrmacher, one of the publishers of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, where Reich-Ranicki was literary editor for much of the 1970s and 1980s. “On the other side the hatred also grew: the hatred of an entire nation and all its bureaucracy for the young Jew who just wanted to go to the Deutsche Theater.” Reich-Ranicki describes in his autobiography the day he was arrested by the Nazis and deported to Poland: “I had a ticket for a premiere that evening. I wouldn’t be needing it.” The whole family was sent to the Warsaw ghetto, where he became a translator for its administration and also met Tosia, his future wife and life’s companion until her death in 2011.

After years spent in hiding, surviving mainly thanks to his knack of telling elaborate stories to his oppressors, he established himself in Communist Poland and began writing literary criticism. In 1958, he and his family fled to West Germany. There, with the help of writers including the later Nobel Prize-winner Heinrich Böll and Erich Kästner (of Emil and the Detectives), Reich-Ranicki found work as a literary critic at Die Zeit — a liberal paper, but one which, like most institutions at the time, was anything but Nazi-free. Soon, the garrulous Polish Jew had become a fixture at the meetings of the influential literary circle known as Gruppe 47. Some of its members, including Böll, had been in the Wehrmacht, but, as Reich-Ranicki put it much later, they talked literature, not the past. 

Last year, he spoke at the Bundestag during an official commemoration of the Holocaust. Frail but composed, he delivered a speech that, unusually for one made in the German parliament, truly moved me. Reich-Ranicki talked about the Warsaw ghetto, where he and Tosia read poems, not novels, because they didn’t know how much time they had. Reich-Ranicki found his salvation in literature — and this sentiment drove his criticism. “Nothing wrong with that,” my friend said. But an American could not grasp how extraordinary Reich-Ranicki seemed to the postwar German public. He was an eccentric in the cerebral world of German letters, his training strictly non-academic, his judgments driven by taste, passion and gut-instinct. His reverence for Thomas Mann and Goethe in particular was a way of embracing the German culture from which he had been brutally expelled, and passing it on to the next generation. Reich-Ranicki was not only one of the last survivors of the Holocaust, but also the very embodiment of German literature.  

“That a Polish Jew, who went through the hell of the Warsaw ghetto, would go on to become the most important literary critic in the German-language world is in itself a Jewish fairytale,” one American commentator wrote. Perhaps, now that the remembrance season is beginning, we need to grasp that we are not only mourning a critic and his exceptional services to literature, but the last Jew who made it in German intellectual life. 

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