Thursday, 19 September 2013

Germany's Literary Pope Remembered

Marcel Reich-Ranicki died yesterday at the age of 93. He was a very unusual character, a literary critic revered by (almost) the entire nation. He was born in Poland in 1920 but spent his youth in Germany, developing a passion for Thomas Mann and Goethe before being deported to Warsaw in 1938; he survived the Nazis in the ghetto but his parents and brother were murdered in concentration camps. He returned to the country in 1958 after a stint as a Polish diplomat in London. In West Germany, he joined the Gruppe 47 but apparently felt like an outsider. He became a very successful newspaper critic, heading the literary section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung for fifteen years and writing a column for the newspaper's Sunday edition until May of this year.

What made him a household name, however, was television. He was the main talking head on an extraordinary show, das literarische Quartett, from 1988 to 2001. Seventy-five minutes of literary critics arguing on sofas, over seventy-seven episodes. Imagine. He had already been on the jury for the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize from its initiation in 1977. The competition has been broadcast live since 1989, showing sweating writers and ruthless critics over three days. Imagine.

Reich-Ranicki was known for making literary criticism accessible and entertaining; readable reactions to literature that were allowed to play for laughs, including by ripping writers' work to verbal shreds, in print and in person. That made him popular and unpopular; the political and artistic feud that developed between him and the writer Martin Walser came to a head in the 2002 roman à clef Death of Critic. It was Walser who compared powerful critics to popes, I believe, years before his controversial novel. What bothered me personally, and perhaps this fits with that comparison, was MRR's apparent insistence that his own taste was definitive; tantamount to a literary canon. In fact he went as far as to issue his very own canon, aimed at "the reader". It was first announced in der Spiegel in 2001 with the now rather jaded headline "Was man lesen muss" - the equivalent to those "50 books everyone needs to read" lists, only in a lot more detail.

But readers loved him, making his autobiography a million-seller. His column often consisted of questions sent in by devoted fans, asking his opinion on particular writers. The phrasing of many of these questions suggests that people simply wanted someone to tell them, definitively, whether a writer is good or bad. And if MRR said so, it must be true. The obituaries are calling his death the end of an era, and that may well be the case. He was one of the people we have to thank for making German literary criticism fun to read. Yet it feels like no coincidence that the speech opening this year's Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, held by Michael Köhlmeier, began with a reminder of how cruel Reich-Ranicki and critics in general could and can be, when he (and they) trashed the writer Jörg Fauser thirty years previously. This year's judges, the critics in their summer suits, took the hint and held back. I think it's not only Köhlmeier; there's also a more widespread feeling that there's no need to be cruel to write good criticism. Perhaps because it's so easy now for anyone to sling mud publicly. That's something I try to bear in mind for my amateur criticism here - I want to write entertainingly but not at anyone else's expense.

My two favourite obituaries are a loving one in the FAZ by Frank Schirrmacher and a respectful but critical one in the taz by Ina Hartwig. Read both.


apsiegel said...

I've always found MRR's taste uninspired, tedious. One could draw up an excellent canon of post-war German-language literature stocked with all the writers he attacked: Fauser, Fichte, Rainald Goetz, etc.

kjd said...

Very possibly. If I didn't think that canons in general were a ridiculous thing.

apsiegel said...

I absolutely agree with you. But I've made a point of reading books just because MRR trashed them!