Enda O’Doherty writes: Up to his death at the age of ninety-three in 2013, Marcel Reich-Ranicki had long been the most influential literary critic in Germany and the German-speaking lands (Sprachraum). Through his contributions to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) and later Der Spiegel, Reich-Ranicki provided his readers with authoritative judgments on what, in German literature, historical or contemporary, was worth reading and what was not. He became known as the Literaturpapst (literature pope) and his influence continued to expand, particularly after 1988, when he started to appear regularly on the television book review programme Das Literarische Quartett. FAZ publisher Frank Schirrmacher praised Reich-Ranicki’s criticism for its “clarity, absence of jargon and passionate judgment”. He made an impact in the wider society far beyond what one could expect for a literary critic: a survey in 2010 found that 98% of Germans recognised his name. He was not, however, universally popular. The figure of “André Ehrl-König”, a murdered television literary reviewer in Martin Walser’s roman à clef Tod eines Kritikers (Death of a Critic) was universally understood to represent Marcel Reich-Ranicki.
Reich-Ranicki was born in 1920 in Włocławek in Poland to a Polish father and German mother, both assimilated Jews. After the collapse of his father’s business in 1929, the young Marcel was sent to board with his uncle and aunt in the prosperous Berlin suburb of Charlottenburg, later reuniting with his parents and siblings in his maternal grandfather’s house in nearby Wilmersdorf.
Reich-Ranicki’s account of his schooling (in Mein Leben, 1999) in a middle class part of Berlin at a time when the Nazis were already firmly established in power makes for interesting and somewhat surprising reading. He tells of an incident when a teacher burst into a noisy classroom earlier than expected and abused the boys for “making as much noise as in a Jew school”. The remark was not well-received by any of the boys; the point of the anecdote is, for Reich-Ranicki, that such incidents were so unusual.
Clearly, anti-Semitic remarks were not customary in lessons – at least not in our school or our form. Did we owe this to the Prussian spirit so revered by the Jews since their emancipation? Or did we pupils of the Fichte-Gymnasium benefit from what was left of the ethos of the West Berlin bourgeoisie? What is certain is that we were treated fairly, even by the Nazis among our teachers.
At a reunion of the 1938 graduation class held twenty-five years later, Reich-Ranicki was asked politely how he had got through the war. He replied briefly and concisely since he was sure no one wanted to hear the details and he noticed how relieved they were when he changed the subject. Almost all of his fellow pupils had “got through” the war as officers of the Wehrmacht. Reich-Ranicki had got through his in the Warsaw Ghetto and later being hidden for sixteen months by a Polish family. His parents, Helene and David, died in the gas chambers at Treblinka while his brother Alexander was shot at the forced labour camp of Poniatowa near Lublin.
At the reunion, Reich-Ranicki asked his fellow pupils how it was that in an atmosphere of relentless and savage antisemitic propaganda all around they had remained so polite, friendly and korrekt in their relations with him. But how, came the answer, could we possibly have believed that nonsense that the Jews were inferior when the best scholar in our school, and the best athlete, were Jews? Reich-Ranicki finds this answer rather unsatisfactory.
A greater consolation than friendship for a young man who at this time experienced the world more through art than life was his perennial recourse to literature, drama and music – what the Germans call Bildung (education is a translation but not a complete one). It is surprising to learn that in a Berlin production of Shakespeare’s Richard III in 1937 (Shakespeare had long been an honorary German) “the bodyguard of the villainous king wore black-and-silver uniforms suggestive of those of the SS, and the murderers of the Duke of Clarence wore brown shirts and riding boots reminiscent of the SA”.
One mention in his memoir of a German writer with whom Reich-Ranicki was much taken in his teens rings a bell, for he was a figure for me too in my teens and early twenties, as I expect he was at the time for quite a lot of younger English-speaking readers. Reich-Ranicki mentions that as an adolescent he was entirely ignorant of what in Ireland we called “the facts of life” – he was not alone in that. After making some progress by looking up all the difficult words in his Brockhaus Encyclopedia he turns to his older cousin, “a pretty and lively girl … and by no means prudish”, who presents him with a novel she has been reading. To save him time she has underlined “the dirty bits”. The novel is Hermann Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund.
Back home, expecting the book to be something improper, I locked myself in the bathroom with it. But it soon turned out that there was no need for that. This was a serious novel … I began by reading only the marked bits. I liked them, I found them instructive and, at the same time, charming and even poetic … Having, with flushed cheeks, read everything that had struck my cousin I decided to disregard her advice and read the whole book.
By the time I found myself working in a Dublin bookshop in the late 1970s Hermann Hesse had become quite the literary star, with a large number of his novels translated and published in handsome Paladin and Picador editions. But I think my first acquaintance with him occurred ten years earlier when I came across Steppenwolf in a Penguin Classics edition while still at school. Its narrative, concerning a man who is disgusted by the emptiness and frivolity of bourgeois society, who is assailed by dark fears and occasional despair and yet who believes he could have it in him to be one of “the immortals”, was just the thing for a seventeen-year-old.
Three years later, in Dublin, I encountered a very engaging young American girl with whom I quickly became smitten and whom I followed all over Ireland and even to London in the summer and autumn of 1971. Betsy’s favourite author was the same Hesse. I may have won some brownie points with her from my acquaintance with Steppenwolf, but the book she now pressed on me – for her the book – was Narziss and Goldmund. I should quickly add that she had not marked any words or sentences and it was not her intention to draw my attention to the sexual passages. I liked Betsy a lot and it was clear she liked me too but, unfortunately, not in that way.
When Reich-Ranicki reread Narziss and Goldmund in his thirties he found that its “mixture of German romanticism and unworldly inwardness, of gentle sentimentality and angry contempt for civilisation” no longer appealed to him, but I suspect that was exactly what appealed to me when I was twenty. After Narziss, Betsy suggested Siddhartha, but I knew I didn’t really have the single-mindedness needed to pursue the Eastern path to wisdom. And The Glass Bead Game – an apparently brilliant fiction set in the future and featuring an austere order of intellectuals –was nearly 600 pages long. It is, I think, a perfectly reasonable procedure to try to place oneself in the good graces of a significant other by purporting to like what she likes. But it was clear to me by this stage that in that sphere I had already got as far as I was going to get. Why exhaust oneself needlessly?
In the few hundred hours Betsy and I spent in each other’s company over a number of months I think we seldom failed to entertain each other. She was good-humoured, curious, intelligent, idealistic, musical ‑ certainly soft-hearted. But I think her high school education had not been of the same quality and scope as my grammar school one (she was also two years younger). Consequently, like many Americans perhaps, she did not know a great deal about the world outside her own country, or indeed how her country might be perceived by non-Americans. I remember, for example, talking to her about the overwhelming influence of American mass culture in other societies (“soft power” we might say now, but we didn’t then). Asked for an example, I offered the fact that every rock and pop singer in Britain or Ireland, with very few exceptions, sang their songs with an American accent, even if they came from Liverpool or Newcastle, Glasgow or Belfast. Like who? Well, like that Van Morrison you are so fond of. If Van was to enunciate in what is the more natural way for him it would sound more like this: “Well, it’s a mawrvellous niite for a moondawnce / With the stawrs up above in your aiyes.” Et cetera.
This she insisted on learning off immediately, my assumed Belfast accent not, I hope, too much off the mark and her quick ear picking up the unfamiliar vowel sounds fast. We went through the whole song, the amateur voice coach patiently lingering over any tricky yet important patches (“In the moonliight / On a magic niight”) to make sure they were just so. I like to think she took this unusual accomplishment home with her from her long stay in Ireland and I fondly imagine her, a few years later, impressing, or more likely mystifying, a night-time gathering in a Californian college dorm with renderings of the genuine Ulster Van.
Marcel Reich-Ranicki’s Mein Leben (1999) was translated as The Author of Himself: The Life of Marcel Reich-Ranicki in 2001.