Features » Literature


Marcel Reich-Ranicki

A short biography of Germany's most popular literary critic. By Julian Schütt

Marcel Reich-Ranicki's most important publication is his autobiography "Mein Leben" ("The Author of Himself: The Life of Marcel Reich-Ranicki"), which appeared in German in 1999. With it he became not only one of the most widely read authors in Germany. The chapters on his experiences in the Third Reich, the Warsaw Ghetto and the Polish underground are also among the most important writings to have appeared recently in the German language.

In 1929 Marceli Reich came to Berlin from his native town of Wloclawek in Poland, aged nine. In 1938 he was arrested and sent back to Poland. For five years he and Teofila (or Tosia), who he married in the Ghetto in 1942, lived in constant fear for their lives. Reich-Ranicki does not like to speak about this time. His parents were deported to Treblinka and murdered there. His brother was killed by SS officers in the forced labour camp at Poniatowa.

Still today he always sits facing the door in cafes and restaurants. Still today he shaves twice daily, like he did in the Ghetto when it was tantamount to a death sentence for a Jew to appear before a German ghetto guard looking dishevelled.

In "The Author of Himself", Reich-Ranicki describes how literature saved his life. After escaping from the Ghetto, he and Tosia hid in the house of an unemployed Polish typesetter and his wife. But they were never sure they not be shown the door at any moment. During the day they hid in the cellar, the attic or a hole in the ground. At night Reich-Ranicki curried favour with his saviour by telling him stories from world literature: "The Sorrows of Young Werther", "Cabal and Love", "Hamlet", "Romeo and Juliet". His host didn't care whether the stories were invented by Shakespeare or Schiller, as long as they were good. The better they were, the bigger his reward: a piece of bread, two carrots or the like.

Often the couple were faced with ruin, for example in 1958 when they left Poland. Reich-Ranicki began his career as literary critic in West Germany, where his colleagues in the leading feuilleton sections tended to write in an academic, dry, moralising tone understandable only to their peers. Reich-Ranicki set himself apart by expressing himself in a clear, precise, witty way, in the tradition of the best of German critics from Heine to Alfred Kerr.

In his role as critic Reich-Ranicki became popular, and powerful. Year in, year out, a regular stream of books now appears on his life and work. Uwe Wittstock, author of the most recent biography released this spring, calls him a "pop star among critics", which will certainly flatter Reich-Ranicki, although he may never have listened to a pop song of his own free will.

He admits openly that he fought to gain the power he has now, above all as literary editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and later in the bi-monthly television show "Das Literarische Quartett", conceived and dominated by him. "The decisive thing", he says, "is who benefits from this power. The authors? No, the readers." Today his popularity reaches well beyond the reading class. Interviewer Julian Schütt put this to the test. His hairdresser has never heard of Goethe, Thomas Mann or Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass. But she has heard of Reich-Ranicki, and his appearances on television are reason enough to stop her zapping for a while.

Reich Ranicki's negative reviews were also the reason why his name made such an impression on some authors. In 1980 Friedrich Dürrenmatt sketched him throning over a throng of beheaded authors, calling the picture "the killing fields". Peter Rühmkorf saw in him a "renegade maker", who led the weakened Left down the Right-Liberal path of virtue. For Günter Grass, Reich-Ranicki represents a downward slope into fanaticism. Alfred Andersch compared him with Satan, and versified: "no one says anything / he's protected by conservation legislation / he was in the warsaw ghetto after all / but in poland they call him 'back home to the reich-ranicki'". Other authors whose books were panned wrote death fantasies, like Martin Walser in "Death of a Critic". Nowadays these wounds have healed. Grass is fond of him again, and Rühmkorf is happy that "the peace-pipe is lit once more."


The text originally appeared in German in Die Weltwoche, as an introduction to Julian Schütt's interview with Marcel Reich-Ranicki.

Translation: jab. - let's talk european