Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Author of Himself: Marcel Reich-Ranicki

An autobiography of a book reviewer sounds inconceivable but this is no ordinary autobiography. The back cover claims that more than half a million hardback copies of this book were sold in Germany and that it was "no. 1 bestseller for 53 consecutive weeks." Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the polish-jewish literary critic, is obviously a very popular figure in Germany. He is also loathed vigorously, mostly by resentful authors. He has the reputation (unjustified he says) of being a "literary executioner." One of his collection of book reviews is called "Nothing but Drubbings." His enemy list contains who's who of modern German literature. He once appeared on the cover (it was actually a montage) of the Speigel magazine literally tearing apart a Gunter Grass novel. Elsewhere the Austrian writer Peter Handke portrayed him as a "barking and slobbering 'leader of the pack' in whom 'there was something damned' and whose 'killer lust' had been further enhanced by the ghetto." Another writer Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, called for a machine gun to mow him down, and the poet Christa Reinig wrote fantasies about his death from cancer. There was also a book by Martin Walser called Death of a Critic, a satirical narrative about an author murdering a reviewer. It was highly controversial because of accusations of anti-semitism. He is also accused of being power-hungry, dogmatic, conservative and prone to exaggerations and simplifications in his reviews (he hosts a very popular TV show.) He relates all these charges and stories and tries to answer them with a remarkable good humour. It really makes for a very entertaining reading. And I am not even familiar with all the authors he talks about in the book. I have barely heard of names like Max Frisch, Wolfgang Koeppen, Walter Jens and many others.

MRR was born in Poland to Jewish parents. The family emigrated to Berlin in the late twenties where he grew up and had his early education. The first section of the book where he describes his introduction to the "land of culture" are the best. He seems to remember every single book he read, every single play he attended and not just names, his detailed impressions of every single performance. He even remembers his school assignments (his essay on Georg Buchner ran to three pages)! It is a riveting account. Soon however dark clouds gather. He is first denied a place in the university because he was Jew and soon is deported back to Poland.

Soon after Germany invades Poland and all the Jews of Warsaw are sent to the ghetto. His account of the life in the Warsaw ghetto where he found work in the Jewish council as a german translator is equally riveting. There is also a moving portrait of Adam Czerniakow, the head of the Jewish coucil in the Ghetto in whose office he worked. (There is also a very moving account of Czerniakow's life in the documentary Shoah where Raul Hilberg comments on his diaries.) In the ghetto he also meets the woman who was to remain by his side for the rest of his life. They soon marry in haste because he had a job and as a result he gets the "life number" which meant that he wouldn't be the first to be sent to Treblinka. Soon the deportations start and his parents are sent to the gas chambers. The last words Tosia, his wife, hears from his mother were, "Look after Marcel." He himself alongwith his wife manages to escape after the ghetto uprising and finds himself sheltered by a working class family on the outskirts of Warsaw. The head of the family named Bolek is given to drunken ravings. In one of his Vodka induced ravings he says, ""Adolf Hitler, the most powerful man in Europe, has decreed: these two people here shall die. And I, a small typesetter from Warsaw, have decided: they shall live." They work for him in the basement which is actually a hole in the ground and MRR keeps him entertained by telling stories from literary classics of Shakespeare, Goethe and Kleist. Bolek remains indifferent to the plight of Hamlet or Werther but is moved by the stories of King Lear and Prince of Homburg. After almost two years the Red Army finally arrives on the Polish border and they are finally liberated. Sounds like the stuff for a novel? Well, Gunter Grass fictionalized this story in his novel Diary of a Snail (I haven't read it).

Times Literary Supplement called this book "an unforgettable work of Holocaust literature" which to me sounds like an over-praise. It is very well written but is also a very straight-forward narrative. He touches on the painful paradox of the coexistence of German barbarism and the sublime German culture but never really comes to term with it. He says his fatherland is nether Poland nor Germany, it is German Literature. He never really goes into the complex questions that historians of Germany have been grappling with. How far German culture is to be blamed for what happened? Was it just a work of a few criminal barbarians or was it a more organic result of German cultural history? He never really goes into these things. Which is a pity, because he is at such a vantage position to answer these questions.

There is a brief section in the middle about his life in post-war communist Poland where he worked as a spy, yes a Spy in the London Polish consulate, but is soon disillusioned by the restrictions imposed on him by the communist party and manages to escape to west Germany. His rise there from a lowly book reviewer to the literary editor of FAZ, the most powerful literary position in Germany, is meteoric. The long third section is virtually a parade of who's who of post-war German intellectual history. Gunter Grass, Adorno, Elias Canetti, Thomas Bernhard, Ingeborg Bachmann, Brecht, and so many others, they are all there. He relates anecdotes, shares his opinions and reflects on the relationships he had with all the writers, almost all of which eventually soured in the end. This section is an extremely fascinating guide to the history modern german literature, told from a very unique point of view.

Overall I was slightly disappointed with it because he mostly skirted things I was personally more interested it. One of these as I mentioned above is the issue of how far should one hold German culture to be culpable for anti-semitism and Nazism. Other issues like German-Jewish relations in post-war Germany or the questions of German guilt are also, if not completely absent, are almost always treated as an aside. He does mention these things but only in bits and pieces, here and there. He never tackles these head-on. In the last chapter he writes about the historikerstreit ("historian's dispute") but then just stops at expressing his disappointment at the whole affair and saying that he was particularly pained because of the involvement of Joachim Fest, an editor at FAZ and a personal friend for many years. He evidently disapproves of these right wing historians who played a major role in the dispute but doesn't discuss what kind of relationship should jews have with Germany, or what whould the new German nationalism look like or what Holocaust means for contemporary Germany.

Still I think these are minor quibbles. In short it is a marvellous account of a truly remarkable life. Must read for anyone interested in modern German history and literature. Some reviews I could find: The Observer and two reviews from TLS here and here.


Antonia said...

the problem with Reich Ranicki is that there is no other big critic of literature in Germany, no one who has the guts to stand up against him. This and that he always plays the jewish-card makes that he can get away with all the shit he tells. Well you know already i don't like him...

Alok said...

He does say in the book that he often resorts to exaggerations and simplifications and passes judgments, all in order to make the criticism accessible to the common public and non-specialist readers. It sounds to me a very noble idea... I am sure everybody has his dogma or ideas about what literature is or should be and that it can lead to problems.. and it is another even bigger problem if power is concentrated in one hand, which i think is the case with him... that will then be bad for debate and discussion.

though i must say he defends himself very well in this book. it is the authors who come out like ego-centric and delusional fools at the end of the book :)

antonia said...

yes of course the authors are the fools. well maybe one really has to see him, how he talks and acts. he is very smart of course and to excuse his mediocre criticism with being accessible for the stupid audience shows already his arrogance....I should see whether I can find an english transcript...