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Marcel Reich-Ranicki - the pope of German literature

"Who writes, provokes."


Marcel Reich-Ranicki – the writer and the critic - on the occasion of him receiving an honorary doctorate degree from the Free University of Berlin, 9.1.2006

In any picture (or is it image) of literature, there is not only present the writer and the publisher, but also the critic. Marcel Reich-Ranicki has certainly made a name for himself by putting himself into the picture very much as Michel Foucault would remark as it being significant once a painter making the portrait of the King and Queen at court puts himself into the picture and by contrast places the royal couple into the background. A shift of power?

Marcel Reich-Ranicki has been called the ‘pope of German literature’, even though he does not wish to be understood as German. That is due to his background linked to Poland, more specifically to the Warszawa Ghetto which he survived and then worked as ‘spy’ for the Polish Communist government after the war in England. He came only after that ordeal (or was it a training ground in how not to feel alone - something to be understood in terms of how ideology can have a grip of people’s minds reminding of Dostoevsky’s saying far worse than the death penalty as punishment is expulsion from society) to Germany and there he did not care about who would be financing whom as long it was an open secret. The point of departure would be his matter of dealing with not the past but by having a simple position. Admittedly he can be very convincing in what he writes about the others who write. Meant by simple is his credo as not being interested in politics, while at the same time anything directed against the Soviet Union was good. This has to be understood in terms of moving forward in the Cold War.

Yes, he mixed with the writers of Group 47, fore mostly thanks to Hans Werner Richter who made sure he was not ousted even though Guenter Grass was already so furious that he tried to silence the critic by expelling him from the group. Why is that so? Most likely Marcel Reich-Ranicki has that amazing brilliance of combining provoking vulgarity with deep clarity about the standard of literature. He could condemn as much as he could praise. It seems that he knows where the best part of literature can be found, and where something like a childlike utopia is erected by literature becoming simply poetry. In his praise of Oscar Wilde he shows that gentle, kind and loving side for what is then called his honesty as bridge maker between Europe and America.

Given his most recent award at the Free University of Berlin, Marcel Reich-Ranicki understands this as a kind of redemption. For it was at this place that he was denied in the pre Second World War years the possibility to study due to his Jewish origin.

Note should be taken in terms of his criticism that he does not condemn outright, but he differentiates, for example, between good and part parts in a novel like the ‘Thin Drum’ by Günter Grass. Clearly that is the plight of any critic since the reader expects a final judgement and not something differentiated equally inconclusive. Marcel Reich-Ranicki made his name by never hesitating to let everyone know where he stands. He had the fortunate position to be linked to the FAZ, in order to publish his criticisms of literature within Germany. The newspaper was the flagship of Conservatism in Germany.

He was interviewed by many people, including Daniel Cohn Bendit, as he plays the role of someone having lived through the Holocaust but survived it on terms he cannot explain himself.

In one of his interviews, he mentioned how his wife and he broke ranks from the prisoners about to be taken to the death camp and fled into the woods. Later he heard from a woman who had fled after them that a soldier had tried to shot at them but that the gun did not work and then the soldier threw it away.

To date, says Marcel Reich-Ranicki, he does not know if the soldier wanted to kill them or not. Coincidence? Indeed, he attributes his lucky fate to coincidence. If true, it would affirm Adorno’s saying that a society without coincidence would be dictatorship.

There remains the rebuttal by Günter Grass who believes he was a much better critic as long as he was in the Group ’47 since other critics responded to him and he had to take those viewpoints into consideration.

It is quite something else when alone, every writer at his mercy, as if he is the ‘Pope of literature’. To this strange dedication should be said something more in the direction of his denial of the 'political'. It was Solshenitzyn who said every writer has to be like a second government of his country, that is responsible for everything that goes on in that country. The political sense of literature is this moral responsibility and thus criticism on literature is a way to appraise if the writer succeeds in linking the ‘moral conscience’ to the political e.g. Solshenitzyn's “First Circle of Hell”. It is not merely about how the lone figure like Heinrich Boell stands up to society, but where are the moral borders drawn in and by literature. For it may well be that beyond the written there does begin either utopia or the broken mirror. The latter would be the case after discussions in society did not succeed in coming to terms with reality and therefore literature is upheld as broken mirror to reflect in the fragments as to what seems to be still possible in this society.

Thomas Mann called the breaking down in Buddenbrooks ‘das Preisgeben der Laecherlichkeit’: the giving up due to becoming ridiculous. Indeed, the fear of every writer is to be exposed to the such laughter as can be performed by Marcel Reich-Ranicki, even though Thomas Mann would say this fear is an ingredient in the lack of freedom vis a vis those who consider themselves to be a part of the powerful ones of the country. The latter can ridicule the wage earners and send them under sheer laughter home – a simple way to describe the collapse of yet another revolutionary attempt.

Certainly Marcel Reich-Ranicki has played very successfully that role never to question his contract givers for his fear is to get an order – eine Anweisung – for not having challenged a writer who would be capable of questioning that power. As such Marcel Reich-Ranicki must now be careful with his newly acquired honorary doctorate and not to get lost in the empty corridors of power. The footsteps echo along the walls and the laughter in Herrmann Broch's ‘Death of Virgil’, to be heard when the poet is dying and suddenly there enter below the window, into the court yard, three drunkards and in their drunken laughter drowning out everything else show that they are obviously not aware who is above them. A kind of marginalisation of the poet by ordinary life. Vulgarity has a way to hit back if not careful.

There is just one further thought to be made about Marcel Reich-Ranicki’s biography carrying the title: “My life”. The question is what can be said and written once life becomes a personal property? Can it still be described in literary terms, conveyed by honesty and take on literary quality? As a way out, he has proven himself to be a walker along many frontiers. Steadily he demonstrates his knowing how to arrange himself with power, but without succumbing, and consequently it becomes in retrospect a life which touches upon many writers. All the more it is a pity that he would say then so late, and this in his usual provoking way, equally very over generalized manner, that Germans would write more novels than anybody else! To refute that generalization – it amounts to a kind of national stereotypical image – one needs merely to ask, what if the silence of the intellectuals was not a problem, but the outcome of such criticism having been at times not merely painful, but devastating to the point of no return. It may well be that writers no longer silence the critic by delivering good novels, but vice versa silencing those who wanted to write political literature. Freud could add to this the observation about systematic suppression of something wishing to come to the surface, so to speak, and be truthful in what is being written and said. Definitely Germany after the Second World War is in almost desperate need of that. For this task Ernst Schnabel had, for example, much finer categories for literature, categories which enable to criticize by giving recognition.

Hatto Fischer


This article was first published in heritageradio under category 'reflections'.


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