The pope of literature

Marcel Reich-Ranicki is Germany's most influential critic, who enjoys the authority of a literary lawgiver. Is this because he is a Polish Jew?
August 19, 2000

Germans call him der Literaturpapst, the pope of literature, but his title might as well be praeceptor Germaniae. Marcel Reich-Ranicki is not merely the most influential literary critic in Germany-the country which created modern criticism-he is also an educator and an impresario of literature; the man who has made housewives read serious novels and poetry. By exploiting the postmodern media, he has enabled millions of ordinary Germans to rediscover the premodern pleasures of the literary imagination. Now, aged 80, his career has been crowned with a quite unexpected success: his autobiography has dominated the bestseller lists in Germany ever since it was published last year. With sales approaching 1m, and translations into English and many other languages imminent, the book is already the German publishing phenomenon of the turn of the century.

If Reich-Ranicki had been British, he would by now have been made a peer by Tony Blair. But though he is comparable in celebrity to Melvyn Bragg, his uncompromisingly serious ethos has more in common with the heroes of an earlier generation of cultural popularisers: AJP Taylor, Kenneth Clark, and Jacob Bronowski. His television show, The Literary Quartet, makes no concessions: four talking heads discuss highbrow literature for well over an hour.

It is as a journalist that Reich-Ranicki made his name, and as a journalist, too, he has no real equivalent in Britain. It is true that a small intellectual and academic elite in Germany has never submitted to his arbitration of taste; but most of the reading public accepts without question the authority of his rather traditional taste in literature. Not since Dr Johnson has there been an equivalent figure in English letters; and although the comparison is flattering, Reich-Ranicki has acquired a dictatorial manner and aspires, at least, to the status of a moralist.

This has much to do with the Teutonic exaltation of the aesthetic. The very word was coined-at least in its modern sense-by a German (Alexander Baumgarten) and it was Nietzsche who formulated most succinctly what one might without exaggeration call the religion of the modern German intellectual: "Only as an aesthetic phenomenon are existence and the world seen to be justified." Other nations do not in general believe that life has meaning only when it is mediated through art, literature and philosophy; the Germans often do. They tend to invest aesthetic judgments with all the force of moral commandments: there is one Goethe, and Reich-Ranicki is his prophet.

there is another reason why Reich-Ranicki enjoys not merely the respect of an erudite connoisseur, but also the authority of a literary lawgiver. He is a Jew. More: he is a Polish Jew. He thus combines in his person the two peoples who have suffered most at German hands and who most trouble the German conscience. Although he has lived in the Federal Republic for more than 40 years, and spent most of his childhood and youth in pre-war Germany before he was deported to Poland in 1938, he has never been a German citizen. When he first met G?nter Grass in 1958, Grass asked him: "What are you really: a Pole, a German, or what?" Reich-Ranicki replied with a bon mot of which he is evidently still proud: "I am half a Pole, half a German and wholly a Jew."

Never mind that it is not, as he admits, entirely true. His only religion is culture; and that culture is German. He is wholly Jewish only in the sense that he is the son of two Jewish parents. The point is that he sees himself primarily as a Jew and wishes to be seen by his German audience as such.

To be a Jew in Hitler's Germany was a matter of life and death; to be a Jew in Adenauer's Germany was a matter of life after death; to be a Jew in Schröder's Germany is a matter of lifelong celebration. The fact that Reich-Ranicki is alive at all, the fact that he chose to return to Germany and remain there, the fact that he admires the Federal Republic and has become one of its most prized adornments-these are not facts that Germans dare to take for granted. To be a Jew in Germany, let alone a German Jew, inevitably marks one out as extraordinary, and provides a kind of licence not available to non-Jews.

In the most moving and eloquent chapters of his autobiography, Reich-Ranicki recalls his childhood in Poland and his adolescence in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s. His name then was Reich; he was bilingual, and felt more or less at home in the Fichte Gymnasium in Berlin. Classmates and teachers treated him correctly-as far as possible, within the letter of the discriminatory Nazi laws against Jews. Long after the war, Reich-Ranicki met his schoolfriends again at a reunion. He evokes the invisible barriers which had arisen in the meantime with considerable subtlety. His account of his expulsion to Poland, soon followed by the German occupation and his family's incarceration in the Warsaw ghetto, is shattering. He lived on his wits, escaped the murderous fate that awaited his family, and became a communist. He does not spare the Germans, either then or now, and remains ultra-sensitive to anti-Semitism.

It is not only the Holocaust that constitutes an almost insuperable barrier between Jews and non-Jews in present-day Germany. Lines had always been more clearly drawn. Consider two 19th century figures. Benjamin Disraeli, Britain's first and so far only Jewish prime minister, felt himself to be entirely British. He saw no contradiction between being a British subject, a member of the Church of England, and a Jew; in fact he was inordinately proud of his Jewish descent, of what he saw as the oldest and noblest blood on earth. Disraeli had a German equivalent, almost forgotten today: Friedrich Julius Stahl, founder of the Prussian Conservative party, and the leading German statesman in the 1850s, before the rise of Bismarck. Stahl was born Julius Joelson, an orthodox Jew, but he converted to Lutheranism and built his entire political theory on the idea of a Christian state, a divinely sanctioned legal order in which non-Christians could never be full citizens. Stahl's hostility to the faith of his fathers was such that he wanted assimilation to be absolute. To be a Jew was to be an alien, stateless, beyond the law. In a way, this was the reactionary mirror-image of Karl Marx's even more vehement anathema, which equated Jewishness with money, usury and capitalism. Whether international socialist or Prussian conservative, both these German Jews wanted to abolish Judaism, whereas Disraeli affirmed it. It is not surprising that Bismarck, who completed the emancipation of the German Jews, respected the unapologetic Jewish socialist Ferdinand Lassalle more than either Stahl or Marx, and Disraeli far more than any of his German-Jewish counterparts.

Formal equality in a fundamentally anti-Semitic culture meant that German Jews were expected to be either servile or subversive. Those who were resolutely determined to be neither, who were proud to be German but not ashamed to be Jewish, had a hard time of it even before the rise of the Nazis. Their heroes tended to be cultural, not political, teachers rather than leaders, for the Germany they loved was that of the Dichter und Denker, the poets and thinkers, rather than that of soldiers and statesmen. Judaism itself is the religion of the law; in its post-Biblical form it is rabbinical rather than priestly. Even the most assimilated-those who no longer practised their faith or even treated the temple as a club, as Reich-Ranicki's father did-still needed secular rabbis to interpret the new German religion of Bildung und Kultur. The gentiles, too, hearkened unto these secular rabbis: from Heine and Marx to Freud and Einstein, from Mendelssohn to Schoenberg, from Kraus to Kafka, the legitimate and legitimating role of the Jew in the German-speaking world was to be an artist, a writer or an intellectual. Jews trespassed on to the field of politics at their peril, as Rosa Luxemburg-revolutionary socialist-and Walther Rathenau-industrialist and foreign minister-found to their bloody cost. To this day, the Jewish role in Germany is to be rabbi or prophet, not priest or politician; to teach, to interpret and to warn, not to represent or lead.

This is where Reich-Ranicki fits in. If a great Jewish critic did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. For the role combines two functions in which Jews have traditionally been prominent in German culture: hermeneutics, or the exegesis of texts; and journalism. It is true that the first thoroughly modern German critics were not Jewish. After the great humanist and Enlightenment textual scholars, it was really the Schlegel brothers, August Wilhelm and Friedrich, who gave criticism its autonomy and, in the form of Romanticism, exported it far and wide. It is no coincidence that Reich-Ranicki reveres the Schlegels: they are the true patriarchs of his profession. He even raised their standard during a conversation with Gerhard Schröder, when he was state premier of Lower Saxony. Schröder asked how he could raise the cultural status of Hanover, the state capital. Reich-Ranicki replied that he should set up an institute of criticism at Hanover University, to mark the birthplace of the Schlegels. The future German chancellor responded with enthusiasm to this idea but nothing has been heard of it since.

Yet Reich-Ranicki is less a spiritual descendant of the Schlegels, both of whom exercised their influence by their books and lectures, than of their younger contemporary Ludwig Börne: not just because Börne was a Jew, but because he was a journalist-the first great journalist-critic in German history. Börne took Goethe's dismissive appellation of Zeitschriftsteller (literally, writer for the times) as a badge of honour; the journalistic, ephemeral, polemical quality of his writing was its strength. In Die Waage (The Scales), the journal he edited and largely wrote during the brief window of liberalism before the Prussian reaction closed it down in 1821, Börne gave the German feuilleton its vogue, although the concept was borrowed from France. This mixture of political and literary criticism was something new. Börne, the Jewish feuilletonist, was later blamed by the nationalist historian Henrich von Treitschke for corrupting the Germans with his "dilettante politics" and his tendency to criticise everything. But the concept of criticism had been given respectability by Kant's three critiques of reason and judgement, while its application beyond philosophy was rendered inevitable by the French Revolution. It was nevertheless of great symbolic significance that the archetype of the literary journalist was a Jew, and that he was driven into exile in Paris.

Börne's disciple, fellow refugee, and rival, Heinrich Heine, reinforced this specifically Jewish role. Heine is remembered today almost as much for his prose-most of it journalistic-as for his poetry; although he remains the greatest German-Jewish poet, his verse has never recovered the popularity it enjoyed before the Nazis suppressed it. In Reich-Ranicki's memoirs, he recalls reading an article in a Nazi journal in 1936 entitled "Enough of Henrich Heine!" The attempt by an academic philologist to demonstrate that Heine's German was corrupted by Yiddish succeeded only in turning the teenager into a passionate, lifelong devotee of a poet whose ironical, bittersweet, love-hate relationship with Germany anticipates his own.

Almost all the great journalists of 19th and early 20th century Germany were Jews, from Moritz Saphir to Maximilian Harden; the exception, that most philosemitic of German writers, Theodor Fontane, proves the rule. Alfred Kerr, the most powerful critic in Wilhelmine and Weimar Berlin until he was forced into exile in London by the Nazis, was perhaps the figure who most resembled Reich-Ranicki in the scope of his work and influence. Although his work is little read in Germany now, his daughter Judith Kerr is now a distinguished British children's author (The Tiger Who Came To Tea). But the Platonic ideal of the Jewish journalist, the hunchback of Vienna who inspired everyone from Wittgenstein to Brecht and Canetti, and remains an inspiration today, was Karl Kraus. There is no living writer of German prose in the same league. Reich-Ranicki's feuilletons can no more be compared to Die Fackel, the journal which Kraus edited for nearly 40 years, than the cultural elites of Germany and Austria today can be compared with those of the golden age before the Third Reich. But Kraus as a moralist, as a Jeremiah, as the scourge of his own profession along with all other manifestations of what would now be called "dumbing down," still finds an echo. There is a Kraus-shaped vacuum in German literary life, and Reich-Ranicki is the only man who has even tried to fill it.

reich-ranicki has always seen himself as an outsider in Germany. In fact he is a classic case of the outsider as insider: after some 14 years as literary editor of the most prestigious German newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (or FAZ), he has by now become a one-man literary establishment as well as the "most popular Jew in Germany." Challenged on this in an interview for Der Spiegel, he admits that "I no longer feel myself on the periphery." None the less, he insists: "I am not a German. I never have been, and I never will be. But nobody can take my Germanness (Deutschtum) away from me. And my Germanness has a great deal to do with German literature and German music." It is no accident that Reich-Ranicki has chosen the same title for his autobiography as Richard Wagner: Mein Leben (My Life). Modesty has never been his most salient characteristic.

Irony, on the other hand, is his stock-in-trade. That Wagner, one of the most vicious anti-Semites in the German cultural pantheon, should also have been supported, performed, and adored by so many Jews, from Heine and Meyerbeer to Mahler and Barenboim, was noted by Thomas Mann in the speech about Wagner which precipitated his ostracism and exile. Reich-Ranicki has always taken Mann at his own estimate, as the representative figure of modern German letters; but it is the Mann family as a whole which fascinates the journalist in Reich-Ranicki. His book on Thomas Mann and his Family (the only one before Mein Leben to be translated into English) is one of the best on the subject; and in his memoirs he even suggests that the Manns are to the Germans what the Windsors are to the British. Part of the appeal of Mein Leben consists in its rich flavouring of high-class literary gossip. Reich-Ranicki knows that the German public longs for such fare no less than the British-provided it comes in a form that respects German highbrow pretentions.

A taste of this comes in his description of a visit, along with the eminent critic Hans Mayer, to Thomas Mann's dragon-like widow Katia and her bisexual daughter Erika. It reads like a short story: the grande dame reduced Mayer to a quivering jelly by refusing to accept his bouquet with the words: "You wrote that my husband's later works went off." Mayer stuttered, "But madam, I beg you to consider..." She interrupted him: "Don't contradict me, Mr Mayer, you have written that Thomas Mann's later style went off. You ought to know that every year more doctoral theses are written and published about my husband than about this Kafka fellow."

It is somehow typical of the author of this anecdote that his old friend Mayer comes off worst. It is not easy to remain friends with Reich-Ranicki. He has quarrelled with two of his oldest friends, the critic Walter Jens and the historian Joachim Fest. He owes much to both men, but is unpleasantly self-righteous in his apologia. Jens helped him to establish himself among the literary set of the 1950s and 1960s, the "Gruppe 47", who were mostly left-liberal ex-soldiers such as Heinrich Böll and G?nter Grass. Reich-Ranicki did much to promote Grass's early novels, although he has latterly grown less enthusiastic.

He fell out with Jens because he forced the poor man to choose between his friend and his son. The son, Tilman Jens, is an investigative journalist who revealed that Reich-Ranicki had worked for the Polish secret service in the postwar years. In his memoirs, Reich-Ranicki confirms that he did spy for the communists while attached to the Polish embassy in London; his main role was to keep the Polish ?migr? community under surveillance. He tries to make light of this episode, preferring to stress the fact that he was briefly imprisoned on his return to Poland, banned from publishing and expelled from the party. If it was all so trivial, though, why did he keep it under his hat for so long? Cold war stories such as this abound. Reich-Ranicki's past in Poland, when, as he admits he was prepared to write more or less to order, may be no more disreputable than that of countless other intellectuals who have lived under totalitarian regimes. For a man who adopts the role of a moralist, however, it is shameful. He evidently resented his exposure at the hands of a friend's son, but was it reasonable to demand that Jens write him a letter distancing himself from his son? It does not seem to have occurred to Reich-Ranicki that his own conduct might require an apology, not an apologia.

The quarrel with Fest is similarly problematic. It was he who rescued Reich-Ranicki from the Hamburg weekly Die Zeit, and made him literary editor of the FAZ, where Fest was in charge of the feuilleton section. At about the same time, in 1973, Fest's biography of Hitler was published; at the launch party, the Reich-Ranickis were shocked to find themselves in the same room as Albert Speer. Fest had no inkling of his friend's outrage and seems, at worst, guilty of insensitivity. They remained close friends and colleagues until the Historikerstreit of 1986, when Fest published an article by the controversial historian of fascism, Ernst Nolte, which compared the Shoah to other genocides and traced its origins back to Bolshevik atrocities. Reich-Ranicki insists that Fest refused to publish his reply to Nolte. Fest denies this and says that he invited Reich-Ranicki, among many others, to reply. It is understandable that the friendship collapsed under the strain; less so that Reich-Ranicki should now accuse Fest of relativising the Holocaust, and worse. Nobody who knows Fest or his books could doubt his integrity-except Reich-Ranicki.

Yet his querulousness is part of Reich-Ranicki's vocation. He recognises no distinction between private and public personae, and quite properly refuses to do critical favours to his friends. Were it not for the telephone, on which he spends hours every day, he would have bequeathed a rich correspondence, dripping with intrigue. Börne, Heine and Kraus were no less ferociously combative, particularly against former friends. For sheer satirical sadism, Heine's caricature of his friend-turned-rival, the homosexual poet August Platen, is hard to beat. American and French intellectuals engage in similar set-piece encounters; the British-adverserial in politics and law-seem to do so more rarely in intellectual life.

On the dust-jacket of Mein Leben there is a picture of the author glaring at the reader with an expression of disdain, as if to say: what I don't know about German literature isn't worth knowing. In truth, it is more his style than his literary judgements which will leave its mark. He has taken up particular writers but not a literary school; his taste has remained rather traditional. Moreover, the writers of the former east Germany have never particularly interested him, and he still awaits the great unification novel.

But the Germans are grateful to be chastened by this "pantomime" critic with his bow-tie and his quick-fire, acerbic, monologues. He rarely lets them down. When he was recently awarded the Hölderlin prize, he gave a speech ridiculing the Germans for treating Friedrich Hölderlin as a holy fool, beyond criticism. Suspension of critical faculties can never, for Reich-Ranicki, be legitimate. Even the sublime Hölderlin was capable of writing a bad poem, Death for the Fatherland, declared Reich-Ranicki. We must at least grant that his iconoclasm is a salutary virtue in the German literary Valhalla. The critic as moralist may at times be an unedifying spectacle, but a culture which neglects the quality of its criticism is not worth the critic's trouble. n