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?by Daniel Johnson / August 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
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…