Essays: Marcel Reich-Ranicki |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Marcel Reich-Ranicki

In Germany, the name Marcel Reich-Ranicki carries more weight than that of any other literary figure alive. But if the adjective “greatest” means anything (you can imagine him saying that it obviously means something better than “not so great”) then Marcel Reich-Ranicki is the greatest literary critic not only in Germany, but in the world today. Readers of my book Cultural Amnesia, in which Reich-Ranicki plays a starring role, often ask me where they can make a start with him. If they do not read German, they can make a start on the translation of his autobiography, which carries the full horrifying story of his near-death early life as a Jew on the run, with the Warsaw Ghetto bulking large. The book was a bestseller in Germany, but it doesn’t give you the essence of the man, which is in his copious journalism: colloquial yet immensely learned, generous in praise, hilarious in attack.

Unfortunately none of it has been translated, and whoever tried would have to write English at the level of MRR’s German. (In his homeland the monogram is customarily used.) So one is reduced to recommending translations of his press interviews, where he comes through with at least something of his full, bristling individuality. His best recent interviewer was Julian Schütt, literary editor of Die Weltwoche. The review was run in English translation by Signandsight, and there is a link for it here. Typical of MRR’s capacity to put a whole critical argument into a single sentence is his reply to the question of how he deals with the subject of anti-Semitism when it comes to culture. He says that Wagner was the biggest anti-Semite in German culture but that Tristan is the best opera in the world. At the age of 85, the irascible patriarch can still deal something like that off the bottom of the deck before you even see his hand move.

For readers whose German is good enough to follow the language when it is spoken, the second link leads to a video of MRR’s already classic appearance at this year’s ZDF television awards ceremony, where he got so impatient with the long evening leading up to his lifetime achievement award that he told them where they could put it. Between 1988 and 2002, his weekly cultural television programme Die Literarische Quartett had united Germany in the same way that Bernard Pivot’s Apostrophe united France, but now MRR was making it brutally clear that all bets were off. His rejection speech is a revue sketch for the Gods.

I have chosen the clip that preserves not only the whole speech, but the standing ovation that led up to it. Try to imagine any other country where an auditorium full of glitterati would rise to their feet and applaud a literary critic for minutes on end. Then watch their faces as they register, with various degrees of shock and awe, that he is telling them their whole national television system is in the toilet. Even before the smoke had cleared, he was already being interviewed on the subject by everybody in the German media. One of the best interviews, so far not translated into English, was conducted by, the website of his old newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Another appears on the Welt am Sonntag website WeltOnline. The Germans love him. He is their raging bull who has always refused to be a sacred cow. Every living German writer wants his praise but it has always been hard to get: the reason, of course, why they would like to have it. His long-term project to edit the canon of German literature, in many volumes and several boxes, is nearing its end, and one can only hope that he will live to put the finishing touches to what might well prove to be its most fascinating instalment: the one with all the best essays, feuilletons and critical journalism in the language. If he is not the preponderant figure in it, he will have pulled a punch for the first time in his life.

(photo by Herlinde Koelbl)

Read Julian Schütt’s interview with MRR in Signandsight

Watch MRR rejecting the ZDF Fernsehpreis

Read the interview with MRR

Read the WeltOnline interview with MRR