It may be hard for Canadians to appreciate the huge impact of this book in Germany where the author holds sway as the most influential literary critic now active¨in his own words, "a literary executioner." We prefer to smother budding critics in their cribs, particularly if they promise to be outspoken. Addicted to hype but morbidly allergic to anything that smacks of "negativity" (and especially, castigation of mediocrity), Canadians will probably have an instinctive repugnance for Marcel Reich-Ranicki. They should overcome this for he has written a thoroughly fascinating, important and masterful autobiography. True, he is incurably pugnacious, opinionated, willing and even eager to deliver crushing absolute judgements on writers and their failings (one winces imaginining what he would do with our Can-Lit "celebrities"); but at the same time, he is immensely cultured, deeply learned, and he writes brilliantly. His autobiography, a bestseller for over a year in Germany, has now been reissued there in an illustrated coffee-table format and continues to sell like the proverbial Pfannkuchen.
In Germany, Reich-Ranicki is celebrated not only as a fearless and discerning critic of contemporary literature but as a formidable literary brawler. Even now, at the age of 82, he has become embroiled in a knockdown fight with the only slightly younger novelist Martin Walser. Walser has just written a novel called Death of a Critic (Tod eines Kritikers) in which he has a thinly disguised stand-in for Reich-Ranicki murdered, a critic named AndrT Ehrl-K¸nig (the name is a play on a famous ballad by Goethe). Reich-Ranicki demanded that Suhrkamp, Walser's distinguished publisher, not publish the book, not only because it had "deeply shaken, slandered and sorrowed" Reich-Ranicki himself but because "Walser has never written so badly." The newspaper, the very same Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, of which Reich-Ranicki was the powerful literary editor, cancelled plans to serialize the novel. Deeply affronted, Walser has threatened to move to Austria. The question, Is Martin Walser an anti-Semite?¨preoccupied commentators made front-page headlines in Germany for several days running when I was in Berlin last May and June. (The headline of the May 31 issue of Die Welt trumpeted "Literatur-Skandal!" in large bold type.) Younger writers have now weighed in as well to express distaste for the spectacle of two doddering literati slugging it out over a novel no one but Reich-Ranicki, the author, and a few copy-editors have read.
The squabble illustrates the peculiar, indeed unique, position which Reich-Ranicki holds in German intellectual life. Born in Poland in 1920, he moved with his family to Berlin in 1929, hardly an auspicious year for Jews to make such a move, and in 1938, by then deeply imbued with German culture, he was deported with his family back to Poland where he managed to survive the Nazi occupation in the heart of the Warsaw Ghetto. Through luck and intelligence he succeeded, together with his wife Tosia, in avoiding deportation and the camps; his account of the years they both spent in hiding in the cellar of the destitute Polish typesetter Bolek and his wife Genia is simply unforgettable. Reich-Ranicki even credits his passionate love for German literature and culture with keeping him and his wife alive during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Not in the sense that it sustained his spirit; but rather, quite literally, because after the manner of Sheherazade, he managed to keep his terrified Polish hosts from evicting him and his wife by telling them the plots of all the great German classics, from Lessing and Goethe on, in nightly installments. When he recounted Kleist's great drama Prince Friedrich of Homburg to Bolek and Genia, Bolek was so impressed by the character's unswerving Prussian nobility that he exclaimed:
"Óthis Herr Hamburg, I like him! He is shit-scared of death¨as we all are. He wants to liveÓHe is afraid, but he's not ashamed, he speaks up about his fear. Those who want to live let others live too. I believe this Herr Hamburg enjoys a little glass of vodkaÓA pity he isn't the city commandment of Warsaw. This GermanÓwouldn't have anyone executed. Come on, let's drink to the health of this German Herr Hamburg."
The same Bolek had an unusual rationale for wishing to shelter the Reich-Ranickis; as he put it, "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. Now we shall see who wins." The book is full of such priceless anecdotes, much of them gossipy, others quite moving.
Mein Leben, the book's original (and better) title, is a masterpiece of a genre of which it is perhaps the only specimen. Though the book is often enlisted under "Holocaust literature," it is in fact much more than that. It is an unapologetic apologia pro vita sua under perhaps the most severe duress a human being can be asked to bear.
And yet, Reich-Ranicki never presents himself as a victim, though he would certainly be entitled to, nor even as a survivor of inhuman atrocity; though he possesses all the street smarts, wiles and acumen that facilitate survival, Reich-Ranicki was also supremely lucky. A friend of mine who survived Auschwitz once told me that there were four rules for survival there: never volunteer, make the right choices, be lucky and be very lucky.
Reich-Ranicki was very lucky indeed; but at the same time, after reading his book, I cannot help but feel that he also possessed a rare inner strength that gave him an edge in the battle for survival. This is, rather weirdly, a Goethean serenity of self, and it sustained (I know why you use present tense, but I feel the emphasis throughout is on past events) him in the most awful moments. How, for example, he could have borne the farewell to his parents without some such unusual inner strength seems impossible to understand. In a horrifying chapter sardonically called "A Brand-New Riding Crop," Reich-Ranicki describes how selections were made on the spot of those who would live and those who would die. The selection was done by a quite young German SS officer, an Unterscharfnhrer, who used his elegant riding crop to point, with complete nonchalance, to life for some, death for others. Reich-Ranicki's account of his parents' selection, which he witnessed, is terse but harrowing:
If only because of their age¨my mother was fifty-eight and my father sixty-two¨my parents had received no "life numbers" and they lacked the strength and wish to hide out somewhere. I showed them where they had to queue. My father looked at me helplessly, while my mother was surprisingly calm. She had dressed carefully: she wore a light-coloured raincoat which she had brought with her from Berlin. I knew that I was seeing them for the last time. I still see them: my helpless father and my mother in her smart trench-coat from a department store near the Berlin GedSchtniskirche. The last words Tosia heard from my mother were: "Look after Marcel."
This little passage unobtrusively illustrates one of the great merits of the book. Reich-Ranicki wields considerable literary skill in such vignettes, though they must have been painful to compose. The clearly rendered details¨his parents' ages, his father's confusion, his mother's new trench-coat¨make the scene vivid and indelible but without ever resorting to self-pity or false pathos. This restraint intensifies the horror of the anecdote; its very mundaneness is its horror.
Again unlike most "holocaust literature", The Author of Himself devotes as much time to the postwar years as to the years of the occupation and the Warsaw Ghetto. After the war, Marcel Reich, as he was known, discovered that his surname had unfortunate connotations in Poland where the memory of the "Thousand-Year Reich" was all too fresh and he added the hyphenated "Ranicki." Because he is so well known as a critic and scholar of German literature, it is often forgotten that Reich-Ranicki also has a profound erudition in Polish literature, particularly Polish poetry. His account of his years in Warsaw, with all their concomitant vicissitudes¨censorship, expulsion from the Writers' Union, his equally mysterious reinstatement¨makes for fascinating reading. His wartime experiences had given him a wry perspective from which to view the egomaniacal antics of various novelists and poets; when you have had to scrabble for a single slice of moldy bread, neurotic fretting over literary reputation comes to seem trifling in the extreme. Reich-Ranicki loves to recount the almost pathological vanity of such celebrated writers as Stanisaw Lec, a Polish poet and aphorist perhaps best known in the West for his book of maxims entitled Unkempt Thoughts. Thus, when Lec was once chided for speaking exclusively about himself, he shot back with, "You know a better subject?" Again, in a rare attempt to be less vain, after bombarding a fellow passenger on a plane with mind-numbing details of his genius, Lec considerately remarked, "This can't go on. We've been talking all the time about me. Now let's talk about you. Tell me, how did you like my last book?" Most of the mordant and comical aspects of the autobiography come from the collision of Reich-Ranicki's tempered wryness with such authorial pretensions. Nor is he averse to telling tales on himself. Thus, though he was friends with Heinrich B¸ll, he never had a high opinion of the latter's novels but preferred his short fiction and said so frequently in reviews. At one point, during an encounter, an exasperated B¸ll leaned over and whispered in Reich-Ranicki's ear "Ass-hole!" after which B¸ll happily declared that they could now be friends again.
Certain other literary figures come through in Reich-Ranicki's portrayal in all their sinister squalor. One such is, not surprisingly, Bertolt Brecht, poet of genius and scum-bag par excellence. Brecht had one overriding and all-absorbing obsession: to promote himself and his career with fanatical doggedness. In postwar Warsaw Brecht held forth at the posh Hotel Bristol to which he summoned half-starved Polish translators and literati to do his bidding. Before him on the desk as he interviewed prospective minions, Brecht kept a bowl of fresh fruit¨oranges, bananas, grapes¨which, as the hungry Marcel notes, "simply did not exist in Warsaw in 1952" and, as he remarks further, "[Brecht] did not offer any of this fruit to his visitors."
Reich-Ranicki has also championed writers who deserve to be better known, such as Wolfgang Koeppen, perhaps the finest German prose stylist of the last half-century, and the superb poet Peter Huchel (despite the latter's dithering and narcissistic manner). But his lot has not been easy for as he comments, "I had to reconcile myself to the fact that an author's attitude to a critic depends on what that critic has said about his latest book." Over the years he has had to put up with the mood-swings, excommunications and anathemas of many of the famous, from Max Frisch to Martin Walser.
Much of Reich-Ranicki's eminence comes from the fact that in 1973, he became the literary editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, perhaps the best newspaper in Germany at the time. But perhaps too much has by now been made of this critic's power and influence. Certainly it is clear to a reader of this book that it is not solely his erudition and discernment as an editor and latterly, television host, that account for Reich-Ranicki's authority. No matter how entrenched he may appear to be in German literary circles, he remains an Aussenseiter, an outsider. In a society which prizes a not so subtle conformism, even (or perhaps especially) in matters of radical opinion, an outsider, however feared or deferred to, occupies a precarious position. Add to this the fact that Reich-Ranicki appears to be almost fatally honest and unsparing, of himself as well as of others (thus, he speaks openly of his infidelities which have wounded his long-suffering wife, the same wife by whose side he survived both Nazis and Communists). And whatever inner serenity he may possess has been acquired at a steep cost. Not an observant Jew in any sense, he is constantly made to feel his Jewishness in German eyes; musicians at restaurants invariably play songs from Fiddler on the Roof when he reserves a table and, more seriously, there is a hovering anti-Jewish feeling just below the surface in many of the polemics in which he has been engaged. The most painful of these involved Joachim Fest, a former friend and author of a much-admired biography of Hitler, during the so-called Historikerstreit beginning in the mid-1980s, when certain German writers sought to excuse, explain away or even defend publicly Nazi policies and actions against the Jews.
For most readers, Reich-Ranicki's accounts of such legendary writers as Thomas Mann will be worth the (much too high) price of the book. His chapter on the Manns is in fact one of the most chilling and downright scary descriptions of a great writer and his family that I know. But in the end, it is perhaps neither literature nor history that most holds the reader in this gripping autobiography but rather, the amazing narrative, at once grim and magical, of a man who belonged nowhere and yet, through a love of the word and of literature, created a unique place for himself in the hearts and minds of those who had once tried so tenaciously to annihilate him. ˛
Eric Ormsby is a poet and essayist who lives in Montreal. His fourth collection of poems, Araby, appeared in 2001, as did his book of essays, Facsimiles of Time. He teaches Islamic Studis at McGill.