On the cover of this weekend’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s feuilleton, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Germany’s “Literary Pope,” gazes out from the center of the page. The table at which he sits, alone, is set for a formal dinner; his silk tie is rakishly askew. His expression is sovereign but kind, thoughtful, knowing. Below the photo—taken three years ago, when Reich-Ranicki was ninety—in nearly two-inch bold font, is the word “DANKE.” Thank you.
Reich-Ranicki, Germany’s most important contemporary literary critic, died on Wednesday. The next day, Germany’s two most important daily papers put his portrait on their front pages—tributes to a man who, having survived the Warsaw ghetto, would go on to have an unparalleled impact on postwar German writing. He was famous for his rapier wit, his telegenic charm, his passionate championing of the writers he loved, and his very public excoriation of new books—even from his favorite writers—when he felt they did not deliver. “No one,” in the words of the F.A.Z., “did as much to impart, to an entire society, the importance of literature.”
The man who, as one author put it, “ruled the literary world from a fifteen-square-metre office” led a life more full of pain, wonder, and irony than most literary heroes. Born in Poland in 1920, Reich-Ranicki was sent to Berlin to study as a boy. “With every year that he discovered more joy in, and love for, Thomas Mann and Brecht and Gründgens and Goethe, there also grew hate,” wrote Frank Schirrmacher, publisher of the influentialF.A.Z., where Reich-Ranicki headed the literature section in the nineteen-seventies and eighties. “The hate of an entire nation and all its bureaucracy for the young Jewish man who just wanted to go to the Deutsche Theatre.”
After being denied a university spot in Berlin, Reich-Ranicki was arrested and deported to Poland. (As he wrote in his 1999 autobiography, “My Life,” “I had a ticket for [a] première that evening. I wouldn’t be needing it.”) He and his family were sent to the Warsaw ghetto, where, at nineteen, he became a translator for the Judenrat (the Jewish council, the ghetto’s administrative body) because his German was impeccable. There, he also met Teofilia, or Tosia, his future wife, when her father hanged himself. “My mother told me, ‘Look after the girl,’ ” said Reich-Ranicki, in an interview filmed shortly before Tosia’s death in 2011. “I’m doing that to this day.”
Reich-Ranicki’s acute sense of literary judgment was always active. Describing an incident in which he had to transcribe an order that all inhabitants of the ghetto were to be sent to the death camps, he said, “As I sat there … and the order was dictated, through the open window I heard a Viennese waltz. Down below, the soldiers must have been playing a gramophone. Even as I wrote, I had to think, What a literary situation! What a monstrous symbol! I knew I was writing something that meant death for my parents, for my girlfriend, whom I immediately married, even my own death. But I couldn’t stop thinking, This is actually theatre.”
Despite overwhelming odds, he and Tosia managed to escape. “Remember the Dostoyevsky anecdote,” says the Reich-Ranicki character in a 2009 film based on his autobiography. Tosia nods, and they run for it. In a later scene, the Reich-Ranicki character explains what he meant: “Just before the execution of Dostoyevsky, when his eyes were already blindfolded, came the sudden cry, ‘Stop!’ The Czar had ordered a more lenient sentence. I wanted to tell Tosia, ‘Don’t give up too soon.’ ”
In hiding, too, literature played an existential role. Every night, while Tosia and the poverty-stricken Polish tobacco sellers hiding them rolled cigarettes, Reich-Ranicki entertained them by recounting stories from classical literature. Like Scheherazade, he helped insure their safety with his tales of Hamlet and young Werther.
The couple survived the war, but were not out of danger. After joining the Polish diplomatic corps, where he worked for Polish intelligence, Reich-Ranicki and Tosia were sent to London. There, their son, Andrew, was born. On their return to Poland, Reich-Ranicki was arrested, as part of an internal purge. In his cell, he read Anna Seghers’s 1942 novel about a prison break, “The Seventh Cross.” It was a turning point: “I decided, if I’m going to get out of here, I will dedicate my life to literature. If possible, to German literature.”
Ejected from the Communist Party, Reich-Ranicki embarked on a career as a literary critic, writing in Polish. In 1958, he and his family fled to West Germany, bringing Chopin scores as gifts for their hosts. With the help of writers like Heinrich Böll and Erich Kästner, Reich-Ranicki soon found work as a literary critic at Die Zeit, where his colleagues included former S.S. men. He became a fixture at the literary meetings of the influential Gruppe 47—a group of postwar writers who had nearly all been in the Wehrmacht. They talked literature, not the past.
But the past was not always possible to avoid. Shortly before he started his job at theF.A.Z., Reich-Ranicki was invited to a party for a new book about Hitler. The host failed to mention that Albert Speer would be there (“It did not occur to him that I did not feel like sitting and talking to the murderer of my mother and my father,” recounted Reich-Ranicki). At the time, he said nothing. “A fight with [F.A.Z. publisher Joachim Fest] was inopportune,” wrote the literary critic Volker Weidermann. Instead, “he found his salvation in literature. As always.” Later, in his autobiography, in interviews, and in speeches like the one he gave last year to the German Parliament, he did describe the crimes of the ghetto—a place where he and Tosia read poems, not novels, because they did not know how much time they had.
Over the next decades, his reviews would help make writers like Günter Grass and Martin Walser household names. But from the beginning, Reich-Ranicki’s critiques drew blood. Böll, for example, was not pleased when Reich-Ranicki, by then a personal friend, wrote a scathing review of his new book. When they met at a cocktail party, Böll approached and, while publically embracing him, whispered in his ear, “Asshole.”
“From Böll’s perspective, if he didn’t like it, couldn’t he have at least have remained silent?” wrote the literary critic Volker Weidermann. “After Böll had been so friendly to him? He couldn’t. He didn’t want to. Böll was too important to him, to say nothing. Literature was too important.”
While Reich-Ranicki’s falling-outs were legendary (Martin Walser created a scandal with his 2002 book, “Death of a Critic,” a thinly veiled revenge fantasy), he also encouraged his favorite writers, calling on the phone and even sending money if he felt it had been too long since the German reading public had had a chance to get their hands on a new work.
With the “Literary Quartet,” a television show launched in 1988, in which he and three other critics spiritedly defended or condemned new books, Reich-Ranicki set out to interest a larger public in reading. “It was for people who have nothing to do with literature,” said Reich-Ranicki, whose exuberant style, which involved much finger shaking and smacking of the arms of his chair, made for great TV.
“Marcel Reich-Ranicki achieved something astounding: turning critical literary cogitation into a popular pastime,” wrote Heinrich Detering, president of the German Academy for Language and Literature. The show, which ran until 2001, reached millions.
Reich-Ranicki continued to agitate for literature, with passion, humor, and arch, comprehensive erudition, to the last. A column where Reich-Ranicki answered readers’ letters ran in the F.A.Z. until this year. One asked why Philip Roth had been ignored for a Nobel Prize. “I would also like to know the answer to that,” responded Reich-Ranicki, who considered Roth a great novelist. “It was said of Graham Greene, that he never received a Nobel Prize because he had slept with the wife of Stockholm academician. With whom has Philip Roth slept? If you would like to know the answer, I suggest you address yourself directly to him, or to his agent.” To a reader who suggested changes to “Doctor Faustus,” he wrote, “Perhaps you have heard that [Thomas Mann] is taken to be the greatest stylist of the German language since Goethe’s death? I must say, you’re gutsy.” “Can a man like Gottfried Benn, who sympathized with Fascism, also be a good poet?” “Unfortunately, yes.”
In the remembrances broadcast and published in the past week, joy that this man existed runs through sorrow at his loss. “That a Polish Jew, who went through the hell of the Warsaw ghetto, would go on to become the most important literary critic in the German-language world, is in itself a Jewish fairy tale,” wrote the Austrian writer Robert Schindel, who, born in 1944 to Jewish Communists, narrowly escaped Auschwitz. “What a man, in his contradictions! Where he is now—will he be preaching Thomas Mann to the heavenly hosts? May he have a good journey!”
Sally McGrane is a journalist based in Berlin.
Photograph by Thomas Lohnes/AFP/Getty Images.