By Stan Persky | April 2, 2002

Marcel Reich-Ranicki, The Author of Himself: The Life of Marcel
(tr. by Ewald Osers, Princeton University Press, 2001)

In 1958, the Polish-born literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki was in Germany attending the Group ’47 symposium, the annual get-together of writers and critics that had resuscitated German literature after the Nazi debacle of World War II. Reich-Ranicki, who had spent part of his boyhood growing up in Berlin–until he was deported, along with many other Jews, back to Poland in 1938–had only recently returned to live in West Germany. At the meetings, feeling a bit isolated as a newcomer, Reich-Ranicki was grateful to be approached by a young German author he had recently and briefly met in Warsaw.

The mustachioed writer, a native of the once-German city of Danzig, was Gunter Grass, and unbeknowst to most present, on the verge of becoming instantly and permanently famous for a novel he had just written titled The Tin Drum. The future Nobel Prize for Literature recipient, Reich-Ranicki recalls, "abruptly confronted me with a simple question. No one as yet, since my return to Germany, had ever put it so directly and with less embarrassment." What Grass wanted to know was, "What are you really–a Pole, a German, or what?" Without hesitation, Reich-Ranicki answered, "I am half Polish, half German, and wholly Jewish." Grass, Reich-Ranicki reports, was clearly delighted with this reply, and said, "Not another word. You would only spoil this neat bon mot." Then comes the twist that gives the little anecdote its savour: "I, too, thought my spontaneous reply was rather clever, because this arithmetical formula was as effective as it was insincere. Not a single word of it was the truth. I was never half Polish, never half German… nor, even to this day, was I ever wholly Jewish."

A good portion of the rest of Reich-Ranicki’s engaging autobiography is devoted to answering that question of "What are you, really?" As he says, "I have no country of my own, no homeland, no fatherland. On the other hand I am not an entirely homeless person, a person without a country. How is that to be understood?" The short answer is that Reich-Ranicki is one of those rare souls whose only true home is the Republic of Letters. Originally published in German in 1999 under the title My Life, Reich-Ranicki’s memoir was an instant best-seller in his homeland/non-homeland, where it sold half-a-million hardcover copies and dominated best-seller lists for more than a year. There was no need to identify the author of The Author of Myself (as it’s called in Ewald Osers’ English translation). The now 82-year-old Reich-Ranicki is known in Deutschland as "the Pope of German Literature," and is familiar to millions of German TV viewers as the star of a weekly book program called Literary Quartet, and to more literate inhabitants as the long-time lead book reviewer and essayist in all of the country’s major publications.

In English-speaking countries, where Reich-Ranicki is little known, The Author of Myself has been billed primarily as a Holocaust memoir and, what’s more, has apparently been abridged (I haven’t compared the contents of the two editions, but the German one appears to have an additional 150-or-so pages more than the university press American version). That’s a shame, and perhaps says something about the state of book publishing, but it is not, fortunately, a fatal flaw. Certainly, the marketing strategy isn’t false, since the book indeed contains a remarkable and harrowing Holocaust tale, but The Author of Myself is a good deal more than a survivor’s story.

As a somewhat stateless Wandering Jew myself–more or less successfully disguised as a Canadian–I, like most other Jews of my generation, have a range of conflicting reactions to survivors’ memoirs of the slaughter of European Jewry. The predisposition that I brought to Reich-Ranicki’s account–having read most of the major Holocaust works, from Primo Levi’s seminal books published just after World War II, to Roman Frister’s recent The Cap, or The Price of a Life (2000)–was something like: I already know all this, I’ve already wept over this, why do I need to read all about it again?

There are two answers to that question. The first is that Reich-Ranicki’s story is interesting, grippingly and simply told, and informative. The tale includes the author’s experiences as a high-school student growing up in Berlin during the rise of Nazism, his expulsion to Poland, and the death of both of his parents in the concentration camps, while Reich-Ranicki himself accidentally and miraculously survived the Warsaw Ghetto, where he met his wife of now more than 60 years, Tosia. The second answer is that the irony of the project of memory that the Holocaust has become is that we continuously forget. Even after we know all about it, or think we know, the Holocaust fades from our immediate consciousness and becomes an abstraction of numbers and the unanswerable cri-de-coeur, How could this happen? The recurrent readings of accounts like that of Reich-Ranicki is what keeps memory alive.

One of several interesting and unexpected insights Reich-Ranicki offers about the Nazi period concerns his treatment in a Berlin middle class high school in the late 1930s. He notes, "What is certain is that we were treated fairly, even by the Nazis among our teachers. And our classmates? Why did they not harass us Jews, why did they never give us any trouble?" Not even 25 years later, at a 1963 high school reunion in Berlin did it become any clearer. "I was asked how I had survived the war. Surely it would be proper, my classmates no doubt felt, to show some interest. It was a polite question, no more. I replied briefly and concisely. No one wanted to hear details. They were grateful to me when I quickly changed the subject."

Even when Reich-Ranicki later asks a few ex-classmates why they had never acted offensively toward the Jewish students despite the incessant anti-Semitic propaganda in the Third Reich, he gets a no more satisfactory answer than someone saying, "Good Lord, how could we believe in the theory of the inferiority of the Jews? Our star pupil in German was a Jew and one of our fastest 100-metre sprinters was also a Jew." Reich-Ranicki is baffled and disappointed. "If I had not been the best student in German and my friend one of the best runners–would it then have been permissable to treat us badly?" Part of the answer, perhaps, derives from the notion of what’s known in German as "correctness," a standard of behaviour that even obtained, at least among certain social classes, at the height of barbarism. Perhaps a clearer answer is contained in Reich-Ranicki’s memory of a fellow pupil whose behaviour toward Jews was impeccable. When Reich-Ranicki meets him after the war, the man, now a doctor, relates an incident in which he had caught sight of another Jewish classmate, T., being hauled off for deportation in 1940. The man says, "I thought T. would feel very embarrassed if I saw him in such a pitiful state. I felt awkward, and I quickly looked away." To which Reich-Ranicki adds, maybe a little too easily, "Yes, that is exactly what happened: millions looked the other way."

After deportation to Poland in 1938, once the war was underway, Reich-Ranicki became one of the hundreds of thousands of Jews penned up in the Warsaw Ghetto. Because of his German-language skills, he got a job as a translator in the Jewish council that administered the ghetto at the behest of the Nazi occupiers. He, and his wife Tosia, were among the very few to survive the shipment of Jews to extermination camps as well as the futile, heroic ghetto uprising, and to escape into the Polish countryside, hiding out with an alcoholic Polish ne’er-do-well named Bolek and his wife, from mid-1943 on. In a chapter called "Stories for Bolek," Reich-Ranicki provides a Sheherazade-like account of his own 1,001 nights:

"One day Bolek’s wife suggested that I should tell them a story, preferably a thrilling one. From that day onwards, as soon as it was dark, I would tell all kinds of stories to Bolek and Genia–for hours, for weeks, for months. These had but one aim–to entertain my hosts. The better they liked a story, the better we were rewarded–with a slice of bread, with a few carrots. I did not invent any stories, not a single one. Instead I told them whatever I could remember. In the gloom of that dingy kitchen I offered my grateful listeners dramatically heightened shortened versions of novels I had read, or of plays and operas, even films, I had seen: Werther, William Tell, The Broken Jug… Effi Briest, Aida, Traviata and Rigoletto." Those stories for survival, of course, presage Reich-Ranicki’s happier future as a distinguished literary critic telling TV viewers of his book program similar tales.

Reich-Ranicki’s Holocaust survival account is both engaging and moving, and once again, despite whatever I thought I knew about the Holocaust, I found myself stirred by this intelligent, well-told version. But I was equally interested, as someone who knows who Reich-Ranicki is, but who hasn’t read his literary criticism in German, in what he has to say about literature. Although Reich-Ranicki offers more by way of anecdote about German writers than critical theory about their work, and sporadically gives us the typical critic’s grumbling about the insufferable egotism and self-absorption of most artists, the chapters about literary encounters are as important as the historical record of survival.

While Reich-Ranicki offers extended reflections on the familiar figures of German writing–Heinrich Boll, Gunter Grass, Siegfried Lenz, Anna Seghers, Ingeborg Bachman, Walter Jens, Max Frisch, Theodor Adorno, Wolfgang Koeppen, Brecht and Mann–one of his fondest and most charming recollections is about a writer known primarily to German schoolboys, Erich Kastner, best remembered in Germany as the author of Emil and the Detectives and some popular poems. Although children of Reich-Ranicki’s generation were given the romantic tales of James Fennimore Cooper and his bombastic German counterpart, Karl May, the attraction of Kastner’s story of Berlin children who succeed in catching a thief was its realism. Unlike the stories of an exotic, distant "Wild West," Kastner’s story "took place not in a distant time and country, it happened here and now, in the streets and backyards of Berlin… The characters spoke in the way we, who grew up in the big city, did. The credibility of this book, and hence also its success, was due chiefly to the authenticity of its everyday language." Reich-Ranicki’s preference for Kastner will extend to his later judgments as a famous critic about what makes literature interesting.

Kastner had a further role to play in Reich-Ranicki’s survival. During the time he was in the Warsaw Ghetto, a volume of poems called Dr. Kastner’s Lyrical Medicine Cabinet–containing such lines as "We are all sitting in the same train / travelling through time"–caught the young man’s eye. It was impossible to own this book, but Tosia copied it out by hand, illustrated the poems, stitched the pages together, and presented this hand-made book to Marcel on his 21st birthday, in the Warsaw Ghetto. "So there we sat together, Tosia and I, in the dark night, with poor light, slowly and thoughtfully reading the German verses she had copied for me. Now and then, we heard German shots and Jewish cries from a nearby ghetto entrance. We started, we trembled. But we continued to read…" Reich-Ranicki readily admits, "I know that Kastner’s ‘lyrics for daily use’ do not fall into the category of great German poetry." Nonetheless, at a time when death was to be expected any day, Kastner’s "intelligent, ingenious and perhaps slight poems affected and moved me, indeed delighted me."

Years later, Reich-Ranicki was able to meet Kastner in Munich, where he showed the aging children’s writer "the handwritten, by then somewhat tattered copy of his Lyrical Medicine Cabinet. He was surprised and fell silent. He had been able to imagine a lot of things, but not that his verses were read in the Warsaw ghetto, or that they were copied by hand the way literary texts were copied in the Middle Ages."

After the war, Reich-Ranicki had a checkered career with the new communist government of Poland, serving in diplomatic and secret service agencies. That’s where he picked up the hyphenated "Ranicki" part of his name, since it was thought that "Reich" was not only too German but too reminiscent of the recent bad old days. He ran into trouble with the Communist Party in the early 1950s, was expelled from its ranks, but allowed to turn his hand to literary criticism. A few years later, during one of Poland’s recurrent waves of anti-Semitism, Reich-Ranicki, with considerable help from the well-known German writer, Siegfried Lenz, "defected" to his boyhood homeland. There, he became an instant success, quickly rising to the position of lead critic for the major German news and literary publications, particularly the Hamburg-based Die Zeit, and a decade later, as head of the book section of the prestigious Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Reich-Ranicki’s subsequent rise to public popularity as a television book critic seemed no more than a natural progression in his remarkable odyssey.

Reich-Ranicki’s notion of book reviewing insists on accessibility. As head of the FAZ books section, he adopted the policy that "literary criticism in the press, while making great demands on its readers, and rightly so, should at the same time be comprehensible and easily readable." Within short order, the book pages of FAZ featured not only the best-known authors in the country, but also a corps of knowledgeable academics whom Reich-Ranicki patiently weaned from the torturous jargon that characterizes much of German academic writing. A particular problem was the reviewing of poetry. While the reviews were often thorough, learned, "and possibly also fair," they "frequently had one fatal flaw: they were, to put it bluntly, rather boring." Reich-Ranicki’s solution was one that’s been subsequently copied by other book page editors, namely, a regular weekly column that presented and discussed individual poems from any and all periods of what is now a nearly invisible art. In Canada, the Globe and Mail has adopted a similar practice.

Reich-Ranicki’s role in TV book reviewing, which began in 1988, is a matter of some controversy. Many of my German intellectual friends are contemptuous of the inevitable vulgarity that seems to accompany talking about books on the tube. In his memoir, Reich-Ranicki offers a defense of his brand of populism. "In addition to readers or aficionados of literature, our audience also included people who did not wish to know anything about it. But now and again, they would watch the program because they enjoyed our conversation, and perhaps also our arguments… I make no secret of the fact that I had a particular interest in those very viewers." As he concedes, "The Literary Quartet is blamed for a lot of things. The most frequent complaint is that the program is banal, at times populist and always superficial, that nothing was being appropriately justified, that everything was being simplified. Such complaints, and many others, are entirely fair–and I am the one responsible for these shortcomings."

Literary Quartet, like other TV book shows, including those in Canada–the best of which was Daniel Richler’s stint on TV Ontario–bows to at least some of the dictates of the medium, although it dispenses with video clips, dramatized readings, and other visual enhancements. What you get is Reich-Ranicki and three colleagues, chattering away in often heated disagreement. The results are arguable. Reich-Ranicki confesses to the obvious faults. "Are there any proper analyses of literary works? No, never. Are things being simplified? Invariably. Is the result superficial? Yes, even very superficial. We can do no more than hint at the impression the books have made on us personally and state briefly what we think is good or bad about them." So, is it worth while? "Yes, certainly, and today more than ever. What matters today is holding on to the public. In other words: we should see to it that the public does not run away–to other, and not necessarily less honourable, leisure pursuits."

Reich-Ranicki’s remarks here are obviously relevant not only to relatively still-literate societies like Germany and France, but also to such "post-literate" ones as ours. I disagree with Reich-Ranicki’s perhaps unintended assimilation of reading to "leisure pursuits," and I’m dubious about whether mass consumption of low-grade entertainment is "not necessarily less honourable" than book reading, but I like his "utopian endeavour," as it was once described, "to make literature a public affair." While this is a place where I can only gesture toward the issue, the question of "book-literacy" (an awkward phrase, but the best I can do for the moment) is one of those losing battles we can’t afford to lose. No, I don’t have a plan, or any practical suggestions, but the need for plans and practical suggestions seems to me imperative. Otherwise, we’ll all be whistling past the graveyard.

The Author of Himself is hardly a great literary work as either Holocaust story (such as, for example, Jorge Semprun’s Life or Literature) or literary analysis, but it’s a serviceable account of a fascinating life. Toward the end of his memoir, Reich-Ranicki remembers the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, whose work he had first heard–a performance of Mozart’s "Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major"–on a gramophone in the Warsaw Ghetto. Years later, on Menuhin’s 70th birthday, Reich-Ranicki was asked to give the introductory address to the celebration, and found himself ruminating on art and morality. "The young people who, along with us in a small room in the Warsaw Ghetto, had listened to Mozart’s violin concerto, played by Yehudi Menuhin, had all died in the gas chamber. Any casual connection between music and morality was just a piece of fine wishful thinking, a frivolous conceit," Reich-Ranicki concludes. Yet, he also recognizes that Menuhin "had endeavoured to make the violin a weapon against injustice and hardship on this earth." Did Mozart or Menuhin or any of the hundreds of writers Reich-Ranicki had reviewed in half a century succeed in changing the world? "Yes, certainly, but only to the extent that they added their work to the world as it existed. One consolation is left to us: we only know what music has failed to prevent. What our world would be like without music–that we do not know." Ditto for literature and its interpreters.

Berlin, Mar. 21, 2002 3112 w.


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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