When Theodor Adorno said that it was barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz, he unwittingly launched ten thousand essay questions. The remark still resounds, not only in Germany and not always in ways that Adorno would have wished it to be understood. But one of its legitimate implications, it seems to me, is that the expression “European Civilization” should have become unusable after 1945.
The phrase has been taken to mean that high art has a connection to morality—that Beethoven instills be-nevolence, and Mozart and Mantegna spread mercy. Something, it was believed, rubbed off. Exposure to art could melt hard hearts, or turn away the sword. And even though the history of Europe between 1939 and 1945 should have exploded this assumption forever, it persists. Those who still accept it should listen to Marcel Reich-Ranicki, and read his unforgettable book.
Reich-Ranicki’s position in German culture is unimaginable in any other country except, perhaps, Russia. For more than twenty years, German writers have trembled, fumed, wept, and on occasion preened themselves over his verdicts on their work. As the main critic of the weekly Die Zeit, and then for many years the literary editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he established an almost imperial ascendancy over German literary criticism.
He has been misleadingly called the pope of German literature. But Ranicki is a lonely figure with no Vatican and—dogmatic as he can be in judgment—no particular theology. He is an old-fashioned, pragmatic critic, phenomenally well-read, whose standards are his own subjective opinions about what is “good” or “bad.” He represents no particular branch of literary theory; he is “post”-nothing, but impenitently “pre-” all contemporary canons of French or Anglo-Saxon literary theory. But he is also the opposite of those traditional German mandarins who used to be revered by everybody and understood by nobody. Ranicki is a vigorous popularizer, whose television program on new writing—Literary Quartet—has reached millions and no doubt persuaded them into adventurous reading. He can praise, sometimes lavishly. But his fame rests on his fearsome acts of demolition, often salted with searing irony, which can be annihilating to a luckless author. This reputation pains Ranicki, a witty and charming old man who refuses to consider himself a destroying angel. Nonetheless, Ranicki in hanging-judge mood is the most merciless arbiter of writing in Europe.
He was a friend of Yehudi Menuhin, and they shared a background as assimilated Jews of essentially German culture. Once they ran into each other in a foreign-currency shop in Beijing; Menuhin was on a concert tour, while Ranicki was lecturing on Goethe and Thomas Mann. “Ah, well,” said Menuhin, “we’re Jews of course. That we travel from country to country, spreading German music and German literature, and interpreting it—that’s good and how it should be.” But Ranicki had his own reasons not to share his friend’s wonderful optimism about the impact of art on behavior. He writes in his book that Menuhin “had endeavoured to make the violin a weapon against injustice and hardship on this earth. As a child—he would often recall—he had been convinced that with Bach’s Chaconne or with Beethoven’s violin concerto one could make people if not good, then at least better human beings.” To Ranicki, in contrast, “any causal connection between music and morality was just a piece of fine wishful thinking, a frivolous conceit.” Music had not improved human beings: “We only know what music has failed to prevent.” And literature? “Have Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories prevented a single murder?… Did even one individual, after reading Goethe’s poems, become noble, generous and good?”
It was not in a concert hall that Ranicki had first encountered the genius of Yehudi Menuhin. In 1943 he and his beloved Tosia, soon to be his wife, were sitting with about eight other Jews on the floor of a room in the Warsaw ghetto. The doom of the ghetto was approaching; the Nazis had already forbidden public concerts, and a young couple had invited a few friends for a gramophone evening: Berlioz, Debussy, and Yehudi Menuhin playing Mozart’s concerto No. 3 in G Major. It left Ranicki stunned. “Did Mozart charm and delight us all the more because we were hungry and in permanent fear for our lives? You had better believe it: in the Warsaw ghetto Mozart was never more beautiful.” For a time—but only for that time—German music came to mean even more to him than German literature.
Marcel Reich (the Ranicki was added many years later) was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Wl/ocl/aweck, not far from Warsaw. His father was a mild, ineffectual businessman; his mother had been brought up in Germany, and like most of the town’s Jewish community, looked to Berlin as her cultural capital. In 1929, aged nine, Marcel was sent to Berlin to be educated, where he learned fear (the cane in the schoolroom) and also happiness, for he began to read German books and listen to German music. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Marcel was already a precocious pupil at a Berlin secondary school where for a long time official anti-Jewish propaganda and restrictions had little impact; his teachers treated him fairly, and he recalls not one instance of anti-Semitic abuse or bullying by his schoolmates. His parents had by now joined him, and he spent his out-of-school life in the theater and at the movies, or in endless, rapacious reading. He was in love with Erich Kästner, then with Schiller, then with the (banned) Kurt Tucholsky and Brecht, and then with Thomas Mann. His school essay on Georg Büchner, his first step as a critic, filled three exercise books.
To his astonishment, the essay was only marked “Good on the Whole.” But by then, in 1937, the regime was closing in on Jewish pupils and on those who taught them, and when he chose the dramatist Gerhart Hauptmann as the subject for his oral Abitur, or matriculation, examination, the headmaster interrupted him to ask for the correct National Socialist attitude toward Hauptmann.
There would be no university place for Marcel Reich. His parents retreated to Poland again, leaving this impassioned Jewish teenager to wander from theater to opera house and to read the banned books which could still be fished out of the municipal libraries. The cultural life of the city was still rich, sharpened by the dangers of Nazi censorship; he worshiped great actors like Gustav Gründgens, lost his virginity to an actress, and held intense conversations on park benches with a Jewish girl who—in a future Communist Germany—was to become the wonderful Berlin Ensemble performer Angelika Hurwicz. Romantically, he thought of himself as Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger, a homeless soul who was “sick to death of being a portrayer of humanity and having no share in human experience.”
His share was soon to come. In October 1938, a month before the Kristallnacht pogrom, he was arrested and expelled from Germany as a Jew of Polish nationality. He had time to grab one book, a minor Balzac novel, and a spare handkerchief. But, as he writes, he took with him “invisible luggage… the German language, and a literature, the German literature.”
Marcel Reich, now eighteen years old, could still speak passable Polish, but in Warsaw “everything was strange to me, and Poland has always remained a little like that”: the country of his birth and his exile, but never a homeland. Back with his family, he gave German lessons and, to his lasting joy, discovered Polish poetry. It was a brief interval. In September 1939, less than a year after his return, Germany invaded Poland.
What follows is one of the great witness statements at the trial of “European civilization.” It is not that Ranicki’s book somehow changes gear at this point. On the contrary, it is the continuity of his story that makes it so precious and so heartbreaking. Ranicki carries forward the tale of one young man’s development, as alert to the Jews and German soldiers in dying Warsaw as he was to the actors and schoolteachers of Berlin, and as fascinated by his own emotions and self-discoveries in the ghetto as he had been as a German schoolboy. There are no heroics or grand laments here. They are superfluous. Ranicki saw everything, except the inside of the cattle cars heading for the gas chamber at Treblinka, and he remembers everything, with a sensitivity trained by Schiller, Shakespeare, Mozart—even by Wagner.
Anyone who survived did so by bizarre chance—the winning tickets in a lottery. This was true of Ranicki; he came safely through not one but many selections for the gas chamber in which an indifferent young Nazi with a riding crop pointed left for death or right for life. (People of disheveled or neglected appearance were always sent to the trains, and Ranicki, naturally dark-complexioned, formed the habit of shaving twice a day—a habit which he has never been able to give up.) But his German fluency helped him too. He was taken on by the Judenrat (the Jewish Council which ran the ghetto for the Germans) as a translator, and Judenrat staff were at first relatively secure from the shootings and roundups. In this job, he came to know Emanuel Ringelblum, the secret chronicler of the ghetto whose buried archives were dug out of the ruins years after the war. He was even closer to his chief, Adam Czerniaków, the tragic chairman of the Jewish Council. Czerniaków, with his white suit, straw hat, and little car, behaved as if there was a future. Only when the SS told him that the entire population of the ghetto was to be “resettled in the east,” starting that day, did he go to his office and take cyanide.
Young Marcel Reich took the minutes of that meeting with Sturmbahnführer Hermann Höfle, on July 22, 1942. He is probably the only living witness to the encounter. He remembers that it was a warm day, that the Judenrat building was surrounded by SS troops who played Strauss waltzes on a gramophone when they grew bored, that the main noise inside the room when Höfle stopped speaking was the clatter of his own broken-down typewriter and the clicking as SS officers took photographs. Höfle added conversationally that if the Judenrat had any problems about carrying out this order he would hang them all in the children’s playground across the road.
The order also stated that workers in the Jewish Council and their wives would be exempted. Marcel Reich married his Tosia that very evening, in a hasty ceremony conducted by a theologian for want of a rabbi. The deportations began, and soon, in spite of the order, selections began in the Judenrat itself. On September 5 came the “Big Selection.” The entire remaining population was rounded up apart from a few thousand given “life numbers.” Marcel and Tosia got numbers. Marcel’s parents did not, and he looked at them for the last time as the riding-crop pointed them away. “I still see them: my helpless father and my mother in her smart trench-coat from a department store near the Berlin Gedächtniskirche. The last words Tosia heard from my mother were: ‘Look after Marcel.'”
The young couple moved into an empty apartment, somebody’s food still on the plates and somebody’s skirt flung over a chair. A few weeks later Tosia herself was seized, and Marcel rescued her from the train at the last moment. In January 1944 came the final onslaught to empty the ghetto. With money seized from a safe, the pair bribed a policeman to let them escape into the “Polish” city.
They moved from one hiding place to another, constantly robbed by Polish youths on the lookout for Jewish fugitives, and were eventually taken in by an alcoholic unemployed typesetter and his wife. Bolek and Genia risked their lives by sheltering two Jews, and sometimes wondered why they were doing it. Marcel and his Tosia never felt quite safe. But they were wrong. By night they worked making black-market cigarettes; by day Marcel, like Scheherazade, kept his hosts fascinated by telling the plots of all the novels, plays, and films in his fortunately total memory. “Adolf Hitler,” said Bolek after many vodkas, “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.”
And they did live—just. When the Red Army arrived, Bolek awkwardly asked Marcel not to tell the neighbors that he and Genia had been hiding Jews: “They would never forgive us.” Ranicki writes that it was not the prospect of money which made Bolek and Genia act as they did. “I can describe it only with grand and hackneyed words: compassion, goodness, humanity.”
Emaciated, they found their way to the Polish army under Soviet command. Ranicki was given a job as a military censor in Warsaw, and was invited to join the foreign intelligence service of the new Communist regime. Shortly afterward, he became a member of the Polish Communist Party. It was a path that seemed natural to many Polish Jews in 1945, to the many who had spent the war in the Soviet Union and to the very few who had survived the Nazi occupation. For patriotic Catholic Poles, the presence of so many Jews in the Party leadership and the security apparatus confirmed their worst prejudices. But Ranicki gives familiar explanations with his own candor. He and Tosia owed their lives to the Red Army; he believed that a reordering of society was long overdue; he had supposed communism to be a universal movement transcending nationalism and racialism. And finally, even after the Liberation, he still lived with fear. The Party was “a refuge and—the word is difficult to avoid—safety.”
His faith soon faltered. After a spell back in ruined Berlin, and a sojourn in London as a very underemployed spy, he returned to Warsaw in 1948 as the Party succumbed to full-blooded Stalinist paranoia and state terror. He was expelled from the Party, and briefly jailed. In prison he read The Seventh Cross, a novel by Anna Seghers, and felt once more that German literature was his destiny. On his release, he began to build a discreet living for himself as a translator and then as a reviewer of German fiction and poetry. After a few years, he was allowed to meet visiting writers from East Germany, and eventually from the Federal Republic, and the lines of his future career as a literary critic and interviewer were laid down.
One of Reich-Ranicki’s first meetings was with Anna Seghers herself, when she came from East Berlin to Warsaw in 1952. It was his first professional interview with a famous writer. But she dismayed him. He wanted to talk about the novel that he had read in prison and that had helped to change his life, and yet he could extract nothing useful or intelligent from its author. “A thought flashed through my mind. This modest and pleasant person…did not understand The Seventh Cross at all. She had no inkling of the sophistication of the artistic devices used in her novel, or of the virtuosity of its composition.” This was a revelation to Ranicki.
Here, in 1952, began an attitude that recurs throughout the rest of the book, and still provokes his contemporaries: “Writers understand no more about literature than birds do about ornithology. And they are the last people to judge their own work.” Ranicki is a man so irrevocably in love with literature that it became, as he repeats throughout this autobiography, his substitute for a homeland. And yet he regards writers as a marvelous sub-species: vain and egocentric, weak in reasoning, ninnies in political judgment, but at the same time inspired and endearing. This does not mean that writers cannot be perceptive about the work of other writers; at the Frankfurter Allgemeine, in the 1960s, Ranicki was swift to clear “lit. crit.” academics off the review pages and replace them with novelists and poets. But it does promote the professional critic to the role of God at the Last Judgment: the critic alone can look into the hearts of writers, pardon their petty sins, and discern what even they cannot know about themselves.
Like many other antique cultural theories, this one still lives among German intellectuals. It can be impressive; this reviewer has been genuinely awed by a German critic who revealed to me the “artistic devices” and “virtuosity” he claimed to have located in one of my books. It can also be patronizing and offensive. But luckily the vanity of writers is a bottomless well of comedy. I will always rejoice over Ranicki’s anecdote here about the aphorist Stanisl/aw Jerzy Lec (the man who wrote: “I hit bottom. But then I heard somebody tapping from underneath”). Lec took him for a walk through Warsaw, talking volubly and wittily about himself. After an hour, he stopped and exclaimed: “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?”
Ranicki found the same disjunction between writer and work in Brecht, in Peter Huchel, even in Wolfgang Koeppen—a personal friend, and his own favorite among postwar German novelists. He quotes Martin Walser’s re-mark that “the prototype of the author was the Egyptian shepherd Psaphon who had taught the birds to sing his praises”; novelists as different as Thomas Mann and Elias Canetti were both Psaphonic bird-trainers, and so were most poets. “Touchiness, vanity and self-importance—I have observed all these weaknesses in poets such as Erich Fried and Wolf Biermann, whose talent was surpassed only by their egocentricity.” Erich Fried is no longer alive to hit back, but I can hear his deep growl: “Reich-Ranicki should know!”
It was only a matter of time before Reich-Ranicki, as he now was, left Poland. In 1958, Marcel and Tosia received passports for a “visit” to West Germany from which they never returned. Once again, Ranicki was crossing a frontier with nothing but German literature for luggage. But in Frankfurt, helped by the writers Siegfried Lenz and Heinrich Böll, he was soon supporting himself as a book reviewer and that autumn he was invited to the annual meeting of “Group 47,” the unofficial academy of German writing organized by Hans Werner Richter. Marcel Reich-Ranicki had arrived, and with phenomenal speed.
And yet he soon acquired the feeling, which has never left him, that he had not really arrived, that something about him prevented his full acceptance into the German world of letters. Everyone wanted to print his criticism. And yet nobody—not even the liberal Die Zeit—wanted to give him a regular job. Could it be his Jewishness? He refused to believe it, even though some of the hostile remarks he records here are well-worn anti-Semitic euphemisms. Could it be his outspokenness, his refusal to spare even those he was closest to when he thought that they had written badly?
The last section of his book is a list of friendships or intellectual intimacies that almost all turned sour in the end: with Böll, with Walter Jens, with the journalist and historian Joachim Fest, with Martin Walser, even with Max Frisch, whom Ranicki loved and revered as a “great European writer.” Sometimes the problem was about the German past. Ranicki owed much to his friend Fest, who had ended his “rejection” by making him literary editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He was incredulous and then outraged when Fest, a central figure in the 1985 “Historians’ War,” refused to condemn Ernst Nolte for the notorious FAZ article in which he suggested that the Holocaust had not been a unique German crime but a mere response to worse crimes in the Soviet Union.
Sometimes, though, Ranicki’s friendships were wounded by the sharpness of his criticism. A few writers were big enough to cope with their resentment; Heinrich Böll, after a long estrangement, came up to Ranicki at a reception, whispered “Arsehole!” in his ear, and then embraced him. But many others could not forgive him, like Peter Handke, who referred to Ranicki’s “killer lust,” or Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, who called for a machine gun to mow him down, or the poet Christa Reinig, who wrote fantasies about his death from cancer.
Nothing excuses hysteria like that—not even telling a writer that he or she has written trash. But what had Reich-Ranicki done to provoke it? The trouble is that his bad reviews are so spectacularly nasty, and that he has been tempted to flaunt his media reputation as a “literary executioner.” He was unwise when he let a publisher persuade him to issue a selection of his most damning pieces under the title of Nothing but Drubbings. No examples are quoted here. But the drubbing I remember best is a review—sometime in the 1980s—of a Günter Grass novel. Reich-Ranicki, not content with tearing the book to shreds, went on to picture a pathetic, blocked Grass sitting at his typewriter and facing the fact that although he had lost his talent and had absolutely nothing new or original to say, he still had to deliver the semblance of a work of fiction.
That was sheer sadism. And it conceals the surprising fact that the two men have a complicated respect for each other. Grass used Ranicki’s tale of Bolek and Genia in his 1972 novel Diary of a Snail. And although The Author of Himself is full of mocking descriptions of Grass drunk or panicking about his royalties, Ranicki has been known to praise at least some of his work. As one might expect from a lover of the German classics, he detests the sprawling, ranting, muddy torrent of Grass’s writing and its shockingly variable quality. And yet he is plainly fascinated as well, a fascination tinged with something like fear. In this autobiography he describes a meeting in Warsaw with the composer Hanns Eisler, who launched into a violent diatribe against Wagner; Ranicki listened, but concluded that Eisler was attacking his own insubordinate feelings. “He probably owed Wagner a lot. He was linked to the person he attacked, if only by love-hate.” There may be something of this in Ranicki’s frantic reaction to Günter Grass.
Marcel Reich-Ranicki is one of the last of a long and proud line: the Central European intellectuals of many nationalities but German culture. That world is over, and will never revive. At its best, it was not an exclusive and hermetic culture but a confidently proselytizing movement working to bring German art, music, and literature to the wider public. Ranicki’s high standards do not make him an elitist. And yet he does belong to an elite: the handful of those who were mysteriously chosen to survive, while those nearest to them and the millions about them went to their deaths. When they met again after the war, Angelika Hurwicz said to him: “For incomprehensible reasons we are the chosen children of horror. We are marked people and will remain marked to our final days.”
He had watched his parents setting off for Treblinka; his gentle brother Alexander, a dentist, had been shot with his lover and fifteen thousand other human beings in a great ditch at Poniatowa. “Why, I keep asking myself…was I allowed to survive?” In Germany, few people understood that this acerbic, self-assured man lived with the void of that unanswerable question within him. His grief and rage at finding himself shaking the hand of Albert Speer at a publisher’s party was thought a bit uncool. In those first years on German soil, he writes, he met only one person who genuinely wanted to hear about his experiences and went away with tears in her eyes. Her name, much later to be plastered on “Wanted for Terrorism” notices all over the country, was Ulrike Marie Meinhof.
Reich-Ranicki, now eighty-one, still lives with his wife Tosia in Hamburg in a flat that they have shared for a quarter-century. He works on, with no sign of mellowing. He does not struggle to improve the world through art, but to push people toward the experience of joy—and to fight the stupidity and bad workmanship which can close off that joy. But he remains marked, one of Angelika Hurwicz’s “children of horror.”
The late Zbigniew Herbert wrote lines in Polish which Ranicki must know:
you were saved not in order to live
you have little time you must give testimony
be courageous when the mind deceives be courageous
in the final account only this is important…
let your sister Scorn not leave you
for the informers executioners cowards—they will win
they will go to your funeral and with relief will throw a lump of earth
the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography…
But Reich-Ranicki’s autobiography is not smoothed over, and he and his sister Scorn have given their testimony.
April 11, 2002