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Celebrating Germany's "Literary Pope"

DW staff (tt)June 2, 2005

When he likes a book, he spares no words extolling its virtues. But when he doesn't, all hell breaks loose. Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Germany's grumpiest literary critic, turned 85 on Thursday.

He may have a lisp, but his tongue is still very sharpImage: dpa

In the same year in which Germany celebrates the 200th anniversary of the death of Friedrich Schiller, another important cultural event is taking place: the 85th birthday of Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a critic and undisputed star of the German literary scene, whose passion for books and belief in the indispensability of fiction is only matched by his sharp tongue, acerbic wit and ruthless critical style.

Reich-Ranicki, who is sometimes half-jokingly referred to as "literary pope," is a man of unbridled energy. As active as ever, he is currently editing "The Canon of German Literature," which he sees as the crowning achievement of his career.

"It is the fruit of a whole life devoted to literature," he said himself.

But he is also frank about his preoccupation with death.

"I fear non-existence," Reich-Ranicki has said. "When life goes on and one doesn't experience anything anymore, one is no longer there."

A Holocaust survivor and a spy

Reich-Ranicki was born on June 2, 1920 in Wloclawek, Poland. His father was a Polish Jew, his mother the daughter of a German rabbi. The family moved to Berlin in 1929 after the father's firm went bankrupt.

Reich-Ranicki passed his final school exams in October 1938, shortly before the Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass), in which the Nazis deported 17,000 Jews of Polish origin, Reich-Ranicki included, across the Polish border.

Räumung des Warschauer Ghettos
A group of Jews, including a small boy, is escorted from the Warsaw Ghetto by German soldiers in this 1943 photoImage: AP

During the war, Reich-Ranicki lived for three years in the Warsaw ghetto and later became a volunteer in the Polish army. By the end of the war, he was a member of the Polish Communist Party and also started working for the Polish secret service (MBP) as a diplomat in London.

In his autobiography, Reich-Ranicki claimed that his work was harmless, that he had neither put anyone in danger nor taken advantage of anyone. But in 2002, the German weekly Die Zeit published excerpts from his MBP files which made it seem that his role in the secret service was more significant than he cared to admit.

A passion for literature rekindled

Reich-Ranicki's political career ended abruptly after he was expelled from the Communist party. He devoted his time to his old passion, literature, at first in Poland, and from 1958 on in Germany.

From 1960 until 1973, Reich-Ranicki was the literary critic for the German weekly Die Zeit. In 1973, he took charge of the literary section at Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. In the next two decades, he became "Germany's most read, most feared, most observed, and therefore most hated literary critic" as one of his colleagues described him.

Literarische Raufrunde
Reich-Ranicki with his collegues from the "Literarisches Quartett," Iris Radisch and Hellmuth KarasekImage: AP

His popularity reached its culmination with the television show "Das literarische Quartett" (The literary quartet) which brought his eloquence, erudition and wit to the widest German audience.

Between 1998 and 2001, Reich-Ranicki appeared in 77 shows and discussed over 400 books on this highly rated show.

A bad-tempered media star

Numerous talents, such as the poet Ulla Hahn, were either discovered or promoted by Reich-Ranicki over the years in which he has reigned as the supreme authority on German literary affairs. But many an established writer, too, has experienced the wrath of a peevish critic.

Günter Grass in Budapest
Literature Nobel Prize winner German writer Günter GrassImage: AP

In 1995, Reich-Ranicki published his devastating account of Günter Grass' novel Das weite Feld (The wide field) describing the writing of the future Nobel prize winner as "illegible" and his novel as "worthless prose from the beginning to the end."

The public controversy over the role of the critic and the absolutist manner in which Reich-Ranicki is known to pronounce his judgments was further stirred up by the publication of Martin Walser's novel Tod eines Kritkers (The Death of a Critic) in 2002, a vaguely disguised pamphlet against the towering figure of German literary criticism which ends with his death.

"I am no judge, I am more of a public prosecutor or a defense lawyer," Reich-Ranicki said. "The attorney for the authors that I am anxious to defend, and occasionally the prosecutor, but -- I must put it pompously -- on behalf of literature."

A critic's critics

There is no doubt that Reich-Ranicki has left a permanent mark in the history of German literary criticism. German President Köhler said Reich-Ranicki "personified in his way German national culture."

But not everybody was in a celebratory mood on Thursday. Sigrid Löffler, his colleague and former co-host of The Literary Quartett, was not interested in lionizing the birthday boy.

Marcel Reich-Ranicki
Image: AP

"Five years ago, Marcel Reich-Ranicki publicly tried to tarnish my reputation," she told reporters. "Without provocation and, I believe, out of malice. He never apologized for his behavior, quite the contrary. Why should I want to wish him a happy birthday?"

Reich-Ranicki would beg to differ.

"I may be aggressive but I do not seek revenge" he said in a recent interview.