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A Life in Letters

DW staff (tt)May 10, 2008

Chancellor Angela Merkel paid a tribute to Germany's best known and most feared literary critic who in many ways personified the restoration of cultural values in the country after World War II.

Angela Merkel and Marcel Reich-Ranicki at the award ceremony in Hamburg
No longer fighting about who'll get the word: Angela Merkel and Marcel Reich-RanickiImage: AP

"The time is ripe to honor an icon," said Merkel in her speech praising the extraordinary career of Marcel Reich-Ranicki.

The German news magazine Stern awarded a lifetime achievement award to the 87-year-old literary critic at its annual gala event held for some 1,200 prominent guests at the Hamburg Schauspielhaus theatre on Friday.

"Reich-Ranicki's oeuvre is not simply the sum of all the powerfully eloquent eulogies and damning reviews in his 50-year career," Merkel said. "[He] inhabits culture and wants everybody else to participate in his passion."

SS soldiers arresting two Jewish men in the Warsaw ghetto
As a young man, Reich-Ranicki spent three years in the Warsaw ghettoImage: dpa

For many Germans, Reich-Ranicki -- the son of a Polish Jew and grandson of a German rabbi, who spent three years in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II and later served as a volunteer in the Polish army -- symbolizes the way in which Germany managed to rebuild itself as a pluralist society after the horrors of the Nazi period.

He has also been seen as a beacon of high culture in a globalized society increasingly preoccupied with commercial success and mass-produced entertainment.

"My wife and I survived thanks to literature, poetry and music," the critic said in response to Merkel's speech.

After a brief stunt in the Polish Communist Party following the end of the war, Reich-Ranicki returned to Germany in 1958 to pursue what would be a stellar career and to become, in the words of a colleague, "Germany's most read, most feared, most observed, and therefore most hated literary critic."

Who would have thought?

Reich-Ranicki gesticulating during his acceptance speech in Hamburg
At the age of 87, Reich-Ranicki is still an engaging public speakerImage: AP

Visibly moved by the chancellor's speech, the critic -- who is often jokingly referred to as Germany's "literary pope" -- told an anecdote about how he once had dinner with young politician Angela Merkel in Bonn.

"She didn't let me get a word in edgewise," he said. "And that requires some skill."

In his long and prolific career, Reich-Ranicki has also become a media star, in part thanks to the popular, high-brow television show "Literary Quartet," in which 4 literary critics discussed and fought about the merits of contemporary literature.

His popularity and success, however, came to him as a bit of surprise.

"I never expected that I would one day become a literary critic in Germany," he said. "And I believe, Mrs. Merkel also never expected to become chancellor."

Merkel, who is a physicist by training, grew up in the former East Germany.

A bad-tempered star

Title page of the Spiegel magazine with an image of Reich-Ranicki tearing apart a book by Günter Grass
When he didn't like a book, he made sure everybody heard that

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.

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. "[I am also] 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 man of 20th century

A man with a laptop
Reich-Ranicki doesn't seem to have warmed up to the 21st centuryImage: Lufthansa

In many ways, however, Reich-Ranicki remains a man of the past century.

When asked in a recent interview for his thoughts about the proliferation of lay criticism on the Internet and numerous reader reviews which appear on various commercial Web portals and online booksellers such as Amazon, he responded: "My dear, don't get mad at me, but I have no idea what you're talking about."

Germany's "literary pope" claims that he has never visited the Web site dedicated to his work (reich-ranicki.com) and that he never uses the Internet.

"When I need something from the Internet, I ask my secretary to get it for me," he said.