An Era Ends with Reich-Ranicki’s Death

Marcel Reich-RanickiGermany’s best known literary critic, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, died last week at the age of 93. As a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, a Jew in Germany and a sharp-tongued critic, he always remained an outsider but set unique standards.

On September 19 the Neue Zürcher Zeitung observed:

“Marcel Reich-Ranicki was an institution. With his death, a chapter in the history of German literature, an entire era, comes to an end: that of the so-called grand critic, who answers as an individual for his judgements, preferences and mistakes. He wanted to be – and could be – as caustic as [Karl] Kraus, as ironic as [Heinrich] Heine and as elegant as [Alfred] Kerr….

“Perhaps his many caricatures are the best testimony to the importance of this master of self-caricature because few could match the originality of Marcel Reich-Ranicki. Pope, priest or lord of the books: perhaps it was the triumph and tragedy of this at times astonishingly sensitive man that to the end no one took his roles and self-images away from him.”

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For many years Reich-Ranicki was the central figure in a popular television program Das Literarische Quartett, which in many ways resembled the CBC’s Fighting Words. In the CBC program, Nathan Cohen, Canada’s leading critic at the time, performed a similar function.

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4 responses to “An Era Ends with Reich-Ranicki’s Death

  1. Your mention of the ”larger than life”, Nathan Cohen, brings to mind the time I shared a coffee with him at the CBC cafeteria on Jarvis St. and we were joined by Cliff Solway, producer of Fighting Words, who proceeded to inform Cohen that he was to be replaced as moderator of the show. He seemed to take it in stride. I marveled at this. But as soon as Solway left, Cohen, as if addressing himself, said, “Ottawa doesn’t approve of the ugly fat Jew, coming into people’s living rooms.” The encounter has stayed with me all these years and made me realize that behind the self aggrandized harshly critical persona was just another fragile human being, just like the rest of us.

    Similarly, I question, what in heaven’s name was Marcel Reich-Ranicki, having survived the Warsaw Ghetto, doing in Germany. If walls could talk we may be astonished what they may have heard when the Polish Jew critic was on TV, displaying his uber understanding of German literature.

    • Good to hear from you, Jack. Point well taken. In spite of his passion for German literature and his huge prestige, Reich never felt entirely at home in Germany. When asked a question about his identity, he said: “A little bit Polish, a little bit German, and wholly Jewish.”

  2. Maybe he stayed in part in defiance and challenge – and in part, in hope. Or maybe he held true to classic European enlightenment values and decided to simply be and uphold them.

  3. While I claim no understanding of what Marcel Reich-Ranicki may have felt about being German, I will venture a comment on what I learned, after four years living in Austria, and many visits to Germany during that period, about the professional educated/career German’s prevailing view of Jews and Jewish culture. The prevailing sense is that the Grandchildren and Great Grandchildren are very curious. The musically inclined flock to Klezmer concerts and purchase (or download) a considerable amount of Judaica. As more than one mid-career German colleague described it to me, they are fascinated to learn about and even appreciate that part of German culture/German diversity that (in the more recent past) they were deprived of. The demand was so great, even a decade ago, for Klezmer and Jewish community historians that many non-Jews were entering the field – setting off a moral/ethical debate. But this is changing, as Berlin has been the fastest growing urban Jewish community for over a decade now!