Marcel Reich-Ranicki, German ‘Pope of Letters’ Dies at 93

Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Germany’s most influential postwar literary critic and a survivor of the Holocaust, has died. He was 93.

His death, in a nursing home in Frankfurt, was announced yesterday by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, of which he was the literary editor for more than 15 years. The author of almost 50 books -- including works on Thomas Mann, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Guenter Grass and Bertolt Brecht -- Reich-Ranicki also was the editor of many more.

His witty, uncompromising reviews and weekly television program won him the nickname “the pope of letters,” thousands of readers and viewers, and both respect and animosity in literary circles.

“We have lost an incomparable friend of literature, but also of freedom and democracy,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a statement. “The fact that this son of a Jewish German-Polish family, who lost his parents and relatives in the Nazi death camps, found a home in Germany again and gave our country so much is one of the postwar occurrences we can only be grateful for.”

Reich-Ranicki was “the greatest literary critic not only in Germany, but in the world,” his Australian colleague, the author, critic and broadcaster Clive James, wrote on his website.

Reich-Ranicki’s verdict on writers stemmed from wide experience. “I never met an author who wasn’t vain and egocentric -- unless you count very bad authors,” he wrote in his memoir.

No Jargon

He attributed much of his own success to the fact that he never forgot the reader. His prose was clear and avoided academic language that would confuse or obfuscate. His views were forthright, leaving readers in no doubt as to whether he was recommending or rejecting a new book.

That directness inspired fear and sometimes loathing in the writers he took apart. In his 2002 novel, “Death of a Critic,” Martin Walser described a writer who tries to prove his innocence when a famous critic is murdered. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung refused to print excerpts, accusing Walser of anti-Semitism and vengeful fury against Reich-Ranicki.

The critic’s reputation for harshness stemmed in part from an anthology of his scathing reviews published in the 1960s. In his memoirs, he conceded that he was “certainly too skeptical” in his “one-sided” review of “The Tin Drum” for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.

Devastating Review

That didn’t stop him from taking Grass to task again, this time for “Too Far Afield,” a novel published in 1995 and set in Berlin at the time of the fall of the Wall. Der Spiegel magazine published Reich-Ranicki’s devastating review with a photograph on its cover of the critic tearing the book apart with his bare hands.

He also created a stir in 2008, when he was nominated for a television award for lifetime achievement. Though Reich-Ranicki attended the gala ceremony, he became so irritated by what he called an “idiotic” show that he refused the prize on stage.

Marcel Reich was born into a middle-class, well-to-do family in the Polish town of Wloclawek on June 2, 1920. He became Ranicki after World War II, to avoid being associated with the Third Reich, and later combined the two names.

His mother, whom he described as unworldly in his 1999 memoir “Mein Leben” (My Life), was German-Jewish and yearned to return to Berlin. His Polish-Jewish father founded a building-materials company despite having no aptitude for business.

Rich Uncle

When the firm failed, the family sent Marcel, age 9, to a wealthy uncle, a lawyer in Berlin. Treated as an outsider by his Berlin classmates, Reich-Ranicki determined to outshine them in German. He succeeded. The discovery of a lifelong passion for literature made him, he wrote in his memoir, “happy -- for the first time in my life.”

During his school years and afterward, he sought refuge from Nazi oppression and social exclusion in Berlin’s theaters, and wrote his first unpublished reviews. He earned money for tickets by babysitting his cousin, Frank Auerbach, today a famous British painter.

Though Reich-Ranicki was allowed to take his secondary-school leaving examination in 1938, his university application was rejected because he was Jewish. He took an apprenticeship in an export company before being arrested in 1938 and deported to Poland. There he met his wife, Teofila Langnas -- minutes after she had made a futile attempt to save her father’s life by trying to cut the leather belt he had used to hang himself.

Warsaw Ghetto

Langnas and Reich-Ranicki were herded into the overpopulated, typhus-plagued Warsaw ghetto, home to 450,000 Jews at its peak. Reich-Ranicki was hired as a translator for the Jewish Council, a post that initially saved him from the livestock wagons heading from the ghetto to the gas chambers at Treblinka. He honed his writing skills by producing reviews of concerts for the ghetto newspaper.

Knowing death was inevitable if they stayed, Reich-Ranicki and his wife braved the spies and blackmailers prowling the streets of Warsaw to escape the ghetto in 1943, and found shelter in a Polish couple’s basement. They lived in hunger and fear for their lives until the war ended.

Reich-Ranicki’s parents were deported to Treblinka and gassed; his elder brother, a dentist, was shot.

After the war, Reich-Ranicki and Teofila joined the Polish army, where both were employed as censors for the military post, with a brief to identify letters that could contain coded messages.

Polish Communists

Reich-Ranicki also joined the Polish communist party. In 1948 he was appointed vice-consul at the Polish Embassy in London, where he was also employed by the intelligence service to report on Polish emigres in the U.K.

At the end of 1949, he returned to Warsaw and became a German literature editor in a Polish publishing house. His relations with Stalin-era Poland’s authorities became increasingly strained: While he set himself up as a freelance writer in 1951, he was banned from publishing in 1953 and 1955.

In 1958, Reich-Ranicki emigrated to Germany, where he first worked as a critic for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit before moving to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung to edit the literary pages. From 1988 to 2001, he anchored a book program, “Das Literarische Quartett,” on public television. The popular program made him a household name.

A lover of Italian opera, Wagner, Polish poetry and Shakespeare as well as Thomas Mann and Heinrich Heine, Reich-Ranicki was self-taught, having never had the opportunity to attend university. His memoirs read like a Who’s Who of 20th-century German cultural giants.

He recalled a touching meeting with an elegant, alcoholic Erich Kaestner; how he fell out with Nobel literature prize-winner Heinrich Boell after giving a novel a bad review; eating a wonderfully tasty flounder cooked by Grass; and watching Brecht impressively hold court during a visit to Poland.

He and his wife Teofila had a son, Andrew Ranicki, now a professor of mathematics at the University of Edinburgh. Teofila died in 2011.

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