Erudite Everyman

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It is a good thing that authors are never invited to appear on Marcel Reich-Ranicki's late evening TV literary talk show, Literary Quartet. They might want to weep on camera or get violent. "Awful style!" one of the panelists on the last show exclaimed about theater director Michael Schindhelm's first novel.

Host Reich-Ranicki added, "Yes, this author slaps something together and calls it art. Hah! Terrible!" Elke Schmitter's novel of illicit love, Frau Sartoris, was panned with equal gusto. A new Ford Madox Ford translation stirred some praise for his "period-piece impressionism" but drew scorn for his "passive voyeurism."

The authors may not be thrilled, but the public is enthralled. Literary Quartet draws nearly 1 million viewers, and Reich-Ranicki has become the once mutually exclusive combination of literary critic and TV cult figure. Everybody recognizes the cartoons of his fierce frown, and the takeoffs of his heavy Polish accent. His own book, My Life, is itself Germany's top nonfiction bestseller, with 500,000 sales. Some bookstores even sell dolls of him.

Reich-Ranicki, whose 80th birthday last month was national news, has long been Germany's literary guru. A thumbs-up on his show can boost a book's sale a hundredfold. "He is the powerhouse of the German market," says Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom, three of whose books have been discussed on the show and escaped without a mauling. "He put me on the map in Germany in 1991 with my The Following Story. He said, "It's the most beautiful book I've read this year, although I'm not sure I understand it.' With that he gave readers the freedom to make up their own minds."

Viewers love a good fight and so does Reich-Ranicki (rhymes with "granite-ski"). He even dares to cross swords with Germany's supreme literary lion, Günter Grass. On his show five years ago Reich-Ranicki called Grass's A Wide Field "miserable" and "idiotic." Grass called Reich-Ranicki a fool. The weekly der Spiegel ran a cover photomontage of a rabid-looking Reich-Ranicki tearing the book apart. As an admirer of much of Grass's other work, though, Reich-Ranicki later declared on TV that if any contemporary German author deserved the Nobel Prize it was Grass. But then, when Grass won the prize, Ranicki complained: "Though I was the first to so nominate him publicly, when he received the Nobel, he didn't even send me a post-card." His conclusion on TV about Grass: "talented" but "without manners."

Reich-Ranicki's own book details his true-life experience during much of Central Europe's upheaval and tragedy this century. Polish-born, he grew up in Berlin until the rise of Nazism forced his Jewish family back to Poland. During World War II, he survived the Warsaw Ghetto. There he met and married his wife Teofila, and there, while working as a Polish-German interpreter, it fell to Reich-Ranicki to translate the Nazi document ordering the ghetto's destruction. He lost his parents in the Treblinka camp. He and his wife escaped and hid with a Polish family outside Warsaw. Though descended from a long line of rabbis, Reich-Ranicki today says he lives without religion. He explains matter-of-factly, "I saw what God did during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. Nothing."

In the late '40s, Reich-Ranicki was posted to the Polish consulate in London, where he worked for Polish intelligence — a fact that raised a ruckus in Germany when it came to light in the mid-'90s. Back in Warsaw, he became a full-time Marxist critic for the weekly Nova Kultura. "In the Stalinist '50s of course I was isolated. I had no occasion then to read Western literature," he recalls today in his suburban Frankfurt home, surrounded by portraits of all his favorite German authors, from Thomas Mann to Bertolt Brecht. "What remains of the Marxism? I learned that as a critic I had to look at the social backdrop surrounding an author at the time of any particular book." In judging Buddenbrooks, for example, it is important to consider Thomas Mann's own life and times in the Lübeck of 1901.

Reich-Ranicki had been literary editor of the conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung for 15 years when in 1988 he was approached about doing a TV show. He set strict conditions: "No striptease, no chansons and no illustrations. You know: there's action in France, they show you the Eiffel Tower. There's action in New York — ÔA new novel from Philip Roth!' — they show you the Empire State Building." Literary Quartet — last week broadcast from Expo 2000 in Hannover rather than its usual base, the provincial city of Mainz — could not, in fact, be more austere: just Reich-Ranicki, two sidekick critics, Sigrid Löffler and Helmuth Karasek, plus a different guest critic or editor each time sitting in front of a bookshelf backdrop making sparks fly. "You know the difference between a journalist and a novelist?" Reich-Ranicki asked in his gruff voice during the last show. "A journalist looks at the exact meaning of every word — whereas a novelist looks at the meaning between the words." There was a thoughtful pause in the proceedings. It is not every critic who's able to evoke the ethos of rarefied literary art, not for fellow intellectuals, but for a popular audience of nearly a million.

Authors are not invited to appear because their books are expected to speak for them. "If a writer's written a book of 500 pages, that's enough, his comments are quite unnecessary," says Reich-Ranicki. Furthermore, he argues, authors are like doctors and lawyers in that "they never speak ill of other authors." Reich-Ranicki himself has no problem being loudly and clearly opinionated. He is ever grateful to Heinrich Heine for having "democratized" Germany's generally dark and turgid poetry. He thinks Bertolt Brecht was a far better poet than dramatist, and that Grass's best book was not The Tin Drum but his second, Cat and Mouse. He has little patience with arcane literary theory. "We had a guest once who went on about Ôpostmodernism.' I asked her, what does Ôpostmodern' mean? She could not tell us." He thinks the Nobel Prize selections are usually wrong. When the Swedish Academy in 1970 asked him for some nominations, only one of his four choices made the short list. "I said Max Frisch, he never made it. I said John Updike, never. I said Graham Greene, never. I got only Heinrich Böll, who made it in 1972. The most important writers are too good for this prize."

Most of all, Reich-Ranicki laments the current dearth of strong German writers. Their problem is a compulsion to be oh-so-serious. "German writers are very interested in exploring their personal conflicts, but not in writing for readers," he complains. "Now, there's one kind of author who doesn't forget the reader — the dramatist. That's because he sees the people leaving the theater. So I had an idea: opening nights for novels. An actor reads the new novel aloud. The author is forced to sit in the balcony, keep quiet and watch. It would be a good education for him to see people leaving. Next time he might write a book to keep them in their seats."

Plainspoken himself, Reich-Ranicki would like German authors to be that way too. Nevertheless, he brushes off direpredictions about the decline and fall of thenovel, or, in an ultra-technical age, even of the written word. "Nobody's going to murder literature," he growls. "Not even German writers."

— With reporting by Nigel Tandy/Mainz