Critic and broadcaster;
Born: June 2, 1920; Died: September 18, 2013.
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who has died aged 93, was an influential literary critic for more than 50 years. The composer Jean Sibelius once said "Whoever put up a statue to a critic?" but critics have their uses in a national culture, whether the grand one served by the Goncourt brothers in mid-19th-century France or a smaller, more complex one by Georg Morris Cohen Brandes in Scandinavia after the 1870s. Marcel Reich-Ranicki served this function in Germany for half a century.
He was born Marceli Reich into a Polish-German Jewish family - the painter Frank Auerbach was a relative - in Silesia, part of what had just become Poland, but brought up, like the slightly older Eric Hobsbawm, in the Berlin of the Weimar Republic. He gorged on comics, encyclopedias, Dickens and Defoe, and might have been one of the impudent, resilient children in Erich Kaestner's Emil And The Detectives (1929). His Abitur (Highers) coincided with the Kristallnacht; he was rejected by Berlin University and his family was deported to Poland in 1938.
In Warsaw he became the chief translator of the Jewish Council, which mediated with the Nazi occupiers and in 1942 minuted its forced acceptance of "resettlement" - what amounted to a collective death sentence.
His boss immediately took poison but Reich-Ranicki and his new wife Teofila managed to get away to the Polish resistance and, almost alone in their family, escaped death. He rose in the Polish secret service and Communist Party after the war and was briefly consul in London, but was dismissed in the Stalinist period before 1956. The family escaped to Hamburg, West Germany, in 1958.
There he became associated with the avant-garde Group 47 (alongside Gunter Grass, Heinrich Boll and Walter Jens) but made his reputation mainly through being a literary critic from 1963 to 1973 on the liberal Die Zeit - a weekly publication so crammed with fact and theory it was safer to start by tearing out all the pieces you reckoned relevant or risk being engulfed - and later the rather grand conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Subsequently he swept all before him on ZDF, the country's second TV channel, from 1988 to 2002 as part of the "Literary Quartet". Few in Germany could tell you who the other three were. He became the guardian of the country's literary canon.
In 2008 German TV gave him an award for this, only to be savaged from the podium for the witlessness of its programmes - "Cooks, nothing but cooks!" This was judged, of course, the latest thing in Reality TV. Against the "feuillitonist" style of much German literary journalism - the product of the hierarchical structure of German higher education and a near-paralytic mixture of deference and high mannerism (and that was to put it mildly) - Reich-Ranicki's insights were solidly Johnsonian: his heroes were Goethe and Schiller, Theodor Fontane, Thomas Mann. His squat, horn-rimmed figure rasping out praise or blame was as familiar on the box as Helmut Kohl or Franz Beckenbauer. He could be ferocious and his canon was conservative, but left nobody in any doubt that great literature mattered far more than than the bestsellers and huge advances that have steamrollered commercial culture in what should be more fortunate lands.
Appropriately enough, Reich-Ranicki's archive will go to the German Literary Museum at Friedrich Schiller's Marburg am Neckar, just north of industrial Stuttgart and Ludwigsburg, its Versailles: the English architect David Chippendale's elegant neoclassic temple to the language which - at least to date - almost wholly lacks any English explanation of it.
It's intriguing that his passing coincides with the third enthronement of Angela Merkel: two former outsiders - both ex-Communists and in Ranicki's case a Pole and a Jew - who ultimately contributed to a German liberal and pluralistic culture, while also ensuring that its society kept a firm grip on the institutions of its production and diffusion. Most of British print culture is owned from abroad, by Bertelsmann, Holzbrinck or Murdoch.
Prof Dr. Dr. h.c. (multi) Marcel Reich-Ranicki's son Andrew, born 1948, is professor of mathematics at Edinburgh University.
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