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"Are you done? I've got things to do"

Julian Schütt interviews Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Germany's most popular - and controversial - literary critic.

Some academics might be snooty when it comes to Marcel Reich-Ranicki's book reviews. It's no wonder: he entertains his audience and has a measurable influence on book sales. And we're talking highbrow literature here. In this interview he talks about eternal values, old men and young women, and death. For a short biography of Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who survived the Warsaw Ghetto, click here.

Marcel Reich-Ranicki. Photo: Maurice Weiss / OstkreuzMarcel Reich-Ranicki. Photo: Maurice Weiss / Ostkreuz
When he groans as if he had to physically remove a sit-in striker from his office, when he runs his hand over his head as though looking for some hair, when he seems to be wishing you to outer space or looks like he's falling asleep, hoping you'll finally leave him in peace, you mustn't take it personally. Those who know Reich-Ranicki will tell you so. And they'll also recommend the following (no less difficult to accomplish): don't bore the old guy!

Marcel Reich-Ranicki still has his own office at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. At 85 he keeps in shape with his weekly column in the paper's Sunday edition and his "Frankfurter Anthologie", in which he offers poets and their interpretors a platform, as he has done for the last 30 years. But that doesn't exhaust his weekly workload. For years he has been working on a canon of German literature from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to Peter Bichsel. More than 18,000 pages and already available in stores: one slipcase containing twenty novels, another with 180 short stories, a third with more than forty plays. The poems will appear soon, and Reich-Ranicki has been working on the canon of essays. Then there are his own speeches, reviews and essays.

The number of Marcel Reich-Ranicki's publications is hard to put a finger on. In his case, it's not a matter of an unbroken will to work, but rather a work fury that refuses to be tamed.

At the same time, the interviewer sitting in the waiting room is reassured he has nothing to fear. Herr Reich-Ranicki is totally relaxed, he's just on the phone with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. When the door to his office finally opens, he is indeed in casual clothing: a shirt and jogging shoes. During the talk, he engages in a little relaxation in the arm chair his colleagues gave him. But he keeps the jogging shoes on; they act like a threat that he might spring up at any moment.

Thankfully it doesn't come to that. Marcel Reich-Ranicki leaves it at the occasional moan and groan, with expressive movements with his arms and eyes. And after the first question, he already has a retort:

Marcel Reich-Ranicki: Herr Schütt, I don't wish to be indiscreet but how much space do you have for this interview?

Die Weltwoche: Are you already impatient?

Yes, I'm impatient. I have been my whole life. And I hope your recording device is working. Not that you say later the tape wasn't working. We're not doing this again. So, go!

Are you under time pressure with your five-box canon?

I'm always under time pressure. The poems are coming out soon. You have no idea how much I have to read to be able to select 1,450 poems. If you ask me how long I've worked on my canon, I'd say over seventy years. My whole reading life. I've spent more time in my life with German literature than any other.

Why do we need this Summa of eternal values?

They aren't eternal values, you're exaggerating there. I did the canon because a project like this was what I was missing in my youth. I wanted to know what was worth reading. The canon is neither a directive nor a decree, it's a recommendation for readers. Do you like it? The canon of novels contains a mistake.

What? It has a mistake?

A mistake. A phenomenal, fundamental mistake. There's too little in there. There are 30, 40 German novels that are good. But I could only take 20. They alone weigh over eight kilograms. If we'd done 30 novels, the reader would have had to go to the book store with a baggage porter.

More women read than men. Why are there so few plays by women in the theatre canon?

"I don't choose books on the basis of their authors' sex organs. My belief is: German-language women cannot write plays. I know, I come across as misogynous when I say that. People want to throttle me and hold up Marieluise Fleißer as an example. But Bertolt Brecht did more than just look over her shoulder. She lived 40 years after her relationship with Brecht, but didn't manage to write another piece in that time."

Enough about the canon.

What? We haven't even talked about the fifth part. It should bring together essays, speeches, feuilleton articles, essays, reviews of literature, theatre, music and the visual arts. And let's not forget the film reviews. Yet another gigantic task.

Apropos film: rumour has it your memoirs are to be filmed. By a German?

Of course I'd prefer Polanski or Spielberg.

Is it true that Heinrich Breloer, who recently created a furore with "The Devil's Architect" on Hitler's armaments minister Albert Speer, is one of the options?

My bad luck. He was offered both my autobiography and "Buddenbrooks" by Thomas Mann. He decided in favour "Buddenbrooks" and wrote me a very nice rejection letter. I must admit that were I faced with this choice, I would have decided as he did.

On August 13 you will give a speech on the 50th anniversary of Thomas Mann's death. Can you still think of something new to say about this author about whom you've already written so much?

In the first place, it is a great honour to be allowed to speak in the Marienkirche in Lübeck about the author of my life, and this in the presence of Federal President Horst Köhler.

A real act of state.

We'll see if anything new occurs to me. I'm working on it. There's a cutting saying: everything there is to say about Thomas Mann has been said, but not by everybody.

You see in Thomas Mann the greatest German author after Goethe. But not even his works are free of anti-Semitic clichés.

My dear man, that too has been sufficiently dealt with by literary scholars. There are entire works on the subject. I'll just say one thing: The most beautiful lines about Jews in the entirety of German literature were written by Thomas Mann. I won't deny he also wrote anti-Semitic comments in moments of anger. Often they appear in his journals and letters, and weren't meant for publication. That's the way it is. And some of his characters you could see as caricatures of Jews. He doesn't say they're Jews, but you can figure it out from the context.

And you've got used to that?

I have to. The biggest anti-Semite in the history of German culture was Richard Wagner. And the greatest opera I know is his "Tristan and Isolde".

Herr Reich-Ranicki, you are the best-known literary figure in Germany and Switzerland, and yet you still feel like an outsider. How does that work?

Wulf Segebrecht, a professor of German literature in Bamberg and an esteemed colleague of mine, said to me after my 85th birthday celebrations in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt: "It's time you stopped calling yourself an outsider. Those days are over." I've taken cognizance of the fact.

Did you ever get the impression people flatter you so much so wouldn't bite so hard?

Not at all. I have another impression. The whole thing strikes me as a farewell gift, which is only to be expected for a man of 85. When I turned 84 and people hinted that an even bigger party was being planned for my 85th, I said, "I'm afraid I won't make it." - "Oh, we'll see about that," they said. Well, I made it.

But you don't seriously want to take part in the old-age game with Ernst Jünger (who died in 1998 at almost 103), about whom you have little good to say?

Of course I do. Let's move on, Herr Schütt!

As a critic you saw to it that no writer could be too comfortable, even those who were close to your heart. Is that something today's critics avoid?

There's no doubt, some of my colleagues tend to write for their colleagues. That doesn't interest me. I've always written for normal readers. But it's not true that nowadays everybody's just flattering everybody else.

Even you don't pan books any more. Has German literature improved so much?

You know, once you get to a certain age you shouldn't go on panning books. And negative reviews were not in the centre of my activities as a critic. But there's something I've seen happen a lot. If three out of ten reviewers pan a book, people say they only writes bad reviews. The good is oft interred with their bones. I don't need to tell you Iago is a much stronger figure than Othello. The interesting figures in world drama are all negative. The Germans have taken this to the limit: their most interesting dramatic figure is Satan himself: Mephistopheles.

Does Marcel Reich-Ranicki have writer friends?

Yes, I have friends. I'm friends with Siegfried Lenz, who I've known since 1957. Nowadays we don't see each other very often. He's old and sick, and I'm old and sick. And we live quite a ways apart. I'm also friends with Eva Demski, who lives just around the corner from me. More names?

Can you still be a good critic even if you have writer friends?

Well... it's not an easy game to play. George Bernard Shaw once said it's very hard to be both a critic and a gentleman. As a rule I don't write about books by friends of mine.

Why did you publish your harrowing autobiography "The Author of Himself" only in 1999? Didn't anyone want to know about it before that?

No, it was for another reason. I was afraid. Afraid of remembering all those things. And of being unable to do justice to them.

You came back to Germany in 1958. Did you also think of going to Switzerland?

When I left Poland I dreamed of going to settle in Zurich. But do you seriously believe an impoverished nobody from the East Bloc would have been welcomed in Switzerland? What was I supposed to live on? No one in the Swiss papers knew who I was. The Germans, on the other hand, couldn't keep me out. They had to take me back, after throwing me out at the end of 1938.

Still, you've done a lot for several Swiss authors, for example Hermann Burger. Does it bother you how little people care about him despite your praise?

The Swiss are a strange people. A very strange people. They've always reproached me for one thing or another. Either I pay too little attention to Swiss books, or I praise Swiss authors too highly. Or Swiss authors are forgotten about even though I praised them. I'm sorry no one reads Burger any more, but that may change.

You called Peter von Matt the most important living Swiss author, whereupon Adolf Muschg moved to Berlin.

A nice abbreviation of the story. Don't think I won't repeat it.

You always felt particularly close to Max Frisch because he also described your suffering. But aren't Frisch's sufferings trivial compared with what you experienced?

Your question is entirely justified. Of course Frisch never experienced what I suffered in Nazi Germany, during the war in the Warsaw Ghetto, or in the underground after 1945 in communist Poland. But as terrible as the times were, there were also private, intimate, erotic moments. I wrote in my autobiography: "People also made love in the ghetto." Frisch's writing touches me personally. Why? He was one of the very few writers who truly represented the intellectuals of our time, that is the second half of the 20th century. Frisch described their relationship to eroticism like no one else.

Frisch is represented in your novel canon with "Montauk", which, strictly speaking, is a short story.

Right. Unfortunately, British author E.M. Forster's definition of the novel, which I like very much, is not always accurate. Forster says a novel is a narrative work of more than two hundred pages. "Montauk" is barely two hundred pages long. But the characters and episodes of the work lend it novel-like qualities, I believe. I purposely did not choose "I'm Not Stiller", "Homo Faber" or "A Wilderness of Mirrors". In my view, of all Frisch's works "Montauk" will remain with us for the longest time.

In it he writes: "My greatest fear: repetition".

Who doesn't repeat himself?

As a critic, do you also have this fear of repetition?

No, no. My fear is just that as a critic or in my essays I might repeat something I've already said much better.

And that the reader will notice it.

O, la la, that would be the worst of all.

The older Richard Wagner got, the more intensively his thoughts turned to women, very much to the disapproval of his Cosima.

Wolfgang Wagner said to me that there are three coitus scenes in "Tristan and Isolde", and that in the score there were three fermates, that is three sustained notes.

And Walter Jens once said about you: "If a writer praises old men and young girls, Marcel Reich-Ranicki will fall for it head over heels."

Yes, I firmly believe if a literary critic is not interested in erotica he should change jobs.

You even praised a work like Günter Grass' "Last Dances". Isn't that book precariously close to old-timers' erotica?

What, do you want to ban erotica for old-timers? And I like it when authors write precariously.

You've been married to the same woman for 63 years, and therefore an expert in this domain: what does marriage have going for it today?

There's a line from Churchill: "Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Maybe that also goes for marriage. Coming back to literature, the great marriage novels, "Madame Bovary", "Anna Karenina" and "Effi Briest" are always about failed marriages.

You're very specialised in German-language literature. As far as eroticism is concerned, wouldn't you have been better off with American lit?

I beg your pardon: don't you know my book on American literature?

I have to admit: no.

That's terrible. I'll give it to you. In my youth I read not only German authors, but above all Russians and Americans. There's a photo of me at around sixteen, sitting on a beach in a bathing suit with a book in my hand. I still know what it was: "Babbitt" by Sinclair Lewis. Herr Schütt, I really have to get back to work. Everything in the world has an end. You know what the Berliners say, it's so dumb you have to laugh: Everything in the world has an end. Only the sausage has two.

I know you get bored fast, which strikes fear in the hearts of all who know you.

My dear man, I hope you share this fear.

Of course. Just one more question.

The last one?

The very last.

I don't believe you. Let's have it!

In the Ghetto you were faced by death. Does the threat of death still loom large? Does it frighten you...

... are you finished? I get your point. For me the threat of death has never ceased to grow, and I think that's only natural. Recently I was asked the foolhardy question whether I think about death. I can only say: every day.

Elias Canetti reacted with a desperate verbal attack against death. And you?

How Canetti could say he hated death I don't understand. You can be afraid of death, but can you hate it?


The interview originally appeared in German in Die Weltwoche on August 16, 2005.

Julian Schütt is a literary editor at Die Weltwoche, and editor of the letters and papers of Max Frisch, among other works. He lives in Zürich.

Translation: nb, jab.

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