Sunday, July 15, 2007

A Country called literature ( Books - The Author of Himself, The Life of Marcel Reich-Ranicki)

This book was recommended by a colleague at school who thought I would like it - thanks, Sonia! I must admit, I probably would never have read it otherwise and am glad to have found out about Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a powerful critic of German literature, who I knew nothing about.

Polish born in 1920, Reich-Ranicki was raised and educated in Germany. Though he was a secular Jew, that never made any difference to the Nazis, who deported him back to Poland just prior to the 1938 invasion. There, although his parents and brother were murdered, he and his wife survived the war, first in the Warsaw Ghetto and later, sheltered by some decent Poles who felt it was the small way they could defy Hitler and the Germans. Out of loyalty to the Russian army who liberated them, Reich-Ranicki lived in Communist Poland, first doing intelligence work and then writing literary criticism on German literature. In the late 1950s he once again left nearly everything behind, defecting to Germany where he built a career as a powerful, popular reviewer of German literature in the leading German magazines, newspapers, and later on television. He is now serving the role of an elder statesman of letters. In fact, John Irving wrote unflatteringly of him only two weeks ago in his piece on Gunter Grass in the New York Times Book Review. Ranicki tells us in his book that, as a critic, he can praise the work of a writer highly, but the writer will always remember him for his negative criticisms.

I read this book more for the story of a man who shares my roots. My heritage is German, Polish, and Jewish. Many of my closer family members were (or are) lovers of German literature, music, verse, and theater - the culture of a country that ultimately betrayed them, continuing to find meaning and solace in it even after the murder of many relatives and the displacement of others to many other countries. I found Ranicki's writing about Thomas Mann and his family, Brecht, Max Frisch, Heine, Goethe, and Feuchtwanger very interesting, as I did his writing about some writers with whom I was not familiar - Boll, Canetti and especially Wolfgang Koeppen, whose books Death in Rome and Pigeons on the Grass are now on my to be read list.

The translation by Ewald Osers seemed very stiff to me, I don't know if that echoed Reich-Ranicki's writing or was because of the limits of the translator but this will give you an example:
There was a marked difference between the vanity of Adorno and that of Canetti. Canetti's was linked to his ambition to act as a categorical accuser and sole judge of the world. Of course the symbolical role that he was aspiring to, and perhaps already trying to furnish with sacerdotal and majestic dignity, escaped more accurate definition - being located in the no-man's-land between literature and philosophy, art, and religion, between severe criticism of the epoch and exalted life...
This doesn't seem the language of a man who wishes to popularize literature.

Some of his earlier memories seem a little sketchy and summarized. I personally craved more detail in his stories of the Warsaw Ghetto and his intelligence work in London following the war. When he drank coffee and cognac at a meeting in London in 1947, I wondered where on earth it came from, given the rationing. It was the lack of little specifics that made some of these stories a bit too "nice." However, it was not his point to provide a detailed history of everyday life in this period and it is understandable if Reich-Ranicki wants to spend less time remembering these parts of his life than he does the more recent enjoyable ones when he no longer lives in fear for his life or his livelihood. It could also be that these more pleasant memories are more like his current life and, therefore, more accessible to his memory.

Occasionally I found the confessional tone of the book annoying - his marital indiscretions are so quickly glossed over, I'm not sure they bear mention at all. He is a little defensive about writers' sensitivities to his criticism and a little impatient of their neuroses. But having worked in the opera for a number of years, I understand how truly tiresome this kind of vanity can be. But these are my chief criticisms. Otherwise, Ranicki draws some delightful portraits - like this one of Brecht's 1952 visit to Warsaw.
After lunch Helene Weigel took me to one side for a private word. To welcome Brecht I had written a short article for one of the main Warsaw dailies, the German translation of which, as I now learned, had immediately been handed to Brecht at the railway station by a representative of the GDR embassy. He had, Helene Weigel said, like the article a lot. Small wonder, I thought to myself, as I had generously praised and lauded the visitor. Unfortunately, she went on, he could not receive anyone. But he would make an exception for me. Would I report to Room 93 at the Hotel Bristol at 5 p.m.? There I would be granted the interview I had asked for.

This was fine by me and I turned up on the dot. To my surprise I found an acquaintance of mine outside the door to Brecht's hotel room, a man who worked as a translator from German. I looked around and saw another acquaintance, a publisher, likewise waiting to be admitted. And somebody was already with Brecht - a theatrical producer. No doubt every one of us had been told that he alone would be received - and now we were queuing up. Eventually my turn came.

I stepped into the room and was amazed by what I saw. Brecht was sitting behind a talbe on which stood a large bowl - and in that bowl were things that simply did not exist in Warsaw in 1952 - oranges, bananas and grapes. Brecht had either brought the fruit with him from Berlin or the GDR embassy had arranged for it to be put there. He did not offer any of this fruit to his visitors.

These coveted delicacies, however, created a distance, a gulf, between him and his guests. Had he, in expectation of his visitors, deliberately left that bowl of fruit standing on the table of his hotel room? No, it was probably a coincidence. Yet the fact that it even occurred to me that he might have used the bananas and oranges as useful stage props was typical of the atmosphere that Brecht, deliberately or otherwise, invariably created. I had the impression that he was always acting.

His apparel also contributed to that impression. In Warsaw he wore the seemingly proletarian, strikingly simple dark-grey jacket that, it was rumoured, had been tailor-made for him from the best English cloth...
There is another memorable episode of Ranicki and his wife being invited to a reception in 1973 honoring the publishing of his colleague Joachim Fest's biography of Hitler. At it, the clueless host greets them warmly and promptly introduces them to Albert Speer - sentenced to 20 years imprisonment at the Nuremberg trials for his collaboration with Hitler. Reich-Ranicki describes both the episode and his own response to it precisely-it's a bit chilling - but his analysis of his host's motives are humane and understanding - related without hysteria or sensationalism.

Ranicki is willing to observe himself just as closely as others which, if one is going to write a memoir at all, is part of what makes its reading worthwhile for me. Even in passages of self-congratulation he seeks to be honest:
It is quite true that I have tried to concentrate as much power in my hands as I thought necessary - and this is true not only of my work on the paper. My participation in literary life during those years went far beyond Franfurter Allgemeine...

But permit me to ask: was this a good thing or a bad thing for literature? For whose benefit did I, for fifteen years, run this big department of Frankfurter Allgemeine? I imagined, and I still believe, that it was to the advantage of literature.

I worked from early morning till late at night - partly at the newspaper's office and partly at home.l I practically never had a free weekend; I only reluctantly, and then not in full, took the leave I was entitled to. I worked hard, enormously hard. Why did I? No one expected me to, let alone asked me to. Much of what I was doing I did not have to do myself; I could have delegated it. So why this great effort, this ceaseless hard work? For the sake of literature? Yes, certainly. Was it my ambition to continue the tradition of Jews in the history of German literary criticism in a leading post before the eyes of the public? Certainly. Did my passion have anything to do with my longing for a home, the home that I lacked and that I believed I had found in German literature? Yes - and perhaps to a great degree than I realized.

All these answers are correct, yet none of them quite hits the spot. If I am being honest, I must also admit that behind my workaholism, because that is what it was, there was nothing but the pleasure which my work on Frankfurter Allgemeine gave me from day to day. My hobby and my job, my passion and my profession, coincided completely.

Ranicki had to make some choices I'm sure I would find quite difficult. He relates a wonderful episode of the guidelines explained to him by the Communist Polish bureaucrat about the number of times he must mention Stalin in his manuscript for it to be published. He complies. One might say "how could he? He's a critic, if it's not his own opinion we are reading, what are his words worth?" On the other hand, if the critic is not published, he's not a critic and we won't be reading anything at all. Put in his place, I cannot claim I would behave any differently. Perhaps making that choice after his life in the Warsaw Ghetto was not as difficult for him as I imagine it would be for me in my privileged life.

What I love about reading biography and autobiography (and for that matter, it's what I love about acting and about studying cognitive neuroscience) is putting myself in the minds of others and trying to imagine how what they experienced resulted in what they did. I've never had to make choices like his, but Ranicki helps me imagine what it might have been like to have to. Finally, Ranicki did what he had to to live. And when he was betrayed by the Germans for being Jewish and Polish, by the Poles for being Jewish and German - when he was denied by everyplace he could have called home, it was literature that helped him survive:
But there is an entirely different factor that may have contributed to my success as a critic. At the risk of being accused of arrogance I must say here what I profoundly believe: literature is my awareness of life. That, I believe, emerges from all my views and judgements on writers and books, perhaps even from mistaken and erroneous ones. Ultimately it is this love of literature, this occasionally monstrous passion, that enables the critic to practise his profession, to discharge his duty. And sometimes it may well be just this love that makes the persona of the critic bearable, and in exceptional cases even attractive, to others. It cannot be repeated too often: without love of literature there can be no criticism.

I admire Ranicki's candor and enjoyed his anecdotes - it's an impressive life he has lived - and he helps me appreciate the role literature can play in a life lived with courage and passion.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful post and I'm now extremely interested in taking a look at this book - the critic/writer relationship is one that has always fascinated me. And especially during such a charged period of history.

Ted said...

Thanks. This book was a bestseller in Germany. Hope you find it interesting.