By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief
Never before in my life have I seen a literary critic get rock star reception prior to watching Marcel Reich-Ranicki greet crowds during the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1999. He was there, if memory serves, to discuss his memoir The Author of Himself: Marcel Reich-Ranicki (published in German as Mein Leben). It was my first visit to the book fair and the experience was so visceral that it left me awed a just how seriously Germans respect books…
I was naïve. Reich-Ranicki was more than a mere critic: he was a living embodiment of so much of 20th-century German intellectual life, both its triumph — and in his life story — its shame.
On Reich-Ranicki’s death last week in Frankfurt at the age of 93, Australian man of letters Clive James — a man of renown erudition himself — called Reich-Ranicki “the greatest literary critic not only in Germany, but in the world.”
Bloomberg recounted much of his life story: he was born in Poland in 1920, he spent much of his teens in Berlin, before being expelled to Warsaw, where he served on the Jews’ Council in the Warsaw, survived the revolt and fled to the countryside where he survived the war in hiding. He eventually moved back to then West Germany in 1958 and over time became the top critic at Die Zeit and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and became a popular personality on television. From 1988 to 2001, he anchored a book program, “Das Literarische Quartett.”
He was known as a fierce critic of fellow German writers — Günter Grass was a frequent target — and his direct, reader-friendly critiques were appreciated by the masses, and not merely intellectuals, though he championed challenging writers, including Thomas Mann and Heinrich Heine.
Generally speaking, German culture still respects the authority of experts — just think of how many publishing executives who insist on the honorific of “Doctor” — while American culture, and by extension the Internet, promotes the idea that, as far as their own needs are concerned, everyone is an expert.
Can the internet era ever produce a critic with so much influence on so many generations of readers? Or is the idea of a such a pervasive authority simply counter to the very essence of what the Web represents?