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Marcel Reich-Ranicki

Marcel Reich-Ranicki Polish-born German literary critic

Polish-born German literary critic
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro Polish-born German literary critic
A.K.A. Marcel Reich
Countries Germany Poland
Occupations Journalist Writer Diplomat Literary critic Autobiographer Literary editor Television presenter Professor Educator
Gender male
Birth 2 June 1920 (Włocławek)
Death 18 September 2013 (Frankfurt am Main)
Star sign GeminiGemini
Politics Polish United Workers' Party
Spouse: Teofila Reich-Ranicki
Children: Andrew Ranicki
The details

Marcel Reich-Ranicki (German: [maɐ̯ˈsɛl ˈʀaɪç ʀaˈnɪtski]; 2 June 1920 – 18 September 2013) was a Polish-born German literary critic and member of the literary group Gruppe 47. He was regarded as one of the most influential contemporary literary critics in the field of German literature and has often been called Literaturpapst ("Pope of Literature") in Germany.


Early life

Marcel Reich was born on 2 June 1920 in Włocławek, Poland, to David Reich, a Polish Jewish merchant, and his wife, Helene (née Auerbach) Reich, who came from a German Jewish family. Reich moved with his family to Berlin in 1929. He attended a German school there but was later sent to Berlin to study.

Reich dedicated himself to the reading of German classics and practizing the theatre. The literary critic Volker Weidermann wrote that “he found his salvation in literature". As a Jew he was unable to enroll at university and was then expelled back to Poland in 1938. In November 1940, Reich and his parents found themselves in the Warsaw Ghetto, during which time he worked for the Judenrat as a chief translator, and contributed to the collaborative newspaper Gazeta Żydowska (The Jewish Newspaper) as a music critic.

After being denied at university of Berlin, he was arrested and deported to Poland. In his 1999 autobiography, My Life, Ranicki affirmed, “I had a ticket for [a] première that evening - I wouldn’t be needing it.” Reich's translation work meant that he was an eyewitness to meetings between the Jewish and Nazi authorities.

Ranicki survived to the Jewish deportation in the Warsaw Ghetto (Poland), where he married his wife Teofila, whereas his parents died in the Treblinka concentration camp. In 1943 Reich and his wife managed to escape the Ghetto. His parents and brother were killed in the Holocaust. His sister survived, having escaped to England shortly before the war.

In 1944 he joined the Polish People's Army, and became an officer in Urząd Bezpieczeństwa, Soviet-controlled Poland's intelligence service, where he worked in the censorship department. He joined the Polish Workers' Party after the war.

From 1948–49 he was a Polish diplomat and intelligence worker (operating under the pseudonym "Ranicki") in London. The couple's only child, Andrew Ranicki, who became a notable math professor, was born in London in 1948. Reich was recalled from London in 1949, sacked from the intelligence service and expelled from the Party on charges of "ideological estrangement", for which he was also jailed for a short time. Subsequently, he developed a career as an editor, publisher of East German authors, and freelance writer for newspapers and radio with a focus on German literature.

Life in Germany

Frustrated by the curtailment of his liberty in the People's Republic of Poland he emigrated in 1958 with his wife and son to the Federal Republic of Germany, living in the city of Hamburg. Here he began writing for leading German periodicals, including Die Welt and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. In Poland, he had published under the pseudonym "Ranicki" as his intelligence codename. On the advice of the arts editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine he adopted the name Marcel Reich-Ranicki professionally. From 1963 to 1973, he was literary critic for the German weekly Die Zeit, published in Hamburg.

In 1973 he moved to Frankfurt, where, from 1973 to 1988, he was head of the literature staff at the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Reich-Ranicki would go on to write and edit for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung for the rest of his life. In 1969 he taught at an American university. From 1971 to 1975 he held visiting professorships at Stockholm and Uppsala.

In 1974 he was awarded an honorary professorship at the University of Tübingen, Germany. In 1990 and 1991 he received the Heinrich-Hertz visiting professorship of the University of Karlsruhe, and in 1991 and 1992 he received the Heinrich-Heine visiting professorship at the University of Düsseldorf.

From 1988 to 2001, Reich-Ranicki hosted the literary talk show Literarisches Quartett on German public television. Through the show he became a household name in Germany, according to a survey 98% of Germans knew his name. In Summer 2000, fellow panelist Sigrid Löffler left the panel, complaining because Reich-Ranicki had put forward Haruki Murakami's erotic novel South of the Border, West of the Sun for discussion, which Löffler disliked. Reich-Ranicki answered that she had a problem with erotic literature in general. Although differences over the Murakami provided a catalyst for Löffler's widely publicised departure from the programme, it does appear that tensions between Löffler and Reich-Ranicki were more broadly based and longstanding, having indeed nourished the programme's dynamic over the years. In 2002 the show was followed by a similar but short-lived programme, Reich-Ranicki Solo, which consisted of him talking about old and new books in front of a studio audience. Jack Zipes wrote: "On his television show Reich-Ranicki often played the clown, a mixture of Milton Berle and Jack Benny, but you always had to take him seriously because his knowledge of German culture was so comprehensive."

In 1993, the weekly Der Spiegel gave him a dossier of about fifteen pages, under the title The Lord of Books, tracing his career, first to Die Zeit, then to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Many writers, and readers too, disagreed with some traits of his cpmèlex personality, while universally recognizing his culture and passion for German literature.

Having written about German literature for most of his life, he published books on American and Polish literature, after cutting down on his television appearances. Reich-Ranicki's wife and son encouraged him to write an autobiography "before it was too late". Published in 1999, Mein Leben ("My Life") was a bestseller in Germany, cementing his status. Mainly dealing with life and survival during the war, the book was adapted for television and broadcast starring Matthias Schweighöfer as Reich-Ranicki in April 2009.

In February 2006 he received the honorary degree of Doctor Philosophiae Honoris Causa from Tel Aviv University, which later that year established an endowed chair for German literature named after him. In February 2007 the Humboldt University in Berlin awarded him an honorary degree. This is the same university that Reich-Ranicki applied to in 1938, when his application was turned down because of his Jewish ancestry.

In October 2008, he was awarded a lifetime achievement award during at the German Television Awards telecast for Literarisches Quartett. He made headlines with his acceptance speech, in which he spurned the prize and criticized the state of German television., He also declared he would have refused the prize, even if it would have been associated with a monetary.

In 2012, Reich-Ranicki made a speech at the Bundestag at the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. He continued to write a weekly column in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung until shortly before his death.

The autobiographic book "My life", published in 1999, begins with Reich-Resnick reporting a conversation of 1958 with Günter Grass asking him: "Are you German, or polish, or what?". The answer was: "Half German...".

Personal life

Reich-Ranicki died on 18 September 2013 in Frankfurt, having previously been diagnosed with prostate cancer. German Chancellor Angela Merkel paid tribute: "We lose in him a peerless friend of literature, but also of freedom and democracy. I will miss this passionate and brilliant man." The Süddeutsche Zeitung described Reich-Ranicki as "the man who taught us how to read."

Marcel's son, Andrew Ranicki (1948-2018), was a professor of mathematics at the University of Edinburgh. Marcel's wife, Teofila Reich-Ranicki, predeceased her husband by two years, dying in 2011. According to The Economist "He appreciated Jewish culture, especially its way with words, but found religion pointless and, after Warsaw, God inconceivable."

Relationships with authors

As a tough critic Reich-Ranicki had a difficult relationship with other authors. Following the publication of Too Far Afield by his fellow Gruppe 47 member Günter Grass, Reich-Ranicki appeared on the cover of the magazine Der Spiegel, tearing the novel apart. The magazine included his unfavorable review of the book. Reich-Ranicki praised Grass' next book, Crabwalk. Another frequent target of Reich-Ranicki was writer Martin Walser. In 2002, Walser published the crime novel Death of a Critic (Tod eines Kritikers) as a revenge against Reich-Ranicki. In the book a prominent, bigoted critic named André Ehrl-König – who shares many similarities with Reich-Ranicki – is murdered. The novel became a hot topic of debate in Germany.

Australian writer Clive James stated, "Every living German writer wants his praise, but it has always been hard to get: the reason, of course, why they would like to have it."


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