The German press is carrying fulsome obituaries of Marcel Reich-Ranicki who has just died at the age of 93. Mrs. Merkel interrupted campaigning for reelection in order to say nice things about him. In his long career as the literary critic of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he made and unmade reputations, and it is fair to say that he was more feared than loved. My encounter with him has something to tell about a side of Europe usually kept under wraps.
Alpbach is an Austrian village which used to have a festival, and one year Reich-Ranicki and I were both invited to it. So was Zbigniew Herbert, the great Polish poet and a most likeable man. In a hall with several hundred people, I had to talk about the responsibilities of the writer, a pretty unoriginal subject, to be sure. Reich-Ranicki then had his turn. He compared me rather elaborately to some sort of sea-bird, started flapping his arms like wings and then generalized about the useless English. Zbigniew Herbert interrupted, saying loud enough for the audience to hear, “Halt’s Maul und setzt dich”(which is ruder in German than its literal translation, “Shut your trap and sit down”). In mid-sentence, Reich-Ranicki sat down.
I asked Zbigniew how he had the power to stop the man as if with a bullet. He had finished his first book of poems, he explained, just after the Communist takeover of Poland. The manuscript had to be presented to the Writers Union for approval. Rejecting him, the relevant apparatchik said that Zbigniew Herbert came from an aristocratic family, had fought the Germans with the Polish Free Army and not with the Communists, and now should do some proletarian job such as driving a tram as he’d never be published. No wonder Reich-Ranicki broke off in mid-sentence — he was that apparatchik. Later on, he’d got out to Germany where he’d have been finished if his past as a literary commissar became common knowledge.
The end of the Cold War set Reich-Ranicki free from his past. In an autobiography he could make out that he really and truly was one of the victims, not one of the oppressors. Instead of pointing out that the savagery of his opinions was a continuation of the wish to control literature, the German public forgave him. R.I.P.