Reich-Ranicki the Apparatchik

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.

David Pryce-Jones — David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

Most Popular

Culture

Courage: The Greatest of Virtues

Dear Reader (Or Listener), As the reporter assigned the job of writing the article about all of Sidney Blumenthal’s friends and supporters told his editor, I’m going to have to keep this short. I’ve spent most of every day this week in a studio recording the audiobook version of my dead-tree/pixel ... Read More
Immigration

My American Dream

This morning, at 8 a.m., I did something I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember: I became an American. I first applied for a visa in early 2011, and since then I have slowly worked my way through the system — first as a visa-holder, then as a permanent resident (green card), and, finally, as a ... Read More
U.S.

The Gun-Control Debate Could Break America

Last night, the nation witnessed what looked a lot like an extended version of the famous “two minutes hate” from George Orwell’s novel 1984. During a CNN town hall on gun control, a furious crowd of Americans jeered at two conservatives, Marco Rubio and Dana Loesch, who stood in defense of the Second ... Read More
Religion

Billy Graham: Neither Prophet nor Theologian

Asked in 1972 if he believed in miracles, Billy Graham answered: Yes, Jesus performed some and there are many "miracles around us today, including television and airplanes." Graham was no theologian. Neither was he a prophet. Jesus said "a prophet hath no honor in his own country." Prophets take adversarial ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More