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The Outsider

THE AUTHOR OF HIMSELF: The Life of Marcel Reich-Ranicki, By Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Translated from the German by Ewald Osers, Princeton University Press: 404 pp., $35

July 28, 2002|JACOB HEILBRUNN | Jacob Heilbrunn is an editorial writer for The Times.

When Marcel Reich-Ranicki's "The Author of Himself" appeared in Germany in 1999, it was an overnight sensation. In a country where literature still occupies canonic status, Reich-Ranicki had already earned fame for his encyclopedic grasp of European literature and fiercely intelligent essays. No one, from Heinrich Boll to Gunter Grass, completely escaped his wrath. Perhaps Reich-Ranicki's most notorious act was appearing on the cover of the influential weekly Der Spiegel in 1995 literally tearing in half the latest Grass novel.

Reich-Ranicki's "The Author of Himself" reveals a different side. Written in a deceptively simple and beautifully wrought German and ably translated, it is one of the most poignant and important memoirs of the last century. Reich-Ranicki recounts his improbable odyssey from Polish Holocaust survivor to Germany's preeminent literary critic. Throughout, he shows how literature served as his passport from tyranny.

Reich-Ranicki was born in Poland in 1920. His mother, who revered German culture, sent him to live with prosperous relatives in Berlin, where, at age 9, he attended a Prussian Gymnasium. By his teens, he had become an avid theater-goer and a devourer of libraries, to borrow Henry James' phrase, working through Heinrich Heine, Schiller, Thomas Mann and Georg Buchner, among others. Reich-Ranicki vividly evokes the Nazis' progressive strangling of cultural life in Berlin. In October 1938, he was deported to Poland but carried along his "invisible luggage": German literature.

Reich-Ranicki's account of life in the Warsaw ghetto makes for almost unbearable reading. One lifeline was music: "You had better believe it: in the Warsaw ghetto Mozart was never more beautiful." But the horror was inescapable. Reich-Ranicki, who saw his parents being deported to Auschwitz, worked as a translator and clerk in the Judenrat, or Jewish Council, that administered the ghetto. Reich-Ranicki's reconstruction of the scene of a meeting with Sturmbannfuhrer Hermann Hofle on July 22, 1942, that announced the deportation of the ghetto is unforgettable; while Reich-Ranicki's typewriter clacked away taking down the order, SS troops lounged outside playing Strauss waltzes on a portable gramophone.

With his wife, Tosia, Reich-Ranicki managed a daring escape. Outside the ghetto, they found refuge in the cellar of a typesetter named Bolek. Reich-Ranicki and his wife rolled black-market cigarettes, and Reich-Ranicki told his hosts stories that he recalled from his reading. Once the Red Army occupied Poland, Reich-Ranicki became a Communist Party member and intelligence officer. But as anti-Semitic purges swept across Eastern Europe, Reich-Ranicki was kicked out of the party and imprisoned. It was another kind of liberation for him: In jail he began reading literature again. Upon release, he began working as a translator and met numerous writers from both East and West Germany. In 1958, he and Tosia fled from Poland to Germany.

Reich-Ranicki did not earn fame overnight. He intimates that lingering anti-Semitism may have impeded his rise. But Reich-Ranicki could not be stopped. He made it his business to read everything and meet everyone. His accounts of his meetings with everyone from Elias Canetti to the Mann family form an essential document of postwar European literature. Perhaps it is because with his stupendous knowledge of novels, poetry and plays, Reich-Ranicki represents the last bit of continuity with the great prewar German humanistic traditions that were destroyed in World War II. The master of masterworks has now produced his own.

It is no accident that Reich-Ranicki, who discusses the gradual erosion of taboos about Nazism in his memoir, is himself the target of a viciously anti-Semitic work by the distinguished novelist Martin Walser, called "Death of a Critic." Walser, who has been issuing broadsides for the restoration of German pride, portrays Reich-Ranicki as an eternal Jew who cannot be killed. In short order, Reich-Ranicki has become a lightning rod for disputes about the meaning of the past, disputes that are linked to the wider debate in Germany, and throughout Europe, about the return of the far right. It is not a situation that can please him very much. But Reich-Ranicki is the quintessential outsider, and few lives reveal as much about the past century and where the new one may be headed.

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