Critics are lug-worms in the liver of literature.
Lawrence Durrell, "Monsieur"
All writers hate critics. From the lowliest book
reviewer on a weekly throwaway to the self-exalted Stanley
Fishes of the academic aquarium, writers view critics
as leeches on the vein of literature, eunuchs in the harem,
those who know the road but cant drive the car,
legless men (and women) who try to teach running... you
get the picture.
The Tale of a Tub, Jonathan Swift suggested that
"it would be very expedient for the public good of
learning that every true critic, as soon as he
had finished his task assigned, should immediately deliver
himself up to ratsbane, or hemp, or from some convenient
altitude." And D. H. Lawrence once chided John Middleton
you go on wheeling a wheelbarrow and lecturing at Cambridge
and going softer and softer inside, or you make a hard
fight with yourself, pull yourself up, harden yourself,
throw your feelings down the drain and face the world
as a fighteryou wont though."
just something inherently absurd about those who cant
making grand pronouncements about the abilities of those
should know. I used to be an academic, delivering ten-page
gobs of jargon to quarterly reviews and academic conferences.
That is, until I realized the stupidity of pretending
that the critic was just as important (nay, even more
important, saith the postmodernists) than the writer him/herself.
So I walked away from academia and moved to Europe to
write novels. I must admit I ate better as a critic, but
at least now I can sleep at night.
normal circumstances, if I had read about a forthcoming
novel titled Death of a Critic, my heart would
soar with joy and Id look forward to finding a copy
as quickly as possible. But I dont live under normal
circumstances; I live in Germany. Not the Germany of BMWs,
Mercedes, pretzels and beer, but the Germany now in the
grip of a pair of anti-Semitic scandals that have caused
serious soul-searching about how Germans still refuse
to come to terms with their genocidal past.
Wednesday, Surhrkamp Verlag decided to publish Martin
Walsers controversial novel, Tod eines Kritikers
(Death of a Critic), after the Frankfurter Allgemeine
Zeitung (FAZ) refused to publish it serially. Walser,
75, is one of post-war Germanys most important writers,
the author of such novels as Ein fliehendes Pferd
(A Runaway Horse) and Das Schwanenhaus (Swan
Villa). He is also now accused of being a raving anti-Semite.
Reich-Ranicki is post-war Germanys most important
literary critic. The host of a popular TV program and
former FAZ literary editor, Reich-Ranicki, 82, is also
the author of Mein Leben (translated into English
as The Author of Himself), his autobiography, which
has sold hundreds of thousands of copies in Germany. Why
would anyone want to read about the life of a critic?
Reich-Ranicki is Jewish. His entire family was wiped out
during the Warsaw ghetto uprising. He is a survivor of
Auschwitz. And he returned to Germany after the war to
rebuild his life. Hes not your typical academic
lit-crit careerist drone. As Frank Schirrmacher, editor
of the FAZ, said, "The man is a symbolof criticism,
of literature and of Jewish life in Germany after the
believes Walser is one of Germanys great contemporary
writers, although he left him out of his recent edition
of Der Kanan, Die deutsche Literatur (The
Canon of German Literature). When Walser was accused
of being an anti-Semite in 1998, after remarking that
Auschwitz should no longer be held over Germany as a "moral
cudgel," Reich-Ranicki came to his defense. The two
men have been friendly since the 1950s.
why would Walser so transparently base the character of
Andre Ehrl-König in Death of a Critic on Marcel
Reich-Ranicki? Theres not much of a fictional disguise
in that name. The problem arises from Walsers anti-Semitic
portrait of Ehrl-König. The novel drips with anti-Semitic
clichés about Jews, the most scandalous being Ehrl-Königs
penchant for fucking pregnant Goyische women. The
Jew as a sexual defiler is one of the oldest anti-Semitic
slights, later passed on in America to blacks as coked-out
rapists of white women. Why resurrect such nonsense? Its
one thing when a newspaper in Saudi Arabia prints stories
about Jews sacrificing young children to use their blood
in Purim pastries; we can understand the ignorant hatred
of the Arabs. Its quite another when a respected
German writer dabbles in old hatreds that his country,
at least at this rate, will never be able to live down.
time Reich-Ranicki has not come to Walsers defense.
Speaking to Walser directly, he said, "This book
has upset both my wife and myself deeply and it pains
me to think that such a book could be written in Germany
in 2002 and by such a well-known writer." It pains
me, too, but it sure as hell doesnt surprise me.
their credit, most newspapers and magazines in Germany
have agreed with Schirrmacher and Reich-Ranickis
assessment of this as-yet-unpublished novel (it comes
out June 26th). But there are still those who dont
get it. Uwe Wittstock has written that German literature
"must keep a place for Jewish characters who are
not saints." Gustav Seibt suggests that if Reich-Ranicki
is offended, he should sue Walseror shut up. Sensitive
fellows, these. And Walsers own defense is that
the book is really a satire of anti-Semitism.
Walser believes that, he is an idiot. Seinfeld bombed
in Germany. Woody Allen films get almost no play. Last
month there was a documentary on TV trying to explain
to Germans why the Jewish-American sense of humor is funny
(Im not making this up). The last true piece of
satire published in Germany was Thomas Manns Doktor
Faustus, and German scholars still scream themselves
hoarse denying its satire. German literature is
serious business. No laughing allowed! Thirty days in
arrogance of a nation that tried to exterminate an entire
race of people, but kept detailed records of names, dates,
and family histories, lives on. In addition to this literary
scandal, there is also a political scandal rocking Germany
at the moment. The FDP, the party with which current chancellor
Gerhard Schröder hoped to build a coalition for his
reelection, has been tarred-and-feathered with accusations
of anti-Semitism. Jürgen Mölleman, the deputy
chairman of the FDP, and his moronic stooge, Jamal Karsi,
a German of Syrian descent, have pretty much committed
political suicide by referring to the Israelis as "Nazis"
and accusing Michel Friedman of the Central Council of
Jews of fomenting anti-Semitism with his criticisms of
their stupidity. See, when the Jews fight back it promotes
anti-Semitism. Its really all our fault. Schröder
is now expected to lose in September to his rival, Edmund
there is a bright light in all of this, its that
the German media is now full of stories about Germans
and the continuing specter of anti-Semitism. Sterne
ran a story about Jews living in Berlin called "Unser
Leben hier ist nicht normal" ("Our lives here
are not normal"). I can surely vouch for that. There
was also a cartoon in that issue (which is now pasted
to my refrigerator door) of Möllemann and Jamal Karsi:
"Wir sind keine Antisemiten" ("We are not
anti-Semites"). Möllemann smiles, and Karsi
replies, "Wir tun nur so!!" ("We only act
like it"). Maybe there is a small place for satire
in German culture after all.
just the other day, like a scene straight out of a Philip
Roth novel, in the FAZ there was a photo of Germans holding
signs reading "Wir lieben unsere jüdischen Mitbürger!"
("We love our Jewish fellow citizens"). Now
they like us! Perhaps we should just close up shop in
Israel and come back to the open arms of Deutschland (Roth
himself skewers this idea brilliantly as "reverse
Diasporism" in his novel The Counterlife).
Ill be honest with you: even I am starting to wonder
why I stay here.
Walsers book be censored or perhaps even burned?
Of course not. Let the world see his stupidity in print.
Let the literary marketplace drive him into the obscurity
he so rightly deserves. I may hold a low opinion of critics,
but sometimes even they deserve the respect we should
show more often to our fellow citizens. Hopefully, Marcel
Reich-Ranickis autobiography will sell hundreds
of thousands of copies here, while Walsers novel
quickly goes out of print. Unfortunately, there are far
too many people who want to believe the kind of scheiss
Walser shovels. And not all of them live in Germany.