Martin Walser

Death Of A Critic
By Bruce Gatenby

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 can’t drive the car, legless men (and women) who try to teach running... you get the picture.

In 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 Murray:

"Either 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 fighter—you won’t though."

There’s just something inherently absurd about those who can’t making grand pronouncements about the abilities of those who can.

I 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.

Under normal circumstances, if I had read about a forthcoming novel titled Death of a Critic, my heart would soar with joy and I’d look forward to finding a copy as quickly as possible. But I don’t 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.

Last Wednesday, Surhrkamp Verlag decided to publish Martin Walser’s 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 Germany’s 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.

Marcel Reich-Ranicki is post-war Germany’s 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. He’s not your typical academic lit-crit careerist drone. As Frank Schirrmacher, editor of the FAZ, said, "The man is a symbol—of criticism, of literature and of Jewish life in Germany after the Holocaust."

Reich-Ranicki believes Walser is one of Germany’s 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 1950’s.

So why would Walser so transparently base the character of Andre Ehrl-König in Death of a Critic on Marcel Reich-Ranicki? There’s not much of a fictional disguise in that name. The problem arises from Walser’s anti-Semitic portrait of Ehrl-König. The novel drips with anti-Semitic clichés about Jews, the most scandalous being Ehrl-König’s 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? It’s 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. It’s 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.

This time Reich-Ranicki has not come to Walser’s 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 doesn’t surprise me.

To their credit, most newspapers and magazines in Germany have agreed with Schirrmacher and Reich-Ranicki’s assessment of this as-yet-unpublished novel (it comes out June 26th). But there are still those who don’t 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 Walser—or shut up. Sensitive fellows, these. And Walser’s own defense is that the book is really a satire of anti-Semitism.

If 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 (I’m not making this up). The last true piece of satire published in Germany was Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, and German scholars still scream themselves hoarse denying it’s satire. German literature is serious business. No laughing allowed! Thirty days in the cooler!

The 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. It’s really all our fault. Schröder is now expected to lose in September to his rival, Edmund Stoiber.

If there is a bright light in all of this, it’s 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.

And 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).

I’ll be honest with you: even I am starting to wonder why I stay here.

Should Walser’s 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-Ranicki’s autobiography will sell hundreds of thousands of copies here, while Walser’s 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.