For as long as I can remember, Marcel Reich-Ranicki has been the arbiter of contemporary literature in Germany. He was always there, on the television and in the newspaper, telling us what was great literature, and what was not so great- or even awful. You could agree with him, or not agree with him (like Martin Walser, who wrote a book where he fantasized about murdering him) but his opinions always carried weight. And anyone who wants to delve into German literature could do far worse than follow Reich-Ranicki's Kanon - his selections are truly inspired.
Marcel Reich-Ranicki often went against the grain of conventional thinking. My professors at Harvard and Freiburg never once mentioned the great modernist writer Wolfgang Koeppen. Reich-Ranicki told his audience that they knew nothing about postwar literture if they hadn't read Koeppen's Tauben im Gras, which he called "artistically the best novel of its time and generation ("Es ist künstlerisch der beste deutsche Roman dieser Zeit und dieser Generation"). And he was right.
For Marcel Reich-Ranicki books mattered. Great literature mattered. Great writers were indispensable. He was often disappointed by writers he admired - such as Günter Grass- and was merciless in his criticism when they produced substandard work. But the critique always had a subtext: You can do better. We NEED you to do better. We have no one like Marcel Reich-Ranicki in America, an authoritative voice in the popular media who helps us understand great writing. Instead, we have the Oprah Winfrey Book Club and the embrace of mediocrity.
It is nothing short of a miracle that Reich-Ranicki even appeared on the German scene when it mattered: a Polish Jew who was deported from Berlin in the 1930s, who somehow survived the Warsaw Ghetto and watched both parents get sent off to the Nazi death camps. How could it be that his love of German language and literature was stronger than his hatred of the country that destroyed his family (read the excellent obituary in the New York Times)?
One of the great moments in recent German history was Marcel Reich-Ranicki's 2012 address to the Bundestag concerning his personal experience with the Holocaust:
Frank Schirrmacher, who was a colleague of Reich-Ranicki for three decades at the F.A.Z wrote these words about his good friend:
"Einen wie ihn werden wir nicht wiedersehen. Es stimmt nicht, dass jeder ersetzbar ist. Manche werden im Tod zur dauernden Abwesenheit, und er ist nun eine solche."
(We shall never see another like him. It is not true that eveyone can be replaced. The death of a few will be felt as a persistent absence. And he is one of the few.)