Thomas Mann and his Family 
by Marcel Reich-Ranicki, translated by Ralph Manheim.
Collins, 230 pp., £20, August 1989, 9780002158374
Show More
Show More

As the debate about German identity enters a new phase, the work of Marcel Reich-Ranicki acquires a special interest. His career crosses several ideological frontiers: from Pilsudski’s Poland to Hitler’s Germany, from the Communist East to the capitalist West, from traditional Judaism to secular modernism, from radical dissent to conservative orthodoxy. For the last three decades Reich-Ranicki has been a dominant figure in West German literary journalism. His position in 1990, as he celebrates his 70th birthday, has a double aspect. For some his career is an exemplary instance of German-Jewish integration. For others it signals the end of a great tradition of critical dissent.

Born of a Jewish family in Poland in June 1920, Marcel Reich was brought to Germany by his parents at the age of nine. As a Polish citizen he enjoyed some immunity from anti-semitic persecution, even after the Nazi seizure of power. He was able to remain in Germany until 1938, when he graduated from a Berlin grammar school. It was during this period that his lifelong passion for German culture began. That same autumn, however, he was deported by the Nazis to Poland, where he became a translator working for the Jewish Council of the Warsaw Ghetto. His fluent command of German may have helped him to survive the Nazi occupation. He joined a resistance organisation, escaped from the Ghetto, and spent the last years of the war in hiding with his wife. Their lives were saved first by a Pole who gave them shelter, later by the advancing Red Army. Many of their relatives perished in the holocaust.

In 1946 Marcel Reich joined the Communist Party and adopted the Polish name Ranicki. He worked first for the Polish Foreign Office, later for state publishing-houses. His passion for German literature expressed itself in a series of translations, anthologies and articles published in Polish during the post-war period. But his independence of outlook brought him into conflict with the Communist authorities. He was briefly imprisoned and then expelled from the Party. In 1958 he took the decisive step of emigrating to West Germany.

Reich-Ranicki soon made a name for himself in literary journalism, working first for Die Zeit and later as literary editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine. He became a member of Gruppe 47, a loose association of writers opposed to the orthodoxies of the Adenauer era. His vigorous style and controversial judgments soon won him a large audience. As a sceptical conservative he opposed the politicisation of literature by the New Left during the late Sixties. A stream of lectures, reviews and articles, many of them reprinted in book form, consolidated his reputation as the most influential critic of his day. ‘He writes about me, therefore I am,’ observed Wolfgang Koeppen, one of Reich-Ranicki’s ‘discoveries’. But other authors had to endure his devastating Verrisse – a German word for which there is fortunately no English equivalent. It signifies a review in which the book is ‘ripped to pieces’.

Reich-Ranicki’s first influential work, Deutsche Literatur in West und Ost (1963), owed its impact to his ability to explore the disjunctions between East and West. Although he made no secret of his own identification with Western democracy, he showed that the literature of East Germany deserved attention even from those hostile to its ideological assumptions. His judgments may be misleading on points of detail, but the book invigorated German critical debate. East German writers like Arnold Zweig and Anna Seghers, Stephan Hermlin and Franz Fühmann began to be treated seriously, and the literature of the German Democratic Republic was increasingly recognised as a challenging alternative to the traditions of the West.

An even more sensitive frontier is explored in Reich-Ranicki’s study of the role of Jews in German literature, Uber Ruhestörer (1973). In this short collection of lectures and reviews, Jewish writers from Heine to Jurek Becker are assigned the function of ‘disturbers of the peace’ or ‘trouble-makers’. Their sense of being at odds with the dominant culture is identified as the source of their creativity. Although Jews have made a notable contribution to the literature of England and France, Italy and Russia, their achievements (Reich-Ranicki claims) are not remotely comparable to those of German Jews, who experienced more extreme forms of persecution and anguish. His roll-call of radical Jewish dissent extends from Adorno and Benjamin through Kafka and Lukacs to Peter Weiss and Arnold Zweig. But his argument simplifies a more complex problem. His generalisations about Jewish trouble-makers would apply almost equally well to a Catholic like Heinrich Böll, a Marxist like Brecht or a feminist like Christa Wolf. Moreover, at the very time when he was emphasising the significance of Jewish trouble-makers, his own stance was becoming increasingly conformist.

Dissent, in short, should not be confused with descent. It is less a question of ethnic identity than of ethical commitment. Reich-Ranicki himself was too much of a pragmatist ever to become a radical dissenter in the spirit of Benjamin or Lukacs. Even in his Marxist phase he seems to have shown little interest in theory. The quality of his writing, for better and for worse, lies in his vivid response to specific texts. His gifts as a reviewer are coextensive with his limitations as a theorist. At a time when West German intellectual life was dominated by wordy abstraction, his no-nonsense judgments proved salutary and refreshing. He made his reputation through provocative overstatements. But his basic stance was that of the common reader, looking for a vividly written story and tending to ignore the underlying philosophy of the author.

His voracious appetite for books of every kind shifted the balance of serious reviewing. Middlebrow novelists were praised for their narrative vigour, while more intellectually ambitious projects were discounted as lacking in structure. This led to a lively critical dialogue, not least with writers like Heinrich Böll and Max Frisch, who were in a position to answer back. But it also resulted in some tendentious misreadings – for instance, his dismissive remarks about Karl Kraus (as epitome of ‘Jewish self-hatred’). For many readers Reich-Ranicki was far too opinionated. It was difficult, as Böll observed, to discern the criteria which led him to praise one book and damn another.

These same merits and limitations are evident in Thomas Mann and his Family, the first of Reich-Ranicki’s books to be translated into English. This collection of articles, lectures and reviews, skilfully translated by Ralph Manheim, offers a searching reassessment of Thomas Mann’s career. Reich-Ranicki’s aim is to ‘demonumentalise’ one of Germany’s most celebrated writers by drawing attention to certain characteristic flaws revealed in his posthumously-published diaries. Mann’s carefully cultivated public image is contrasted with his inner equivocations: his homosexual impulses, his neurotic doubts and his ideological confusions. The book has little to say about Mann’s literary achievement, but it has the merit of showing how profoundly it was shaped by unresolved sexual difficulties. ‘The truth,’ Reich-Ranicki claims, ‘is that Thomas Mann’s whole life was a life of suffering.’ On the other hand, his ‘passion for his own ego’ enabled him to overcome his own shortcomings and produce works which redefine the concept of being ‘German’ in terms of a problematic ‘inwardness’.

The chapters on other members of the Mann family are more controversial. Heinrich Mann, so long admired as the spokesman of radical socialism, is subjected to a swingeing critique. Reich-Ranicki recalls that he first read The Blue Angel and Man of Straw as a schoolboy in Berlin, and at the time these novels made a strong impression on him. Fifty years later, however, he has come to regard Heinrich Mann as a ‘windbag’, his essays as mere ‘bombast’, his novels as flawed by ‘extreme bias and not infrequent lapses of taste’. In the Fifties, he tells us, these novels were praised to the skies in East Germany: they should now, he says, be relegated to the archives. A close reading of Heinrich Mann’s texts in terms of their qualities of style becomes the basis for discrediting them as social criticism.

The assumption underlying Thomas Mann and his Family is that strong political convictions militate against literary merit. This is especially evident in the chapter on Klaus Mann, one of Thomas Mann’s gifted but unstable children, an outspoken opponent of Fascism. Klaus Mann’s novel Mephisto is seen as artistically ‘flawed’, despite its importance as a ‘document’; and Reich-Ranicki insists that neither Klaus’s depressions during exile nor his suicide in 1949 can be attributed to political factors. ‘Suicide was the inevitable dénouement of his whole life and not an immediate reaction to a political situation.’ Such formulations imply that ‘life’ and ‘politics’ are quite separate matters. Against this it might be argued that Klaus Mann’s political commitments, which were linked to his homosexuality, made him in every sense an outsider. The experiences of marginalisation, exile and despair, which culminated in his suicide, cannot be seen in exclusively personal terms.

Thomas Mann and his Family offers a series of variations on a single theme: the writer as outsider in quest of social identity. A central chapter is devoted to ‘Tonio Kröger’, the story which most poignantly expresses the longing of the artist to become a solid citizen. Reich-Ranicki celebrates this novella with all its defects as ‘The Short Story of the Century’. We may wonder about the reasons for this rather eccentric judgment. Perhaps Mann’s story provides the scenario for Reich-Ranicki’s own career: the artist who dreams of becoming a worthy burgher reflects the aspirations of the Jewish intellectual from Poland, destined to become a spokesman for the German cultural establishment.

At a period when anti-semitic voices can again be heard, not least in Eastern Europe, Reich-Ranicki’s achievements must command respect. One message conveyed by his career is that Jewish intellectuals may again feel at home in Germany. Paradoxically, it is a migrant from Poland who has opened the eyes of German readers to the vitality of their own literary culture. Asked to identify his true home, Reich-Ranicki is on record as saying: Deutsche Literatur ist meine Heimat. The German-Jewish symbiosis, so tragically aborted by Nazi tyranny, has found in his career a belated coda. However, the very success of this process of adaptation signals the decline of a more radical tradition. As Reich-Ranicki himself acknowledges in Uber Ruhestörer, there is no longer a significant body of German-Jewish writers committed to the task of challenging establishment values. This development coincides with the increasingly evident collapse of socialism as a radical alternative. The Marxist experiment in Eastern Europe has failed to deliver the goods. And the institutions of the German Democratic Republic seem destined to be swept aside by a more efficient system of production. Perhaps Poland, too, will only obtain recognition of its frontiers at the price of becoming an economic dependency. Marx seems to have been discredited by the market whose powers he so memorably defined. The climax of Reich-Ranicki’s career thus coincides with the collapse of dialectical alternatives. He deserves credit for having demonstrated the value of vigorous debate, not least for a nation in process of redefining its identity. But his achievements fall short of those of the great German-Jewish trouble-makers, who from Heine onwards have made it their business to disturb the sleep of the world.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences