At the end of May, Frank Schirrmacher, an editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, declared in an open letter that he had refused to serialise Martin Walser’s novel Tod eines Kritikers, or ‘Death of a Critic’, on the grounds that it was a ‘document of hatred’, a fantasy ‘execution’ of the literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki. In Walser’s book a novelist called Hans Lach is under arrest on suspicion of murdering André Ehrl-König, critic and host of a TV book programme, who had excoriated Lach’s work on his show. Reich-Ranicki was the presenter of Das Literarische Quartett, a TV programme which ran throughout the 1990s. His distinctive Polish accent and peremptory manner made him a household name, but also a natural target for imitation as well as anger. He had previously been literary editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and for at least three decades authors he criticised have given vent to their anger, frustration and loathing in their work; there has been at least one example of an imagined obituary (by Helmut Heißenbüttel in 1988). But Schirrmacher claimed to have detected something more sinister in Walser’s narrative.
Marcel Reich-Ranicki is Jewish, and he and his wife were among the few survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Schirrmacher drew attention to the characterisation of André Ehrl-König as the child of Holocaust victims; to his manner of speaking, which parodies Reich-Ranicki’s; to the use by Lach, the supposed murderer, of the words with which Hitler declared hostilities against Poland in 1939 (‘From midnight tonight we shall hit back’); and to what he saw as an echo of the anti-semitic legend of the indestructibility of the Jew in the line spoken by Ehrl-König’s wife: ‘It’s not like André Ehrl-König to get murdered.’
Walser’s publisher, Suhrkamp, came under pressure not to go ahead with publishing the novel. In the event they decided not only to do so, but to send out proof copies to journalists, which led to a flurry of public responses. Der Spiegel published a denunciation of Walser alongside an interview in which Walser himself assured readers that it had never occurred to him that his text was anti-semitic. Experts on the Nazi period explained what they saw as typical anti-semitic motifs in the depiction of Ehrl-König, and authors such as Günter Grass explained why the novel was nevertheless not anti-semitic. Some speculated that Walser might have employed stock anti-semitic motifs without being aware he was doing so, while others scanned his work for evidence that would point to systemic anti-semitism. The unpublished text was subjected, as one commentator said, to the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’.
Walser is used to controversy: he has been prominent as a writer of politically engaged fiction since the 1950s. In the 1960s and 1970s he wrote a number of essays calling for greater public acknowledgment of the horrors of the Holocaust, and who was responsible for them. But in Frankfurt in 1998, in a speech given when he was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, Walser protested against the way that the Holocaust is now used. The routine deployment of Germany’s ‘disgrace’ had become counter-productive, he argued, and the exercise of personal memory and conscience was a more effective, and more honest, form of memorial than the symbolism of public commemoration. He said that the word ‘Auschwitz’ was brandished like a ‘moral cudgel’, and that the planned Holocaust memorial in Berlin was a ‘nightmare’. The President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Ignatz Bubis, described the speech as an act of ‘intellectual arson’.
The forthcoming general election has added fuel to the controversy. At a time when right-wing populism has emerged as a serious force in France, Holland, Italy, Austria and elsewhere, the German Free Democratic Party is also trying to extend its share of the popular vote by appealing to xenophobic sentiment. Jürgen Möllemann, the party’s deputy leader, has compared the actions of Sharon’s Government to those of the Nazis, and accused the current Vice-President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Michel Friedman, who has criticised the FDP’s campaign strategy, of attitudinising in such a way as to provoke anti-semitic feeling. Martin Walser, meanwhile, took part in a television discussion with Chancellor Schröder on the day of German liberation, 8 May, during which he drew further criticism by suggesting that the rise of National Socialism was due in part to the Treaty of Versailles.
By the time Walser’s novel actually appeared at the end of June the media were sure of their target. But their confidence appears to have been misplaced, for the media are themselves the target of Walser’s satire. Tod eines Kritikers has the structure of a detective novel. Hans Lach is under arrest and refusing to speak. A fellow writer is investigating what happened on the evening Lach is alleged to have killed Ehrl-König. What he uncovers is a network of relationships underpinning the media and publishing industries that protects the powerful figures in them, sustaining the supremacy of Ehrl-König and ensuring Lach’s ignominy.
Ehrl-König is certainly recognisable from his sententiousness and distinctive accent as a caricature of Reich-Ranicki, although the imitation of his speech is less laboured in the final text than in earlier versions, and Walser has eliminated the substitution, criticised by Schirrmacher, of ‘doitsch’ for ‘deutsch’. Ehrl-König is notorious for his dismissive treatment of authors (deftly agglomerated at one point to ‘Böllfrischgrasshandke’), cultivates his celebrity status with chutzpah and relishes his power as a media god, hurling verbal thunderbolts and dividing the literary world into winners and losers. Above all, however, he is presented as a creature of TV – a product of the seemingly insuperable power embodied in that medium.
The persistent discussion of Ehrl-König’s sexual preferences is admittedly distasteful. He can’t keep his hands off the young aristocratic woman who fawns on him at the publisher’s party. He is said to have a preference for young girls. His performance before the television cameras is described as orgasmic, and in a futuristic fantasy Lach imagines a travesty of Das Literarische Quartett in which prizes are awarded for acts of reading accompanied by masturbation. For those who are familiar with the anti-semitic fiction of the early 20th century, this is all uncomfortably close to the stereotype of the lascivious Jew who seduces young maidens and exercises cynical control over German culture by means of his cold intellect.
These moments, however, are scarcely sufficient to convict Walser of anti-semitism. And there are counter-indications which his critics omit to mention. Not all the elements of Ehrl-König’s character can be traced back to Reich-Ranicki. Indeed, the name itself, with its play on the demonic figure in Goethe’s poem, was used in an earlier novel by Walser in which a critic acquires the nickname because works of literature die in his arms. It has also been suggested that Walser may have been remembering a crushing review he received in 1960 from Friedrich Sieburg, a literary collaborator of the Nazis. (In the light of this information, the moment in the first version of the novel when Ehrl-König’s judgments are compared with those of the President of the Nazi ‘People’s Court’, Roland Freisler – replaced in the published text by an analogy to Chaplin’s Great Dictator – may also appear less incriminating.) Ehrl-König is a composite figure, and his power is sustained by those who believe in him: his wife, for example, who comes out with the line that it’s not like André Ehrl-König to get murdered because she suspects the truth – that he has engineered his disappearance in order to have some quiet time alone with his mistress.
The way the German news media reacted to Schirrmacher’s allegations is itself anticipated in Walser’s plot. The angle taken by the press when Ehrl-König’s apparent death hits the headlines is that Hans Lach has killed a Jew. The papers then quote Lach in a way intended to corroborate that storyline, using the phrase that echoes Hitler – ‘from midnight tonight we shall hit back.’ Lach, however, does not say these words, as Schirrmacher implies he does: they are merely attributed to him in the first newspaper report of the incident that the narrator reads. This report appears in the Frankfurter Allgemeine. The construction of the murder as an anti-semitic act, in other words, is presented as an act of the journalistic imagination.