In This Review

The Author of Himself: The Life of Marcel Reich-Ranicki
The Author of Himself: The Life of Marcel Reich-Ranicki
By Marcel Reich-Ranicki
Princeton University Press, 2001, 407 pp

This story narrates the quintessential life of a Central European Jewish intellectual tossed by the storms of the twentieth century -- often pursued by survivor guilt but driven by an overwhelming will to live and a passionate love of literature. Born in Poland in 1920, Reich-Ranicki spent his teenage years in Berlin until the Nazis expelled him back to Warsaw in 1938. During the war, he worked for the Jews' Council in the Warsaw ghetto and survived the revolt, but his parents were deported and killed. Reich-Ranicki and his wife then fled to the countryside, where they were hidden by a Polish couple until the war's end. After working in Polish intelligence and publishing following the war, he began to write about his lifelong passion: German literature. Over time, however, his relationship with the Polish Communist Party became troubled and Polish antisemitism became more widespread; finally, he headed to West Germany in 1958. There he became a leading literary critic, writing for Die Zeit and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Reich-Ranicki's memoir is being presented in the United States as a major contribution to Holocaust literature. Indeed, that section of the volume is extraordinarily harrowing, especially its fine tribute to Adam Czerniakow, the head of the Warsaw Jews' Council who killed himself when he could not save his flock. But there are other reasons for reading the book, such as the author's eerie account of his high school years. Although his classmates neither humiliated him nor embraced Nazi racialism, he writes, they "looked the other way" when persecution began. The book also extensively covers the author's postwar encounters with leading German writers such as Heinrich Boll, Gunter Grass, and Bertolt Brecht. Here Reich-Ranicki skewers their vanity and vulnerability to criticism. As entertaining as these vignettes are, however, it is his narrative skill and intelligent, intense observations that make this book so deeply fascinating.