Best-known for the high-brow TV show “The Literary Quartet,” Reich-Ranicki has become legendary for his quick wit and biting commentary. Having mellowed little with age, the sharp-tongued critic famously even refused to accept the German Television Prize in 2008, calling the award show and the state of TV “rubbish.”
But he still writes newspaper columns, and his opinion can either launch or torpedo a writer’s career.
“Candour is the first duty of the critic,” he has said often.
The autobiography of the Polish-born German’s story sold millions in 1999.
Born June 2, 1920 in Wloclawek, Poland, his mother Helene was a German Jew, and his businessman father David a Polish Jew. The family moved to Berlin in 1929, but Marcel was not allowed to pursue higher education in Germany – he was sent to the Warsaw ghetto by the Nazis in 1938 after he finished high school.
From there he fled with his wife Tosia in 1943 and survived by living underground. The couple’s parents were killed in German concentration camps.
In 1949 Reich-Ranicki returned to Poland to work for the communist secret service and the diplomatic service, but was kicked out in 1950 due to ideological differences.
A long-time lover of German literature, he began working as a freelance writer and lector before returning to Germany for good in 1958, where he made a name for himself as a literary critic at the Hamburg weekly Die Zeit.
From 1973 to 1988 he led the literary section of the Frankurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
But it wasn’t until 1988 that he gained nationwide fame with his show “The Literary Quartet” on broadcaster ZDF. He moderated the show until 2001, reviewing about 400 books, which often became best-sellers.
Over his long career, he has fallen out with some of the biggest names of German literature, including Martin Walser and Günter Grass. Still waiting for an apology from Walser for the 2002 book “Death of a Critic,” Reich-Ranicki managed to reconcile with Grass in 2007.
Reich-Ranicki no longer travels after having a heart attack in 2006, but he continues to be known as a workaholic owing to his fear of his impending death. “I think about it each day,” he said.
On his birthday the literary critic will be honoured with a new exhibition including parts of his personal library at Frankfurt’s Jewish Museum.