The critics and the writers
A problematic relationship – from the epilogue to a collection of essays on Martin Walser
By Marcel Reich-Ranicki
In Goethe's "Iphigenia," Thoas, the king of the Taurians, instructs his noble but somewhat stubborn interlocutor: "One speaks much in vain to fail; / The other hears of all only the no."This oft-quoted phrase is also referred to in literary circles. But then it says: "One speaks in vain much to tear away …" In fact, it is shown again and again that the critics, who make a philanthropic effort to sweeten a little the bitter pill of censure, cannot appease the author concerned: He attributes all the objections to the meanness and stupidity of the reviewer, if not to his malice or even sadism. And the appreciative, the praising remarks? The author unabashedly declares that he deserves it, and that it goes without saying that his good performance is praised accordingly.
What's it to us, us critics? Not for writers do we write, not for storytellers or lyricists, but for readers. True, but again it's not that simple. The authors and the critics – they live from and for literature. They are in the same boat. They pull the same wagon, though sometimes in different directions. Architects and pharmacists, painters and physicians, merchants and composers – they are all highly welcome to us as readers of our work. But who understands more about poetry than writers do?
One thing is certain: They are biased. In many cases they have no sense of the writing contemporaries who follow a different artistic path than themselves. They like to support brave, but rather insignificant authors, i.E. Those who cannot be considered as their competitors. But above all: As a rule, they deal intensively and passionately with their own works and only fleetingly (if at all) with the books of their colleagues. Yet, once again, the question begs to be asked: Who is more sensitive to the nuances of a literary text than they, the writers? And who has written more insightful and insightful about literature than Martin Walser?
In his book Morning of a writer I find not a few exceedingly simple remarks that hit the mark. It is said: "The sentences I read live from the fact that they are answered in me. Answered by experiences, which are awakened, mobilized, made conscious by these read sentences."In another essay, he formulates a similar thought in a very different way, but no less convincingly: "We do create what we read … If pain and fear appear in the book, pain and fear would remain paper if we did not bring them to life with our experience of pain and fear … The encounter with Raskolnikov becomes a self-encounter … In the book, we have a counterpart who comes from the outside, but who exists only through us."
However, Walser occasionally gets carried away, he goes too far – perhaps to explore how far one can go. He exaggerates. He has that in common with most essayists, perhaps even with most writers. And that is good: Whoever does not want to exaggerate, whoever cannot exaggerate, had better give up writing. But even the exaggerators may. Should be contradicted from time to time. Walser explains: "More important than what you read is what happens to you when you read. The consequences. The effect. One should not talk about books at all, but only about their effect."
Certainly, the consequences are already extremely important. But should we stop talking about books because of this?? Is it fair to say that it's the effect that counts and not the work that produces it?? In spite of the importance of the work, the effect often remains small, because the reader is not up to it. A novel by Kafka and the consequences it triggers in the reading individual – are these comparable quantities at all??
No, Walser means all this very seriously, but probably not so literally after all. He often forces us to contradict him – and he obviously enjoys it. How can one accept without contradiction his assertion that the ability to express oneself is "almost mathematically strictly a function of the ability to suffer"?. That is a bold, a downright distinctive thesis. But I consider them to be wrong, even almost indiscussable. Because there are many people, especially women, whose most outstanding characteristics include the ability to suffer. The only difference is that they are usually not capable of expressing this suffering. Perhaps reading his essays is so delightful and stimulating, so seductive and so amusing, because Walser, whatever subjects he may be dealing with, fears no risk: He loves playing with thoughts and formulations, with ideas of all kinds – if they are not hedged. It gives him pleasure to expose himself again and again – to the criticism of his opponents and the ridicule of his enviers, to the stupidity of his enemies and the attacks of his competitors. Whatever he writes – he works without a net. It has often been said that he is one of the most clever German writers after 1945. But one should add: He is also one of the bravest.
He has been called a chronicler of the Federal Republic. That's not quite true: to be a chronicler, he has too much temperament and too little patience. Nevertheless, the zeitgeist is unmistakable in his work, it is always present. But Walser did not follow fashions. Probably also no fashions created. But reacting selectively to our epoch, he has helped to shape the spirit of the times like no other. When the unification of the two German states was not yet in sight, when no one, not even the writer of these lines, believed in it or could imagine it, Martin Walser spoke and wrote tirelessly about it, he strived for it, he worked towards it with all the means at his disposal. One should never forget that.
To the quality of his prose, especially the essayistic, contributes another circumstance of a completely different kind. Asked about his working method, Alfred Döblin – it was 1928 – gave the astonishing answer: "I write quickly and smoothly. Hesitation means inhibition. Weakness of inspiration, not full devotion … I do not correct many things, because I have noticed: the first flow was already good." Should this also apply to Walser?
In fact, he writes not only beautifully and wittily, but sometimes – or so it would seem – carelessly, even negligently. In one of the essays in his volume Morning of a writer I noticed an interesting sentence: "What I experience reading Gogol, Dostoevsky, Flaubert and Robert Walser is not the meaning of the text and not its sense; I experience myself as someone who is moved by the text not by its meaning, but materially, so to speak."
What does that mean – to experience oneself as someone who is moved by the text not by meaning, but materially, so to speak? I can, in a pinch, think it, I suspect it. But I do not understand. Materially moved by the text – that is badly expressed. Walser will already know it, but instead of striving for a more precise, a more comprehensible, in short for a better formulation, he merely inserts an unattractive word, which, I believe, is due to his bad conscience in this matter – the word "so to speak".
Nothing is further from my mind than to mend Walser's stuff. Whether the quoted sentence is more or less successful, it does not matter. But it is typical of that peculiarity of his style, which can have the effect of an unkindness, but more often as an unusual quality. For what sometimes seems careless, often testifies to immediacy and freshness. Even more: of spontaneity. Sovereignty. Walser gives the impression that he can write as he pleases. That is unusual, that has almost rarity value. Whether this has to do with the proximity to the dialect?
However, it is the language that makes the writer Walser so trustworthy, whether he gives us a better or a worse book. The vividness of expression, even when he answers his critics – and this is always a delicate undertaking – is not compromised. Nothing is more understandable than the need of many authors to get back at the critic. Günter Grass does it rather seldom (when his collar bursts), Siegfried Lenz never (he makes up the suffering of criticism with himself), Martin Walser again and again – and that is probably connected with his (by the way, highly likeable) temperament. It prevents him from silently accepting the blows of criticism.
I can't complain: he responds to my comments about his books with great regularity. I will be careful not to comment on Walser's rejoinders now. Only this much: I was often amused, sometimes saddened, never hurt and occasionally amazed. Why does? I will give an example, a particularly characteristic one.
He had made the experience, Walser said in an interview, "that every reader reads his book and not my book. Every reader writes his book while reading." The aperçu can be applied to critiques: They, too, are often misunderstood, or at least interpreted differently than they were meant to be; some readers find in them precisely what they expected – and some authors, too. Of course, anyone who writes about books has to reckon with this; at least he can counteract it within limits by persistently striving for maximum clarity and sometimes adhering to Mephisto's wish: "You have to say it three times."
Walser novel Without each other I was skeptical, as can be read in this volume; I thought I had to object to this and that. But many things in the book seemed good to me, very good indeed. The positive, that was for sure, could in no way be too scarce in my criticism. He was, it was said, one of the most intelligent essayists, the most perceptive citizens and the most original intellectuals far and wide. I quoted some beautiful passages from the novel and declared with all firmness: "Only one person in Germany can write like that."
That Walser considered my objections, even the most timid and cautious ones, superfluous, if not outrageous, goes without saying. But he also announced that this mixture of praise and blame was very familiar to him: "That's the technique of the Western: They beat each other up, then one of them goes down and is showered with water so that he can get through another round. Thus Reich-Ranicki pours buckets of water again and again. For if he were to wipe one away…, then he would no longer have a victim the next time around. That is also a kind of cat instinct towards the mice …"
This may sound facetious, but it is certainly meant seriously. Does Walser really think that I want to "wipe him away", i.E. Destroy him – and only don't do it because I still need a victim? I admit, I cannot believe it. That someone who, like Walser, is fully committed to everything he does, reacts violently and irritably to even the slightest complaint – who could be surprised?? Whoever expects increased sensitivity from the writer must accept that his sensitivity to criticism is also unusual. But that an author who thinks that a critic treats him unfairly or even meanly sees himself in the role of the mouse pursued by the cat, that he believes that the critic wants to destroy him and does not do so only because he continues to need a victim – that I have noted with resignation.
Sitting in the same boat, we, the writers and the critics, have the same thing in mind – literature. But they are obviously very different thoughts, by which the one and the other are moved and irritated. The answer to the question of who understands more about literature than writers can, indeed must, be: no one. And yet they lack the distance that is necessary to judge literature. This is what Friedrich Schlegel meant when he wrote that Goethe was too much of a poet to be a connoisseur of art.
But at the same time, among Martin Walser's reactions to my reviews of his books, I found (also in an interview) a completely different statement: "Reich-Ranicki can say what he wants, he is always helpful. If he tears a book apart, people buy it all the more. If he praises it, they buy it anyway. So we are fortunately a flourishing symbiosis."This is pure irony, of course. Nevertheless, I was moved by these sentences. In them, I silently imagine, there is perhaps a grain of truth hidden after all. Editor's note: This article is a somewhat abridged version of Marcel Reich-Ranicki's epilogue to his book published by Ammann Verlag in 1994. Now first as a special edition of literaturkritik.De newly published collection of essays on Martin Walser.De newly published collection of essays on Martin Walser. It appears on the occasion of his 90th birthday.