SPIEGEL: Mr. Walser, wasn't it ludicrous on your part to have offered your new novel Death of a Critic for advance publication to, of all places, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), whose former literary editor, Marcel Reich-Ranicki*, quite obviously plays an inglorious role in the novel?
Walser: It was the publisher who did that, not I. Since my previous novels had been serialized in the FAZ, this was mere routine.
SPIEGEL: Frank Schirrmacher, the editor of FAZ's Feuilleton, writes in an open letter that it was you.
Walser: That is what he claims. I was very anxious, of course, about the response. The problem was clear to me: one of the book's characters was from this newspaper. Yet never, truly never would I have thought that it would be rejected owing to charges of anti-Semitism. If I had gotten wind of even one such sentence, I would have struck it from the page! Why would I saddle my book with something like that when its subject was something else entirely: the exercise of power in the arts. Schirrmacher refuses to see it that way, insinuating rather that I consciously violated a taboo, which I find incomprehensible. Four professional reviewers read the book before him, three from the Suhrkamp Publishing house, including Siegfried Unseld, and one from the FAZ; any one of them could have warned me and none of them did. Why then is Mr. Schirrmacher even bringing up the subject?
SPIEGEL: For a while now one has been under the impression that the critic in your book, as the title itself suggests, meets his end – is murdered, in fact, by, as it were, a writer by the name of Hans Lach. In the novel itself you launch a preemptive strike on the reactions to your unpublished book with the sentence: "It was now a matter of Hans Lach's having killed a Jew." That has now indeed become the subject matter, since your novel's Ehrl-König is a Jew, just like the real Reich-Ranicki.
Walser: This is precisely not the subject. Now with regard to what Schirrmacher has insinuated, I let a Jewish intellectual in the novel say how great it was that Ehrl-König had never made too much of a fuss about his Jewish heritage. He also then asks whether it would have been any less of a murder if Ehrl-König had not been Jewish.
SPIEGEL: But that's just why it's on the table! You can't really be surprised by the reaction. After all, in a February issue of Bunte you announced the release of a "scandalous book." And in the novel itself you foresee that Ehrl-König will become the subject matter "like never before," and the media will find its "seasonal preoccupation."
Walser: That's pure satire! Now satire is in danger of being outdone by reality. I was simply staging a comedy.
SPIEGEL: A comedy? All the same, daydreams about murder don't seem to play an insignificant role.
Walser: Come on, no one gets killed. The critic is alive. It's all shown to be a trick. I assure you: I could never have written a novel in which the critic were really murdered. The whole thing is a comedy.
SPIEGEL: With a very serious back story: the critic whose mortality you toy with was in fact once threatened by death – in the Warsaw ghetto.
Walser: But that means that I can never describe or portray that person, or even, for all I care, insult him. You can only describe or insult a Jew, isn't that right?
SPIEGEL: You can't wriggle out of that so easily, which, as it were, you're not. You grant your Ehrl-König a biography different from Reich-Ranicki's – his parents were not murdered; at the same time you do mention his Jewish origin and the Holocaust victims in his family.
Walser: That's not the main theme. The subject is the critic, not the Jew.
SPIEGEL: That's your opinion.
Walser: You keep resisting, but I will not give up trying to explain things to you. That Ehrl-König is a Jew is practically only mentioned – in the book, mind you – during the media's reaction to the alleged murder. And that is just when I have a Jewish intellectual make the following comment: If someone is killed, it doesn't depend on whether or not he is a Jew.
SPIEGEL: Wouldn't it be particularly naïve on your part to think you could circumvent or marginalize the topic, especially after your experience with the Peace Prize speech in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt?
Walser: And what if it has nothing to do with the novel? The exercise of power in the arts! Will you finally please just acknowledge the topic?
SPIEGEL: Yet for the paradigm figure it most certainly does play a role. In his autobiography Reich-Ranicki mentions his personal experiences with Nazi barbarism.
Walser: Ehrl-König has written other books, but not an autobiography.
SPIEGEL: This is also not the first time you and the critic Reich-Ranicki have had a literary dispute. A long time ago, over another book ...
Walser: I had forgotten all about that!
SPIEGEL: ... in which he appears as a police inspector. In your 1993 novel Without Each Other, he is called Willi André König – nicknamed "Erlkönig" – and André Ehrl-König in your latest novel. Can one critic be so important as to take up a sizable portion of your oeuvre?
Walser: The frequency of someone's appearances does not speak to his importance. The earlier examples are simply happenstance.
SPIEGEL: But now he's the protagonist.
Walser: No. There I have to disagree.
SPIEGEL: The secret protagonist. There are other decipherable figures: to a certain extent, the gravely ill publisher of both the critic and the first-person narrator. One tends to think of your own publisher, Siegfried Unseld, who was just released from the hospital ...
Walser: Are you even reading the same book? Unseld appears under his own name; the publisher you mention is called Pilgrim, his publishing house is based in Munich. He is grey-haired, flabby, and wears a silver tie – not the faintest trace of Unseld! You've already indulging your obsession for a roman à clef. Who is who, then? Sorry to say, this leads absolutely nowhere.
SPIEGEL: The matter is not as simple as that. Pilgrim may have its headquarters in Munich, but it is still recognizable as the Suhrkamp publishing house. The slogan "Pilgrim Culture" coincides with "Suhrkamp Kultur," not to mention many other similarities.
Walser: Alright then, a parody of aristocratic labels!
SPIEGEL: Despite all the camouflage, despite all your attempts to wipe away some of the traces, the reader is struck by the malignity and exactitude of many of the portraits – and not only of the critic. This is the trap from which you cannot escape by means of the usual allusions to fiction.
Walser: I have never thought of myself as the God who created the world out of nothing – which, anyway, didn't go so well back then if you take a look at the world now. I respond to experiences. My novels are, as you yourself have admitted, saturated with reality – and yet one knows this trick. In Buddenbrooks you see and feel Lübeck. This is simply an old literary practice.
SPIEGEL: Of course. But precisely because this approach has enjoyed such a long tradition, no author today should really be surprised when he's asked about the models for his fictional characters. Even if an author, as it happens, uses the game of hide-and-seek for all sorts of polemics.
Walser: For example?
SPIEGEL: As, for example, when Pilgrim the publisher and another figure by the name of Wesendonck are revealed to have been Jugendführer, that is to say, during the Nazi period, and "could have had Brown-shirt careers." Do you think Unseld and Habermas are happy about this?
Walser: And you're claiming that this refers to them. Perhaps here you're a victim of having a bit too much insider information. If someone has so favored, as Wesendonck has, the word "fascist" as an insult for more than twenty years, then the word loses all polemical value and simply becomes a means for characterizing a certain person. And since this is very much a supporting role, it is hardly of greater significance than the color of one's tie. Don't you see on what slippery slopes you're treading? Just so you know: characters develop and grow, even when they have paradigms in real life, through the process of narration. One hopes, towards achieving a living, breathing independency.
SPIEGEL: Yet such "slippery slopes" have been calculated by you. And in a novel where some characters have very clear models, others admittedly less clear, and many perhaps none at all, you will naturally provoke these types of questions.
Walser: Well then, have a good time with that ...
SPIEGEL: What really disgusts you personally about Reich-Ranicki? He has panned a few of your books, some quite thoroughly; he has also praised some others. He has published a book about you, and even given an encomium ...
Walser: The question, in my opinion, should be phrased somewhat differently. In my novel there is more than one writer who suffers because of Ehrl-König – is this part plausible or not? For me the book's main scene is the television program which treats of the novel Girls without toenails. This is the most detailed portrayal of literary criticism in the age of television. It is in this scene that you will have to seek an answer to your question as to what personally disgusts me. In any case, here I have transformed reverberating disgust into pure comedy.
SPIEGEL: To be able to evaluate the scene you mention, we would love to know more about this book you invented. Yet once again, we must ask: where does this wrath, this hatred for Reich-Ranicki come from?
Walser: There's no hatred in my works. That's no way to write. I have to tell you something about the involuntariness of this book's narration, which, of course, is no excuse. The subject has preoccupied me for about twenty-five years. And from the very beginning my notes on the subject were filed under the heading "Death of a critic."
SPIEGEL: You have often maintained that novels have sprung from your long years of notetaking. And in Death of a Critic, one very distinctly senses a work that originated in a note crate. Even in the fullness of the, in many cases, extremely precise observations.
Walser: I don't care for the term "note crate"; what I have are notebooks. I'm not Arno Schmidt. If that is the case, in other words, if such unsought, involuntarily obtained experiences were to be gathered without any aim, still filed under "Death of a Critic," so tell me how, then, in the heat of the moment ...
SPIEGEL: Why then did you keep it? The title Death of a Critic is misleading.
Walser: I never thought that he would die. That's the comedy: in his disappearance and reappearance he once again triumphs over the author. The author is the fool, the loser. The critic returns to the spotlight. The book is dedicated to my colleagues – and if I had only written it for them, it would have sufficed, don't you get that? In none of my books have I experienced such a feeling of correctness, importance, and necessity as in this one. This is the legitimation of my experience. A writer cannot write when he leaves important experiences unexplored.
SPIEGEL: Wouldn't that have had its place in your notebooks?
Walser: I am so happy I wrote this book.
SPIEGEL: What other feelings does this book provoke?
Walser: But I have to say that the real Ehrl-König has never gotten to me as much as Frank Schirrmacher has now with this attempt at character assassination. I do not sit around and daydream about committing murder! My writer Hans Lach simply wrote a book with the following title: O, to be a criminal! And from it I cite the convergence of the fears and despair of someone powerless, of someone who has been made into an object. No murderous daydreams!
SPIEGEL: So what are they?
Walser: Take the written word seriously for once! This fellow could never pick up a knife, he could never become a murderer!
SPIEGEL: Do you enjoy all this uproar a bit?
Walser: So far, no.
SPIEGEL: Isn't all this simply making up for long-lost children's games? Where is the dignity of age? You're seventy-five; Reich-Ranicki is eighty-two. Now you're laughing mischievously! Couldn't you simply have said: now I'll let bygones be bygones?
Walser: Perhaps you could! I'm still not smart enough to do so. Either the book exists or not. If it exists, then the age at which I wrote it is of no importance. I wasn't able to write it earlier because I was constantly busy with other matters. But I couldn't put it off any longer.
SPIEGEL: Aren't you a little too fixated on the powerful?
Walser: Maybe. There is nothing to which I am more averse than the exercise or abuse of power. For me this is the most destructive and injurious thing. I would prefer a biliary colic.
SPIEGEL: Do you then feel like the eternal loser?
Walser: No. All I'm saying is that when you lose, the experiences you gain are far greater than those you get when you win.
SPIEGEL: In the novel it reads as follows: "The loser is insatiably preoccupied with himself. The victor turns to new activities." Isn't this a bit of self-styling on your part? For many of your colleagues you are very much a winner, a successful author.
Walser: Maybe. There are also those readers who write me letters and know this feeling well: the feeling that power is being exerted over you. Not by a powerful critic, mind you, but by a boss. Letters arrive in my defense.
SPIEGEL: Even now?
Walser: Even now. One female reader wrote to me: "Don't let them break you!" And I thought to myself: my dear woman, if you only knew how broken I already am. What is more, I am someone who seeks consensus and harmony. I go in for everything.
SPIEGEL: That is not the public perception. The public perception is that you keep drawing attention to yourself by pushing the envelope.
Walser: No, no, not at all. I simply have some issues with how things are nowadays.
SPIEGEL: And yet you know full well the environment in which you operate. Let's go back to the game with the alleged murder of the critic Ehrl-König. You are hardly the first author to thirst for his blood: Peter Handke, who has fictionalized Reich-Ranicki as a dog and referred to him a "mortal enemy," once said in an interview that he would not be sad "even if he died."
Walser: This sentence would never come from my lips! Nor from my pen.
SPIEGEL: But what your characters say is what you have written. In the very least you permit your fictitious author Lach to consider: "Or do I need him to die? Could I suddenly write gaily and freely if he were no longer standing before me?"
Walser: It is here that the reader already knows that Ehrl-König is not dead. There is also the sentence: "A figure whose death one could completely justify – that would be realism."
SPIEGEL: No murderous daydreaming?
Walser: No, this is philosophy. No violence is implied.
SPIEGEL: Now to the question as to whether your novel is anti-Semitic ...
Walser: Yes, we need to talk about this! In the article in the FAZ, reference is made to my coinings, "desire for debasement" and "annihilative force": "The repertoire of anti-Semitic clichés can unfortunately not be overlooked." I may take legal action against this last sentence. You have got to be kidding me! The phrases "desire for debasement" and "annihilative force" are used to describe attitudes in the negative; Frank Schirrmacher says that these negative attitudes have some affinity with Jewish qualities. Isn't this revolting? In Nazi jargon, Jews were branded as "degenerate"; my phrases "desire for debasement" and "annihilative force" are beautiful terms, terms that describe wonderful attitudes without which none of us could get by. And they're supposed to be anti-Semitic clichés? Isn't Mr. Schirrmacher much closer to Nazi terminology?
SPIEGEL: Now you're simply turning the argument around. Can you do without a historical reference? Goebbels accused criticism of being both negating and degenerate.
Walser: I cannot experience myself without annihilative force. Don't try to drag me into petty argumentation and semantic fields that have nothing to do with me! I cannot – I'll say it again, I cannot – live without "desire for debasement" and "annihilative force"! And neither can the SPIEGEL!
SPIEGEL: So perhaps your book is not so much, as the FAZ believed, a "document of hate," as one of self-loathing? Your first-person narrator chides himself for probably not being able to refrain from trying to contact the critic.
Walser: Yes. He even thinks he could perhaps become his closest friend. Authors love this guy! You can't simply dismiss that as punishment and hate. Isn't this what one calls ambivalent?
SPIEGEL: In the end, you have the wife of the very alive critic comment: "Being killed doesn't suit André Ehrl-König." If one were to relate this to the historical Reich-Ranicki, who was nearly killed by the Nazis, the sentence assumes a certain macabre quality.
Walser: I can't help you there! Not every sentence said at every party in Bogenhausen refers to the Holocaust. Ehrl-König is alive; his wife says being killed doesn't suit him.
SPIEGEL: Your amazement that such a sentence could be taken in a context of violence is surprising, especially given your experiences with the Peace Prize speech.
Walser: Then writing is becoming a contest in political correctness.
SPIEGEL: In light of the scandal over your book (which hasn't even come out yet), the question arises: death of a critic or, rather, suicide of an author?
Walser: If you want it to be suicide, I can only tell you one thing: I would try a different method.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Walser, thank you for taking the time to speak with us.
* Note: Reich-Ranicki passed away on September 18, 2013.