Two more literary deaths: Hellmuth Karasek and Ellis Kaut

2015 has been a bad year for German literature and a bad year for celebrity deaths in general.

Now we lost two more literary greats in the space of a few days, critic and writer Hellmuth Karasek, who died yesterday aged 81, and children’s book writer Ellis Kaut, who died last week aged 94.

Ellis Kaut is probably familiar to anybody who grew up in (West) Germany between the 1960s and now. The mischievous kobold Pumuckl and his reluctant human friend master carpenter Meister Eder are probably the best known, though Ellis Kaut also created other characters such as the Kater Musch, a talking black cat. Pumuckl appeared in radio plays and books and even spawned a TV series in the 1980s. The first episode is here. Both Gustl Bayerhammer, the actor who played Meister Eder, and Hans Clarin*, the actor who provided Pumuckl’s voice, have been gone for several years now. When Pumuckl was slimmed down for a new edition of Ellis Kaut’s books, a firestorm broke out and Pumuckl got his babyfat back. Coincidentally, Pumuckl drinks alcohol on occasion (beer mostly, but also cherry liqueur), unimaginable for US children’s book characters.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung has an obituary for Ellis Kaut, looks for traces that both Ellis Kaut and her most famous creation Pumuckl left their hometown in Munich. There is also an article where various Süddeutsche Zeitung journalists share their memories of Ellis Kaut and Pumuckl.

With the recent death of Max Kruse and the death of Otfried Preußler in 2013 and the even earlier deaths of Michael Ende and Astrid Lindgren pretty much all the authors I read as a kid are now gone. It’s probably just a sign of aging, but it still makes me sad.

Talking of cultural touchstones, if you were a literature geek in postwar (West) Germany, the late Hellmuth Karasek will probably have been one of your cultural touchstones. Together with the late Marcel Reich-Ranicki, whom we lost in 2013, and Sigrid Löffler, Hellmuth Karasek made up one third of Das Literarische Quartett, the best literature program not just on German TV but on TV anywhere. For anyone who’s never seen the show, it’s hard to imagine that 75 minutes of four people (Reich-Ranicki, Karasek, Löffler and a guest critic) talking about books could be fantastically entertaining, but it was. Luckily, YouTube has plenty of clips and even full episodes.

What made Das Literarische Quartett so good was the snarky interplay between the three critics (plus guest critic). I always assumed that the sniping was purely for show and that Reich-Ranicki, Karasek and Löffler were best friends in real life, which is why I was shocked when Sigrid Löffler walked out after a disagreement with Marcel Reich-Ranicki about a Haruki Murakami novel (the relevant bit is on YouTube here). However, Hellmuth Karasek and Marcel Reich-Ranicki actually were friends. Here is a clip of them talking about their friendship (and dissing Sigrid Löffler) in the chat show Beckmann. What makes this friendship even more unusual is that Marcel Reich-Ranicki was a Jewish Holocaust survivor, while Hellmuth Karasek had been a student at one of the Nazi elite boarding schools known as Napolas.

Die Zeit, where Hellmuth Karasek worked as a critic, has an obituary, as does Der Spiegel where he was head of the culture department for twenty years. Here is also an English language obituary courtesy of Deutsche Welle.

I think every Literarisches Quartett fan has a favourite Reich-Ranicki moment. It’s more difficult to remember a favourite Karasek moment, since he was usually the calming foil to the explosive Marcel Reich-Ranicki. However, Hellmuth Karasek uttered the line that has long guiding my own reading namely, “Das Leben ist zu kurz für schlechte Bücher” (Life is too short for bad books).

For a taste of how funny Hellmuth Karasek could be, check out this video of him reviewing the IKEA catalogue, shot barely a month before his death.

Coincidentally, Das Literarische Quartett is coming back to TV this Friday after fifteen years off the air, featuring critics Volker Weidermann, Maxim Biller and Christine Westermann and a guest.

It remains to be seen whether the reboot will be as good as the original, though one thing is for sure: Hellmuth Karasek along with Marcel Reich-Ranicki will be sorely missed.

*Few things were freakier than seeing Hans Clarin play a psychopathic killer who has an incestous relationship with his mother in the Edgar Wallace thriller Das Indische Tuch (The Indian Scarf), because Pumuckl or rather his voice doesn’t murder people.

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