Das Literarische Quartett Reloaded, Take 2, or the State of Literary Programming on German TV

Don’t worry, I’m not planning to review every episode of the revived Literarisches Quartett, a literature discussion program on German TV (For more information about the program in general, see my review of the first episode of the revival here). But watching the second episode of the revival last night, featuring regular critics Volker Weidermann, Maxim Biller and Christine Westermann and guest critic Ursula Maerz, I realised that I have some more to say about this. The full episode may be watched online here BTW.

For starters, I’m still not sure whether we are truly witnessing the resurrection of Das Literarische Quartett like phoenix from the ashes or just an undead zombie version of the program shambling across the airwaves to suck out viewers’ brains. I’m hoping for the former, of course, but at the moment it’s looking more like the latter.

Lots of neepery about the program, Star Wars, Russian anarchists, Thomas Mann and German literature in general under the cut:

Though to be fair, I never watched the early installments of the original Literarisches Quartett, so I don’t know how long it needed to find its feet, though I remember that my highschool German teacher around the time the program debuted was less than impressed. However, the TV landscape has changed drastically in the twenty-eight years since the original Literarisches Quartett debuted and even public broadcasters like the ZDF no longer give programs as much time to find their feet as they did back in the 1980s. So even in its eleven PM graveyard slot, Das Literarische Quartett will have to provide ratings soon, since there is a bunch of more or less unfunny comedy programs nipping at its heels to nab yet another Friday night slot. And apparently, the ratings for the second episode were pretty bad, ditto for Neo Magazin Royale, the lone Friday night ZDF comedy program that’s actually funny on occasion, whereas the totally unfunny heute-show is getting good ratings.

Regarding the book selection, it seems the program took my criticism that the debut edition was somewhat dude heavy to heart (Well, I can dream, can I? Besides, if I noticed the dude heaviness, you can bet other people did as well), because the second episode featured two books by men and two by women. The selection was again nicely diverse and featured two German writers, one Israeli writer and one Russian writer. What is more, one book was non-fiction, another a thinly disguised autobiography (semi-fiction?), two were novels. Oh yes, and one of the books was originally published in 1909, i.e. over hundred years ago, though it has been newly translated into German. So in short, there was a nice range of different works discussed.

The books in question were Die Manns: Geschichte einer Familie (The Manns: History of a family) by Tillman Lahme, Alles zählt (Everything counts) by Verena Lueken, Das fahle Pferd (The pale horse) by Boris Savinkov and Schmerz (Pain) by Zeruya Shalev. All links go to Amazon.de, since except for Boris Savinkov’s autobiographic novel, none of the books in question even have an English translation.

Coincidentally, it seems as if every one of the four critics gets to pick a book to discuss, which is different from the selection process used by the original Literarisches Quartett, where someone from the production team selected the books. This might become a problem down the road, when the personal preferences of the critics start influencing the book selection too much. In fact, we are already seeing this, since it seems that Maxim Biller has a thing for dark and violent works, while Volker Weidermann pushed the biography of the Mann family, since that’s something of a personal interest for him.

However, what made the original Literarisches Quartett so compelling was not the book selection (though in retrospect they did pretty well picking future classics and award winners), but the interplay between the three regulars, since watching them argue was so much fun. Every one of the three regulars of the original Quartett had a very recognisable character to the point that I actually thought they were all playing roles. Hence, I was shocked when I realised that Marcel Reich-Ranicki and Sigrid Löffler really did hate each other.

By contrast, two of the three regulars of the new Literarisches Quartett remain terminally bland, while the third, Maxim Biller, desperately tries to channel Marcel Reich-Ranicki. Talking of which, in this photo from World Fantasy Con 2015, Gene Wolfe bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Marcel Reich-Ranicki to the point that it made me do a doubletake.

Maxim Biller got a lot of criticism, especially for his habit of interrupting others, when they were speaking. However, the interruption thing is mainly a moderation issue, since the nominal moderator Volker Weidermann simply doesn’t moderate very well. Marcel Reich-Ranicki handled the moderation duties much better in the original Literarisches Quartett and even managed to disagree with people (sometimes harshly) without interrupting them. Plus, he managed to turn random thunderstorms into literary jokes.

But whether you like Maxim Biller or not (I’m torn on that point), he’s at least entertaining and clearly relishes in his role as the acerbic critic. And so Biller was firing on all cylinders and had not very nice things to say about three of the four books.

For example, he called Verena Lueken’s novel about a woman with lung cancer “death porn”*, whereupon guest critic Ursula Maerz countered, “No, it’s New York porn, since the protagonist is so enthusiastic about living in New York that she even puts up with the substandard and massively expensive American healthcare system just to live there.” This might have led to an interesting discussion, but unfortunately, the short 45 minute time frame did not allow for that.

Biller also had some not very nice things to say about the women’s fiction novel** Pain by Israeli writer Zeruya Shalev. More precisely, he called the novel, in which a woman is torn between her highschool love on the one hand and her husband and the father of her kids on the other “Zionist breeding propaganda”, because the protagonist eventually stays with her husband. In fact, I suspect part of the reason for Biller’s presence on the Literarisches Quartett is that he’s Jewish and can therefore criticise Holocaust novels as well as books by Israeli and Jewish writers without getting accused of Anti-Semitism. At at any rate, Biller also tore into a Holocaust novel in the last episode. The “breeding propaganda” comment is something I’d have loved to see discussed further, since I for one did not know that divorce is apparently more taboo in Israel than in other industrialised nations (unless Biller was talking crap, which is of course possible). But again, the short 45 minute timeframe prevented any in depth discussion.

Biller was more defensive about Boris Savinkov‘s autobiographic novel The Pale Horse, since he actually liked it***. Unfortunately, nobody else did and so we were back to arguing. The main criticism was that Savinkov’s protagonist, a Russian revolutionary terrorist modelled clearly after Savinkov himself, was a really horrible person.

At this moment, I shook my head and thought, “It’s really obvious you’re not genre readers.” Because as genre readers, we’re frequently asked to sympathise with or even cheer for characters who are not very nice people, including several who would be labeled terrorists if they existed in the real world. Every SFF fan has grappled with this issue, once they realised that not just Grand Moff Tarkin, a bunch of Imperial generals and several battalions of Stormtroopers died on the Death Star, but also hundreds of maintenance workers, low level clerks, kitchen personnel, prostitutes (Come on, you know that there has to be a brothel on the Death Star) and god knows who else. And we continue to grapple with it with every book we read and every movie we watch. Therefore, it’s odd to observe several clearly well read people who have apparently never come across this issue at all.

Finally, Ursula Maerz and Maxim Biller teamed up to slam Tillman Lahme’s biography of the Mann family, much to the chagrin of Volker Weidermann. “I feel I know more about Thomas Mann and his family than I know about my own”, Ursula Maerz said in an allusion to the fact that we’ve been inundated with biographies and non-fiction books about the Mann family and individual members thereof in the past appox. fifteen years. And in fact, when Volker Weidermann started introducing this “revolutionary new biography of the Mann family”, I also rolled my eyes and thought, “Oh, for goodness sake, how many more biographies does one (admittedly interesting) family need”? Okay, so this one apparently consults some never before seen letters of some members of the Mann family, though I find it hard to believe that at this point there is even a single shopping list of a member of the Mann family that has not yet been extensively analysed.

Meanwhile, Maxim Biller decided to make it very clear (repeatedly) that he really, really does not like Thomas Mann. He called Mann a hypocrite, mostly for the fact that he was a closeted gay man as well as for his defence of World War I in Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen (Reflections of an Unpolitical Man). Coincidentally, this also proved that Biller is not just (badly) channelling Marcel Reich-Ranicki, since the late Marcel Reich-Ranicki was a huge admirer of Thomas Mann and his work. I think we’re seeing a generational effect at work here, for Thomas Mann’s extremely detailed descriptions simply no longer match current writing and reading modes. Being made to read several of Thomas Mann’s novels and novellas bored me to death in school (if there was ever a writer who needed an editor, it was Mann) and my reaction to Reflections of an Unpolitical Man (which I was also made to read at school) was pretty much the same as Biller’s. I also find it troubling how often Reflections of an Unpolitical Man is swept under the rug considering Thomas Mann’s later 180 degree political turnabout.

Coincidentally, Biller also pointed out that Thomas Mann seems to have taken the place of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as the quintessential German language writer. Now I’m not convinced of that point, though I do notice a significant difference in the way the Mann family is portrayed and discussed. For approx. twenty-five years ago, when I read their works in highschool, there was only Thomas Mann and his lesser known bother Heinrich (whom I’ve always preferred). I vaguely knew that there were other somewhat famous people named Mann who were related to Thomas and Heinrich, but they were never discussed. This also continued into my first years at university. There was Thomas, there was Heinrich, but none of the other Manns were even mentioned.

What changed all this was the TV mini-series/documentary drama (one of the first, in fact) Die Manns – Ein Jahrhundertroman (The Manns – Novel of a Century) back in 2001. The mini-series was massively successful, won several awards and was watched by pretty much everybody in Germany who considered themselves educated. It also put the rest of the Mann family, particularly Thomas Mann’s wife Katia, into focus for the first time. I remember that when The Manns debuted I thought, “Wait a minute, Thomas Mann had a wife? But wasn’t he – like – gay?”

The success of The Manns opened the floodgates for dozens of biographies of every single member of the Mann family. However, The Manns first aired fourteen years ago. And by now, the Mann family has been discussed extensively, so I agree with Ursula Maerz in questioning the need for yet another biography.

Though I found Maxim Biller’s dislike for the book interesting, considering that Maxim Biller shares a rare and highly questionable honour with Klaus Mann, one of the sons of Thomas and Katia Mann, namely having a novel officially banned in Germany for allegedly violating someone’s privacy rights. For Klaus Mann had his novel Mephisto banned for supposedly violating the privacy rights of actor/director Gustav Gründgens (Mephisto is a thinly veiled biography of Gründgens), while Biller had his novel Esra banned for allegedly violating the privacy of his ex-girlfriend and her mother. I vehemently disagree with both decisions and find it particularly troubling that the two novels banned by (West) German courts post 1945 were written by a gay man who was a victim of Nazi persecution and a Jewish writer respectively.

So let’s get back to the issue at hand, namely the new Literarisches Quartett. I’m not quite as harsh on the program as some of other critics, but there is definite room for improvement.

First of all, make it sixty minutes rather than forty-five, so that the discussions can become a bit more in-depth. Next, have someone other than the participants select the books, so the “My book is better than yours” dynamic is mitigated a bit. Cause honestly, these past two episodes the critics often sounded like Sad Puppies defending their Hugo candidates when presenting their book selection.

As for the three regulars, as much as plenty of people criticise Maxim Biller, at least he’s entertaining and produces memorable quotes, whether you agree with him or not. Meanwhile, Volker Weidermann and Christine Westermann are just terminally bland. Weidermann definitely needs to step up his moderation skills (and reign in Biller). As for Christine Westermann, what precisely does she offer except for TV experience in a completely different genre? In fact, I liked both guest critics, Juli Zeh in the debut episode and Ursula Maerz in this one, better than either Weidermann or Westermann.

Das Literarische Quartett is currently trading on the fame and acclaim of its predecessor. But that won’t last forever nor will it mask the fact that the ZDF’s literary programming has been lackluster ever since the original Literarisches Quartett went off the air back in 2001.

Lesen!, hosted by Elke Heidenreich, was the best and most successful of the ZDF’s many attempts to fill the void left by the Literarisches Quartett and lasted a full five years from 2003 to 2008. Alas, the ZDF fired Elke Heidenreich for daring to agree with Marcel Reich-Ranicki in criticising the low quality of German television in general and Thomas Gottschalk in particular (for more about Thomas Gottschalk, see this post and this one), while Reich-Ranicki got a special program to expound on his views, hosted by none other than Thomas Gottschalk. Yes, sexism was alive and well on German TV back in 2008.

ZDF had a couple of other literary programs after the cancellation of Lesen!, all of which were uniformly boring to the point that I cannot even recall the titles. Meanwhile, the best literary program on German TV is Druckfrisch, hosted by Denis Scheck who is the true heir to Marcel Reich-Ranicki’s brand of acerbic criticism**** and also pretty much the only genre-savvy critic on TV, who occasionally recommends Patrick Rothfuss or interviews George R.R. Martin. Alas, Druckfrisch runs on the rival channel ARD.

*To be fair, I’m not a big fan of books in which the protagonist either overcomes or dies of a serious illness either and there seems to be a proliferation of those at the moment.

**Both novels by women writers discussed in this episode were what is commonly called women’s fiction, which I found interesting, considering that so-called women’s fiction doesn’t normally get a lot of respect or critical attention in the US/UK.

***I’m sure Savinkov will be very comforted by that, considering he’s been dead since 1925.

****Scheck once called a sappy memoir “a literary abortion”.

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3 Responses to Das Literarische Quartett Reloaded, Take 2, or the State of Literary Programming on German TV

  1. Sherwood Smith says:

    Thanks for that link!

    • Cora says:

      You’re welcome. If you check YouTube, you should be able to find full episodes of the original Literarisches Quartett, which was so much better.

  2. LaranSB says:

    Thank you., Cora, for this enlightening review. I don’t have the time to watch it myself but feel informed now, nevertheless.

    Like you, I dislike Thomas Mann immensely and am quite fed up with all the publicity the Manns are getting nowadays. It feels like a certain strata is clinging to Mann as the symbol for the old German Germany, where everybody spoke wonderfully correct German, was educated at the humanist gymnasium and a better person on top of it. Not all this end of the occident feeling of the present days… — So I think that Biller is perfectly right with his dictum of Mann as “the quintessential German language writer”. All I hate in his writing must appeal to the sort of people heading the literary discourse: this bourgeiose narcissistic idealisation of his own male ego, the obtrusive display of all his learning and knowledge and authoritative world exegesis… He is an author for men who want to be like him, in a way, and this does not work for female readers (I am always very surprised when I occasionally meet a woman who likes his books). Well, my dislike was heightened when my PhD supervisor turned out to be a huge fan, a proselytizing fan to be correct, and together with our mutual supervisory problems Mann became more and more unbearable to me. But — my current (very nice) boss is a fan, too, and while I can’t understand that at all, I can comprehend that male intellectuals of their generation (55+) somehow subconsciously fall victim to the allures of Mann’s intellectualism…
    Oh, it isn’t the intellectualism per se that puts me off, as I like Siri Hustvedt a lot, who sometimes seems like The Sole Living Female Intellectual Author to me, as over the top intellectual as Mann was, but somehow different because she does it as a woman, shattering expectations thereby. btw, do you know her “Blazing World”, Cora and would care to comment on it?
    Oh, my conclusion, I can’t stand Mann’s pushy male narcissitic intellectualism – which sometimes seems the highest mark for German literature, starting with Goethe, Sturm und Drang, Romanticism: all about the person of the male artist, running since the late 18th century, alive and well today!

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