Hot on the heels of the deaths of Hellmuth Karasek, one third of the original Literarisches Quartett (no, that’s not a typo), came the revival of what was once the preeminent literary program on German TV.
So what is Das Literarische Quartett? It’s a program where four literary critics – three regulars and a guest critic – discuss books, mostly literary fiction, mostly new releases, but also memoirs and the occasional classic. Put that way, it sounds boring, which is not fair, because in its original form, Das Literarische Quartett was frequently the funniest and most entertaining program on German TV. It didn’t matter if you had read the books or if you had any interest in them at all (though looking back, it’s interesting how many future classics and/or award winners were discussed at the Quartett), because the real reason people were watching a literature program in a Friday night graveyard slot was the interplay of the three regulars, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Hellmuth Karasek and Sigrid Löffler, and how they tore both into the books discussed and each other. For those who want to know what the original Literarisches Quartett was like, there are plenty of clips and even full episodes on YouTube. Meanwhile, the new program is also available online at the ZDF mediathek.
The fact that the three regular critics and their personalities was a large part of the reason for watching Das Literarische Quartett in the first place was also the main hurdle for the reboot to overcome. For the shadows of Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Hellmuth Karasek and Sigrid Löffler loom large, even though or maybe because two of them, Reich-Ranicki and Karasek, are no longer with us.
If anything the new guys, critics Volker Weidermann, Christine Westermann and Maxim Biller, tried a bit too hard to channel the originals. It doesn’t help that the set-up, two guys and one woman plus one guest critic, is identical to the original. One of the new regulars, Maxim Biller, is even Jewish, just like Marcel Reich-Ranicki in the original. And since the parallels were obvious to everybody anyway, Maxim Biller clearly decided that he was going to channel Reich-Ranicki, complete with acerbic remarks and arguing with fellow critics, and he obviously relished the role. Not surprising, considering that Reich-Ranicki was everybody’s favourite in the original. Weidermann quickly fell into the peacemaking Hellmuth Karasek role, leaving the thankless Sigrid Löffler part to Christine Westermann, who clearly did not want to fill it (well, no one ever wanted to be Sigrid Löffler) and instead remained rather pale, leaving Maxim Biller to argue with this week’s guest critic, lawyer and writer (even of SF on occasion) Juli Zeh, who rather obligingly played Sigrid Löffler to Biller’s Reich-Ranicki.
So we did get the expected arguing, but there was just one problem. I’d much rather watch Maxim Biller, Volker Weidermann and Christine Westermann (and Juli Zeh) be themselves than pale imitations of Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Hellmuth Karasek and Sigrid Löffler. Because at the moment, it seems as if Biller, Weidermann and Westermann are just playing roles, whereas Reich-Ranicki, Karasek and Löffler were not acting (as we all found out during the epic blow-up between Marcel Reich-Ranicki and Sigrid Löffler over a Haruki Murakami novel, which ended with Löffler walking out), they actually were being themselves. And it isn’t as if the three new people don’t have the potential to be interesting in themselves, though both Weidermann and Westermann remained rather bland. Meanwhile, Maxim Biller is one of the very few people in postwar Germany to have a novel banned for allegedly violating the personality rights of Biller’s ex-girlfriend and her mother, a decision that many people found deeply troubling. A summary of the whole sordid saga surrounding Biller’s novel Esra may be found here.
Besides, great as the original Literarisches Quartett was, one aspect that I wouldn’t be sorry to see gone are the dated boys vs. girls gender dynamics of the two male regulars teaming up against the lone female regular. Because though I never particularly liked Sigrid Löffler (I don’t think anybody did – she was always the boring one), I still find the way in which she was treated and particularly how her treatment was linked to her gender troubling. So yes, let the regulars of Das Literarische Quartett argue their hearts out – that’s why we’re watching after all – but don’t turn it into boys versus girls again.
But while it was only to be expected that the three regulars would still need to find their feet – after all, the first episode of the original Literarisches Quartett probably did not look like the show we all loved either – another issue that will probably be less easy to resolve is the length of the program. Now the original Literarisches Quartett was 75 minutes long and discussed four or five books in those 75 minutes, which gave the critics plenty of space to discuss the books and even go off on those weird tangents that often made the program so magical.
However, in the more fast paced and regimented TV world of the 21st century, few programs that are not prestige drama or what passes for it these days are given 75 minutes. And a cultural niche program most certainly doesn’t get 75 minutes these days, especially not if some of that time could be used to run bad comedy programs instead (and comedy programs have been steadily encroaching on the Friday night culture programming slot in the past ten years or so). So the new Literarisches Quartett was only 45 minutes long – the same length as the general culture program aspekte, whose timeslot it takes over once a month – divided among four books.
The lack of time spent on each book definitely showed, because several potentially interesting discussions, e.g. about cliched western expectations of African literature, about religious imagery in a largely atheist culture, how books chronicling the pain of white dudes resonate with – guess whom? – white dudes, etc…, were all nipped in the bud. Honestly, the program either needs more time or fewer books.
As for the books themselves, they were a nicely diverse range of ethnicities and subjects with The Fisherman by Nigerian writer Chogozie Obioma (which is also on the Booker Prize shortlist this year – Biller loved it, Westermann and Zeh did not), Macht und Widerstand by Bulgarian-German writer Ilja Trojanow (which Weidermann and Biller really did not like, though Trojanov’s occasional co-writer Juli Zeh did), one of the volumes of My Struggle by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård (the two male critics really liked it – well, duh) and Fever at Dawn by Hungarian writer and filmmaker Péter Gárdos, which was pretty much shredded by everybody. The range of ethnicities and subject matter was pleasantly diverse, though sadly all four books were written by men. This was a bit unfortunate, especially the “white dude pain” chronicled in the Karl Ove Knausgård novel would have needed a female counterpoint.
So now you’ve had my take, let’s see what German TV critics have to say:
- T-Online agrees with me that Maxim Biller was channelling Marcel Reich-Ranicki pretty well, but that 45 minutes are much too short.
- The Süddeutsche Zeitung also believes that 45 minutes are much too short (Are you listening, ZDF?), felt that Maxim Biller was the most televisional of the three regulars (though Christine Westermann actually has been co-hosting a show where celebrities have to apply for a free room in a flat share for almost twenty years now – yes, this is a thing) and was amused that Volker Weidermann, who is probably the most powerful literary critic in Germany as head of the culture department of Der Spiegel (like Hellmuth Karasek before him) and nominal head of the new Literarisches Quartett, seemed more like a frightened antelope caught in the headlights.
- Der Spiegel thinks that the new Literarisches Quartett is pleasantly old-fashioned and very reminiscent of the original, but too short (I detect a pattern here).
- Die Welt also believes the program was too short (all right, ZDF, just give us 60 minutes) and liked Biller best.
- Die Presse also thinks that the program was too short and seemed hastened.
- Literaturcafe agrees that the program seemed hastened and that the three regulars don’t yet feel like a team.
- Deutschlandradio Berlin agrees that the program was too short and finds that gendered two men teaming up against a woman pattern borrowed from the original rather dated.
- n-tv thinks that Das Literarische Quartett is better than Star Trek, a reference to a remark by Maxim Biller that none of the latter Star Treks ever came close to the original, which may well be the most controversial thing Biller said lately (though for Germany, it’s probably true, because the 1960s style dubbing made the original Star Trek a lot funnier than it was).
- The tageszeitung lets an 18-year-old intern who only ever saw the original program on YouTube share his thoughts about the reboot.
- The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung says that the three regulars seemed as if they were playing parts rather than being themselves and also wonders whether a program like Das Literarische Quartett still fits into the 21st century, where professional critics have long given way to “hordes of amateur critics on the internet”.
The last point is interesting, because I very much believe that the 21st century has not just room for a program like Das Literarische Quartett, but also for serious literary criticism. Because at least for me, consumer reviews at Amazon and similar places don’t replace in-depth criticism. I do pay attention to reviews and reviewers I trust (not necessarily by professionals – e.g. I’d rather trust a bookblogger whom I know shares my taste than a professional newspaper review), but consumer reviews at Amazon, Yelp, tripadvisor, etc… play hardly any role for me when deciding which book to read next, where to eat and where to stay on holiday, which products to buy, etc… because they rarely match my personal preferences.
Of course, the Literarisches Quartett never really matched my preferences either and indeed they usually discuss books that I’d never even consider reading. But I get a kick out of listening to other people – particularly smart and insightful people – discussing books, whether I actually want to read them or not.