His reviews were published widely but mostly in The Sydney Morning Herald, where literary editor Margaret Jones commissioned his first on Shakespeare and Christina Stead. Ian Hicks regularly engaged “A.P. Riemer” while he was still at the university.
In 1997, I gave him the title “chief book reviewer”, a role he fulfilled with loyalty, authority, punctuality and unpredictable range for the next 20 years. He won the Pascall Prize for critic of the year in 1999.
While his academic interest focused on Shakespeare and Jacobean theatre, and he admitted to having been “mostly deaf” to Australian writers in his youth, Hungarian-born Riemer found in Patrick White an understanding of his own divided self.
He wrote in Sandstone Gothic, his 1998 memoir of “an accidental academic”: “The writers who came to interest me in later years – Elizabeth Jolley, David Foster, Henry Handel Richardson, Christina Stead besides White himself – all teased away at the ambiguous and paradoxical questions that many Australians continue to ask about their European heritage and inclinations.”
Neither a gusher nor a slasher, Riemer respectfully and fearlessly assessed books by authors from Peter Carey and J.M. Coetzee to new writers, whom he loved to discover. His review of Anthony Macris’s first novel, Capital, Volume One, in 1997 picked him as “a writer of fascinating originality”. Macris said. “He had a huge impact on my career. He was always looking at how literature should change and adapt.”
When a furore blew up over another debut novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper by Helen Demidenko – who falsely claimed to be writing about her Ukrainian family – Riemer defended her, largely on literary grounds, from accusations of anti-Semitism and plagiarism. His calmly probing book, The Demidenko Debate, inevitably stirred some criticism of Riemer himself.
“He had very strong opinions and would go out on a limb. He didn’t care what people thought,” said Lyn Tranter, his literary agent.
As a fluent reader in French and some German, Riemer reviewed European writers in translation such as Georges Perec, Irene Nemirovsky, Andrei Makine, Imre Kertesz and W.G. Sebald. He translated three contemporary French novels for publication.
“A great devotee of Proust”, according to his son Nick, Riemer examined much of his own life through the filters of travel and reading in a series of frank, elegant, often ruthlessly funny and self-deprecating memoirs including Inside Outside, The Habsburg Cafe, America with Subtitles and A Family History of Smoking. He also wrote books about writer Peter Goldsworthy and art critic Robert Hughes, a fellow student at Sydney University.
Writer and friend David Malouf called the memoirs “classics”, more remarkable for being written in his second language.
Poet Vivian Smith, another longtime friend, said the books were “permanent contributions to the genre of memoirs and autobiography in Australia, up there with Hal Porter”. A Family History of Smoking is “a gem of concentration, economy and lightness of touch”, structured around the cigarette addiction he shared with his mother.
Andrew Peter Riemer was born in Budapest, the only child of Stephen and Elisabeth Riemer, secular Jews who owned a textile factory and led a sociable, cosmopolitan life. World War II forced them to leave home and shelter in cellars from the terrors of Allied air raids, Nazi persecution and Russian invasion. After his father was close to death in a labour camp and extended family members disappeared, they came to Australia as refugees in 1947.
Eleven-year-old Andrew arrived in Sydney speaking no English and was put in a school class for intellectually handicapped children, where he became adept at French knitting. He felt that his sensory and emotional world always belonged to Hungarian, while his intellectual world was in English.
Determined to honour his parents’ effort to build a new and better life, Riemer was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to Sydney University. He failed first-year medicine three times before moving into the arts faculty and received his PhD from the University of London with a thesis on James Shirley, a playwright “of very minor importance”.
Riemer returned to Sydney University in 1963 as the English Department was taken over by Professor Sam Goldberg, a divisive figure who was not only from Melbourne but a disciple of the class-driven Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis and his “eccentric and idiosyncratic pantheon”.
Despite his disillusionment, Riemer became an enthusiastic teacher under Goldberg’s successor, Professor Gerald Wilkes (who died three weeks before him). Former students remember his short, febrile figure, sometimes wielding an unlit cigarette, moving about his office as he gave eloquent, challenging tutorials and addressed them as “Mr” and “Miss”.
Don Anderson, a colleague in the English Department, was taught in the 1960s by Riemer to write in “secretary hand”, the 16th-century handwriting style of Shakespeare. “Andrew made this human and gave me 100 per cent.”
Anderson described him taking his folded lecture notes out of a cigarette packet, and much later “giving an elegant 10-minute defence of the lecture as a performative art form” to a student who asked why he didn’t just replay videos of his lectures every year.
ABC broadcaster Stephen Crittenden, a student in the 1980s, said “he represented a style of university education and an attitude to knowledge that, in the humanities at least, has largely disappeared”.
In 1969 Riemer married Nina Morris, an ABC publicist and book editor. He found great comfort in their happy marriage and family life in Mosman. Their two sons attended the Catholic St Ignatius College, Riverview, at their mother’s wish and with support from their “agnostic” father.
He was also sustained by a love of film, music and travel. In 1977 he travelled with university colleagues Malouf and Pam Law to the Bayreuth Festival in Germany for a modern production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle by a French director and conductor, which had Germans booing. Riemer was back the following year; he saw his last Ring Cycle in Adelaide in 2004. His phone was full of recordings of Beethoven piano sonatas and string quartets.
Writer and editor Morag Fraser published Riemer’s reviews in Eureka Street magazine and ran literary events with him. “Everything one did with Andrew would be immensely civilised but also great fun,” she said. “Beneath his erudite and gentlemanly persona there was a rippling wit and a wicked humour. He was kind as well as clever, and he was a great bridge between the academy and the world.”
Andrew Riemer is survived by his wife Nina, and their sons Nick and Tom.
Susan Wyndham was Riemer’s student in the 1970s and Herald literary editor 1996-1999 and 2008-2017.