Born in Budapest, Hungary in 1936, Riemer migrated to Australia with his family when he was 11. After an unsuccessful attempt to study medicine, he switched to arts at The University of Sydney and received his PhD in English Literature from the University of London.
He started work as an academic in The University of Sydney’s English department in 1963, shortly before the faculty famously split into two competing schools of scholarship.
Riemer would remain at the university for nearly three decades, becoming an Associate Professor, before he retired in 1994. While he had a reputation as a fine teacher, Riemer’s sense of estrangement from academic life and his frustration and increasing disillusionment is captured in his 1998 memoir Sandstone Gothic: Confessions of an Accidental Academic.
Riemer’s earliest reviews for The Herald were of a book about Shakespeare and Christina Stead’s novel I’m Dying Laughing: The Humourist in 1987. In Sandstone Gothic, Riemer writes that after those reviews, “my second and perhaps much more fulfilling career got underway”.
He became The Herald’s chief book reviewer in 1997 and was awarded the Pascall Prize for criticism in 1999. He maintained a lifelong friendship with former Herald literary editor Ian Hicks – Riemer’s last byline in the paper was a eulogy for Hicks in March.
Former Herald literary editor Susan Wyndham, who studied under Riemer when she was a student at The University of Sydney before becoming his editor, said she was consistently impressed by the breadth of his knowledge and ability to review across a range of genres.
“He was a highly ethical man. I really believe he put aside personal feelings about authors and any sort of prejudices he had and really tried to look into the heart of the book and what the author was trying to do,” Ms Wyndham said.
“He didn’t recoil from making harsh judgments but he wasn’t a mean reviewer, he was a very measured and respectful reviewer.”
Outside of newsprint, Riemer unpacked his complicated relationship with Australia and Europe in popular memoirs about his family history and post-war migration, including in Inside Outside: Life Between Two Worlds, The Habsburg Cafe and A Family History of Smoking.
Friend Jack Carmody, a critic and reviewer, said Riemer was a “stimulating, interesting, cultivating man” who never talked down to his readers. “He was a serious-minded person but had a dry, droll sense of humour. He had a great sense of the ridiculous and a capacity to recognise it and sum it up with a few words too.”
As well as reading, Riemer was known for his love of classical music and film. He is survived by his wife Nina, a former editor to whom he was married for 51 years, and their sons Nick and Tom.
Melanie Kembrey is Spectrum Deputy Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald.