Jonathan Franzen's The Kraus Project
Karl Kraus was a terror. Scourge of the misplaced comma, bane of the sentimental or stupid remark, champion of linguistic purity and artistic rigor, destroyer of reputations, instigator of lawsuits and punisher of friends. In the hothouse world of fin-de-siècle Vienna, he was the J.J. Hunsecker and Judge Dredd of criticism, its chief gossip and hanging judge. His nickname was the Great Hater. Each day he searched the newspapers of his home city, stalking imbecilities with the relish of a big game hunter. To readers of his journal, Die Fackel, or The Torch—which Kraus edited, proofread and published singlehandedly (after 1911, he was also the sole contributor)—his was the final word on matters of taste and aesthetic judgment. Such was his authority over his acolytes that, when the young Elias Canetti found Heinrich Heine’s collected works on his fiancé’s bookshelf, he refused to touch them, as “there was no one Karl Kraus so utterly disapproved of as Heine.”
Jonathan Franzen is a hater of a different sort, less known for his defense of language than for his distaste for Twitter, Amazon, cats, certain female novelists, strip mining, tar sands and men who shoot at birds. Nonetheless, the two men share a kinship. Kraus has been a favorite of Franzen’s since he was introduced to his works in a college German class. After graduating, he tried his hand at translating some of Kraus’s most important essays only to find himself defeated by the “devilishly difficult prose.” But Kraus remained a lasting inspiration, both for his moral fervor and for the knotty density of his sentence-writing, which together provided Franzen with a lasting inoculation against today’s “intolerably shallow forms of social engagement.” Now, thirty years later, Franzen has returned the favor with a densely footnoted translation of three key Kraus essays under the banner title of The Kraus Project. It should be a match made in heaven: the old hater and the new, the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid of cultural criticism drawn together across the gulf of a century to take on all comers. It doesn’t quite work out that way though. Reading Kraus’s sinuous, hectoring, almost impenetrable prose alongside Franzen’s peevish, ill-spirited footnotes is a strange and rather discordant experience, like receiving a deep tissue massage while being spat on from a great height.
First the Kraus. The essays selected for this collection—“Heine and the Consequences,” “Nestroy and Posterity,” and two postscripts to the first—are well-chosen. They were intended as major statements, designed to secure Kraus’s reputation with posterity, and as such they stand somewhat outside the daily run of his journalism. Each of them articulates his position toward an august predecessor, raising up the reputation of the early nineteenth-century Austrian comic playwright Johann Nestroy with one hand while dashing that of the great German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine on the rocks with the other. But the essays are also occasions for Kraus to voice his broader discontent with the surrounding culture, attacking everything from the feuilleton’s trivializing effects on German journalism, to the “dehumanization of technology and the false promises of Progress and Enlightenment.”
In one of the many notes appended to these texts (the bulk are by Franzen; others are by Paul Reitter, an American scholar of Kraus, and some, notable for their brevity and common sense, are by the young German novelist Daniel Kehlmann), Franzen argues that these more expansive criticisms make Kraus particularly relevant today, in our own “media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment.” But I have to confess that in reading The Kraus Project, I often found it difficult to follow Kraus’s arguments as they transition from the particular to the general. Partly this is a matter of his style, which I can most kindly describe as provocatively turgid. Kraus prided himself on being a difficult writer. He once said of the critic and playwright Hermann Bahr, “If he understands one sentence of this essay, I’ll retract the entire thing.” Franzen calls this approach a “barrier to the uninitiated.” That may have been Kraus’s intention, but it is also an attitude that lent itself to a particularly irksome kind of bombast. Here is Kraus on the feuilleton, a kind of chatty essay (think the “Talk of the Town” pieces in the New Yorker) that Heine helped popularize in the German-speaking world:
But far more disgraceful than literature’s marching in the triumph of this pillage, far more dangerous than this attachment of intellectual authority to the villainy, is the villainy’s interlarding, its gilding, with the Mind, which it has siphoned off from literature and which it drags along through the local pages and all the other latrines of public opinion.
This is at once opaque (interlarding?) and overblown. Certainly, some of the difficulty stems from the translation. Franzen is often too wedded to the original text, and unwilling to dig deep for equivalents for Kraus’s word games that sound halfway natural in English. He’s inconsistent: utiliterature is fairly clever for Kraus’s coinage Utiliteratur, while the phrase “the horseplay of the sexes”—stranded as it is in the lexical no man’s land between sexual horseplay and the war of the sexes—is plainly awful. But the larger problem has to do with Kraus himself. His essays are not really arguments at all. They are displays: performances of authority, designed to astound (or stupefy) the reader with their rhetorical audacity and the force of their conviction.
Kraus was trained as an actor. All his earliest ambitions were directed at the stage. He called his essays “written acting,” and his celebrity had much to do with his skill as a performer. In his prime, he gave hundreds of public readings, in which he kept audiences rapt with his gifted mimicry and mesmerizing voice. He was blessed with an illustrious following. Most of the leading lights of the German and, particularly, the German-Jewish literary world—Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin, Elias Canetti, Gregor von Rezzori, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud—numbered among his subscribers and fans. Benjamin was especially effusive with his praise, calling Kraus “one of an evanescent few who have a sense of what freedom is.”
These admirers did much to preserve and embellish Kraus’s reputation over time. It is disappointing, then, to see how little of the Vienna of Kraus’s day made its way into his writing. All around him, little coteries of middle-class Jewish kids and Eastern European parvenus were busy creating the look, the style, the language, the mental habits and even the sexual mores of the modern world. Imagine a walk along the Ringstrasse in Vienna in one of the years before World War One, and it instantly becomes a Where’s Waldo game of artistic, intellectual and political Modernism: there’s Hofmannsthal drinking coffee, Wittgenstein in a carriage, Trotsky in a tavern, Alois Riegl on a merry-go-round, and Egon Schiele in the bushes (the cultural historian Carl Schorske’s Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture remains the best guide to this glittering and embattled world).
And while this was all going on, Kraus kept his eye firmly on the back pages of the newspaper, hunting for misprints. He made note of his contemporaries only to insult them. He disparaged Klimt, mocked Freud, called Max Reinhardt (maybe the greatest theater director who ever lived) a “layman of the stage.” But then again, if fin-de-siècle Vienna was a sexy, dangerous Hogwarts for artists and intellectuals, Kraus was always destined to be its Draco and never its Dumbledore. He had a role to play. He was the designated hater. It didn’t matter that he never found a fitting target for his wrath. As Benjamin said, the sheer gusto with which Kraus gave voice to his prejudices and pursued his private vendettas was a form of liberation.
And yet he was wrong about so very much. He was suspicious of democracy. In “Nestroy and Posterity,” he longs for the age of absolutism when “passion for the theater was an outgrowth of the artistic feeling aroused by political suppression.” He was a lifelong anti-Dreyfusard, placing him in the elite of pan-European idiocy. His vaunted independence steered him in the right direction just once, when it led him to oppose World War One from the outset. Otherwise it led him astray. He failed to see the danger posed by the anti-Semitic populism of politicians like Karl Lueger, Vienna’s mayor, who later became an inspiration for Hitler. When Hitler did come to power, Kraus supported his local clone, a little Fuhrer in a Tyrolean cap named Engelbert Dollfuss, on the principal of the lesser evil.
More troubling than Kraus’s political stances however is the way in which anti-Semitic language infected his own writing. Throughout his attack on the feuilleton, he mocks Heine for being too French, too effeminate and too much of a Jew. This alone makes “Heine and the Consequences” difficult reading. (Never mind that Kraus was wrong about feuilletons—like any other genre, they could be shallow as well as great. To read the ones Joseph Roth wrote in Berlin in the 1920s, collected in English under the title What I Saw, is to see the whole madness of the Weimar era flash before your eyes like a film reel.) Kraus was writing in a different time with different standards. Still, the crudeness of the method by which Kraus prosecutes his case makes it hard to accept any of his conclusions.
The Kraus Project’s annotators are admirably upfront about Kraus’s failings, taking up the vexed question of his putative self-hatred head-on. Paul Reitter, who devoted a whole book to the subject, argues that Kraus was being deliberate with his stereotypes, strategically deploying an anti-Semitic discourse in order to critique it. This seems to me to be too clever an explanation by half. I think it more likely that he simply didn’t care. Kraus was a bully and a snob, a lover of Offenbach and a pursuer of aristocratic ladies. He affected the tastes of an older, landed generation, even as he scandalized their manners, and he elevated their haute-bourgeois prejudices into a dissident religion with the force of his personality. He was too caught up in his genius and gigantic self-worth to care about everyday politics, much less “discourse.”
So why has Franzen expended so much effort to bring him back? In a word: rage. Kraus taught Franzen how to be angry, and how to channel that anger at the world. He writes about this as if it was a revelation: “Anger descended on me so near in time to when I fell in love with Kraus’s writing that the two occurrences are practically indistinguishable.” Revisiting Kraus thirty years later gives Franzen an opportunity to vent about all his favorite subjects. He complains that Macs are too sleek, Twitter too shallow, France too pleasurable and book critics too nice. Some of his criticisms have a vaguely anti-capitalist tenor. For some reason, Jeff Bezos, intent on enserfing writers and critics alike with the power of Amazon’s (wholly mythical) “one-day free shipping,” emerges as one of his main villains. The “Internet” comes in for repeated beatings, for its “ninth-grade” social dynamics, its snarkiness and its tendency toward solipsism. That he is leveling these charges from the platform of a particularly bitter and minutiae-filled memoir goes blissfully unmentioned.
For the most part, these Andy Rooney-ish grumblings feel harmless. After Franzen’s fourth or fifth dissection of a headline on the AOL homepage, though, you want to grab him by the shoulders and tell him that those disks are a scam. Occasionally The Kraus Project does manage to be genuinely irritating. At one point, either Paul Reitter or Jonathan Franzen (the punctuation makes it ambiguous), launches into an attack on a Brooklyn novelist for not making proper use of her “privilege.” This unnamed woman published a novel with a good press, and it apparently sold poorly. Nonetheless, the footnote reports, she manages to live in Park Slope with her husband and two children. The writer wonders “how the economics work” (after all, kids are expensive) before concluding that she must be rich. That must be why her writing is so very cautious, so devoted to the “uncontroversial virtues” of “balance, moderation, warmth, etc.” This realization prompts a moment of melancholy. How sad, after all, that “so few people from an affluent background are willing to take upon themselves the hazards of real, open-ended downward mobility” in order to produce the daring, unpopular novels they could write instead of the conventional unpopular ones they do.
The perfect nullity of this argument—the circularity of its reasoning, the smugness of its sociology, the cowardice of its anonymity—inevitably prompts the question: What are we doing here, weathering this gale of condescension? And the answer, really, is Franzen himself. Concealed underneath all the old-man griping of his footnotes is a satisfying chunk of honest autobiography, the story of a young man struggling with the demands of his craft as a writer and the toll this apprenticeship exacts on his relationship with the world around him. You can say this for Franzen: he never tries to make himself look good. Whether he’s cheating at bird watching or plotting the downfall of his grade-school spelling bee rivals, he never disguises his bad behavior with wit or distances himself from it with regret. And if this makes him one of the most unlikeable figures in American nonfiction, it also makes him one of the most compelling.
Essentially, the story inside The Kraus Project is a version of the classic tale of the American abroad, wedded to some good old-fashioned Teutonic Bildung. It’s like A Moveable Feast without any of the joy. Franzen goes to Germany for a Fulbright year to study literature. There, he finds himself isolated and alone. Locked in an unhappy long-distance relationship, he trades infidelities with his impulsively chosen fiancé, suffers at the hands of his tight-fisted landlady, outperforms the lazy German students in his classes, and, through it all, does what Lenin said to do in exile, which is: read, read, read. He works his way through Gravity’s Rainbow and Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence. He is nakedly ambitious and profoundly neurotic. He makes himself sick worrying that he will never overcome the “toxin” of Pynchon’s style, translates Kraus, and writes long anguished letters home about it all.
Bloom taught Franzen that art is inevitably the product of strife. In the book, he takes Bloom’s theory that Oedipal violence is the source of artistic creation as a gospel truth and immediately goes off in search of father figures to slay. (Pynchon is the first opponent—Franzen spends years locked in “mortal literary struggle” with his “boy-novel phallicism”—but not the last.) But he learned the art of public relations from Kraus: denigrate your predecessors, belittle your contemporaries and always insist on your own greatness. In The Kraus Project he practically licks his lips at the prospect of taking Hemingway, Updike and Roth down a peg. In the past, he cleared the way for The Corrections by attacking William Gaddis, opened space for Freedom by trying to diminish David Foster Wallace and, after his first novel sold poorly, lamented the bankruptcy of a culture that didn’t recognize his significance.
This all makes me think Franzen shares a deeper kinship with Kraus than even he realizes. Reading him comparing his achievement to Pynchon’s and complaining of Philip Roth or John Updike’s “moral bankruptcy” reminded me of Norman Mailer wishing he could get in the ring for a couple of rounds with Hemingway and Tolstoy. Both Franzen and Mailer share a voracious need for universal acknowledgment and a tendency to think of literature as a kind of galactic contest, in which the loudest and most self-assured ultimately triumph—just as Kraus spent his whole life cutting down his predecessors, like Heine, until he could tower over them.
They’re not alone. There’s a whole fraternity of artists like that—writers convinced of their greatness and obsessed with their status. They seem genuinely important in their own time, but the farther away from them you get, the more special pleading they seem to require. The proof is never on the page. It takes work to see why they mattered, why they provoked so much controversy, why they were read or performed at all. Call them the footnote club, or the asterisk brigade. Or think of them as the white dwarves of literature; those cold, distant stars that seem bright at first but then dim by degrees until they seem always on the edge of being swallowed by the night. Ben Jonson was the first, and greatest. Karl Kraus and Norman Mailer followed. As for Franzen, we’ll have to wait and see.
Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.