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Carrying the Torch for Karl Kraus

Jonathan Franzen rebrands the classic Austrian writer for a modern American audience.

The Kraus Project is a peculiar and difficult book centered on a peculiar and difficult writer. In it, Jonathan Franzen takes a detour from writing his highly touted “hysterical realist” novels to, in effect, converse with a dead person. All writers of any worth, I’ve been led to believe, attempt to converse with the dead in one form or another, though rarely, if ever, in the wholly earnest and upfront fashion Franzen has done here. Franzen did not author The Kraus Project—as the cover misleadingly suggests—so much as obsess over it and divine its contents from his own memories of angry youth, in addition to actually translating and annotating these essays by Karl Kraus. Franzen seems confident that this will all be worth it so long as a few readers the cover has tricked are as transfixed by Karl Kraus as he was.

Kraus’s career as a writer spanned most of the first half of the 20th century, through which he served as the chief tormentor of the cultural and intellectual life of his home city, Vienna. His work peaked somewhere around the First World War and ended with his death in 1936, two years before the Anschluss. His primary vehicle, the magazine Die Fackel (The Torch), was both the toast and scorn of Austria. Among its many devoted readers were Franz Kafka, Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. As its publisher—and for much of its run, sole contributor—Kraus used it to sow conflict with those who offended his at once rigid and idiosyncratic moral constitution, as well as those who offended the German language, which he wielded so well that translating his work into any other was best left to the intrepid or the insane.

For that reason, Kraus is hard to come by in the English-speaking world, and in America especially, a country for which Kraus did not care and for whose people he did not write. What translations do exist are usually collections of single-sentence morsels or long out-of-print hodgepodges. (Though a new edition of an old hodgepodge remains perpetually forthcoming from Penguin.) While I’m not certain whether Franzen in assembling this book is intrepid or insane, what is more certain is the enthusiasm and personal investment driving him to fill this hole.

On the surface, Franzen and Kraus seem to have nothing to do with each other. Kraus, for one, did not much care for novels. Franzen’s novels may be infused with social criticism but not satire as biting and immediate as Kraus’s. But Franzen was not born standing up and wearing glasses. He was young once, and as other young people tend to get, he was feverish, ambitious, uncertain, and angry. Mostly, it seems, he was angry:

I was angry at the world in a way I’d never been before. The proximate cause of my anger was my failure to have sex with an unbelievably pretty girl in Munich, except that it hadn’t actually been a failure, it had been a decision on my part. A few hours later, on a platform in Hannover, I marked my entry into the life that came after that decision by throwing away my coins. Then I boarded a train and went back to Berlin and enrolled in a class on Karl Kraus.

While studying in Germany in the 1980s that anger, however bizarrely rooted, found a perfect cushioning in Karl Kraus’s writing. Kraus’s apocalyptic satire resonated with Franzen in ways that French theory, Thomas Pynchon, and David Byrne did not:

When I gave up on short stories and returned to my novel, I was mindful of his moral fervor, his satirical rage, his hatred of the media, his preoccupation with apocalypse, and his boldness as a sentence writer. I wanted to expose America’s contradictions the way he’d exposed Austria’s … . I still hoped to finish my Kraus project, too, after my novel had made me famous and a millionaire.

This Kraus Project is composed of five pieces translated by Franzen, with the English placed on the right-side pages facing the original German. Franzen is by his own admission an amateur translator, so he sought the assistance of Daniel Kelhmann, an Austrian author, and Paul Reitter, a professor of German literature and author of his own study of Kraus, The Anti-Journalist. They both provide extensive commentary that Franzen quotes at length. The aim of all three, as Franzen sees it, is to show “the beauty of Kraus’s language and humor” and that contemporary relevance lies behind what is, on the surface, highly temporal and regional work.

From the beginning, Franzen implores patience from the reader. Kraus’s writing, he assures us, was “deliberately” difficult, designed in part to keep admiring readers in and keep his detractors and targets out. Kraus has been framed in the past as the H.L. Mencken of Vienna, which makes sense given their similar backgrounds and careers and the shared time period, but the likeness becomes less evident on further inspection. Mencken, a consummate newspaperman, was far more straightforward in his style and more baffled at human folly than he was angry. (It also goes without saying that Baltimore is no Vienna.) A Kraus passage can sometimes have a vine-like structure of entangled aphorisms and paragraphs that aren’t so much read as they are scaled, especially in the essay “Nestroy and Posterity,” which is one big paragraph. A better English language sibling for Kraus might be Willmoore Kendall, whose style was a similarly idiosyncratic balance of dense analysis, inflammatory polemic, sardonic wit, and folksy colloquialism. This is apparent from the opening passage of “Heine,” which dazzles and dizzies all at once:

Two strains of intellectual vulgarity: Defenselessness against content and defenselessness against form. The one experiences only the material side of art. It is of German origin. The other experiences even the rawest materials artistically. It is of Romance origin. To the one, art is an instrument; to the other, life is an ornament. In which hell would the artist prefer to fry?

Kraus’s deployment of clever wordplay, humor, and colloquialism, however, can sometimes get neutered in translation. We are assured that in the original German Kraus’s joke that “People are very talented in the jungle, and talent begins in the East around the time you reach Bucharest” is much funnier and does not require so painstaking an explanation as what Franzen offers. Kraus also had a penchant for obtuse and paradoxical wording: “to be responsive to literature, you cannot be responsive to music, otherwise the melody and rhythm of music will suffice to create a mood”—to which Franzen’s Viennese collaborator Daniel Kehlmann replies in footnote 52, “Who the hell knows what Kraus is really saying here?”

Kraus published Die Fackel from 1899 to 1936 on a more or less weekly schedule, covering countless matters and taking just as many positions on them. These included prostitution and sexual mores, the First World War, the Dreyfus Affair, and most consistently the press and literature. Out of what was available, Franzen selected two long essays and related supplemental material.

“Heine and the Consequences” and “Nestroy and Posterity” both address 19th-century German-language writers and their legacies. The former is an attack, the latter a defense. But like any good satirist, Kraus uses these subjects as springboards for larger concerns. In “Heine,” Kraus defends the German language itself against Heinrich Heine, a once popular, now forgotten poet, journalist, and Francophile who “so loosened the corset of the German language so that every salesclerk can finger her breast.” The essay is a manifesto of Germanic “content” against Romantic “form” and an assault on the journalist who had devolved into “a dangerous mediator between art and life, a parasite on both, a singer where it should only be a messenger, filing reports where a song would be in order.”

In defending playwright Johann Nestroy, Kraus—who at the time (1912) was what Franzen considers “substantially conservative”—attacks liberal progress and the “infernal” machinery of mass media which had combined to usher in “a time that has lost the capacity to be a posterity.” The essay is, in some respects, a defense of Kraus’s own art, which he finds to have much in common with Nestroy’s: “Satire is thus rightly the poetry of impediment, richly compensated for being the impediment of poetry … . It is never polemical, always creative, while counterfeit poetry is mere yea-saying, a contemptible appeal to the already available world.”

Pinning Kraus politically is a challenge, one not merely limited by the complicated context of the times. Though Franzen writes that his status as a rentier gave Kraus a “strong stake in the status quo,” he could afford to move around. Being financially independent, Kraus in his writing was not bound to partisan obligations, such as those of the Neue Freie Presse, a liberal and nationalist newspaper whose editors he openly feuded with and successfully pranked with fake op-eds on more than one occasion. Walter Benjamin summarized him as a mix of “reactionary theory and revolutionary practice.” Kraus certainly straddled that line, supporting striking coal miners and antiwar socialists before backing right-wing Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, who Kraus thought was the best defense against the Nazis. Kraus’s concern was not so much for any partisan program but for what Franzen calls “Enlightenment in the very Kantian sense—that is, to call for mental maturity.”

Kraus’s writing is only half of this book, conceptually if not literally. Reading Kraus’s essay also entails our reading Franzen reading Kraus. In addition to translator, Franzen is also a curious amalgam of fan, critic, and tour guide. Franzen is helpful walking us through Kraus’s background, especially in showing how his privilege informed the anger in his work, or in making sense of Kraus’s complex relationship with German-Jewry and seeming flirtations with anti-Semitism—he was born Jewish, converted to Catholicism, and was never a friend of the Dreyfusards—or in filling us in on his conflicts with Freud and psychoanalysis. Franzen is more of a mixed bag when he’s channeling Kraus’s apocalyptic style.

One of the main reasons for Franzen’s returning to Kraus was his sense that everything Kraus had railed against in Vienna in 1910 had gone global a century later. We may not have the hack work of the feuilleton but we do have Gawker’s “high-school-cafeteria social scene,” inane hyperlink headlines, and “Twitter popularity contests.” The Germanic-Romantic dichotomy becomes the PC-Mac dichotomy; the “infernal machines” of the press becomes more mechanized with cable news, which “traffics touristically in stories that ought to have no place in public discourse”; technology kills print, yet expands the size of the biography “as if being bored has become the way to reassure yourself that you’re doing serious reading, as opposed to playing Angry Birds”; and Jeff Bezos “looks like one of the Four Horseman.” Technological progress has become so entrenched that it evolves not just independently of our needs but to the point that it practically dictates what we need. These are all valid points, but ones that sent Franzen’s detractors in a frenzy prior to this book’s publication. The book’s clash in tone nearly justifies the frenzy.

For all of Kraus’s cryptic flights, his anger, wit, and moral center were never in question and always at the ready. Franzen admits that since first discovering Kraus, his own anger has subsided—only, it seems, to degrade into frustration with a world moving faster than he would like. It is as if Franzen is pining for the intellectual aristocracy of the Cold War era, only to find out that everyone else has moved even further back into the pamphleteer anarchy of 19th century. (After all, there is a literary website called “Hazlitt.”) https://theamericanconservative.com/archive/januaryfebruary-2014/

I must disagree with Franzen’s notion that Kraus would have hated blogs. Sure, Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish isn’t all that funny, but as far as voice, political and moral makeup, reader loyalty, and cultural reach go, no publication is more like Die Fackel. Moreover, Kraus’s knack for aphorism and his habit of cataloging every mention of his work in the press are practically form-fitted for Twitter and Google Analytics. And this is to say nothing of the very Internet Age bouts of over-sharing and flights of memoir in Franzen’s footnotes about his youth, college life, and marriage, among other things, which can extend nearly ten pages and, while interesting in almost any other situation, have a connection to any of the subjects at hand no stronger than a strand of spider silk.

Where Franzen succeeds most is with a simple act of rebranding. Early on he refers to Kraus as “the Great Hater,” which is an accurate summation of his career in Vienna, but it’s also clever. A hater today is accused rather than made or born proper; the word is an accusation most often leveled by makers of bad art against goons who, using their varying abilities of articulation, say they don’t like their bad art. But hatred was Kraus’s art, and like any artist in any of the other literary mediums he was unable or unwilling to master—the jury remains out on his 800-page antiwar play “The Last Days of Mankind”—Kraus honed it and took care not to waste it on just any walking target. Franzen fears that modernity has stranded us in a wilderness of frivolity, and Kraus’s torch is our way out. At some point he’ll have to let us engage him on our own terms, or even Kraus’s.

Chris R. Morgan is the editor of Biopsy.