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In Search of Lost Tirades

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The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus

Translated and Annotated by Jonathan Franzen
With assistance and additional notes from Paul Reitter and Daniel Kehlmann
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013

In the decades before the Anschluss, Vienna was an intellectual’s paradise, a home or way station for a staggering number of revolutionary thinkers and artists that would have seismic effects on arts and politics in the twentieth KrausProjectcentury. When writers romanticize café culture, life in the coffee houses of fin de siècle Vienna is what they’re dreaming of, a time when, as Clive James put it, “education was a lifelong process. You didn’t complete your education and start your career. Your education was your career, and it was never completed.” The city was modernity’s incubator, and even a partial roll call beggars disbelief – Freud, Stalin, Herzl, Mahler, Schoenberg, Klimt, Wittgenstein, Schnitzler, Musil, Zweig. And of course, the noted watercolorist Adolf Hitler, who would live and rant in the city’s homeless shelters for five years until leaving for Munich, and return twenty-five years later to cheering crowds. For old Vienna, largely defined as it was by prominent Jewish denizens, the end was not subtle.

Prior to that end, Karl Kraus was a formidable presence, even in a society that existed to harbor formidable presences. His legend lies in his skills as an aphorist, satirist, and as publisher/editor of the newspaper Die Fackel (The Torch). Founded in 1899 and originally featuring contributions from Viennese cultural gods like Peter Altenberg, Egon Friedell, Oscar Kokoschka, and Adolph Loos, after 1911 it was written solely by Kraus, who filled it with pontifications on anything that stirred his ire or inspired his reverence, especially topics he deemed ineptly considered by other members of the Viennese press. As Jonathan Franzen puts it in an introductory note to The Kraus Project, his robust translations of four Kraus essays and a poem, its timeliness, range, and prolificacy made Die Fackel “like a blog that pretty much everybody who mattered in the German-speaking world, from Freud to Kafka to Walter Benjamin, found it necessary to read and have an attitude toward.”

None of which make a case for why Kraus should be read today, and to an extent,The Kraus Project doesn’t either, because it isn’t so much about his relevance to contemporary readers as it is about his relevance to the middle-aged Jonathan Franzen. Franzen’s first exposure to Kraus’s work thirty years ago was pivotal in his life as a writer, and in fulfilling a goal he set then, to ultimately revisit and adequately translate Kraus’s work, he offers here a reengagement with a hero that had both roused and stymied him. While he’s enlisted Kraus scholar Paul Reitter and Austrian novelist Daniel Kehlmann to join him in providing footnotes to illuminate Kraus’s often impenetrable prose, the bulk of his commentary consists of sweeping digressions back to his own intemperate days of struggle and confusion. It’s a strange and inventive memoir about a writer’s rapprochement with both his literary father and his younger self, and a bittersweet remembrance of a time when the love of language seemed the very basis for a life of substance.

Franzen first encountered Kraus’s work in his early twenties while in Germany on a Fulbright grant. There’s much here about Franzen’s life in Berlin, largely characterized by an exhaustive immersion into French literary theory and Gravity’s Rainbow, a shaky engagement to his eventual wife “V,” subsequent infidelity, thwarted desire, a maddening ambition to be a successful novelist, and, in general, “how horrible it is to be twenty-two.” And fueling it all, an anger that had somehow resulted from a life of privilege:

I was a late child in a loving family that, although it wasn’t nearly prosperous enough to make me a rentier, did have enough money to place me in a good public school district and send me to an excellent college, where I learned to love literature and language. I was a white male heterosexual American with good friends and perfect health, and beyond all this I had the immeasurably good fortune not only to discover very early what I wanted to do with my life but to have the freedom and the talent to pursue it. I had such an embarrassment of riches that I can barely stand to enumerate them here. And yet, for all my privileges, I became an extremely angry person. 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.

Kraus, known as The Great Hater, also came from a life of privilege; his family’s business granted him financial independence, which allowed him to publish Die Fackel without any of the compromises necessary to placate subscribers or advertisers. And like Franzen, he had his issues; Franzen had middle class guilt, and Kraus had ambivalence with his Jewish identity (which could encompass the entire spectrum from self-regard to self-hatred, and which he clarified with comments like, “It is known that my hatred of the Jewish press is exceeded only by my hatred of the antisemitic press, while my hatred of the antisemitic press is exceeded only by my hatred of the Jewish press”). So, Franzen identified, and idolized, and having gone to Berlin “actively seeking literary fathers,” he followed a convoluted, if inevitable, path to the writer whose newspaper’s original motto was “What We Kill”:

When I remember how oppressed I was by fears and premonitions of thermonuclear war, and how unlikely it seemed that the world would last long enough for me to have a normal life span, it makes more sense to me that I stuck with V and our engagement. Young people are said to have no conception of their mortality, but I had the opposite problem: I thought I’d be lucky to live another ten years. And so I needed to accomplish a whole life now. V and I needed to save the world (or at least the American novel) now. If I was still alive at thirty-two, I’d be so happy not to be dead that I could deal with any bad consequences of having married young. The apocalyptic and the megalomaniacal were so intertwined in me that they almost amounted to the same thing. After my narrow escape from Munich [he had escaped with X, who wouldn’t sleep with him unless he called off his engagement], I was also so angry, angry at the world for having denied the pleasure of sex with X; and when I then came to the angry, apocalyptic, and arguably megalomaniacal Karl Kraus, I found the paternal example I’d been looking for.

KarlKrausKraus was an exceptionally inscrutable father, equally demanding in both content and style. His work is “so particularly tied,” Franzen writes, “to long-forgotten controversies, to rivals now obscure, to newspapers and literary works that only scholars read anymore.” His prose style is willfully difficult, “hard to read in German, too-deliberately hard.” Kraus’s are often missives of intentional obfuscation, forming “an agreeable barrier to entry” meant “to keep the uninitiated out,” or to expose feeble competitors by their inability to decipher them. It was, according to Gershom Scholem, “a war for incomprehensibility.”

To a large degree, Kraus won. Like all great stylists deeply rooted in their own language, Kraus is considered impossible to translate in a way that captures the hallmarks of his voice, which abounded with virtuosic wordplay, linguistic acrobatics, and, not least, wit. Franzen assures us that lines like, “People are very talented in the jungle, and talent begins in the East around the time you reach Bucharest,” are very funny in the mother tongue, and asks for our patience as he has on occasion “to resort, dismally, to trying to explain the humor.” Despite what’s lost, what’s clear is the ferocity of Kraus’s intellect and the commitment to his passions. I can’t vouch for any liberties taken with the texts (the book is formatted with the original German on facing pages), but the translations are feverishly intense, and they leave one feeling alternately preached to by a lunatic, bludgeoned by a genius, and mesmerized by a shaman.

Most of Kraus’s writings here focus on his disparagement and praise of two nineteenth century writers, Heinrich Heine and the playwright Johann Nestroy, respectively, but the real topic is Kraus’s obsession with the German language, for which he held a reverence bordering on sanctification. For Kraus, as Reitter explains, “an important purpose of his ‘revolutionary,’ extremely challenging style was to force readers to read more alertly, in the hope of revitalizing the Austrian mind.” This deeper contemplation of “linguistic options” was crucial to elevating German morality, ethical decision-making, and a betterment of society in general; a typical insistence on the subject is that “it’s only in the rapture of linguistic conception that a world grows out of chaos.”

Using this criteria, there were few greater crimes against the spiritual health of the Austrian people than a newspaper’s inclusion of the feuilleton, a section usually devoted to commentary of a trifling sort, or greater villains than Heinrich Heine, the enormously famous German writer who expatriated to Paris and subsequently “smuggled in” this “French disease.” Kraus devotes the book’s first essay, “Heinrich and the Consequences,” to decimating both:

The [feuilleton], though – this form that is only an envelope for the content, not the content itself; that is merely dress for the body, not flesh to the spirit – the form only had to be discovered once for it to be there for all time. Heinrich Heine took care of that, and thanks to him our gentlemen no longer need betake themselves to Paris. You can write feuilletons today without having personally sniffed your way to the Champs Elysees. The great trick of linguistic fraud, which in Germany pays far better than the greatest achievement of linguistic creativity, keeps working in generation after generation of newspapers, furnishing casual readers everywhere with the most agreeable of excuses for avoiding literature. Talent flutters aimlessly in the world and gives sweet nourishment to the philistine’s hatred of genius. Writing feuilletons means twining curls on a bald head; but these curls please the public better than a lion’s mane of thoughts. Esprit and charm, which presumably were necessary in developing the trick and becoming adept at it, are now passed on by it automatically. With an easy hand, Heine pushed open the door to this dreadful development, and the magician who brought talent within reach of the unendowed surely himself doesn’t stand all that far above the development.

This is Kraus just cracking his knuckles. From there, he follows the trajectory to the inevitable, uniform monotony of the infected:

Heine…so loosened the corset on the German language that today every salesclerk can finger her breasts. What’s ghastly about the spectacle is the sameness of these talents, which are all as alike as rotten eggs. Today’s impressionistic errand boys no longer report the breaking of a leg without the mood and no burning of a building without the personal note that they all have in common. When the one describes the German Kaiser, he does it exactly the same way the other describes the mayor of Vienna, and the other can’t think of anything to say about wrestlers except what the one has to say about swimming in a river. Everything suits everything always, and the inability to find old words counts as subtlety when the new words already suit everything. This type is either an observer who in opulent adjective amply compensates for what Nature denied him in nouns, or an aesthete who makes himself conspicuous with his love of color and his sense of nuance and still manages to perceive things in the world around him as deeply as dirt goes under a fingernail. And they all have a tone of discovery, as if the world had only just now been created, when God made the Sunday feuilleton and saw that it was good.

And there’s more, so very much more.

It’s no wonder Kraus would appeal to a young writer with Franzen’s sensibilities – he undoubtedly saw in Kraus the lesson that if you write well enough, indignation can produce a special kind of beauty. Unfortunately, in another of Kraus’s great themes, the inverse relationship between technology and the imagination (Reitter quotes characteristic aphorisms like “Progress celebrates the pyrrhic victory over nature” and “Progress will make wallets out of human skin”), Franzen also saw a justification for the crotchety belittlements of “the asininities that the click-imperative engenders” which have earned him a reputation as a humorless crank:

Immersing myself in Kraus in my twenties helped inoculate me against technology envy. I internalized his distrust and made it my own, even though, in the early 1980s, technology to me meant little more than TV, airliners, nuclear weaponry, and the minibus-size computer at the seismology lab where I worked part-time. Because I’d used computers in high school and college and was an early adopter of computerized word processing, I’ve persisted in the quaint conviction that technology is a tool, not a way of life. The metastatic and culturally transformative technological advances of the last two decades have struck me as vindications of Kraus’s warnings. In 1910 he was already not impressed; and his work showed me the way to not being impressed myself.

JonathanFranzenIf only Franzen would adopt the brevity of aphorisms. Or if his explications of topics like the “tabloidization of AOL’s home page” had even a smidgen of the eloquence found in his homages to Krausian influence. Any line of Franzen’s pabulum about the “Mac vs. PC coolness” debate shows that not all of the lessons of the father have been fully assimilated. It says something that Franzen’s comprehensible takes on contemporary dilemmas aren’t nearly as interesting as Kraus’s incomprehensible ones; they read as less neo-Krausian than as a channeling of Franzen’s inner Underground Man, and it’s strange that at this point in his career, he doesn’t see how charmless and unpersuasive his paroxysms are, or how they can feel hostile and alienating to otherwise sympathetic readers. He may also want to consider how those claiming freedom from envy are often its greatest sufferers; when it comes to technophobia, Franzen’s tone is of a nerdy, petulant egghead who still can’t understand why all the pretty girls go for the handsome, popular dimwits.

The Kraus Project has way too much of this, but, that’s Franzen. And to his credit, his inclusion of Reitter’s and Kehlmann’s comments, so infused are they with authority, good humor, and reverence for Kraus, alleviates a considerable amount of Franzen fatigue, with many of the book’s more engaging passages resulting from the contributors’ obvious delight in the three-way confab. For instance, in the essay “Nestroy and Posterity”, devoted (mostly) to Kraus’s praise of the playwright, a reference to George Bernard Shaw results in Kehlmann’s explanation of Kraus’s Shaw hatred:

Shaw is the prototype of the modern, shallow, media-compatible journalist-litterateur whose fame rests largely on having interesting opinions and giving original interviews: who talks to every newspaper and doesn’t have the least interest in language itself

—which leads to Reitter’s elucidation of Kraus’s often dire vision:

[A]round 1908 he came to believe that our technological capabilities and our imaginative faculties were going in opposite directions-the former were going up and, as a result, the latter down-and this thought really scared him. It’s what made him into the ‘apocalyptic satirist.’ In the essay ‘Apocalypse’ (1908), he writes, ‘Culture can’t catch its breath, and in the end a dead humanity lies next to its works, whose invention cost us so much of our intellect that we had none left to put them to use. We were complicated enough to build machines and too primitive to make them serve us. We operate a worldwide system of traffic along a narrow route in the brain.’

DieFackel—which leads to…well, more Franzen griping, this time about “smartphone videos of dudes dropping Mentos into liter bottles of Diet Pepsi and shouting ‘Whoa!’ while they geyser.”

This is the gist, but these are selective edits, and much of the book’s success lies in the cumulative effects of unbridled expansiveness both above and below the footnote line. Each commentator helps to clarify Kraus, with the sub-division of responsibilities being that Reitter further clarifies Kraus, Franzen clarifies Franzen, and Kehlmann provides, if not comic relief, some refreshing candor. When Kraus states, re: Heine, “His charm, according to his grown-up defenders, is a musical one. To which I reply: to be responsive to literature, you cannot be responsive to music, otherwise the melody and rhythm of music will suffice to create a mood,” Kehlmann notes (and not the only time), “Who the hell knows what Kraus is really saying here.” Kraus was so mercurial, you wonder if even he didn’t know what he meant at certain points, and when considering lines like “Poetry or a joke: the act of creation lies between what’s self-evident and what is permanent,” the message from these insightful, devoted students, that the pleasure in reading Kraus is often found more in contemplation than conclusion, is an encouraging one.

The main criticism to be made here is that the balance isn’t more finely maintained, and that much of Franzen’s commentary feels misplaced. With the book’s commercial fate hinging on star power, the footnotes are predictably disproportionate. Franzen’s springboarding often takes him into a cosmos of recollection, and there are several instances where his footnotes engulf so many pages, and are so wantonly digressive, you’ve effectively forgotten what book you’re in, let alone Kraus’s remark that instigated the response. Much of this would have been better served in a different format, even one as pedestrian as an introduction and epilogue, where some of the more tangential Franzencentric material, so tonally incongruous with the input of his collaborators, could function more effectively as a supplement to the more immediate, and pertinent, commentary.

But Franzen’s quirks are a bearable tariff for this otherwise exceptional, bravely unorthodox, introduction to Kraus, and perhaps, in this context, they reflect the inevitable disorientation that accompanies any reader’s journey back to the transformative texts of his or her youth. Franzen chose here a knotty path to reconciliation, and if some of the results reinforce what so many naysayers already think of him, the end result is leavened as much by humility as by hubris.

Soon after returning from Berlin, Franzen received a wedding present from his college German professor George Avery, another “alternate father…who had opened my eyes to the connection between literature and the living of life.” It was a hardcover edition of Kraus’s The Third Walpurgis Night, and the gift inspired Franzen “to become [Avery’s] best ex-student ever – to prove myself worthy, to demonstrate my love” by attempting to translate two Kraus essays he’d acquired in Berlin:

When I’d finished drafts of the two translations, I sent them to George. He returned them a few weeks later, with marginal notations in his microscopic handwriting, and with a letter in which he applauded my effort but said that he could also see how ‘devilishly difficult’ it was to translate Kraus. Taking his hint, I looked at the drafts with a fresh eye and was discouraged to find them stilted and nearly unreadable. Almost every sentence needed further work, and I was so worn out by the work I’d already done that I buried the pages in a file folder.

But Kraus had changed me. 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, and I wanted to do it via the novel, the popular genre that he’d disdained but I did not. I still hoped to finish my Kraus project, too, after my novel had made me famous and a millionaire.

If Franzen’s anger hasn’t entirely emerged from callowness, The Kraus Project still stands as a righteous hope fulfilled. And one that does honor to his fathers.

Steve Danziger is managing editor of Fiction magazine and a contributing editor at Open Letters. In September he wrote for Open Letters about outsider artist Henry Darger.