Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project
April 19, 2015
A review of Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus (2013: Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
In fin-de-siècle Vienna, perhaps the most polarizing public figure was the satirist Karl Kraus (1874-1936). The German-Jewish Kraus edited Die Fackel (The Torch), a cultural and political journal that so routinely disparaged the age’s intellectuals, critics dubbed Kraus “The Great Hater.” Everyone of consequence read his severe, yet witty, polemics – a readership of 30,000 at its height, including thinkers as varied as Theodor Adorno, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and W.H. Auden. Yet for a man who considerably influenced Western Europe’s literati, Kraus’s legacy has faded.
Novelist Jonathan Franzen aspires to change this. In The Kraus Project, Franzen offers English translations of four of Kraus’s essays, adding his own commentary in a mass of footnotes that function as a narrative stream largely independent of Kraus’s text. Franzen’s commentary is entirely conspicuous, even to the point of distracting from Kraus’s writings. The footnotes occasion Franzen to relive his existential struggles as a young and zealous reader of Kraus in 1980s Berlin, where he was emboldened by the satirist’s stubbornly held concept of aesthetic honesty.
The resulting book is bizarre – an admixture of Franzen’s personal anecdotes, set against the backdrop of Kraus’s Vienna, with its artists and socialites and public personalities, its buried discourses and umbrages. Reviewers have called the book “strange and interesting”1Modris Eksteins for the Wall Street Journal and “a hybrid beast.”2Dwight Garner for the New York Times They liken the experience of reading it to “receiving a deep tissue massage while being spat on from a great height,”3Jacob Mikanowski for The Point Magazine or ingesting “some kind of medicine, with intermittent apologies for bad taste.”4David Wolf for the Guardian The unavoidable jumps from text to footnote and back again make for read that is indeed, to say the least, fragmented.
To add to the difficulty, Kraus’s prose is intentionally cryptic – a barrier to entry to block those whom he considered pseudo-aesthetes. For Kraus was a satirist, but also an elitist when it came to art. Most writers he mocks, voguish in his time, are now long forgotten, except perhaps Heinrich Heine. Since Kraus’s references are obscure, and Franzen’s footnotes erratic, The Kraus Project would be unnavigable were it not for historian Paul Reitter’s and Austrian novelist Daniel Kehlmann’s orienting, and refreshingly engaging, footnotes – which, however, add yet another layer of text to be sifted.
Kraus was particularly attentive to technology and the moral dimensions of the evolving modern media that were transforming the experience of living in the world. Kraus unremittingly critiqued newspapers, and in particular the “feuilleton” – a short-style written piece published in the review section of papers, distilling topics of culture, criticism, or the arts. For Kraus, the feuilleton’s short length and its polished, compact narrative product pointed to Vienna’s cultural dissolution and emotional superficiality.
Germanophones, he claimed, no longer preferred content to form – their characteristic, stolid virtue – but rather embraced the “Romantic” (Italian and French) tradition of decorated verse at the expense of substance.
Kraus’s signature method as a critic involved attacking a public figure or cultural trend and deciphering from it a wider societal ill. In scrutinizing the details of Viennese life, Kraus sought to identify “the chords of eternity” in the “noises of the day” – a laudable aspiration to reach beyond the particulars. For example, Heine’s Parisian writings became the occasion for Kraus’s attacks on otherwise dull writers who traveled solely for the purpose of acquiring exotic material – ultimately fluff content – and the readers who consumed it.
Since Kraus could so adeptly cut through the literary weeds, Franzen suggests that he “has more to say to us in our own media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment than his more accessible contemporaries now do.” High-tech culture is a bit of a hobby horse for Franzen, and there is indeed much in it that should not be viewed uncritically. But first, Franzen never quite shows why it is that we should read Kraus instead of his “more-accessible contemporaries,” such as Georg Simmel or Frankfurt School critic Walter Benjamin – prominent thinkers who also responded provocatively to the urban, aesthetic, and spiritual crises of modernity. While Kraus was certainly clever, his pronouncements were so forceful that he often seems to build his case through aggression and snark – perhaps ironically for a critic who claimed such a concern with content. Unfortunately, Franzen’s use of Kraus follows suit, leaving the majority of his own verdicts rigid and bereft of the nuance so badly needed in American moral discourse today.
Second, it is Franzen, rather than Kraus, who does the talking to our ‘historical moment.’ Franzen seems to appropriate Kraus to fortify his own pet peeves and critical judgments. It was Kraus, apparently, who first inspired Franzen’s cultural polemics; but when Franzen attacks our era’s equivalent of the “feuilleton”, the blogosphere, the epitome of our own presumably shallow and restless cultural moment, Kraus’s incisive, if withering weapons become blunt instruments in his hands. Franzen broadly applies Krausian caustic to bad journalism and ‘establishment’ grievances, lampooning everything from “good lefty professors” who own Apple devices, to the crowd-pleasing writers of pop literature (beware, Jennifer Weiner fans).
Were Kraus with us today, he doubtless would spill a good bit of ink over Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and other charms of the “digital age.” But though Franzen successfully adapts Kraus’s incisive voice, one suspects that he treats these important contemporary phenomena more superficially than his ‘paternal’ inspiration might have done.
In fact, the very idea of an “applied Kraus”, or “Kraus for Dummies,” which is what Franzen’s footnotes almost amount to, paradoxically undermines Kraus’s relevance. The overwrought parallels that Franzen forces between 20th century Vienna and 21st century America – in search of a play-by-play cultural narrative – rob Vienna’s historical moment of the full insight it might offer the present if Franzen had actually preserved a critical distance from Kraus’s texts. In this sense, The Kraus Project cripples its own objective to speak to the present. Franzen’s try at an authoritative application of what it means to be a Krausian today blocks the reader’s capacity to absorb Kraus’s own moral radar and to then critique present culture himself.
Although Franzen’s polemic on the hazards of technology and the vacuity of modern “individualism” is often on target, it is already something of a bromide. As New York Times reviewer Dwight Garner pointed out, others have made similar critiques of technology and social media, but more thoughtfully. Almost seven years after it first appeared, Christine Rosen’s New Atlantis article “Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism” remains one of the most insightful takes on today’s technoculture – making much of Franzen’s case more clearly and with less vitriol than he does. Yet Franzen, like Kraus, maintains a committed following; some readers will be energized by this sort of criticism to go deeper. Perhaps Franzen’s devotees, and indeed Kraus’s, are in fact the rare kinds drawn to vinegar rather than to honey. For the rest of us, The Kraus Project will probably be relegated to the footnotes.
Ms. Gabl writes from Northern Virginia.
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