As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, the largest concentration of artists, writers, musicians and journalists congregated in Vienna and convened in its many cafes. Foremost among the city’s illustrious intelligentsia was the satirist Karl Kraus, who from 1899 until his death in 1936 both edited and published the influential magazine Die Fackel (The Torch). Readers included Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka and Sigmund Freud. The wit was scabrous, the critical analysis piercing. Aesthetes and hypocrites were debunked and skewered, pomp and artifice exposed and ridiculed. The sun might have been setting on the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, but in its last glorious years, Kraus and his journal were instrumental in safeguarding Vienna’s standing as a city of ideas and a meeting place for minds.
A century on and Die Fackel is no more, Vienna is no longer the cultural hub, and Kraus is a prophet shrouded under a dust sheet. But now this sidelined Central European satirist is about to be resurrected and introduced to a new public, courtesy of one of America’s most critically acclaimed novelists. Early into The Kraus Project, Jonathan Franzen admits to falling under Kraus’s spell while a student and undertaking the feat of translating his famously dense, opinion-heavy and polemical essays. With additional polish and finessing from two experienced translators and Kraus experts, Paul Reitter and Daniel Kehlmann, and footnotes from Franzen that are not only illustrative but entertaining, The Kraus Project brings out the best in one long-dead writer and provides valuable glimpses into the thoughts, creative mindset and working practice of one of the most interesting writers at work today.
Franzen’s book is chiefly comprised of two of Kraus’s longer essays. The first is a withering critique of the German romantic poet Heinrich Heine; the second an appraisal of one of Kraus’s few literary heroes, the Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy. On one page we get Kraus’s original German, on the other Franzen’s translation. Kraus was known in his day as the Great Hater, and he certainly doesn’t mince his words in his takedown of Heine, a poet who was both the most popular and the most reviled German writer of the 19th century. Heine, for Kraus, is a poor man’s Johann Goethe, his poetry sentimental and his prose cheap journalism. The Nestroy essay reads like a flip side to the Heine, being a eulogy to an underrated Austrian writer (and a virtually obscure one everywhere else) rather than a hatchet-job on an overrated one.
Franzen takes liberties with his translation in places but it would be churlish to pull him up on this as he always captures Kraus’ essence and manages to distil clarity from the frequent opacity. Great pains have been taken to immaculately preserve Kraus’ linguistic tricks. One line in the original talks of restoring to literature the juices that have been “gepreßt” and “erpreßt” from it – pressed and blackmailed. Unable to duplicate Kraus’s original rhyme, Franzen reverts instead to alliteration and gives us “extracted” and “extorted”. The meaning remains the same, the metaphor stays intact and the stylistic slickness keeps its sheen.
As we immerse ourselves in The Kraus Project, we realise that Kraus is not the sole star of the show. In actual fact, he shares top billing with his translator. Franzen’s voice is to be found in the book’s footnotes – or in his words, the “astronomical footnote tally”. These footnotes initially appear daunting, the pages reminiscent of academic texts that consist of a couple of lines of the work in question and the rest scholarly explanation that swells on the page and threatens to spill over (indeed, some pages are composed only of footnotes, with Kraus banished until Franzen has finished edifying).
However, Franzen resists overburdening us with dry detail and his light tone leavens Kraus’s occasional starchiness. “Boy, does Kraus nail what’s wrong with Heine’s sunset poem,” he reports, concluding that the poem in his eyes is “smart-ass”.
Franzen is also given to bringing in contemporary parallels to decode or contextualise Kraus.
He compares Heine’s decision to trade Germany for Paris in 1831 with Bob Dylan’s switch to electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Kraus, Franzen reckons, would have hated blogs but Die Fackel was very much like one (a view that chimes with one made by Clive James in his entry on Kraus in his 2007 magnum opus, Cultural Amnesia: “As the self-appointed scourge of self-revealing speech, he was a linguistic philosopher before the fact, a blogger before the Web”). The shallow, mass-produced, gossip-crammed feuilletons of Kraus’s day resemble social media like Twitter and Facebook.
The longer the footnote, the more Franzen uses Kraus as a springboard to explore his own ideas and divulge his own truths. Thus we get tangents on such diverse topics as PCs versus Macs, literary criticism, shoddy journalism, smartphones, fireworks and Franzen’s habit of writing while wearing earplugs. There is also a caustic broadside against John Updike, a misguided evaluation of Philip Roth, a riff on Ernest Hemingway’s limitations and the revelation that Franzen’s literary precursor is Thomas Pynchon. Salman Rushdie is singled out and scolded for having succumbed to Twitter.
Best of all, though, are the footnotes packed with autobiographical anecdotes and accounts, particularly those concerning Franzen’s time in Germany as a 22-year-old Fulbright scholar. When not cheerfully regaling us with stories about punks, peaceniks, conniving landladies and a lacklustre side-trip to Vienna, he is painting unflattering self-portraits (“I, too, was solitary, depressive, conventional, prudish, workaholic, given to philosophising” and “wary of pleasure”) and rhapsodising on days spent writing, reading and smoking. Perhaps most surprising is Franzen’s decision to share with the reader lengthy, warts-and-all correspondence with his former fiancée V, recount his flings with W and X and then elaborate on his failed marriage. Franzen’s book of personal essays, Farther Away (2012), ended up bringing us closer to the author, and he achieves more of the same here.
The only problem with Franzen’s footnotes is that they tend to bring Franzen into sharp relief and reduce Kraus to a distant speck. Also, there are moments when we find ourselves reading two texts simultaneously, or at least having to bookmark Kraus’s last point before embarking on four pages of Franzen’s notes. What’s more, despite Franzen’s best efforts to render fin-de-siècle Kraus accessible to a 21st-century readership, there are passages that are just too dense. “Life is hard to digest,” Kraus writes, but so too are lines such as “they’ve strapped art into the Procrustean Folding Bed of their commerce” – a line from the first page of the first essay in the book. There are valiant but ultimately counterproductive attempts to explain certain cultural references and unpack key aphorisms. Some footnotes read like apologies (“Another passage where Kraus’s sputtering rage makes him all but unintelligible” or “Sadly, more untranslatable wordplay here”) and now and again all three translators confess to being stumped by Kraus’s logic. If they can’t decipher Kraus, what hope does the reader have?
Kraus is tough going – “deliberately hard” according to Franzen – but perseverance pays dividends. It was Franzen who (perhaps infamously) postulated that there are “status” novels and “contract” novels, that is challenging reads and breezy crowd-pleasers, and if Kraus had been a novelist, his writing would have firmly belonged in that first camp. Whether or not the author of Freedom or The Corrections produces high or low art is irrelevant here; what matters is that in these so-called dumbed-down times he has had the guts, and the chops, to take on a largely forgotten and wholly difficult writer and revivify his reputation for a new generation. Could this kick-start a trend? It is tempting to envisage other Viennese luminaries receiving the same treatment: Jonathan Lethem on Alfred Polgar, Joseph O’Neill on Franz Blei, Michael Chabon on Egon Friedell.
The Kraus Project is, then, a kind of literary salvage operation. Kraus deserved to be rescued and Franzen deserves praise for having done so. But the book is not only a collection of essays. Tucked away at the end is a short poem by Kraus which Franzen has titled Let No One Ask … It is dated 1934, four years before the Anschluss in which Austria was annexed into Nazi Germany, but one year after Adolf Hitler seized power.
The poem, a response to the rise of National Socialism and its insidious threat, is especially poignant for being sheared of wit and acerbic opinion. “I have nothing to say” reads one simple, plaintive, despairing line. Hitler was just too horrific to mock. Even satire has its boundaries.