A great American writer's confrontation with a great European critic—a personal and intellectual awakening
A hundred years ago, the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus was among the most penetrating and farsighted writers in Europe. In his self-published magazine, Die Fackel, Kraus brilliantly attacked the popular media's manipulation of reality, the dehumanizing machinery of technology and consumer capitalism, and the jingoistic rhetoric of a fading empire. But even though he had a fervent following, which included Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin, he remained something of a lonely prophet, and few people today are familiar with his work. Luckily, Jonathan Franzen is one of them.
In The Kraus Project, Franzen, whose "calm, passionate critical authority" has been praised in The New York Times Book Review, not only presents his definitive new translations of Kraus but annotates them spectacularly, with supplementary notes from the Kraus scholar Paul Reitter and the Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann. Kraus was a notoriously cantankerous and difficult writer, and in Franzen he has found his match: a novelist unafraid to voice unpopular opinions strongly, a critic capable of untangling Kraus's often dense arguments to reveal their relevance to contemporary America.
While Kraus is lampooning the iconic German poet and essayist Heinrich Heine and celebrating his own literary hero, the Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy, Franzen is annotating Kraus the way Kraus annotated others, surveying today's cultural and technological landscape with fearsome clarity, and giving us a deeply personal recollection of his first year out of college, when he fell in love with Kraus's work. Painstakingly wrought, strikingly original in form, The Kraus Project is a feast of thought, passion, and literature.
Franzen (Freedom) approaches his latest project with characteristic ambition: to provide an accessible translation of key essays by the early 19th-century Austrian critic Karl Kraus (1874 1936), explain and contextualize Kraus's biting satire, come to terms with the young man he was when he first encountered the self-styled "wrathful prophet," and draw contemporary relevance from Kraus's work. The result is clear, polished, and often funny no small accomplishment, given Kraus's notoriously difficult to translate prose. Franzen has similar aims; he leaves to Reitter the scholarly legwork of explaining obscure cultural references and providing analysis, and instead uses the copious footnotes to provide current analogies for Kraus's targets and reflect on his own studies in Germany, which lead to meditations on his upbringing, relationships, literary aspirations, and search for a literary father. Several footnotes extend for pages, turning Kraus into background music for scholarly speculation and ruminations. When the narratives coalesce, the "spasm of pleasure" amply repays the reader's dogged attention, revealing two literary minds operating at the peak of their maturity and strength.