What’s the German for a writer who resurrects a writer who would have hated him? Until a word is coined, I’m going to go with ‘Franzen’ – after the most famous American novelist of the moment, whose commercial and critical success has brought him, if his public statements are any indication, nothing but misery. His new book, The Kraus Project, returns him to the early 1980s, before he wrote The Corrections and Freedom – two internationally bestselling epics of middle-class white America struggling with marriage, parenthood, illness and climate change – and his two earlier, somewhat disavowed systems novels. Thirty years ago he was just a Swarthmore student abroad in what was still West Berlin, exploring his vices and discovering, and tentatively translating, the great Viennese ‘anti-journalist’ Karl Kraus.
The Kraus Project is Franzen’s reckoning with his undergraduate self; with his ambitions and frustrations; with his completist tendencies to let no juvenilia go to waste and no headline go unremarked; and with the publishing legacy of the generation of the 1960s and 1970s. That was the era when Pynchon, Barth and Coover were embarking on a counterculturally charged reassessment of the symbolic and structural principles of the novel, and when Kraus’s virtuosic, vitriolic style – halfway between Karl and Groucho – was being introduced to Anglophone readers, in translations by the Viennese refugee and Brandeis professor Harry Zohn:
Many share my views with me. But I don’t share them with them.
To have talent, to be a talent: the two are always confused.
Why should one artist grasp another? Does Mount Vesuvius appreciate Mount Etna? At most, a feminine relationship of jealous comparison might develop: Who spits better?
To write a novel may be pure pleasure. To live a novel presents certain difficulties. As for reading a novel, I do my best to get out of it.
I no longer have collaborators. I used to be envious of them. They repel those readers whom I want to lose myself.
From a torch something drops occasionally. A little lump of pitch.
Die Fackel (‘The Torch’) was Kraus’s magazine. It was the smoky, scalding, staplebound enemy of mixed metaphors, pan-Germanism, the House of Habsburg, everything French, pro-semites and anti-semites, and the popular press, especially Vienna’s paper of record, the Neue Freie Presse. In 1899, the 24-year-old Kraus – the son of a wealthy paper manufacturer from Gitschin in Bohemia, now Jičín in the Czech Republic – renounced Judaism and converted to Catholicism (either as a social expedient, or a perverse justification for his already developed self-loathing), and published the first issue of Die Fackel. He reported the news by what’s now called aggregation, offering commentary and emendation. He inspected Austria-Hungary’s unconscious just as the empire was splitting up. Not that Kraus had any time for psychoanalysis: if his most private thoughts were to be disclosed, it was not because the process would benefit him, but because it would benefit the public; Kraus confessed not just to Vienna’s sins, but for them.
As is common with cult journals, Die Fackel’s subscribers were as illustrious as its contributors: Peter Altenberg, Kokoschka, Adolf Loos, Heinrich Mann, Schoenberg, Strindberg, Trakl and Wedekind (whose play Spring Awakening Franzen translated in 1986 and published in 2007). Kafka was a loyal reader, as was Benjamin, who regarded Die Fackel as the literary fulfilment of Trotsky’s permanent revolution – ‘an eternally new newspaper’. Gershom (then Gerhard) Scholem turned the noun Fackel into a verb, fackeln, ‘to torch on’: this wasn’t necessarily flattering but did back Kraus’s assertion that anyone who criticised him became more popular than he was. Die Fackel appeared whenever its editor pleased: quarterly, monthly, weekly, even daily. After 1911, until the end of Kraus’s life in 1936, he was its sole contributor.
He wrote essays, which today, in English and even in German, are read in excerpted sentences and paragraphs: in aphorism. The works of Hermann Broch, Musil, Schnitzler and Zweig are intact because their preoccupation with Vienna was merely prologue, material for extrapolation. Kraus was too honest, or too impatient, to try his hand at fiction, and instead got directly at the facts and his opinions: he attacked the liberal ‘Jewish press’ – by which he meant the secular Neue Freie Presse – for spilling too much intellectual ‘blood’ in defence of Leopold Hilsner, a Jewish cobbler from Polná wrongly convicted of the ritual murder of two Christian girls (i.e. the blood libel); and attacked the conservative ‘Jewish press’ – by which he meant the secular Die Zukunft – for outing Prince Philip Friedrich Alexander of Eulenburg-Hertefeld as a homosexual. For Kraus, all Germanophone media were a cabal, in which Jewish editors on the left displayed a pathetic sense of solidarity with their co-religionists, and Jewish editors on the right sought a pathetic normalisation through kneejerk patriotism. Kraus proclaimed himself the final incarnation of the Wandering Jew, and pitched camp in the extreme middle: the only position from which to survey the shifts between the collapsing official censorship bureaus, the internal censorship that editors practised to influence politics and game the property and stock markets, and the way the resultant liberty to scandalise increased circulation, which increased the appetite for scandal, which was itself scandalous. It all engendered a pervasive sensationalism: the true ‘news cycle’ of every empire in decline.
The Kraus Project is Franzen’s bid to force an equation: Vienna a century ago = America today. To prove it Franzen has translated a handful of essays in their entirety, and subjected them to an approximation of Kraus’s technique, by writing footnotes so extensive that they dominate every page and turn the annotated text into the subsidiary: Kraus’s essays become the headnotes to Franzen’s angst. Interspersed are glosses by the American scholar Paul Reitter, who has the thankless job of historically contextualising Kraus’s grievances, and the German-Austrian writer Daniel Kehlmann, whose interpretations can be divided into the four categories that Freud apportioned for jokes: the obscene, the aggressive, the cynical and the absurd. Franzen insists on a connection between Kraus – who was misunderstood by Viennese Jews of his era, and who frequently misunderstood himself – and Kehlmann, a 21st-century Viennese goy who writes novels and, what’s worse, was born in Munich. Despite the timidity implied by his enlisting of collaborators, Franzen offers Kraus’s original German on the verso of each leaf, as if he wants to be caught in infelicity or error – or in a desperate attempt to bulk out to 300 pages what might have been a Die Fackel-sized pamphlet.
The essays Franzen has translated are ‘Heine and the Consequences’ (1910), ‘Afterword to “Heine and the Consequences”’ (1911) and ‘Nestroy and Posterity’ (1912), all three from Kraus’s most energetic period; ‘Between Two Strains of Life: Final Word’ (1917), essentially an after-afterword to the third printing of his Heine essay; and the sub-Brechtian poem ‘Let No One Ask …’ (1934). Kehlmann calls the last ‘a masterpiece of brevity and despair’, and ‘one of the most important short poems of the 20th century’, but really it’s Kraus’s wan excuse for not addressing Hitler’s seizure of the chancellorship: ‘It passes; and later/it didn’t matter.’ But it did matter, only not to Kraus, who was ailing and depressed.
Kraus wrote about Heine for the usual reasons young critics write about older authors: to kill the father, sleep with the mother muse, and be reborn. He linked Heine’s most limpid and lazy style – developed, in Kraus’s telling, during Heine’s precious self-imposed exile in Parisian salons – with the style of the feuilleton, the pastel postcard of gossip and apolitical arts criticism that began appearing in French newspapers in 1800, as if to provide a pleasant distraction from Napoleon’s centralisation of power, and then spread throughout Europe, taking on, according to Kraus, each language’s, and country’s, worst attributes. In Germany it became pedantic and moralising; in Austria-Hungary melodramatically moody and snobbishly refined. Kraus compared the sentimentality of Heine, a Jew from Düsseldorf, with the farce of Nestroy, the Catholic dramatist from Vienna, and it’s no surprise which of the two he found lacking. Kraus was a lifelong frustrated poet and playwright, and though his translations of Shakespeare are entertainingly strange, it comes as a relief that most of his major play, The Last Days of Mankind (1930), is appropriated street-speech, and quotation from press and radio.
‘The masses’ are the by-product of the mass production of language: the linotype machine – the internet of the fin de siècle – ensured the fast and cheap dissemination of more periodicals, and so of more fast and cheap rhetoric, than ever before. In the first Heine essay, Kraus fixates on the industrial capacities of the logos, in a German masterly in its truncations: ‘Glaubt mir, ihr Farbenfrohen, in Kulturen, in denen jeder Trottel Individualität besitzt, vertrotteln die Individualitäten.’ A version of this characteristically untranslatable sentence might be: ‘Believe me, you multicoloured multiculturalists, turning every idiot into an individual turns individuality itself idiotic.’ Franzen has: ‘Believe me, you colour-happy people, in cultures where every blockhead has individuality, individuality becomes a thing for blockheads.’ He skips the neurotic beauty of Farbenfrohen, and the economical swerve of the noun Trottel becoming the verb vertrotteln; and though both omissions are forgivable, a culture where prominent American novelists can use the word ‘blockhead’ will itself become a blockheaded culture. But the most important element lost in this passage, which follows a condemnation of the Frenchification of German, is Kraus’s paradoxical use of Individualität, a noun that had come to German from the French only a half-century earlier. In the 1760s Rousseau redefined individuel from meaning ‘indivisible’, or ‘numerically distinct’, to meaning ‘a single person’, but it was only with the second volume of Tocqueville’s De la démocratie en Amérique in 1840 that individualisme took on the positive connotation of a heroic severance of personality from the herd, and was opposed by negative, greedy égoïsme; both terms were soon shepherded into German.
Instead of elucidating this paradox, and inquiring whether Kraus was aware of it, Franzen writes the following note:
You’re not allowed to say things like this in America nowadays, no matter how much the billion (or is it two billion now?) ‘individualised’ Facebook pages may make you want to say them. Kraus was known, in his day, to his many enemies, as the Great Hater. By most accounts he was a tender and generous man in his private life, with many loyal friends. But once he starts winding the stem of his polemical rhetoric, it carries him into extremely harsh registers.
(‘Harsh’, incidentally, is a fun word to say with a slacker inflection. To be harsh is to be uncool; and in the world of coolness and uncoolness – the high-school-cafeteria social scene of Gawker takedowns and Twitter popularity contests – the highest register that cultural criticism can safely reach is snark. Snark, indeed, is cool’s twin sibling.)
Any resemblance to real snark, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Franzen goes on to spank Salman Rushdie (for joining Twitter); n+1, ‘a politically committed print magazine that I respect’ (for praising the internet while not addressing its impoverishment of writers); and the liberal professoriat (for savaging capitalism in contemporary feuilletons written on Apple computers). The footnote is scattershot, but not exceptional. Just as Kraus’s densely argued texts deplore the mechanisation of verse, so Franzen’s unstructured exegeses attempt to summon a similar abhorrence of the digitisation of the novel. He never considers that if German poetry was able to survive the German-language press (and two wars, and communism), the odds are that American fiction will survive Google.
Kraus proceeds to assault Heine for favouring surface over depth, citing everything from Heine’s excessive punning to his insistence on referring to his poems as ‘songs’, in effect inviting composers to set them to music: call it incentivisation, in a viral campaign involving spinets. Franzen might not have written The Corrections to be optioned by HBO – the chamber music of our time, with David Simon our Mendelssohn – but he agreed to the option, and so the only thing that prevented his book’s debasement was an inept script that died in development. Kraus writes in Franzen’s translation: ‘To be responsive to literature, you cannot be responsive to music, otherwise the melody and rhythm of music will suffice to create a mood.’ A cursory dig into the Grimms’ dictionary will uncover that Stimmungsreiz (Franzen’s ‘mood’) is a misty German word meaning ‘charming atmosphere’ or ‘delightful ambience’, which Kraus is deploying sardonically (‘mood’ is plain Stimmung). Franzen writes: ‘To this line my friend Daniel Kehlmann, who is an actual Viennese and a deep student of Kraus, offers the comment: “Who the hell knows what Kraus is really saying here.”’
I do, for one, and all novelists should: Kraus is saying that the more care a writer takes with the surface sound of a sentence, the more the sentence can stray from sense. But he’s also slyly contradicting himself by coding the statement in a prose of remarkable phonic intricacy. Self-conscious style, though, isn’t something Franzen worries about anymore. In 2010 he told the Paris Review:
And, by a wide margin, I’ve never felt less self-consciously preoccupied with language than I did when I was writing Freedom. Over and over again, as I was producing chapters, I said to myself, ‘This feels nothing like the writing I did for twenty years – this just feels transparent.’ I wasn’t seeing in the pages any of the signs I’d taken as encouraging when I was writing The Corrections. The sentences back then had had a pop. They were, you know, serious prose sentences, and I was able to vanquish my doubts simply by rereading them.
If Kehlmann’s contributions are shameful, Reitter’s are dutiful and smart, and those reassuring initials ‘PR’ attached to his notes were the only thing that kept me reading. Franzen’s Project might be redeemed if it attracts readers to Reitter’s two vital books: The Anti-Journalist: Karl Kraus and Jewish Self-Fashioning in Fin-de-Siècle Europe (2008) and On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred (2012). A snippet from the former is wiser on Kraus than all of Franzen’s equivocations combined:
Kraus operated in a medium in which, to a particularly extreme degree, literary language was made exchangeable and consumable and was assimilated into various projects of social advancement. His project of internecine resistance took him, correlatively, particularly far in the direction of developing a style that would not be easy to assimilate – that would not have ‘consequences’ in the way he believed Heine’s literary journalism had.
But of all the presences in The Kraus Project, it’s not Reitter, Kehlmann, or Kraus who proves to be Franzen’s most dangerous interlocutor: it’s Franzen himself. He writes about his loneliness on his Fulbright trip to Germany; about his relationships with women, and with the spectres of Harold Bloom and Pynchon. He writes about envy, and how it encourages productivity, and how it limits productivity, and about the folly of the very notion of artistic productivity. He writes against blogs, yet allows a comparison between Die Fackel and blogs; he writes about the way the internet disturbs the reading experience, but does it in pages bracketed into German and English sections and in notes that confuse me more than anything I read online – that confuse me more than the Talmud. He writes about competition and the work ethic, but never mentions his own Heine: David Foster Wallace, a master of the nuanced citation who managed to be both smarter and more casual, crazier and kinder.
‘My explicitly stated goal,’ Franzen writes of himself in 1980s Berlin, ‘was to save the American novel – from social one-dimensionality, from critical preoccupation with the prison-house of language, from the off-putting avant-gardism of Pynchon and his kind.’ Apparently, he stayed inside and smoked cigarettes and typed for 12 hours a day, and it was in reading this autobiographical stretch – in breaks from my own smoking and typing – that I came to recognise a landsman. It seemed that we were both involved in Bildung, or ‘cultivation’, the German-Jewish discipline that shaped my grandparents, from Cologne, and the method by which German Jewry sought to become not just accepted by an adopted homeland, but to embody its quintessence. I realised that Franzen – perhaps more than any other American novelist, and certainly more than anyone else ever raised in the Congregational Church in the Midwest – felt like a guest fighting to be loved by a host culture, yet conscious that such love can never be fought for, and that the struggle was in equal parts futile and imaginary. He let his origins oppress him, just enough for him to know how to oppress himself in the event that America didn’t exile him, or have him executed.
I’ve come to regard this as Franzen’s Jewish Problem: Denise’s over-relished Judeophilia in The Corrections, blatantly counterpointed with her mother Enid’s over-relished Judeophobia; the depiction in Freedom of Jewish neocons rallying around the Iraq War, and its ridiculous portrayal of a New York diamond district salesman dealing rings while wearing phylacteries – which the religious wear only during prayer; and the way this book treats Kraus’s Jüdische Selbsthaß (Jewish self-hate) by the trick of letting Reitter sort it out, and the way it treats the Holocaust, by letting Kehlmann apostrophise it, leaving Franzen himself free to pontificate about Israel/Palestine with a sophistication that would barely pass muster on a local network affiliate, let alone on CNN. But I’m prepared to forgive him all this, as readers have to forgive Franzen everything, only because no one can ever hate him as much as he already hates himself. Franzen must know that he will never receive any review as cruel as the ones that, with each book and media appearance, he gives himself. It’s his awareness of all this, and his inability to restrain himself from betraying that awareness, that puts America’s foremost novelist in contention to become the world’s foremost Jewish novelist tout court – the inheritor of the crown of feathers. If only he were funnier, or cared a bit more about sex.