Attending each successive report of Jonathan Franzen's latest public pronouncement—be it that "Amazon favors yakkers and braggers" or that "E-books are not for serious readers"—is the withering sense that the author has become much more a product of the media-saturated mass culture he morally decries than he is willing to admit. To watch Franzen chafe under the weight of his popularity and the awareness that he may never escape the ludicrous mantle of "Great American Novelist" is a test in elementary forms of sympathy. But whether or not you sympathize with his character, it seems clear that Franzen's blustering bespeaks an effort to assume the role of a detached cultural observer, rather than that of a cultural phenomenon at the mercy of a judging public.
Perhaps in an attempt to offset the burden of his celebrity, Franzen has redirected the attention of Amercian readers to the remote center of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Prompted by recent contributions of Kraus scholar Paul Reitter and the German-Austrian novelist Daniel Kehlmann, Franzen has returned to his long-abandoned attempts to translate the notoriously cantankerous Austrian satirist Karl Kraus in The Kraus Project. As the first collection of Kraus's writings released by a major American publishing house, the book provides an unusual occasion to reconsider a largely neglected figure in twentieth-century German literary and intellectual history through the interpretation of one of the more ubiquitous figures in twenty-first century American literature.
As the book is laid out, the original German runs alongside the translation, occasionally broken up by stretches of blank pages—allegedly to relieve the reader from the intensity of Kraus's prose. Partly as an homage to Kraus's own annotative habits, Franzen's footnotes to the English text expand into a long-running commentary positing the late Austro-Hungarian Empire as a model for considering late-capitalist America. But Franzen's deliberately drawn kinship with Kraus extends beyond a critique of superficially similar empires in peril. Through the scores of aphorisms, satires, poems, polemical essays, and plays that Kraus composed from the turn of the century to the conclusion of the interwar period, he earned a reputation for a vigilant antagonism toward linguistic malefactions large and small. Enemies and friends alike portrayed him as a self-hating Jew inclined to literary feuds and obstinate contradictions—a reputation not unlike Franzen's for being a self-hating American similarly given to literary pugilism (see Franzen vs. Michiko Kakutani, Franzen vs. Oprah, etc.) and obstinate misunderstandings. Kraus's enduring appeal, however, lies in his literary merit, as indexed by the serious intellectual interest he held for writers from Kafka to Wittgenstein to Benjamin. Considering that said merit surpasses his reputation for trivial disputes, it's easy to suspect, cynically, that Franzen is eager to see himself as the Karl Kraus of the twenty-first century: an audacious cultural critic vindicated by the political catastrophe of modern technology and legitimated by the respectful attention of his peers.
Whatever the case, for all Franzen's insistence on the similarities, a host of factors keep the late-imperial Vienna of 1910 from being adequately rendered in the colloquial idiom of the post-9/11 America that forms the backdrop of his oeuvre. For one, the cultural milieu of turn-of-the-century Vienna was one in which critics of modernity—from Freud to Weininger—sat in close proximity to the more committed advocates of Viennese Modernism. For another, Vienna in 1910 had only just begun to adapt itself to the benefits of modern transportation and communication, a fact banalized in our techno-consumer culture, which tends to take those structurally transformative innovations for granted. Only against the relatively enclosed backdrop of early-twentieth-century Vienna, and what Carl Schorske called its "unusual combination of provincialism and cosmopolitanism, of traditionalism and modernism," is it possible to understand Kraus as the product and reflection of the contradictions specific to this period of Austrian history.
That is to say: understanding Kraus as a cultural observer demands more than a mere outline of Habsburg Vienna. As George Steiner once remarked, the problem facing anyone "seeking access to Kraus in any tongue other than a very special Viennese/anti-Viennese German is that of localism [...] of the formidable density, of the inwovenness of ephemeral allusion, in-group reference and encoded assumptions of familiarity." The problem of localism, and thus the difficulty of translating Kraus, goes a long way toward explaining why, out of Kraus's compendious output (including thirty-seven volumes of Die Fackel, the magazine he published from 1899 to 1936 and authored by himself from 1911 onward), only five major English translations of Kraus's work have been produced since 1976. As the sixth, The Kraus Project presents only a sliver of his work, organized in part by his infamous attack on Heine and feuilletonism in "Heine and the Consequences" (1910). The accompanying essays "Nestroy and Posterity" (1912), "Afterword to 'Heine and the Consequences'"(1911), and "Between Two Strains of Life" (1917), and the poem, "Let No One Ask" (1934), serve as foils to the more inflammatory moments of "Heine."
The four essays introduce the general reader to Kraus's aesthetic philosophy through his pillorying of the major German poet Heinrich Heine and defense of Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy. In "Heine and the Consequences," Kraus goes after the feuilleton—the short, impressionistic style of cultural reportage that became ubiquitous throughout Europe at the beginning of the 20th century—by way of Heine, whom he blames for imposing this vulgarized form of French cultural critique on the upright German capacity for Kritik. Though this essay has conventionally been read as Kraus's indictment of his own Jewish heritage through his treatment of what was problematically referred to as a form of "Jewish journalism" in anti-Semitic discourse, it encodes a larger critique of the impact of cosmopolitanism and media-technology on language. During the period between 1917 and 1934 (a stretch unrepresented in the The Kraus Project's selection of essays) Kraus published his most nuanced and comprehensive writings on the Austrian press after the First World War—specifically, in the form of prolific commentary on völkisch propaganda in the daily newspapers. Keeping in mind that Franzen's project is intended for a general audience and makes no pretense to comprehensiveness, it's a forgivable omission, but one so conspicuous as to invite speculation—a problem that could have been easily solved with the slightest of acknowledgements on the part of the translator.
The challenges Franzen faced in the course of the Project are clearly visible in the translation itself. Marring an otherwise serviceable English text are a small number of glaring anachronisms: for instance, the translation of "Faulenzer der Gedanken" [idler of thoughts] as "a lazy Susan of the mind," or "Kalodont ist das Beste"[Kalodont is the best] as "More Dentists Prefer Pepsodent." Had Franzen been more faithful to the original, his version would have retained some of the pomp specific to Kraus's style, and highlighted the strangeness of reading him from our contemporary perspective, without necessarily sacrificing the immediacy of his sentences. While such liberties are thankfully rare, they betray the larger problems of recontextualization from which The Kraus Project suffers, for all of its good intentions.
Beyond the superficial discontent with modern culture that it expresses, The Kraus Project is ironically most Krausian in the apocalyptic knowledge of its own impotence. That Franzen should footnote an essay criticizing feuilletonism for its "air of intimacy, its emphasis on evoking the mood of its author and its abundance of clever observations," with his own intimate account of how he arrived at Kraus, only compounds the irony—to say nothing of his exhortation to read feuilletons more closely in order to see that they "are the opposite of personal." "Feuilletons," Franzen insists, "are mass-produced, fast-moving, seriously addictive commodities that are overrunning the space in which actual literature is read, and undermining the ability of newspaper readers to develop their own imaginative responses to the news." Replace "feuilletons" with "Jonathan Franzen commentary" and The Kraus Project could be potentially read as a moment of self-indictment amid the general din of Franzen's self-aggrandizement—an irony not wholly lost on the author.
Indeed, given the formidable task of translating Kraus into English, alongside the responsibility of annotating him with a general audience in mind, Franzen's project seems to have been constructed around the very idea of his own defeat. The capitulation inward that characterizes Franzen's digressions into his failed marriage with "V," his unsuccessful affairs with girls in Europe, and his frustrations with American culture, mimics the retreat towards subjectivity that characterized much of Viennese Modernism and inebriated Kraus with rage. The outlier of this collection, "Let No One Ask," is a poem Kraus published in the last issue of Die Fackel, accompanying an obituary for his friend, Adolf Loos—a poem that is most conspicuously about the defenselessness of words in the face of Nazism. In its brevity, the inclusion of the poem seems to confirm the knowing futility of translating Kraus.
Franzen not only fails to assume Kraus's mantle as a cultural critic but also as a literary stylist. In one of the book's more revealing moments, we learn that Kraus's palpable envy of novelists was an early catalyst for Franzen's turn to fiction—and that, when Franzen gave up on short stories and returned to his novels, he remained "mindful of [Kraus's] moral fervor, his satirical rage, his hatred of the media, his preoccupation with apocalypse, and his boldness as a sentence writer." Yet, Franzen's attempts to evoke Kraus's aphoristic bent with his glib and by now notorious comparisons (Bob Dylan and Heine, Romantic "coolness" and Germanic "uncoolness") and judgments ("What is vile is for AOL to use the word 'vile'"; "Isn't the essence of the Apple product that you achieve coolness by virtue of owning it?") never attain the magniloquent thrust of the Austrian's style. By blithely sidelining crucial historical differences in the service of his own personal/literary trajectory and critiquing topics already sufficiently addressed elsewhere, Franzen's dicta strike the reader as off-key, rather than resonant.
At bottom, Franzen himself seems unconvinced by his own platitudes, his surface sheen of cultural authority. Occasional flashes of self-consciousness puncture the air of certitude, such as the moment when he admits: "I, too, often make moral arguments about art, but on my better days I'm suspicious of them, because I'm aware of the envy, the powerlessness, and self-pity, that lurks behind them." This confession, clearly intended as a passing caveat, reveals more than it means to, and emphasizes the book's ultimate failure as a translation: it does not provide the reader an occasion to reconsider Kraus on his own terms, or to take account of what makes his work relevant today, independent of Franzen's endorsement. Instead, Kraus is reduced to a device with which we apprehend the translator. What emerges, however, is not the portrait of a cantankerous literary genius standing tall against the corruption of his age, but a humbler figure: vulnerable, vain, demanding, insecure, driven by "envy, powerlessness, and self-pity." Although it's a stretch to say that Franzen's confession absolves him of the venial sins committed in the course of the Project, it nonetheless manages—if only inadvertently—to humanize a writer so frequently demonized. But whether or not he actually relishes that demonization in view of some distant glory (a Franzen Project, perhaps, circa 2113), only the translator knows for sure.