The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus

Jonathan Franzen and Karl Kraus
  • Review
By – December 4, 2013

The Kraus Project has its ori­gins in the lit­er­ary inter­ests and edu­ca­tion­al devel­op­ment of Jonathan Franzen. Well before he became an accom­plished Amer­i­can nov­el­ist, Franzen stud­ied in Munich on the Junior-Year-Abroad pro­gram from 1979 – 1980. After grad­u­at­ing, Franzen fur­thered his Ger­man stud­ies in Berlin as a 1981 – 1982 Ful­bright Schol­ar. Dur­ing this time, the young Franzen immersed him­self in the writ­ing of the Aus­tri­an jour­nal­ist-satirist-polemi­cist Karl Kraus (18741936). Franzen fell under Kraus’s spell,” and he began his ambi­tious project” to trans­late Kraus’s dif­fi­cult and delib­er­ate­ly opaque” prose into Eng­lish. The young Amer­i­can pur­sued his Kraus trans­la­tion on and off dur­ing sub­se­quent years. Final­ly, he returned to it with more sus­tained effort, and com­plet­ed the book project” in the fall of 2012.

What we have now is a dual lan­guage vol­ume con­tain­ing two of Kraus’s Ger­man essays, writ­ten in 1910 and 1912, accom­pa­nied by Franzen’s Eng­lish trans­la­tions. The book also includes Kraus’s after­words to one of the essays, and a brief poem writ­ten short­ly before his death. In addi­tion to his Eng­lish trans­la­tions, Franzen pro­vides copi­ous anno­ta­tions on Kraus as well as his own self-reflex­ive rumi­na­tions. To com­plete this intri­cate tapes­try, Franzen inserts foot­notes with­in his com­men­tary: these involve quotes from such pub­lished Kraus schol­ars as Paul Reit­ter, Daniel Kehlmann, and Edward Timms. From text to elab­o­rate anno­ta­tion, such an array of words can be for­mi­da­ble; so this review­er first took on Kraus and saved the pro­longed foot­notes for the sec­ond course. The sub­jects for the fea­tured Kraus essays are two writ­ers from the ear­ly nine­teenth cen­tu­ry — the Ger­man, Hein­rich Heine (17971856) and the Aus­tri­an, Johann Nestroy (18011862). If crit­i­cism at its most basic lev­el entails approval or dis­ap­proval, Franzen has wise­ly cho­sen these spe­cif­ic Kraus essays. In short, Kraus, once nick­named The Great Hater,” dis­dains Heine’s writ­ing while he lav­ish­ly prais­es Johann Nestroy.

The great Ger­man-Jew­ish crit­ic Wal­ter Ben­jamin (18921940) once remarked that Kraus, his Aus­tri­an con­tem­po­rary, was a pos­sessed man.” In Benjamin’s view, Kraus enact­ed a crazed war-dance before the bur­ial vault of the Ger­man lan­guage” as he tried to uphold pure lit­er­ary val­ues. Kraus’s self-pub­lished jour­nal, Die Fack­el (The Torch), embod­ied this mil­i­tant effort to sep­a­rate lit­er­ary allies and foes. Accord­ing to Kraus, what is typ­i­cal­ly insipid about Hein­rich Heine is his shal­low, mid­dle­brow sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty. Indeed, Heine lives only as a canned youth­ful sweet­heart” who has so loos­ened the corset on the Ger­man lan­guage that today every sales-clerk can fin­ger her breasts.” As opposed to the vac­u­ous, over­rat­ed Heine, the under-appre­ci­at­ed Nestroy lib­er­ates lan­guage from its lock­jaw,” express­ing a true high-spirit­ed­ness, for which noth­ing is pro­fane.” Kraus con­demns Heine’s coun­ter­feit poet­ry” as a mere Yea-Say­ing” which is passed along by people’s idio­cy.” In con­trast, Nestroy should sure­ly be cel­e­brat­ed as the first Ger­man satirist in whom lan­guage forms thoughts about things.”

Such an intense con­cern with ver­bal val­ues is what ini­tial­ly drew the young Franzen to Karl Kraus. He admired the Austrian’s moral fer­vor, his satir­i­cal rage, his hatred of the media, his pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with apoc­a­lypse, and his bold­ness as a sen­tence writer.” In his com­men­tary, how­ev­er, Franzen does at times ques­tion some ten­den­cies of Kraus’s crit­i­cal rage. Born into a wealthy Jew­ish fam­i­ly, Kraus always accept­ed his inher­it­ed wealth, but in 1899 he renounced Judaism, and in 1911 he secret­ly con­vert­ed to Catholi­cism. Franzen admits that Kraus is prone to haughty and dis­mis­sive remarks about fel­low” Jews, writ­ing at one point of the sup­posed Jew­ish con­trol of psy­cho­analy­sis: They con­trol the press, they con­trol the banks; and now they con­trol the uncon­scious, too.” Kraus asserts the sacred val­ue of the Ger­man lan­guage,” but even Franzen is trou­bled by pas­sages where Kraus’s sput­ter­ing rage makes him all but unin­tel­li­gi­ble.” So per­haps it was Wal­ter Ben­jamin who best under­stood the issue of Kraus and pos­ter­i­ty: The hon­ors at his death will be immea­sur­able, and the last that are bestowed.”

Peter E. Korn­blum holds a Ph.D. in Eng­lish from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia at Berkeley.He taught Eng­lish in the High School Divi­sion of the New York City Depart­ment ofE­d­u­ca­tion from 1981 through 2007.

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