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Afraid of the World

A great review of Jonathan Franzen’s new translation of Karl Kraus.

‘The Kraus Project’ Is Jonathan Franzen’s Latest Work

By Kraus Project

When the next Alfred Kazin arrives to chronicle this era in American fiction, an era that I suspect will be seen to stretch roughly from 1990 to 2130, he or she is likely to puzzle long and hard over how Jonathan Franzen could loom so tall in his novels yet seem so shriveled in his nonfiction.

Whether he’s writing about birding, reading, media, the Internet, the American novel, his past as an angry young man or his present as a misanthrope trying to learn to relax the tendons in his neck, Mr. Franzen lumbers rather than strides. In part, this is because he’s a solipsist and a declinist, a neo-Luddite in inclination if not in name, and things are habitually going to hell all around him.

I live for misanthropes, but, unlike the matchless ones, Mr. Franzen derives (and delivers) little pleasure from the cherry bombs he lights and rolls toward your ankles. Perhaps he is smiling inwardly. As he observed in“Freedom,” his excellent recent novel, “There is, after all, a kind of happiness in unhappiness, if it’s the right unhappiness.”

Mr. Franzen’s new book, “The Kraus Project,” is a hybrid beast. Partly, it’s a work of scholarship. The author offers his translations of a series of essays by the largely forgotten Viennese journalist and satirist Karl Kraus (1874-1936).

You sense immediately why Kraus’s essays resonate with Mr. Franzen. These men share similar obsessions, notably in regard to the soul-draining natures of mass media, high tech, consumer capitalism and hack writing. Kraus was a famously tortured stylist, and most of his prose in this book is dead on arrival. Time and translation have rendered it opaque and fusty, if sometimes memorably splenetic. (“Spare me the picturesque moil on the rind of an old Gorgonzola in place of the dependable monotony of cream cheese!”) Mr. Franzen’s footnotes are speckled with comments like, “This sentence is very funny in German.”

Mr. Franzen annotates Kraus’s fulminations in a series of extended footnotes. There is supplementary commentary by Paul Reitter, a Kraus scholar, and Daniel Kehlmann, a young Austrian novelist. These footnotes come to seem like this volume’s reason for being.

“The Kraus Project” comes to life almost entirely in its notes, because so many of them are autobiographical. Mr. Franzen was a Fulbright scholar in Germany during the early 1980s, and he later spent more time in the country. He dilates upon his years there, and about things like his failed first marriage, his struggles to find his voice as a writer and his agonies over thwarted opportunities to sleep with certain fantastic women.

A great deal of this personal material is soulful, counterintuitive, revealing. When he discovered that his fiancée, in his absence, slept with a man he’d known at college, for example, Mr. Franzen admits: “If anything, I felt proud of her. Her infidelity wasn’t nice, but I was in flight from the niceness of the Midwestern place I’d come from. Her infidelity made her interesting.”

The hitch, in “The Kraus Project,” is that it is more often a disheveled and talky assault on everything the author sees when he opens his laptop or clicks on a television, including, but not limited to, Facebook, smartphones, “the high-school-cafeteria social scene of Gawker takedowns and Twitter popularity contests,” the hipness of Apple products, reality TV, Fox News, Amazon, even the “recent tabloidization” of the AOL home page.

His overarching points are valuable and well made. He’s among those people, and I am sometimes among them, “who have brooded over books like Sherry Turkle’s ‘Alone Together’ and are wrestling with apocalyptic doubts” and wondering whether our “insane cultural moment will spell the end of an essential part of us.”

But this book’s series of drive-by pea shootings (he pings Salman Rushdie for condescending to tweet) are beneath him. Mr. Franzen’s whole mode of being — the way he mostly runs silent and deep, issuing a novel every 10 years or so, refusing to embrace social media — was already his most incisive possible rebuke to the way he suspects so many of us live now.

To watch him lean down and mess with Gawker, or with Twitterati, is like watching a hedgehog stop to lecture a field full of foxes — Why, you’re living all wrong, you slinky omnivores — and being eaten in the process, his ribs used as toothpicks. (Mr. Franzen took a predictable beating online after portions of this book were printed in The Guardian under the miserablist headline, “What’s Wrong With the Modern World.”)

The author admits to “feelings of dread and, yes, envy, when I see books being routed by electronics in the sexiness contest,” a line that explains so many of the sentences here.

The footnotes push Kraus’s thoughts to the tiptop of the page, as if they were only a groove placed there for Mr. Franzen to rap over. The list of targets widens.

He bemoans “the denaturization of the planet and the sterilization of its oceans.” He worries about sharks’ fins and elephants’ ivory. He damns “the transformation of Canada’s boreal forest into a toxic lake of tar-sand byproducts” and “the leveling of Asia’s remaining forests for Chinese-made ultra-low-cost porch furniture at Home Depot.” His apocalypse is now.

Carrying such weight would make anyone’s shoulders droop. Outside of his fiction, Mr. Franzen is not an especially adept or nuanced social critic. Others have already written more incisively, for example, about the moral and intellectual hazards of our online obsessions. Mr. Franzen’s fumbling, his biting off more than he can reasonably chew, makes you turn against him even when you agree with him.

Mr. Franzen appears to want us to live solely among high clouds, serious books, great thoughts. One problem with dwelling in such an aerie, as the poet Kay Ryan explained in a poem helpfully titled “Great Thoughts,” is as follows:

Great thoughts
do not nourish
small thoughts
as parents do children.

Like the eucalyptus,
they make the soil
beneath them barren.

Standing in a
grove of them
is hideous.

The technophobe aspect of “The Kraus Project,” Mr. Franzen’s inability to trust the rest of humanity to live between high and low, put me in mind of something Clive James said about an earlier technology that was going to kill literacy and ruin everything else.

“Anyone afraid of what he thinks television does to the world,” Mr. James commented, “is probably just afraid of the world.”

75 Books Every Man Should Read

Judge Smails: “How do you measure yourself with other golfers?” Ty Webb: “by height.”

I’m a sucker for lists of the “greatest books ever written” if only as a narcissistic measure of how well read I am. This time it’s men’s magazine Esquire with the admonition: “75 books every man should read.” So, now I feel half as well read as I thought I was and my manhood has been challenged.

But, with the honest introduction: “an unranked, incomplete, utterly biased list of the greatest works of literature ever published,” I had to take a look.

  • What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carver
  • Collected Stories of John Cheever
  • Deliverance, by James Dickey
  • The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
  • Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy
  • The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • The Known World, by Edward P. Jones
  • The Good War, by Studs Terkel
  • American Pastoral, by Philip Roth
  • A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, by Flannery O’Connor
  • The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
  • A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter
  • The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
  • Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis
  • A Sense of Where You Are, by John McPhee
  • Hell’s Angels, by Hunter S. Thompson
  • Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
  • Dubliners, by James Joyce
  • Rabbit, Run, by John Updike
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain
  • Dog Soldiers, by Robert Stone
  • Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell
  • Legends of the Fall, by Jim Harrison
  • Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry
  • The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer
  • The Professional, by W.C. Heinz
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
  • Dispatches, by Michael Herr
  • Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller
  • Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates
  • As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
  • The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara
  • Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
  • All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey
  • Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron
  • A Fan’s Notes, by Frederick Exley
  • Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami
  • Master and Commander, by Patrick O’Brian
  • Plainsong, by Kent Haruf
  • A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
  • Affliction, by Russell Banks
  • This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff
  • Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin
  • The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow
  • Women, by Charles Bukowski
  • Going Native, by Stephen Wright
  • Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John LeCarre
  • The Crack-Up, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, by George Saunders
  • War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
  • The Shining, by Stephen King
  • Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson
  • Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
  • Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie
  • Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges
  • The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe
  • The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford
  • American Tabloid, by James Ellroy
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Alex Haley
  • What It Takes, by Richard Ben Cramer
  • The Continental Op, by Dashiell Hammett
  • The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene
  • So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell
  • Native Son, by Richard Wright
  • Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans
  • Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner
  • The Great Bridge, by David McCullough
  • The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac
  • Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry
  • Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
  • Underworld, by Don DeLillo
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

What say you, fair reader? As a Fight Club pugilist, I noticed that there isn’t a non-fiction title in the bunch (see cockamamie Rules of Fight Club). So, not only are we a sissy book club, we’re not even reading manly books. After feeling emasculated, I clicked over to Esquire’s photos of Leryn Franco champion javelin thrower from Paraguay, and forgot all about it.

.

The World Until Yesterday and Existential Boredom

Fight Club has long been a fan of both Jared Diamond and Papua New Guinea. Seven years ago, Diamond’s “Collapse” was our inaugural bout and later we read “Lost in Shangri-La” by Mitchell Zuckoff about a WWII plane crash in a remote valley of Papua New Guinea and first (or nearly first) contact with native tribes there.

In Diamond’s latest book, “The World Until Yesterday,” he argues that we can learn lessons from these tribal cultures such as better child-rearing, better treatment of the elderly, and how to avoid $300/hour lawyers. Diamond tells us “loneliness is not a problem in traditional societies…people spend their lives in or near the place where they were born, and they remain surrounded by relatives and childhood companions.” In other words, traditional societies, to the extent they still exist, know how to take care of each other.

Despite our warring 20th Century, a conflict-ridden first decade of the 21st Century, and America’s ridiculous number of guns, our society today is, in fact, less violent than tribal cultures. The highest war-related death rates for modern societies (Russia and Germany in WWI and WWII) are only a third of the death rates of tribal societies. Looking more broadly, Diamond shows us that modern societies average war-related death rates that are about one-tenth as high as tribal societies due to sustained conflict between clans.

Besides having lower body counts than traditional societies, another thing we moderns have going for us is that we generally live longer (watch Stephen Colbert chide Diamond on this point). According to Wikipedia, the average life expectancy in the world today is 68. In the US, it’s 78 (putting us 40th in the world) and in Papua New Guinea it’s 62 (153rd). But, average life expectancy within tribal settings tends to be less than 30, primarily due to high levels of infant and child mortality. As a result, only about 3% of tribal villages are over 65 (Other Ways of Growing Old). In contrast, 13.3% of Americans are 65 and older (2010 Census).

In perhaps one of the best arguments for living in a tribal society, Diamond tells us, is that people generally aren’t bored. This harkens back to our last Fight Club bout “America’s Best Essays of 2012” and Joseph Epstein’s wonderful essay on the current state of boredom in our culture, “Duh Boring.” Epstein observes: “Boredom is often less pervasive in simpler cultures. One hears little of boredom among the pygmies or the Trobriand Islanders, whose energies are taken up with the problems of mere existence.” He even postulates that the very reason for war in our modern society is the boredom in peace time armies. He quotes Lars Svendsen, the Norwegian author of “A Philosophy of Boredom,” as saying boredom is the major spiritual problem of our day.

So, maybe our problem is that we have too many bored retirees.

Congratulations Dan O!

Dan O wins the 2010-2012 Biennium Friendly Pipe award for his selectionsImage of Master Switch by Tim Wu and Boomerang by Michael Lewis

RIP Ray Bradbury

“It was a quiet morning, the town covered over with darkness and at ease in bed. Summer gathered in the weather, the wind had the proper touch, the breathing of the world was long and warm and slow. You had only to rise, lean from your window, and know that this indeed was the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer.”

– Dandelion Wine

Dynamic Surfaces – Cool!

http://vimeo.com/43431035

Practice Resurrection

“Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.”
― Wendell Berry


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