A great review of Jonathan Franzen’s new translation of Karl Kraus.
‘The Kraus Project’ Is Jonathan Franzen’s Latest Work
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:
do not nourish
as parents do children.
Like the eucalyptus,
they make the soil
beneath them barren.
Standing in a
grove of them
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.”