'The Kraus Project': Jonathan Franzen reintroduces a Viennese publisher's essays to a modern audience


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The novelist Jonathan Franzen celebrates a comrade-in-arms more than a century his senior in an ambitious and challenging work he calls "The Kraus Project."

Karl Kraus was a cultural gadfly in Vienna who made blood sport of Germanic icons, capitalism and intellectual degradation in Die Fackel (The Torch), the magazine he published from 1899 to 1934.

Mr. Franzen, whose novels include "The Corrections" and "Freedom," is no slouch at essay writing -- and, like Kraus, he is expert at looking inside himself.


"THE KRAUS PROJECT"
By Jonathan Franzen.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($27).

"The Kraus Project," a kind of collage, reads as if it is taking care of unfinished business. As Mr. Franzen's "The Corrections," published just after 9/11, was one of the first fictions to tie a bow on a pivotal event, "The Kraus Project" also addresses an era, a zeitgeist.

It speaks to a similar end of innocence with Kraus' short, stunning poem "Let No One Ask," a shout into the abyss of Nazism, a phenomenon that left the compulsively garrulous Kraus, a Jew uncomfortable in his own Judaic skin, speechless.

Mr. Franzen studied Kraus in college, with stints in Germany, and attempted an earlier translation of several of his essays, including ones on the German poet Heinrich Heine and the far more obscure Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy.

In this dense book, a kind of palimpsest both literary and psychological, Mr. Franzen, with the help of Kraus authority Paul Reitter and Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann, translates these and other Kraus essays anew, and then annotates them with commentary of his own.

This is anything but easy reading, either cognitively or mechanically. The German is page left, the English page right, and the commentary, like a television news crawl, along the bottom. It can be bewildering to choose which track to follow.

Kraus and Mr. Franzen are thoughtful, even obsessive writers; for those who can follow German, reading all the text is fascinating, particularly because Kraus was prescient about the media, a preoccupation he shares with Mr. Franzen.

Unlike Kraus, however, Mr. Franzen doesn't aim to make his language difficult. It helps that English is, by nature, less inflected and connotative than German.

Key to the media commentary is the notion of the feuilleton -- a kind of short-form, shallow commentary used as filler in newspapers, which Kraus despises (and Mr. Franzen draws analogies to in bemoaning the spread of the blog and other journalistic degradations).

Mr. Kraus blamed Heine, who left Germany for France, for the spread of the feuilleton. To Kraus, the feuilleton bespoke a sunnier, Romantic disposition, contrasting with the heavier, more humorless Germanic approach. It also spoke of laziness.

"You have to prove yourself a man in full before the German language will give you the time of day, and that's only the beginning of the trouble you're in for," Kraus wrote toward the beginning of "Heine and the Consequences," the first essay Mr. Franzen translates.

"With French, though, everything goes smoothly with that perfect lack of inhibition which is perfection in a woman and a lack in language," Kraus wrote.

Kraus' dicta prompts Mr. Franzen to muse on broader academic trends, the competitive allegiances of Mac and PC, the arcana of literary theory -- and, as this "project" unfolds, his tortuous affair with a woman called V (which also resonates with Mr. Franzen's reading of the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same title/name/letter).

There's far more. Nothing is straightforward here, and that's the strength of this long-gestating book. As Mr. Franzen notes at the front of "Nestroy and Posterity," an essay in which Kraus eloquently champions Nestroy's dramatic prowess despite his middlebrow language, Kraus "is leveraging a seemingly intramural literary fight into a very broad cultural critique, which is the essence of his method."

Mr. Franzen has learned Kraus' lessons well.


Carlo Wolff is a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News (carlo.wolff@gmail.com).

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