Books for the News, Literature, Publicity

Jonathan Franzen on Karl Kraus



There is a mighty essay in a recent issue of the Guardian Review by the American novelist Jonathan Franzen. Heard of this guy? I’m not certain, exactly, what led me to the adjective, “mighty.” There is an obvious forcefulness to the writing, per Franzen’s style, and the essay itself, um, runs several pages (“girth,” “length”). Franzen’s polemical positioning of Karl Kraus is more than plausible; he’s certainly not the first to take up this cause—Kraus was dexterous prose technician noted for the economy of his aphoristic, contra capital rants largely directed at certain foibles of the bourgeois Viennese cultural community to which he claimed membership. Franzen even has a forthcoming edited (and translated) selection of Kraus’s essays in the works; this is the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from a Marxian scholar of rhetoric or a comp lit professor feverishly working on the printed ephemera of modernism’s foray into journalistic inquiry, not the product of a literary novelist working on the next big thing. So, that’s great.

Weirdly, the essay itself works as a  détournement of JonathanFranzen-ism—and the sometimes goading lack of self-awareness with which Franzen pens reflective pieces on late-capitalist American culture is about as anti-Kraus as it gets. An example: Franzen can devote whole paragraphs to the “insufferable smugness” of a dude in an Apple commercial while carrying on his own extended metaphor about the tech industry’s co-opting of coolness—all of which eventually leads (perhaps begrudgingly!) into a narrative about the failures of his own romantic/literary coming-of-age. Some place in the essay after Kraus’s Vienna becomes an “in between place” like “Windows Vista” and before Franzen himself devolves as an angry young man, Kraus the Great Hater is lost, cryogenized, and turned over in a makeshift grave made out of replica iPad parts.

Oh, boy.

In The Anti-Journalist: Karl Kraus and Jewish Self-Fashioning in Fin-de-Siècle Europe, Paul Reitter examines how Kraus’s own hostile critiques and satirical stylings were actually part of a much larger project of radical self-fashioning among fin-de-siècle German-Jewish intellectual society. It provides background for understanding the implications of Franzen’s piece and positions Kraus as more than a curmudgeonly anti-technoconsumerist; here, his journalistic output is recontextualized by the milieu that fostered it. Kraus is still the Great Hater, yet his would-be misanthropy is not only blisteringly self-aware, but a reaction to mainstream German-Jewish strategies for assimilation.

And, of course, there’s the work of Kraus himself: we publish Half-Truths and One-and-a-Half-Truths: Selected Aphorisms, which samples Kraus’s favored form of linguistic parlance. He’s snappy here, and for those interested in the writer or his work, Harry Zohn’s Introduction to the translation further situates his work in scope and purpose.

For more info on either, click here.