By Randy Rosenthal
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 2013
I’m not sure if there is a word for unintentional irony, but if there were it’d be ideal to describe Jonathan Franzen’s new book, The Kraus Project. Using only ink and paper, Franzen has created the attention-fragmenting experience of clicking hyperlinks through a labyrinth of web pages, where you forget where you started from, and have no idea how you’ll ever get back.
It’s ironic, because Franzen is well known for his derisive opinions about the overuse of modern technology and the Internet, as his sarcastic comments in The Kraus Project frequently remind us: “Who has time to read literature when there are so many blogs to keep up with, so many food fights to follow on Twitter?” In this one small phrase, Franzen manages to insult all the blogs that consider themselves “literary magazines,” and the many “literary people” who spend more time on social media than they do actually reading books. But the irony is unintentional, because though his incessant footnotes give life to his translations of Karl Kraus’s otherwise uninspiring essays, Franzen has made it extremely difficult to focus on Kraus’s words for more than a few seconds, similar to the difficulty of sustaining focused attention online.
In his first footnote of The Kraus Project, Franzen tells us that “Karl Kraus (1874-1936) was an Austrian satirist and a central figure in fin de siècle Vienna’s famously rich life of the mind.” Kraus was the publisher, editor, and sole writer for most issues of his controversial newspaper, Die Fackel (The Torch). Franzen first encountered Kraus’s work while he was living in Germany on a Fulbright scholarship in 1982, which is when he began to translates two of Kraus’s essays, one on Heinrich Heine (“the most famous German literary figure of the nineteenth century”), and the other on Johann Nestroy (“a leading figure in the golden age of Viennese theater, in the first half of the nineteenth century”). In the first, Kraus takes down an overrated writer, and in the second he champions an underrated one. Franzen believes Kraus’s essays are directly relevant to our times, specifically in that they address “the dehumanization of technology” and “the false promises of Progress and Enlightenment,” and generally in that “Kraus was the first great instance of a writer fully experiencing how modernity, whose essence is the accelerating rate of change, in itself creates the conditions for a personal apocalypse.” Yet rather than simply translate the essays, Franzen explains that he “mustered a large corps of footnotes to elucidate [Kraus’s] topical and literary references, to offer some shortcuts to deciphering his sentences, to give an account of the angry young person I was when I first read him, and to suggest some ways in which his work might matter to the world we live in now.”
The first two of these reasons for the extensive footnotes are certainly necessary for understanding Kraus’s rather dense prose, but the last two, highly personal reasons are what make the book interesting, even when they are almost irrelevant to Kraus’s work. For instance, when Kraus writes, “go, look, the peach tree in the garden of your childhood is quite a bit smaller than it used to be,” Franzen footnotes, perhaps unnecessarily, “J.D. Salinger might be an example of an American writer whose reputation has similarly benefited from being read in people’s youth. But consider here, too, the periodic arguments from Bob Dylan’s fans that Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature.” A couple of pages later, Kraus makes a comment on Wagner, prompting Franzen to write that he’s “always amazed when writers report listening to Beethoven or Arcade Fire while at work. How do they pay attention to two things at once?”
There are other, more welcomed indulgences of candid personal interjection, many spanning several pages—here’s a section from one of these long, delicious rants:
Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion. The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world. But what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement? What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels?
Indeed, while you can read a large chunk of Kraus’s essay on Heine in the current issue of the Paris Review, it is a much smoother and more enjoyable experience reading the long footnote from the essay on Nestroy published in the September issue of Harper’s, in which Franzen describes his time studying in Germany and the megalomaniac literary ambitions the twenty-two year old had then. Juxtaposing these excerpts, two things occurred to me. One, perhaps The Kraus Project would have been better off as a memoir, especially considering how skilled Franzen is at the personal essay. And two, the book actually might require a few reads; first Franzen’s footnotes all the way through, then Kraus’s essays alone, and then the essays and footnotes together. Otherwise, going back and forth is quite discombobulating; you read a few words from Kraus, then there’s a long footnote, and then you flip back a few pages to read another sentence or two by Kraus, before being launched into another lengthy footnote by Franzen or his collaborators, esteemed Kraus scholar Paul Reitter and Austrian novelist Daniel Kehlmann. There’s also the original German on the left side of the page, just in case you wanted to check Franzen’s amateur translation for accuracy. (As if you know German that well.)
The Kraus Project is a difficult read, and a much more challenging book than Franzen’s fans might expect. But it’s worth the effort; Kraus’s work deserves familiarity, and Franzen’s little nuggets of snarky insight pile up to form a modest fortune.