The Kraus Project

The Kraus ProjectThe Kraus Project Jonathan Franzen

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose might be the overall feeling on reading this latest Franzen foray into the public arena. Though it would be the German equivalent, which I dare not attempt. The word ‘Project’ in the title gives a hint that there might be a mission of some sort in operation here, and indeed there is.  Franzen has taken some pieces written by the Austrian critic/satirist Karl Kraus in the early decades of the twentieth century and translated them, pointing out with a frank lack of modesty that “much of Kraus’s best work has hitherto frightened off English translators”. As it turns out, he can be forgiven this trumpet-blowing for he does a great job; the original German is extremely densely packed, deliberately so; Kraus was writing only for people who were willing to take the time to understand him. And this is where the sense of familiarity begins to creep in. Though his specific theme is the ’Frenchification’ (for which read ornamentation and a tendency towards superficiality) of Austrian/German intellectual life, with the German poet Heine his particular target, much of what Kraus is railing against in his work (and he is a railer), strikes a chord today; for example, his utter distaste for throwaway journalism – tabloidism, as we might now call it. If you’ve ever despaired at the juxtaposition of a report of a major catastrophe with the ‘news’ on some so-called celebrity’s latest diet, then you will find an answering hundred-year-old chime in Kraus.

The book is helpfully laid out. The German text is on the left page, the corresponding English on the right, with relevant footnotes – of which there are many, since this is as much a Franzen treatise as it is a Kraus one.  Franzen appears to antagonise as many people as he attracts, and in this way Kraus is an ideal partner for him. There are off-putting moments of self-absorption scattered throughout the notes (though nothing like the off-putting self-absorption of his tedious The Corrections, which along with Donna Tartt’s equally tedious The Secret History rings alarm bells for the future of the Man Booker – but I digress) – anyway, the moments of self-absorption in this context are forgiveable, given that the overall argument from both authors is fundamentally a personal one.

The tone and the flavour of the whole enterprise is set early on in a nicely thought-provoking and highly relevant observation:

“In Kulturen, in denen jeder Trottel Individualität besitzt, vertrotteln die Individualitäten.

In cultures where every blockhead has individuality, individuality becomes a thing for blockheads.

Franzen note: You’re not allowed to say things like this in America nowadays, no matter how much the billion (or is it two billion now?) ‘individualized’ Facebook pages may make you want to say them.”

Let the games begin.