On Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project

Marjorie Perloff

Shortly after my essay (“Avant-Garde in a Different Key:  Karl Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind”) went to press, Kraus, whose work has long been neglected in the Anglophone world, suddenly found himself at the center of lively controversy in the press. The occasion was the publication in October 2013 of Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).  Ironically, it has taken the attention of a celebrated novelist like Franzen to bring a great figure like Karl Kraus to the attention of our own literary/intellectual community.  Or so we may conclude from the dozens of serous reviews devoted to The Kraus Project in the autumn of 1913.  Most of these reviews—for example, Michael Hoffmann’s in The New York Review of Books– treated Kraus as a fascinating—but finally flawed—polemicist, whose virulent critique of the Hapsburg monarchy and especially of the media was perhaps too extreme—and certainly too local—to retain its satiric punch today.  One notable exception is Eric Banks’s long and richly documented piece in Bookforum (Sept/Oct/Nov 2013).

Whether praised or denigrated, Franzen’s eccentric study can hardly be taken as any sort of beginner’s guide to Kraus’s oeuvre:  it is much less about Kraus than about Franzen himself—his own progress as a writer, his studies in Berlin, his own withering contempt for the world of the internet and social media   When Franzen compares Kraus’s dichotomy between the Germanic emphasis on literary content versus the French concern for form to that of the “sober” and “functional” PC versus the “cool” and “elegant” Apple, one feels that the author is being little more than frivolous.   And it is never clear why The Kraus Project chooses, as its texts to be translated and annotated, the two youthful essays “Heine and the Consequences” (1910) and “Nestroy and Posterity” (1912).  The critique of the great German lyric poet for his excessive Francophilia is, to my mind, one of Kraus’s least successful literary essays; and the Nestroy essay can’t mean much to contemporary readers, who are not likely to have heard of the obscure nineteenth-century Austrian dramatist.  But then, Franzen uses these essays only as the jumping off point for his own wild and whacky commentary, interspersed with glosses by the scholar Paul Reitter and the German-Austrian writer Daniel Kehlmann.

There are fascinating aperçus scattered throughout this collage-commentary: Franzen is, for example, very perceptive about Last Days, which he calls “the strangest great play ever written,” and remarks, “At first glance, it can be mistaken for postmodern, since the bulk of its 793 pages consists of quotation; it’s unabashedly a play about language.  Kraus maintained that, with the exception of the Grumbler-Optimist scenes and the verse fantasias, every line spoken by it several hundred characters was something he had personally heard or read during the First World War” (p. 257).  Yet, Franzen argues, “what makes the play modern, rather than postmodern, is the figure of the Grumbler, who in most respects is indistinguishable from Kraus himself.  His friend the Optimist keeps coming to him with fresh phrases of propaganda and journalism, trying to persuade him that war is a glorious thing and is going well, and the Grumbler aphoristically demolishes every one of them. . . His coordinating subjectivity is too central to be postmodern” (257).  This description of the roles of Grumbler and Optimist strikes me as quite accurate but it is also the case that the Grumbler’s didactic summations become tedious–he is indeed Kraus’s mouthpiece—and undercut the play’s dramatic power.  And since didacticism is hardly a characteristic of Modernism, my own conclusion would be that The Last Days is best understood as a postmodern work manqué.

The Kraus Project, in any case, is not likely to bring the Austrian writer a new readership:  its technique—translation, commentary, commentary on the commentary by others—is too confusing, its conclusions about politics conclusions about politics too idiosyncratic. But I applaud the book’s publication because it has certainly succeeded in enlarging the discourse about Kraus’s writing, if for no other reason than that the reviews, responses, and letters to the editor have brought new facts to light.  The most important of these is that there is a new translation of Last Days of Mankind.  In November 2013, the British writer Michael Russell, whose career has been in television drama, responded to the ongoing discussion of The Kraus Project by posting the following on his website dedicated to Kraus:

1914 saw the start of the First World War and of Karl Kraus’s bitter, relentless and incomparable dissection of its progress. 11 November 2014 will see the publication of my full translation of ‘The Last Days of Mankind – Part One’ as an e-book on Amazon; that is to say the prologue, act I, act II & act III, with commentary (part two, acts IV & V, & the epilogue, will be published in 2016). Almost 100 years on this will be the first ever English version of Karl Kraus’s complete text of the play. The translation will be revised from the work-in-progress version used to provide the condensed material currently on this website; the commentary notes will be revised and extended…

I am happy to report that Russell’s translation is excellent—certainly the best I’ve seen to date. I only wish it had been available when I began my own work on Kraus!  But now that it is here—and very accessible on line—I urge readers to take a look, especially at the scenes discussed in my own essay.  It seems, then, that in time for the centenary of World War I, Kraus’s great war drama is finally going to get its due in the English-speaking world.

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3 Comments

January 13, 2014 · 9:38 am

3 responses to “On Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project

  1. Michael Russell

    Dear Marjory Perloff,

    Thanks for your positive response to my work on ‘The Last Days of Mankind’. I started this project, rather reluctantly, simply because no one else had done it or seemed about to do it. It has been a somewhat lonely place to be, but also an extraordinary one; the depth of attention required in getting inside the language has made me realise how great an artistic achievement what I already knew was an artistic achievement of considerable stature really was – is. It still astonishes me that the English-speaking world remains ignorant, largely, of the play and surprises me how little attention is paid to it even by the English-speaking world’s ‘German-interest’ academics in what is at least a positive reawakening of interest in Kraus. The play, while not distinct from the broad sweep of Kraus’s ideas and obsessions in other works, is the great interface of his engagement, artistically rather than intellectually, with the world. Yet you wouldn’t know that at all from the limited and narrow – dare I say sometimes eccentric? – discussion of Kraus that’s currently around. (Timms is an exception for the most part. ) My interest in the play is in what it is (as I probably say too often), one of the greatest artistic achievements of the twentieth century, irrespective of how or where we place it in relation to other works. Its uniqueness makes placing it unnecessary perhaps; its range and variety makes it possible to connect it with almost everything and simultaneously to stress the way in which it is wholly unlike anything else. A statement of its remarkable quality in itself! Anyway, with all the inadequacy that translating a work so fixated so often in the examination and exploration of language in all the complexities of Kraus’s own multi-layered and somehow ‘self-investigating’ German, I hope that what I am doing captures enough of what that language is (a sketch at best ) to make the project worthwhile.

    Thanks again for your support.

    Best regards, Michael Russell

  2. Robert Butscher

    Marjorie and Michael,
    Interest in Kraus is rising. There was a fully staged student performance of The Last Days of Mankind this past weekend at Bard College. Directed by Alexandru Mihail, it was an overwhelming production. Non-stop action. It’s attack on the public’s hunger for irresponsible media is as relevant now as it ever has been.
    I first learned of Kraus through the architect Adolf Loos’s work. You must know it- he’s often cited as a precursor to International Style modernism. But his work is entirely about language- about what, if anything, can still be said when the language is so debased. The austerity of the exterior of his buildings was a reaction to the excesses and hypocrisy of the Austrian late baroque. His blank facades are a provocative silence, serving as a mask protecting his psychologically rich interiors.
    The connection between Kraus and Loos became clear when I attended the performance. It’s an anti-war play, certainly. But it’s primarily a critique of the mechanisms of culture that are far more insidious than war.
    Marjorie- thank you for posting so much of your work for all to access. It’s an amazing resource.
    Regards,
    Robert Butscher

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