The Kraus Project – Jonathan Franzen on “What’s Wrong with the Modern World”

– alternate subtitle – all you out there not talking nonstop about your phones/tv/etc., otherwise complying with my proposed rules for CTA conversations, the ones who are just staring into the phones “minding your own business”?  You annoy me as well.

– second alternate subtitle – I review what Jonathan Franzen, Paul Reitter, and Daniel Kehlmann have to say about what Karl Kraus had to say about Heinrich Heine and Johann Nestroy.  


What’s that you say?  You are not interested in translation and commentary about obscure Austrian intellectual disputes from more than 100 years ago?  They “have nothing to do with your life?”  Go back to whatever mindless feed-scrolling brought you here!

Okay so I loved this book.

“What’s Wrong with the Modern World” is the heading Franzen used to publish an attack on social media a few months ago, one that once again (almost 15 years after the Oprah Book Club fiasco) showed why he is the high-brow author the American literati and sub-literati love to hate.  This hatred comes in so many flavors: “he’s a snob!” “he’s just angry!” “in another few years people like him won’t exist anymore anyway!” “he’s just David Foster Wallace’s less talented friend!” “he hates twitter?  Well twitter hates him!”  All of these criticisms are probably correct, but they 100% miss the point:  most of what he says is correct, and it’s almost always amusing and also cathartic to read.  When you’re right you’re right, regardless of your arrogance, the visceral dislike you inspire in people, or your world-historical irrelevance.  


The Kraus Project is his Franzen’s best non-fiction to date.  I’ve read with relish each of How to Be AloneThe Discomfort Zone and Farther Away.  I still think that overall, Franzen’s best as a novelist, and The Corrections is still a masterwork of the conventional family novel.  But the Kraus project is worth a try.

Some Contexts

The basic idea of the book is, Jonathan Franzen sets out to translate a few essays written by Karl Kraus, essays from pre-WW1 Vienna that have fallen out of fame because they’re so time- and place-specific as to be mostly incomprehensible out of context, plus they’re apparently written in really tricky German.  While translating these essays, he draws on two translators’ aid – Paul Reitter and Daniel Kehlmann.  He also clutters the text with intentionally intrusive and self-important footnotes, footnotes which often begin by nominally explaining something in the text, but then move quickly along to tell the story of Franzen’s just-post-college life in Berlin in the early 80’s.

If you’re familiar with Walter Kauffman’s Nietzsche translations (and if you’ve read this far, you probably are), then you know a standard knock on them is that they’re cluttered with overly intrusive footnotes.  Kauffman’s got nothing on Franzen.

Virtually every note goes something like “this last thing, the thing Kraus just said, that’s EVEN MORE TRUE NOW!  Think about it!  Except instead of with newspapers, like with Twitter!!!  But it’s even more outrageous.  Which reminds me there was this girl I was really attracted to when I was in grad-school, she and I never quite got together and it was so damn frustrating…”

Admittedly, that may not sound like your cup of tea.  I wouldn’t have said so in the abstract either.  Franzen is taking a page out of David Foster Wallace, what with the unwieldy footnotes.  He’s also emulating Wallace’s Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky, which uses the review of another book which is itself a review, combined with some sleight-of-hand, reaching some interesting conclusions about life in general, not just Dostoevsky or Joseph Frank.  What Franzen’s added is the self-indulgent “I remember when I was a young graduate student” part.  Somehow the whole is better for the addition.  I’ll try to explain why by quoting a line:

Enrollment in the seminar was sparse.

First of all, if you don’t think that line as the topic-sentence of a paragraph is funny, you may not really follow what I have to say here.  The seminar in question, it turns out, is one dedicated to the reading of one Hofmannsthal, a German playwright I’d never heard of.  That’s not really the point though – a sentence like this gives one such a hilarious glimpse into the self-important world of study-abroad post-graduate academia.  Franzen uses self-importance as an avenue into exploring pressing questions, but also reveals himself an astute critic of academia itself.  Here’s another longer bit:

The sessions [of a different seminar] went like this; Hindemith [professor, no relation to the composer] began by calling our attention to a pregnant line in one of the Grumbler-Optimist dialogues [from Kraus’s obscure 1000-page play about world war one called The Last Days of Mankind]; somebody raised a point of procedure; the point of procedure was furiously debated for twenty minutes; Hindemith redirected us to the text; somebody else asked a totally wrong-headed and irrelevant question (.e.g, “Was Kraus in contact with Rosa Luxemburg?”; and the remainder of the class was spent discussing politics.  Halfways through the semester I stopped bothering to attend.  I’d already signed up to present a paper on the last day of class, and I could work on the paper at home…

I was trying to be the one person in the seminar to actually read and understand the text… I read my paper aloud and let Professor Hindemith bat aside the one question with which a leftist interrupted me: “You use the word ‘positivistic’– are you defending Karl Popper?”.  When I was finished, I had my proudest moment in two years in Germany–one of the proudest in my life, in fact.  Hindemith smiled at me, looked around the smoke-filled room, and said, “Here’s a lesson for us all.  It took an American to explain what we’ve spent a whole semester trying to understand.”  Then we discussed Karl Popper.

IF you’re ever been engaged in graduate study in the humanities, this should be a painfully familiar vignette, mutatis mutandis.

And that’s sort of the point Franzen ends up making via his Kraus translations – all of the inanity of consumer-culture-driven “news” and literature is just a painfully familiar vignette, mutatis mutandis.  If only you’d read Kraus’s essays like I have, says Franzen as he grabs you by the lapels, you’d see what I mean and then… and then…

But What’s the Argument?

Before all that, I’ll try to give you a flavor for what Kraus actually has to say, and what Franzen has to say about him.  But again to clarify, Kraus makes his hay by either critiquing Heine or proselytizing for Nestroy, and since I know next to nothing about either of them, I had to basically take Franzen’s word on matters of interpretative context.

I’ll save something like summarizing Franzen’s argument for another post.

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