Crazy for Kraus
Reviewed by Seana Graham
Many readers may have become aware of Jonathan Franzen’s work for the first time when he famously declined to take part on The Oprah Winfrey Show in a discussion of his novel The Corrections (Picador, 2001), but I discovered him in an earlier if somewhat smaller moment of celebrity when I happened upon his essay “Perchance to Dream” in a 1996 Harper’s Magazine while I was house-sitting for some friends. This extended and subsequently famous rant, sometimes known simply as “The Harper’s Essay” might alternatively be titled “The Writer and His Discontents.” It spoke to my condition, and I remember copying out long sections of it, as that was the kind of thing I did back then. So, as much as I’m a fan of Franzen’s fiction, his essays were actually my first love.
The Kraus Project is a curious and perhaps even unique hybrid form. Published in a beautiful little volume by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, it’s a bilingual edition, with the Austrian writer and editor Karl Kraus’s essays featured on the left hand pages and Franzen’s translation of the German on the right. In addition, the book is copiously footnoted, not just by Franzen but by two of Franzen’s longtime friends, the scholars Paul Reitter and Daniel Kehlmann. The footnotes do help us with some of the now obscure references of the text, and give insight into some of some of Kraus’s more difficult passages, but they also amount to a conversation between three Kraus enthusiasts, and at times threaten to take over entirely, as Franzen uses them to both talk about why Kraus is relevant to our day, and to give some autobiographical elements of what it was like to be a twenty-two-year-old in Berlin on a Fulbright scholarship. (I am curious if the footnotes are also meant to pay homage to Franzen’s close friend, the late David Foster Wallace.)
I can’t say I knew much about Kraus going into this, but I knew the name was familiar, and as I read, it soon became clear why. Many years ago, when I was in college, a beloved professor had mentioned Kraus—in my memory just the once, but of course it was probably more. What I took away was the idea that Kraus had been able to intuit the debacle that was to come to Germany (he lived from 1874-1936) through witnessing the degradation of the German language. I was fascinated by the idea that anyone could be so attuned to language in this way, but never bothered to pursue it further, or even to remember Kraus by name.
Whether I had this exactly right about Kraus or not, I’m not sure. But it’s interesting to note the very powerful ending of the book, which is simply a poem by Kraus (accompanied by footnotes, of course) that begins, “Let no one ask what I’ve been doing since I spoke.” Kraus, who in the course of his life was able to inveigh against almost everyone and everything, recognized in the Nazis a phenomenon that could be met only with silence.
The Kraus Project is very clearly a labor of love, and this last poem proves that the irascible old curmudgeon was worthy of such an effort.