When the eighteen-year-old Elias Canetti first came to Vienna in 1924, nothing more plainly marked him as a provincial than the fact that he had never heard of Karl Kraus. For a quarter-century, Kraus had been publishing Die Fackel (The Torch), a magazine that relentlessly exposed the crimes, lies, and blunders of Austrian society—above all, of its press, which he considered its greatest plague. “Why didn’t Eternity have this deformed age aborted? Its birthmark is the stamp of a newspaper, its meconium is printer’s ink, and in its veins flows ink,” ran a typical Krausian aphorism. The Neue Freie Presse, the influential Viennese daily, was Die Fackel ‘s favorite target. It was a measure of how deeply Kraus got under the skin of its powerful editor, Moriz Benedikt, that the Neue Freie Presse had a standing policy of never mentioning Kraus’s name in any context. When the writer Peter Altenberg died in 1919, the paper refused to cover the funeral because Kraus had delivered the eulogy.
The purity of Kraus’s rage was complemented by his fanatical attention to detail in his own work. Since 1911, Kraus had been not just the editor of his magazine but its sole contributor: “Every word, every syllable in Die Fackel was written by him personally,” Canetti remembered hearing from his friends. “He took personal care of every comma, and anyone trying to find a typographical error in Die Fackel could toil for weeks on end.” The result of this conscientiousness, in a city addicted to Schlamperei, or genial slovenliness, was to endow Kraus with an extraordinary moral authority. In A Torch in My Ear, the second volume of his memoirs—whose title pays homage to Die Fackel—Canetti remembers being incredulous at the way his friends idolized Kraus:
He was, I heard, the strictest and greatest man living in Vienna today. No one found grace in his eyes…. It was like a court of law. He brought the charges and he passed judgment. There was no defense attorney; a lawyer was superfluous: Kraus was so fair that no one was accused unless he deserved it. Kraus never made a mistake; he couldn’t make a mistake.
Kraus died in 1936, but even today, he remains to the English-speaking world basically what he was to the young Canetti—a rumor of greatness that is a little hard to credit. It is impossible to read far in twentieth-century German literature without being forcibly impressed by Kraus’s centrality. To his fellow German-speaking Jews, above all, Kraus was an inescapable presence. Arnold Schoenberg sent him a copy of Harmonielehre with the inscription, “I have learned more perhaps from you than one can learn if one is to remain independent.” Walter Benjamin, in one of his most important essays, cast Kraus as the century’s avenging angel: “Nothing is understood about this man until it has been perceived that, of necessity and without exception, everything—language and fact—falls, for him, within the …