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The Kraus Project’

In response to:

Torch Song in Vienna from the October 24, 2013 issue

To the Editors:

Although Michael Hofmann recognizes that Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project represents a unique experiment [NYR, October 24], this and a handful of other insights are buried in a screed hurled at Karl Kraus, a writer Hofmann deems “too squalid” to be “brilliant” while giving ample evidence of not having read him attentively. Hofmann is particularly ill informed about Kraus’s masterpiece, The Last Days of Mankind, which, he claims, is “rarely read, much less performed and only translated (so far) in abridgment.” This is wrong on all counts.

The Suhrkamp paperback edition of the great antiwar drama has sold thousands of copies in Germany since 1986. Full-scale productions have perhaps been rare, but not theatrical experiments of great intensity. In 1991, Luca Ronconi created a furor by staging the play along the assembly lines of the former Fiat factory in Turin. Johann Kresnik’s 2003 version, which reached a hundred performances, used even more spectacularly a massive World War II–era bunker in Bremen. Two abridged versions exist in English, but there are complete translations into French, Italian, Hungarian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese.

Hofmann misrepresents both the content and the form of The Last Days of Mankind, reducing the latter to “the conventional five acts.” The play, published in 1918–1919 and not “1917,” also contains a prologue and a visionary, cinematic epilogue.

Elsewhere Hofmann belittles an entire genre, apparently in order to diminish Kraus’s original work in it. Does he really believe that the aphorism is “not a robust and jolly English commodity,” but rather “a sort of Franco-Balkan form”? What about Shakespeare, whose plays and poetry suffuse Kraus’s prose? Or Oscar Wilde, whose work Kraus published in his satirical journal? Or Auden, who successfully championed Kraus’s aphorisms in the English-speaking world?

Although Hofmann suggests some minor corrections to Franzen’s translations of Kraus’s literary essays, he ignores the scrupulous attention to linguistic nuance, allusion, and wordplay that inform them. Rather than simplifying Kraus’s prose, Franzen reproduces and explicates its complexities. Surely, this is preferable to the kind of rewriting for which J.M. Coetzee took Hofmann to task in these very pages, remarking of his translations of Joseph Roth, “is it part of the translator’s job to give his author lessons in economy?” [NYR, February 28, 2002].

In the final paragraph of his review, a translation error of his own helps mislead Hofmann into affirming the homophobic voice of Heinrich Heine’s persona in The Baths of Lucca, which Kraus roundly condemns in Heine and the Consequences. Kraus had a solution for this problem: “One has to read my pieces twice, in order to acquire a taste for them. I don’t mind, however, if one reads them three times. But I prefer that they not be read at all rather than only once. I would just as soon not take responsibility for the mental congestion of a bonehead who doesn’t have time.”

Leo Lensing
Professor, German Studies
Wesleyan University
Middletown, Connecticut

Michael Hofmann replies:

It’s good to see that the old furibund, territorial, authority-toting, humorless caricature of the German Studienrat is alive and well, the louse freshly battened on its liver.

Attentive readers will appreciate that Professor Lensing sails past my tone and leaves my argument fundamentally untouched. He nibbles edges. The fact that this new Kraus in English is “dead on arrival” (The New York Times) does not disturb him, if he even noticed it. Frankly, I would not have expected him to, either.

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