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Torch Song in Vienna

The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus

translated from the German and annotated by Jonathan Franzen, with assistance and additional notes from Paul Reitter and Daniel Kehlmann
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 318 pp., $27.00
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Erich Lessing/Art Resource
Karl Kraus; portrait by Alfred Hegel

It was suggested in 1976, and again in 1986, by Karl Kraus’s early torch-bearer in English, Harry Zohn, and by others at other times, before and since, and probably in between as well, that there is a particular timeliness about the work of this Viennese Jewish writer, who was born in Bohemia in 1874 and died in Vienna in 1936. Even though most of Kraus’s writing was ad hominem and highly occasional. (This timeliness card, it seems, is one that one can always play, or at least hardly ever not. A sort of low trump, if you like.)

“He was, very consciously,” claims Jonathan Franzen, in this latest high-profile relaunch of Kraus, “speaking to us.” There are “certain parallels,” Zohn wrote, in 1976 (in Canada, but it was repeated in 1986, in England), between Kraus’s age and ours. We need, he says, “his vibrant pacifism, his kind of defense of the spirit against dehumanizing tendencies, and his…steadfastness of moral purpose.”*

As for “Kraus’s timeliness,” just when was it? Was it 1900, the year after he started his magazine Die Fackel (The Torch)? Or 1910, when he phased out other contributors (“I no longer have collaborators…. They repel those readers whom I want to lose myself”), and started to produce and proofread his entire magazine himself—25,000 out of the total of 30,000 pages are his—with lots of comments on his perfectionism and attention to detail? Elias Canetti says that “anyone trying to find a typographical error in Die Fackel could toil for weeks on end.” In 1910 he also wrote the first of the two essays Franzen here presents and translates, on Heinrich Heine.

Or 1920, when his “vibrant pacifism” would have had, as the Germans say, Hochkonjunktur—a boom? Or 1930, when he was shading into irrelevance and repetitiousness (again)? And morning or afternoon? Or night—he wrote at night.

It seems you have to be careful just how and when you dip your beaker into Kraus (the name is an adjective for curly or unruly hair, a ruff, a furrowed brow or rippled surface; figuratively it means “complicated” or even “hard to follow”); it makes all the difference in the world. Where do we go; what has he bequeathed to us, his alleged addressees? Is Kraus the relentlessly parochial graphophile of Die Fackel (the anti-journalist’s anti-journal, on sale in the Trafiks, the tobacconists of Vienna) or a self-employed blue skies thinker already wary of the digital age ahead; an infighter or a prophet; a battering ram or a hatpin? Is he the wretched, off-the-peg French-hater in “Heine and the Consequences” or the much-garlanded visitor to Paris fifteen years later, suspicious of Prussia now, and happy to be proposed for the Nobel Prize by nine professors at the Sorbonne?

He reminds me of those indomitable little toy automobiles exhibited on trays by their vendors, which strike the parapet, roll over, right themselves, and carry on regardless, as long as their batteries will drive them. And presumably with an unwavering sense of mission and purpose. Not to mention direction. Kraus wrote: “When I don’t make any progress, it is because I have bumped into the wall of language. Then I draw back with a bloody head. And would like to go on.” It would seem he had the same idea.

Kraus’s principal art and expertise was that of hearing and reading. He sampled. He cut and pasted, and then he commented. A provincial newspaper perpetrated the delicious typo “King Lehar,” the conflation of the lonely tragic hero and the composer of hit operettas. Speaks for itself, you’d have thought. But no, the whole culture got a kicking. Kraus was a crocodile: he swiped his prey with his tail, dragged it down to depths where it wasn’t meant to be, and drowned it; then he worried at the cadaver over months. He was a helpless priest of language, a logomancer: “words b4 things,” as an earlier reader with toe-curling helpfulness marked my library copy. I suppose his chef d’oeuvre is his eight-hundred-page play in 209 scenes—and still the conventional five acts—Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Mankind) from 1917, all of it actually heard or overheard by its author, the stuff of ten evenings, rarely read, much less performed and only translated (so far) in abridgment.

Much more plausibly, there are his aphorisms, selected and translated by various hands. Now who doesn’t like aphorisms? Everyone likes aphorisms! English readers tend to think of Kraus, if they think of Kraus at all, as a purveyor of aphorisms. There’s one I like to quote myself, about a writer who reads being like a waiter who eats. But aphorisms are not a robust and jolly English commodity; we’re not talking about “K.K.’s Bumper Book of Jokes” here. Aphorisms are Continental, a sort of Franco-Balkan form, La Rochefoucauld meets E.M. Cioran or Lichtenberg, and they are accordingly untrustworthy: anonymous, pellet-y, interchangeable things, almost by definition without a clear argument, opportunistic, and uncumulative.

Can aphorism be a secure repository for a reputation? I think only by accident, and if there are no more than one or two of them. And better one than two. But not seriatim and on purpose. Is an aphorist, like a working-class hero, something to be? I’m not so sure. Kraus writes: “Someone who can write aphorisms should not fritter away his time writing essays.” That has the authentic topsy-turvy ring of aphorism: challenge, mechanical manipulation, dare. And then forget it: Kraus, of course, took care to write essays as well. Many of his aphorisms are taken from his essays, whose typical mode is to fog or struggle or tunnel or insinuate themselves from one aphorism to the next, sometimes three or four to the page. Just as Shakespeare seems to be full of quotations, so Kraus is full of aphorisms.

The aphorism is what seals Kraus’s contract with his public. The surging obliquity of his prose, punctuated by the rhythmic and dependable appearance of often scandalous or actionable punchlines, mimics and tolerates the audience’s zoning in and out of attention, between expectancy and schadenfreude. (It’s really not something that I have enjoyed reading: too poor as argument, tonally out of control, the judgments almost irrelevant, too much invective against too many straw men, too many longueurs.) One might remember that Kraus failed to make it as an actor in the 1890s before resorting to writing, and that live performances, talks, and readings were nevertheless the basis of his immense popularity in Vienna, and certainly his most effective, defining mode. “When I read,” says Kraus, “it is not acted literature; but what I write is written acting.” He gave seven hundred public performances—that’s one every two or three weeks in his prime—and was, according to Franzen, “a world-class mimic.”

People became addicted to Kraus, many going to hear him scores of times. (Elias Canetti had a particularly bad case and, I think I read somewhere, clocked up three hundred.) The occasions seem to have been a mixture of lecture, sermon, soap-box harangue, and kangaroo court. “All charges were presented in a strangely cemented diction that had something of legal paragraphs”; thus Canetti. The accused—the guilty parties—were subjected to “a process of annihilatory punishment.” “This law glowed: it radiated, it scorched and destroyed.” “Heine and the Consequences,” his intended dismantling of Heinrich Heine, was several times given as a talk before it was ever printed. By the same token, Anton Kuh’s Zarathustras Affe (Zarathustra’s Monkey) of 1925, described by Daniel Kehlmann as “still the best and funniest attack on Karl Kraus ever,” was originally given as an extempore talk; the transcription I saw includes put-downs of hecklers; it takes Kuh ten pages just to get to the beginning of his remarks about Kraus.

That helps one perhaps to appreciate what a personal culture it all was, in Vienna: it really wasn’t about work at all (that would have been sober and German), it was more about who said what behind whose back, who appeared in whose company, who greeted or failed to greet whom. It was a jockeying for position, a battle over authority, vulgarly a pissing contest.

A couple of the aphorisms bear this out: “A poem is good until one knows by whom it is,” and “Sound opinions are valueless. What matters is who holds them.” (As with many other wits, Kraus does not seem to me funny; it would be like finding Macchiavelli funny. Even his manipulations of language are too deliberate, too mechanical, too joyless: alliteration, puns, repetition, reversal of terms—though this is also what makes him impossible to translate.)

In this culture, which nevertheless managed some astonishing literary achievements—Artur Schnitzler in drama, Georg Trakl in poetry, Robert Musil in epic prose—Kraus is perhaps best understood as a sort of center of power with very little radiating effect, a nimbus with barbs. At this distance, it’s hard even to see what effect he had. In his lifetime, he was an arbiter, a controller, a dictator: the books, Die Fackel, the personal appearances, all of them together one perpetuum mobile of solipsistic self-reinforcement. A multimedia campaign, KK on every channel, cock of the walk, dominator, top dog. I see his place not so much in literature as in the history of aggression, Publizistik, boosterism, feuding, polemics, PR.

Not to forget actual litigation. One of the Karl Kraus anthologies, No Compromise of 1977, edited by Frederick Ungar, imaginatively and correctly includes a brief section of “Libel Suits.” Take a bow, Kraus’s “(busy) lawyer Oskar Samek.” Thus, Anton Kuh was successfully sued by Kraus and left Vienna because he couldn’t afford his fine; some effects are beyond the reach of aphorism to procure. Kraus was so much a bully that I actually feel sorry for the distinguished Viennese newspaper Die Neue Freie Presse, his most reliable target—but then, as he says, “I trim my opponents to fit my arrows.”

  1. *

    Half-Truths and One-and-a-Half Truths, edited and translated by Harry Zohn (Carcanet, 1986), p. 2. 

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