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Torch Song in Vienna

In the same hands done differently, The Kraus Project could have made an entertainment, an intellectual comedy, a bildungsroman about a clever and ambitious young man on a Fulbright in Germany for a couple of years in the early 1980s. The loneliness of abroad would have come into it, separation from a difficult unbookish family in the Midwest and a bookish difficult fiancée at Columbia; the poststructuralist intellectual fashions of the time; a little local color to evoke the bizarrely wonderful extraterritorial and microideological West Berlin of the cold war; what it felt like to be an American in Germany at the time of the Cruises and Pershings and the SS-20s (what price Germany then, not Austria, as what Kraus called a laboratory for destroying the world?); the overbearing influence of the one novel our hero packed in his suitcase full of French theory—it was Gravity’s Rainbow—and the dual terror exerted on him by Pynchon on the one hand and Harold Bloom on the other.

Such a book would somehow have delivered us to the improbable but finally inescapable conclusion that our young American could find no more apt or fruitful literary father for himself than “the angry, apocalyptic, and arguably megalomaniacal Karl Kraus.” The old curmudgeon took care to express his nolo in advance thus: “Many share my views with me. But I don’t share them with them.” As it happened, he also disdained fiction: not an ideal adopted father.

This rich web of circumstance is all present here (Franzen seems to remember everything, or at least to have kept records of everything), but it is packed away in the garrulous and seedy autobiographical footnotes, often going over many pages. Probably the main life of the book is in these. But there is something earnest and faithful and inflexible in Franzen that won’t let him turn away and ironize his former self—“my feeling [is] that I’m still the same person I was at twenty-two.”

Instead, what Franzen has done is recruit a couple of heavies, and revisited the scene to sort it out once and for all, and in the right manner. He is fixing the wretched, deviated past, and extending and correcting it into the present. He goes back to translations he made in the 1980s of “the two difficult Kraus essays I’d brought home from Berlin,” and works on them some more. He extensively annotates text and translation, and elicits expert help from Paul Reitter (author of The Anti-Journalist: Karl Kraus and Jewish Self-Fashioning in Fin-de-Siècle Europe, respectfully reviewed in these pages by Adam Kirsch five years ago) and Daniel Kehlmann, German novelist and resident of Vienna.

He sprinkles in a lot of America-keyed comparisons to Kraus that seem pretty nonsensical to me (Dylan, Hemingway, Twain, the blogosphere, Mailer, Salinger) as well as a few of his widely circulated and praiseworthy pet peeves: technology, Apple, Amazon, the decline of independent bookshops. The book is dedicated to the memory and the widow of his onetime German professor at Swarthmore, and the flavor and emphasis of the whole remains heavily German.

The entire unstable ensemble has something of the rackety allure of the Bremen Town Musicians, or, if you prefer, a new supergroup: the assiduous, dependable Paul Reitter holding things together on bass, the restrained Daniel Kehlmann good for the occasional off-beat tambourine flick (“But Heine is still wonderful, too”), and Franzen riffing and wailing away on free-form lead and clamorous vocals. The Kraus Project really is one of a kind—a strange, space-bending, Cubist, not un-simpatico book.

Karl Kraus’s principal contributions to the project that bears his name are two essays, “Heine and the Consequences” of 1910, and “Nestroy and Posterity: On the Fiftieth Anniversary of his Death” of 1912. Both are efforts at reputation-brokering: Heine is savaged as the father of the feuilleton (or, as that doesn’t quite stack up, on the lesser but still capital charge that it would have been impossible without him; and besides, he was guilty of a couple of unthought-through jokes and various other controversies), putting the editors to the trouble of explaining just who Heine the poet was, and what’s so villainous about a feuilleton. Meanwhile, Johann Nestroy (1801–1862) is commended for his popular but quite sophisticated Austrian comedies that nevertheless seem to be nobly difficult to stage properly. Kehlmann reminds the reader—it’s absolutely true—that Nestroy is unplayed and practically unknown in Germany. (So much for all of Kraus’s relevance and timeliness.)

Reading the essays, you have the feeling that Kraus’s positions in both could quite easily have been reversed: he could have adored Heine and despised Nestroy. Perhaps it’s a question of revisionism—he wants to take down one fifty-year-old reputation, that of Heine, who is everybody’s darling (he is certainly mine!), and promote another in its place; but even that won’t quite work, because Nestroy is also greatly popular. So you are left thinking that the opinions, the judgments in either case, are somewhat arbitrary and loosely held; that as much as anything else Kraus is writing to enforce—to inflict, I would almost say—his authority on randomly chosen terrain, along the lines of “the very popular is very bad, the popular is very good, only for reasons you need me to understand.”

Basically, Kraus comes out of two unmarked taps—one gushes hotly, one gushes icily, and you take your chances with him. It doesn’t “mean anything.” I don’t see much sign in either essay of the vibrant pacifism praised by Harry Zohn, or defense of the spirit against dehumanizing tendencies, or steadfastness of moral purpose: not when he is flaying a great German-Jewish poet (who can at least look after himself), or when he is boosting a non-Jewish Austrian playwright. Kraus is in both cases holding himself up to his own admiring gaze: look, he is so much more principled (and less “French” and above all, so much less Jewish) than Heine, and more literary and more sophisticated in his theatrical popularity or his popular theatricality than Johann Nepomuk Nestroy.

It is rare for Kraus to be called anything less than brilliant, even though it’s sometimes said with a there-now-go-away-please undertone. I find his writing too artificial, too conniving, and above all too squalid to rate brilliant. Surely nothing brilliant would accommodate as much opacity (or shameless triviality: the gripes about the awarding of the Bauernfeld Prize). “There’s a whole little outbreak of subpar sentences in here,” the notes signal on occasion, with lovable truthfulness—as though it were acne. Often the whole editorial troika confesses itself stumped. “Who the hell knows what Kraus is really saying here?” Kehlmann remarks. Who could call writing like this—from the essay “Nestroy and Posterity”—brilliant?

Fragmented times would have driven his essence to concentrate itself in aphorism and glosses, and the world’s more varied screechings would have introduced new cadences to his dialectic in its penetration to the core of the apparatus.

Or this:

A biographical comment like this would also be made, just as it is, by a Nestroyan bringer of thought if, with the same vault of antithesis, he could get himself over his beloved’s past.

Or this:

There are words on every page of Nestroy that burst open the tomb into which estrangement from art has thrown him, and that go for the throats of the grave-diggers.

Or this:

But far more disgraceful than literature’s marching in the triumph of this pillage, far more dangerous than this attachement of intellectual authority to the villainy, is the villainy’s interlarding, its gilding, with the Mind, which it has siphoned off from literature and which it drags along through the local pages and all the other latrines of public opinion.

Graver is the anti-Semitism that pervades the Heine piece. The editors—as I say, they are honest—draw attention to some of it, but there is more dog-whistle anti-Semitism of the foulest kind, Jews as fiddlers and drapers, rootless and self-ingratiating, chancers and frauds and parasites. If this is “brilliant,” then surely only because other words like “grotesque” or “incoherent” or “disgusting” have been forgotten.

Nor is it the fault of the translation. Franzen doesn’t get everything right: “schwerpunktlos” is not the same as “aimlessly,” “sich kosten lassen” is used in the sense of “cost,” not “taste,” “wälze” is not “waltz,” “unschwere” in context is “light” (unheavy rather than “undifficult”), “die Hand an die Wange gedrückt” has Heine pressing his hand to his own cheek, not to Nature’s (he’s a poet, remember), “Tor” means “gate” as well as “fool,” otherwise you don’t get Heine’s joke, “der angegriffenen Partie” is really not “the body parts of the persons under attack,” a “Stichwort” is not a “punch line” but a “cue,” “an den Mann zu bringen” is not “finding a mate for,” “gewendetes Pathos” is not “applied emotion” (which would be “angewendetes Pathos”), “Phrasen” are not “phrases” but “clichés.”

These things happen in translations; they don’t matter that much. For my taste Franzen is overliteral and a little wooden throughout: “naturally inevitable” for “naturnotwendig,” “overplainly” for “überdeutlich,” the droll “a creative head” for “ein schöpferischer Kopf,” “But it suits the whole not badly” for “Aber es paßt zum Ganzen nicht schlecht.” German manages somehow to suggest the concrete side of abstractions in a way that is beyond English: it goes on thinking—or juggling, or at least bullying; English strickenly flags “mixed metaphor.” But I don’t know what purpose would be served by translating this stuff with grace or suppleness, given that the original doesn’t have either quality.

The two words I have taken away from Kraus are Heine’s, “eine schiefe Köchin.” The adjective and the noun; “a crooked female cook” says Franzen. They accompanied me and delighted me for days. Heine is once again protesting his love of women (on another day, Kraus might have fallen in with him): “Eine schiefe Köchin ist mir lieber, als der schönste Schönheitsfreund.” Heine would rather have had a skewed cook, perhaps even a one-legged or wall-eyed cook, than the most aesthetic aesthete. Goodness, how I love my “schiefe Köchin”! I am happy to accord Kraus talent—but only because he despised the category; genius is Heine’s.


The Kraus Project’ December 19, 2013

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