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.”


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.