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
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…

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