Sept/Oct/Nov 2013

Passing the Torch

Jonathan Franzen transports the fiery satirist Karl Kraus to the twenty-first century

Eric Banks

Of the major German-language writers of the past century, we may have a harder time pinning down the satirist Karl Kraus, who sat in judgment over the hothouse of Vienna from its combustible fin de siècle to the run-up to the Anschluss, than any other. We shouldn’t feel bad about it. Forever associated with Die Fackel (The Torch), the periodical he launched as a weekly on April Fools’ Day in 1899 (and to which he would eventually be the sole contributor), Kraus seemed to engage every twist and counter every turn that the intellectual, artistic, and political ferment threw up. The number of roles he took on—playwright, poet, publisher, public performer, gadfly critic, and consummate scourge—is rivaled only by the multitude of skirmishes, big and small, he waged and the depth of his mercenary independence. His career jumps from one context to the next: He was a muckraker and media critic who loved to sniff out hypocrisy, particularly in the sexual laws and mores of bourgeois Vienna; an early and tough critic of psychoanalysis; a firebrand who prophesied the cataclysm of World War I and bravely opposed the war while almost all others cheered it from the sidelines; and a near zealot regarding abuse of the German language. Over the past decades, each face of Kraus has seemed to dominate our ability to take the measure of his significance. Yet no single profile quite exhausts the idiosyncratic capaciousness of Kraus’s work. “Kraus knows no system,” Walter Benjamin wrote in his 1931 essay, which diagnosed the writer’s “strange interplay” of “reactionary theory” and “revolutionary practice.” “Each thought has its own cell. But each cell can in an instant, and apparently almost without cause, become a chamber, a legal chamber over which language presides.”

Kraus’s obscure standing in English-speaking countries hasn’t been helped by the barrier of translation. He exists mostly in rumors and glimpses in the works of those he fascinated, from Benjamin and Elias Canetti to Bertolt Brecht and Theodor Adorno. In English, at least, it is much easier to read about Kraus than to read Kraus, and the phenomenal range of his output—above all the thirty thousand pages of Die Fackel, which for more than three and a half decades aped and denounced the corruptions of language and power in the Viennese press—exists in inverse proportion to the availability of his work. Even the flurry of Kraus translations in the late 1970s, which attempted to give a taste of his style through a sample of essays, poetry, plays, and aphorisms, revealed the absurdity of their appointed task. When the cosmopolitan critic George Steiner reviewed a pair of these volumes—most of which are today out of print—he argued at the same time that there was a good case to be made for leaving Kraus untranslated. A decent rendering of the world that Die Fackel addressed would be marooned by an ocean of encyclopedic footnotes.

“Satire is the only legitimate form of regional art,” Benjamin observed in his Kraus essay, underscoring what the writer’s biographer Edward Timms called his “passionate parochialism.” It was Vienna—a city that saw its lightning growth at the end of the nineteenth century outpace its sclerotic political, social, and cultural institutions—that provided Kraus the local strop to sharpen his satire over the life of his periodical. In page after page of Die Fackel, he savaged its fractious literary cliques and coffeehouses and courtrooms and eavesdropped on the quotidian chatter that gushed from the city’s newspapers. A rough drawing of the Vienna cityscape adorned the cover of the first issue, and no matter what the periodical’s sweep, its content was nothing without Vienna. In his volume of memoir The Torch in My Ear, Canetti recalls just how baffled he was when introduced to Die Fackel as a young man.

They pressed the red journal into my hands; and much as I liked its name, Die Fackel, The Torch, it was absolutely impossible for me to read it. I tripped over the sentences; I couldn’t understand them. Anything I did understand sounded like a joke, and I didn’t care for jokes. He also talked about local events and typographical errors, which struck me as terribly unimportant. “This is all such nonsense, how can you read it? I even find a newspaper more interesting. You can at least understand something. Here you drudge away and nothing comes of it!”

Canetti’s first impressions might have left Kraus proud. His sentences weren’t designed to be easy. Deep with allusions to Goethe and his beloved Shakespeare, biting in their mimicry of everything that Kraus disapproved of (which was considerable), riddled with puns, they seem custom-made to keep out all but the most dedicated readers. Sometimes, there is no way to enter at all. Among the many footnotes to his translation of “Heine and the Consequences” (1910), one of the essays included in The Kraus Project, Jonathan Franzen quotes Kraus’s remarks about an adversary, the playwright and critic Hermann Bahr: “If he understands one sentence of the essay, I’ll retract the entire thing.” In the new collection, Franzen has demonstrated a tremendous patience with the most intractable of Kraus’s sentences, though he is no less mortal than most readers, and amid the mountain of notes unpacking references and explaining the most ingenious or gnarly bits of Krausian wordplay, he himself occasionally has to throw in the towel. One exegetical note states, “To this line my friend Daniel Kehlmann, who is an actual Viennese and a deep student of Kraus, offers the comment: ‘Who the hell knows what Kraus is really saying here.’” Although Franzen memorably dubbed William Gaddis “Mr. Difficult,” the author of The Recognitions can look by comparison like child’s play.

If Franzen seems at first an unlikely vehicle for an author whose translation prospects could flummox Steiner, his rendering of Kraus immediately dispels all reservations. The Kraus Project, which reprints the German essays alongside Franzen’s translations, is a fluid version of Kraus that captures as best it might the author’s irascible precision without tinkering his prose to make it sound like any other writer’s. Franzen, one should recall, published his translation of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening in 2007, and in his memoir The Discomfort Zone he recounted studying abroad in Germany. In some of the footnotes to The Kraus Project, he retraces that year again, a largely miserable and juvenile time of anger, confusion, and loneliness, but one at least in which the charged environment of Berlin in the early days of the Reagan administration led him to a seminar on Kraus. There, he wrestled with two of Kraus’s essays, “Heine and the Consequences” and “Nestroy and Posterity” (1912), which form the basis—along with Franzen’s sometimes meandering but mostly compelling footnoted counternarrative—of The Kraus Project. It is a curious and itself idiosyncratic document filled with a cacophony of voices, belonging mostly to Franzen and of course Kraus, but also to the novelist Kehlmann and to the scholar Paul Reitter, who annotates the thornier of references in the essays and offers his own perspective on Kraus.

Franzen’s account of how he heard the torch in his ear is deeply colored by the time he first encountered it, a phase in the life of a self-described angry young man. But as infused as The Kraus Project is by Franzen’s own Berlin story, now three decades old, he writes more urgently that “Kraus has more to say to us in our own media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment than his more accessible contemporaries now do.” Kraus himself always insisted that his “new type of journalism,” however “local” it might be, would paradoxically live more vibrantly in the far future. (“My readers believe that I write for the day because I write about the day, so I will have to wait until my works become old. Then they’ll be relevant.”) The key to this paradox is offered in two ways in the essays Franzen has translated—first by way of Kraus’s war against journalism, and second by virtue of his particular and peculiar view of language. The former dovetails with Franzen’s own brief against the tyranny of the online life writ large; the latter offers insight into what was revolutionary about Kraus’s thought.

IT’S AN ODDITY of Kraus’s history in translation that several of his most important works have never appeared in English. The nearly eight-hundred-page play The Last Days of Mankind that Brecht admired so greatly—which documented the cataclysmic fate of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I largely through a montage of quotations taken directly from the mouths of hack journalists, duplicitous politicians, and idiot officers—has at least appeared in various abridged versions. Not so several crucial essays, like “Apocalypse” (1908) and “The Great Wall of China” (1910), or, until now, “Heine and the Consequences” and “Nestroy and Posterity.” This despite the fact that the latter pair provides Kraus’s most encapsulating statements about his practice as a satirist and the threat of the feuilleton, the novel genre of cultural journalism Kraus blamed on the German-Jewish poet and travel writer Heinrich Heine. “Heine and the Consequences” savages the legacy of Heine; “Nestroy and Posterity” is its flip image, letting Kraus argue that his ownlegacy should be traced to the mid-nineteenth-century comic playwright Johann Nestroy. The essays, too, offer a kind of pivot in the protean career of Kraus, a moment when Die Fackel turned increasingly away from a more ranging muckraking toward literary matters, and when their author began to dedicate greater energy to the public readings of his texts in front of large audiences in Vienna. The two essays are historically linked for another reason: They are among the most problematic instances of the anti-Semitic tropes that run through the writings of Kraus, himself a nonobservant Jew who privately converted to Catholicism in 1911 before renouncing the faith twelve years later.

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Heinrich Heine Fountain, Bronx, New York, 2009.

The essays bundled in The Kraus Project bring together all these aspects—high-wire rhetoric and the specter of Jewish self-hatred, or at least a Jewish writer mouthing the drivel of anti-Semites. There is an overriding sense when one reads “Heine and the Consequences” of its performative dimension, that it represents not only a thesis about what Kraus saw as Heine’s legacy but a manner of self-definition for the author, a perspective that Reitter explored in fascinating depth in his 2008 The Anti-Journalist: Karl Kraus and Jewish Self-Fashioning in Fin-de-Siècle Europe. In “Heine and the Consequences,” Kraus is eager to draw the sharpest divide between his own work and that of other German-speaking Jews, of which Heine’s poetry and reportage had been the most visible and most celebrated (and, in Kraus’s view, the model most seamlessly copied by journalists). At the time the essay was written, the stature of Heine was indeed the subject of much debate, and despite his cultish popularity (Franzen describes him somewhat awkwardly as a kind of glamorous troubadour comparable to Bob Dylan), he was a frequent target of anti-Semitic diatribes. Reitter notes that a major public sculpture to mark the centenary of his birth in 1897 had been rejected by the city of Düsseldorf and wound up instead on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, where it remains today. Attacking Heine was far from innocuous.

But for Kraus, journalism was a virus able to infect, through a disease of language, all moral imagination, which is what made it the most dangerous pox of all in public life. Beyond the incipient political and economic corruption he turned up in the Austrian press—which early in its existence Die Fackel happily and regularly exposed—the newspapers were machines for turning language into a commodity. And there was no better example of what Kraus, under the influence of his friend Adolf Loos, considered the ornamentation of the utilitarian word than the feuilleton—an “interlarding of journalism with intellectual elements . . . the resulting confusion [of which] is even more catastrophic.” It was not just the power that newspapers, as a relatively new and burgeoning technology, wielded, or their hidden interests, that made journalism such a danger. It was their subversion of language and culture as such. What was “public opinion,” anyway? Opinions are a matter of individual thought, which dries up amid the newspapers’ seductive mix of the trivial and the thoughtless. The apogee was to be found in the genre of the feuilleton, which committed a double sin, combining bad reporting and awful self-expression. (“Writing feuilletons means twining curls on a bald head,” Kraus polemicizes in “Heine and the Consequences,” “but these curls please the public better than a lion’s mane of thoughts.”)

The most famous of Kraus’s charges against Heine are also the most extreme and sexually charged formulations, and reading them a century after they were delivered, they retain their shock. It’s hard not to flinch when Kraus charges that Heine “so loosened the corset on the German language that today every salesclerk can finger her breasts.” In Kraus’s tendentious opposition of German and French, Heine, in exile in Paris, had succumbed to the weakness inherent to the French language, fatally embracing content over the rigors of form. It was content—the stuff of the world—that defined his language, allowed it to be tarted up on any occasion. The result was a fusion of the “Romance feel for life” and “the German conception of art,” a cheap trick that suffused the most banal observations with ineffable feeling and provided a model for any hack journalist. “Even in the most up-to-the-minute impressionistic journalism the Heinean model does not disqualify itself. Without Heine, no feuilleton. This is the French disease he smuggled in to us. How easy it is to get sick in Paris!”

With Kraus, it’s often hard to see where the irony ends and hell begins. The extravagance of his persona and his performance, his mantra of utter independence—the calling of the satirist and the vocation’s greatest strength—make him consequently no less transparent to a reader today, far from Vienna, than one imagines he was in 1910. A prior collection of his writings took as its title one of his preferred descriptions of his practice: Half-Truths & One-and-a-Half Truths. Is the anti-Semitic content that flashes in and out of “Heine and the Consequences” more or less than a whole truth for Kraus? Both Franzen and Reitter go to admirable lengths to map the fraught place of Jews and journalism in turn-of-the-century Austria as well as the particular trajectory of the more general fulminations there and in Germany, many of them driven by anti-Semitism, against the feuilleton. Many, like Arthur Schnitzler, were appalled and repulsed by Kraus’s inability to see that anti-Semitism was a greater threat to Austria than the newspapers. Yet this aspect of Kraus’s writing is of a piece with the paradoxical nature of much of his work. With its compact precision and stylistic inventiveness, it seems at once to beg close reading and to parry the attempt. That quality is what makes Kraus endlessly fascinating, even at his most grotesque and grandiose, and his style rigorous and unique.

In the end, it is the achievement of The Kraus Project to provide a solid picture of what makes Kraus incomparable and, paradoxically enough, relevant. Franzen builds a very effective case that Kraus’s criticisms of media technology—particularly of the ways that it deformed language and thought—pull him out of the Vienna of a hundred years ago and reveal him to be a timely visionary. This sort of mobilization of Kraus carries the risk of instrumentalizing a complex and contradictory thinker. But Franzen’s footnotes form a running dialogue with Kraus, and he is full of provocative observations about the encroachments of Twitter streams and AOL news feeds, iPhones and Facebook, and the fawning embrace of technology among the very people whose livelihood is most jeopardized by it, journalists. He sets the tone early on by noting: “We can’t face the real problems; we spent a trillion dollars not really solving a problem in Iraq that wasn’t really a problem; we can’t even agree on how to keep health-care costs from devouring the GNP. What we can all agree to do instead is to deliver ourselves to the cool new media and technologies, to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerbergand Jeff Bezos, and to let them profit at our expense.” Yet as valid as Franzen’s case for revisiting Kraus may be, The Kraus Project shows him as a more fascinating figure than that—a writer whose words are intransigent and dated and oddly fresh, all at once.

Eric Banks, the former editor in chief of Bookforum, is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU.