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Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project.
Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project.

non-fiction

The Kraus Project: Peel away the pretention and Jonathan Franzen’s take on digital culture isn’t all that crazy Add to ...

  • Title The Kraus Project
  • Author Jonathan Franzen
  • Genre nonFiction
  • Publisher HarperCollins
  • Pages 256
  • Price $26.99

Before turning to The Kraus Project, it’s useful to take a look at The Franzen Project.

Despite having been featured on the cover of Time in August, 2010 (“Great American Novelist”) for his novel Freedom, as well as garnering a Pulitzer nomination and winning a National Book Award for The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen may be the most discontented (and least liked) successful author in America.

Following his infamous contretemps with Oprah in 2001 over The Corrections, the chattering classes aimed their slings and arrows at Franzen’s outrageous fortune and have continued to keep him in their sights. As the author himself told a reporter, “I know I am becoming a target for the kind of resentful person I was until all this happened to me.” All this, at the time, included over a million hardcover copies of The Corrections sold in the U.S. alone.

There is something of the Prince of Denmark to the conflicted Franzen (To be a widely read writer, but not to sell out!). His first essay collection, How to Be Alone (2002), featured awkward self-revelations and anguished breast-beating about the seeming irrelevance of contemporary literature and the death of the big social novel in the digital age. Last year, Farther Away, his third collection (The Discomfort Zone, a memoir, was published in 2006), revealed awkward self-justifications, alongside some strong narrative journalism.

While an excellent novelist, Franzen does not have a winning non-fiction persona. As someone also hugely concerned about our complete thralldom to digital media (to the software, the hardware, and the 24/7 connectivity) and what’s been and being lost as a result, I wish Franzen could articulate his position without the earnest tone and defensive posture.

But, with less protective armour than a softshell crab (as a writer for The Daily Beast put it, “He makes himself a fat, juicy target”), Franzen has, once again, become the target of fashionable vitriol by writers everywhere from The Telegraph to Salon to those brave anonymous trolls patrolling the web. The reason: a lengthy piece in The Guardian titled What’s Wrong with the Modern World.

The essay is an excerpt from The Kraus Project. Franzen’s perceived crime is that he takes on techno-consumerism and, unfortunately, sounds pretentious while doing it. And he dares spurn social media, particularly Twitter, that aide du jour of any decent revolution. (Judging from the reactions, you’d think criticizing the cyber-sphere automatically puts you in the same camp as the Unabomber.)

In Karl Kraus, a fin-de-siècle Viennese satirist, literary critic, and journalistic watchdog, Franzen has found his literary godfather. Famously cranky and adversarial in print, Kraus (nicknamed the Great Hater) published Die Fackel, a literary and political review read by prominent thinkers of the day, including Walter Benjamin, Thomas Mann, Wittgenstein, Brecht and Kakfa.

Kraus aimed widely, from take-downs of fashionable poets to the use of poison gas in the First World War, but his major enterprise was critiquing the corruption of the Viennese press, with a sideline in the dehumanizing effects of technology. In The Kraus Project, Franzen provides new translations of five seminal Kraus essays, with the original German printed on the left-hand pages and the translations on the right. The translations are liberally annotated by Franzen, as well as Kraus scholar Paul Reitter and Austrian novelist Daniel Kehlmann. Reitter’s contributions are particularly valuable and comprise a substantial chunk of the book, so it’s odd his name doesn’t appear on the cover.

The Kraus Project is thought-provoking, challenging, and entertaining. Kraus’s carbolic bons mots can be very funny, and Franzen and co.’s annotations – some pages long – create a lively dialogue with both the text and each other. The book is a fluid and interactive experience, demanding full engagement from the reader. (You’ll have to read some sentences twice and flip pages back at times – this is not Cantankerous German Thinkers for Dummies™.)

Throughout, Franzen draws analogies from Kraus’s arguments to present-day media, technocapitalism, and the publishing business. Here’s an illustrative example: Kraus detested the Austrian writers of feuilletons – personal “mood pieces,” commentary, and light fiction that proliferated in the papers of the day – and was particularly incensed about the publication of collections of these ephemera. “Bread is being made out of bread crumbs.” Franzen considers the ever-present blog the 21st-century feuilleton (although you could say that most media today have been feuilletonized).

Kraus manages to crunch wordiness down to the meat of the nut again and again, hence his popularity as an aphorist. On the potential abuse of blind technological advances: “Progress will make wallets out of human skin.” On Heinrich Heine’s poetry: “It is indeed nothing but a journalism that scans.” On the conflation of art objects and practical objects: “There’s a difference between an urn and a chamber pot and culture gets the space it needs to live from this difference.”

His essay Nestroy and Posterity, published on the 50th anniversary of the death of Viennese comic playwright Johann Nestroy, hits the bull’s eye on what the genre at its best achieves: “Satire can perpetuate a disruption of religion to arrive at reverence.” And, as a satirist, Kraus knows of what he speaks.

I am delighted to have been introduced to this untiring enemy of sentimentality, false emotion, and “linguistic fraud.” And despite the urge to yell “T.M.I.!” whenever Franzen levered in unnecessary personal details, The Kraus Project gave me renewed respect for his commitment to challenging the techno-social orthodoxies of our day.

Kraus, a century ago, nailed it: “We were complicated enough to build machines and too primitive to make them serve us.”

Zsuzsi Gartner, author of the Giller short-listed Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, recently spent a year off-line.

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