Book Review: Deconstructing Karl Kraus

Jonathan Franzen explores the dazzling and difficult world of Vienna’s legendary satirist

Top Stories | Allan Janik | November 2013

It has to be an event when a writer who is "arguably America’s greatest living novelist" (so says the dust jacket blurb) goes to great lengths to present a revered and particularly difficult Austrian author to an American reading public in a meticulously produced annotated dual-language edition. 

The result is an unusual and unusually challenging book that merits our attention in Vienna as much as in New York.

On the face of it, we are presented with five rather neglected texts by Karl Kraus on literature and writing. The two central ones bear upon Kraus’s ostensible nemesis Heinrich Heine and his own literary model Johann Nestroy.


A new approach to a difficult writer

However, reading the multi-faceted book turns out to be a challenge itself. Kraus is notoriously difficult for native speakers to read today. The German text gives readers with competence in the language the opportunity to get a sense of the original.

The notes explain many obscure historical and linguistic points, but they are also chock-full of Franzen’s own ongoing polemics with the academic and commercial literature industry as well.

The commentary is a kind of three-way dialogue between literary scholarship (Reitter) and two established authors (Franzen and Kehlmann) confronting the problem of translating Kraus.

On top of that, the notes provide us with an account of Franzen’s early life and loves which form the personal context in which his interest in Kraus originated and grew as a young Fulbright student in Berlin during the Cold War.

Shifting between these themes while reading is no mean trick. Just to make things a tad more trying, the fact that the notes often occur in the first or second line on the page means that readers have to strain their concentration paging back and forth.

Furthermore, moving from Kraus’s diatribes against Heine’s epigones to Franzen’s plaints about Twitter and Amazon is no less straining. It is easy enough to imagine readers throwing in the towel with a sigh:

"Is it all worth it?

The answer, however, is a resounding, "Yes!" and that goes as much for the Austrian readers as it does for Americans. Kraus once lamented that he wasn’t surprised that people abroad didn’t know what was happening here, since people here didn’t know themselves.

That remains profoundly true in the area of cultural history today, as I have previously lamented in these pages.

Nearly all of the people who write interesting  and important works on crucial Austrian figures are foreigners ["To Understand Austria, Ask a Foreigner", TVR, August 2012]. Maybe that has to be so.

Wittgenstein once claimed that Austrian achievement was subtler than that of others, emphasising that "its truth was never on the side of plausibility".

Living with that inures you to it; so you probably need an outsider to focus your attention on what is always before your eyes.


Fighting the media phantasmagoria

Be that as it may, for nearly thirty-five years, Kraus lambasted the media’s proclivity to shape the truth according to its whims, rather than straight-forwardly reporting it. He alleged that phantasmagoria replaces reality when the media lose sight of its critical, civilising function.

That became his target in the mammoth play The Last Days of Mankind, which was largely composed of direct quotes from jingoistic papers.

In the texts collected here, the target is the literary penchant for media distortion, namely, cultivation of an intensely personal, subjective style as an end in itself.

Kraus traced this tendency back to Heinrich Heine’s all-too successful embrace of French literary strategies and models basically foreign to the German language.

Johann Nestroy, on the contrary, offered him the example of an author who created a completely original style by simply quoting people on the stage in such a way as to deduce what they in fact want to hide in their assertions.

These authors are as far from us as they were present to Kraus, so we need support in approaching his polemics about them.

In his assault upon Heine, Kraus actually was attacking the central values of the Wiener Moderne; so the fact that an astutely acerbic contemporary American writer of note insists that his polemics hit the nail on the head with respect to America’s cultural malaise, should be substantial food for thought on both sides of the Atlantic.

Franzen’s parallel between Kraus’s explanation of World War I as happening precisely because we cannot imagine it, and the war in Iraq as a trillion dollar solution to a problem that was not a problem, for example, drives this point home with a vengeance.


Stylistic brilliance and moral integrity

The Austro-American Germanist Harry Zohn once expressed fears that the peculiar form of cultural embeddedness of Kraus’ work – a style based upon tearing apart the moral vacuity of style itself merely on the basis of quotation, especially from the Viennese newspapers of his day – would make editing Kraus for future generations so unwieldy that his own stylistic brilliance and moral integrity would be all but impossible to convey.

So it is little wonder that we end up with an unusual, if not strange, text when Jonathan Franzen attempts to do so today.

The Kraus Project is a noteworthy effort to come to grips with the late Professor Zohn’s problem – and, indeed, with the problem that preoccupied Kraus throughout his life: that of distinguishing legitimate authority from its dazzling counterfeits.

Like Wittgenstein, Kraus insisted that the way things get said makes all the difference in distinguishing appearance from reality. We are indebted to Franzen for a refreshing, much needed, reminder of that.


Austro-American philosopher and intellectual historian Allan Janik is Senior Research Fellow of the Brenner Archives at the University of Innsbruck and Honorary Professor of Philosophy at the University of Vienna. He is author (with Steven Toulmin) of Wittgenstein’s Vienna.


The Kraus Project

by Karl Kraus

transl. Jonathan Franzen

with assistance and notes from Paul Reitter 

and Daniel Kehlmann

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux (2013)

pp. 318 


Other articles from this issue: