I have written before about Jonathan Franzen as an advocate for German-language literature, or at least I feel like I have. Yesterday's Guardian featured a three-page article on Karl Kraus authored by the American writer. Or at least, a three-page article involving the early-20th-century Austrian "Great Hater" Karl Kraus and expanding on some of Franzen's ideas about modern life.
My reaction is confusion. Not so much to the article itself, in which Franzen takes some of Kraus's ideas - notably a rather outmoded one about Romance and Germanic cultures - and applies them seemingly randomly to some frequently bemoaned phenomena like the great Apple/Windows divide. There is some rejection of new media worthy of Günter Grass and some easy points-scoring against Jeff Bezos. He then goes on to tell us about how he came to Karl Kraus and how he is also an angry man afraid of the apocalypse, which is fine.
My confusion comes in relation to the whole fact of the article, or the whole Kraus Project itself. It's not quite clear exactly what the article is, but I'd hazard a guess it's an extract from Franzen's forthcoming book of/about Karl Kraus plus a little bit of extra material to whet our appetites. I have to say, it's worked on me. It looks like The Kraus Project is less of a simple translation and more of a hybrid thing including the original German, Franzen's English, Franzen's wide-ranging annotations and some more notes from the American Kraus scholar Paul Reitter and the Austrian novelist Daniel Kehlmann, who I believe helped with the translation too. Hence the previously confusing circumstance that Franzen gets his full name on the cover in very large letters, while Karl Kraus has to go without a first name. It also explains the strange fact that Franzen's German publishers have commissioned a translation of his annotations, which they will add to the original out-of-copyright texts and publish in German.
I am still confused, though, about why Jonathan Franzen has put together this book. I recently saw the American writer Ben Marcus reading in Berlin (he's a fellow at the American Academy) and learned that he'd had a bit of a spat with Franzen a few years ago. I don't follow American literary matters so it was new to me, and I enjoyed Marcus's 2005 Harper's article enormously when I read it today. So I now feel a little more up to not-quite date on the whole "Jonathan Franzen versus difficult writing" front, albeit more from someone else's perspective than from Franzen's own. Still, Marcus uses plenty of quotes to detail Franzen's argument against difficulty in literary fiction, and makes some good points in rejecting it for himself.
It seems to me that Franzen has repeatedly argued against using unusual and experimental techniques and opaque language, because they make novels more difficult to read, which for him lessens the reader's enjoyment and lowers the novel's entertainment value. An argument Marcus effectively scotches, but anyway. Now, Jonathan Franzen is bringing one of the most notoriously difficult German-language writers to Anglophone readers. And that is what's confusing me.
Franzen praises all sorts of things about him, "his moral fervour, his satirical rage, his hatred of the media, his preoccupation with apocalypse, and his boldness as a sentence-writer." Those are my italics, because Kraus was more than bold as a sentence-writer; many of his sentences are nigh-on incomprehensible. I recently translated a few very short passages from Die dritte Walpurgisnacht, no doubt poorly, for an academic event. It was incredibly difficult because I found it very hard to understand what Kraus was saying. He was not writing anything we might call "accessible" - even by the standards of his time. So why, to quote Franzen out of context, is he now punishing his readers with Kraus's "needless difficulty"? Why revive interest in a writer whose style, by Franzen's own admission, deliberately "kept the uninitiated out"? As the Guardian article points out, "the Great Hater" didn't write novels, "the popular genre that Kraus had disdained but I did not." Yet surely the distinction between novel-writing and other kinds of writing is arbitrary here?
Judging by the passages quoted in the Guardian article, Franzen has done a decent job at translating (there are points I might quibble, but that would be silly). To some extent, he has simplified Kraus. For instance, the phrase "in Kulturen, in denen jeder Trottel
Individualität besitzt, vertrotteln die Individualitäten" is unpacked and explained very slightly in the English version: "in cultures where every blockhead has individuality, individuality becomes a thing for blockheads." That's fine, that's a thing we have to do when languages don't overlap entirely. There's that much-repeated anecdote about German philosophy students reading Kant in English translation so as to understand it better. Yet still, Kraus is almost as hard to understand in English as he is in German.
I can only assume that the internationally anticipated footnotes are aimed at helping readers to understand Karl Kraus. The publisher FSG tells us Franzen is capable of "untangling Kraus’s often dense arguments to reveal their relevance to contemporary America." I assume there is some kind of levelling impulse behind the project, a wish to educate readers. Which is why I'll probably read the book; I'd like to understand Karl Kraus. All resentment and envy aside, I am glad Jonathan Franzen has championed a notoriously impenetrable dead Austrian writer. I can't imagine anyone else would have got three pages in the Guardian on the same subject. However, my concern after reading the piece is that Franzen's attempts to explain Kraus are more about his own view of the world than anything else.