Sunday, 15 September 2013

Franzen on Kraus and Franzen

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.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I do not believe I have ever commented here before. Hi! I appreciate the work you do.

I have a sort of explanation for why Franzen is publishing this stuff. It is a drawer-cleaning exercise. He has had versions of these translations sitting around for nearly twenty years, from his student days. So here they are.

This explains the eccentric Kraus choices - just two essays. He says the Heine one is previously untranslated because previous translators were "frightened" by it. Franzen can be a jerk, can't he?

The essay in the Guardian is, as you guessed, from the book. It is not a separate essay, though, but is presented in the footnotes, as an annotation to Kraus's Heine essay! Franzen's notes completely swallow the book.

It is bizarre. I know this, by the way, by looking "inside the book" at Amazon. I have not seen a physical copy.

kjd said...

Thank you, Tom. I should have gone straight to Amazon...!

Weltbuehne said...

I write a blog of my translations of Kraus and others, particularly the Weltbühne circle (Kurt Tucholsky)in Weimar Berlin ( It's difficult, particularly Kraus, but I agree with Franzen that there is lots of value in it, and it's worth making the effort to uncover it. I don't suppose he would claim that his connections to today are definitive, but they are interesting, and perhaps provocative, but pretty well stated. I hope that subsequent discussion is at a more respectful level than the hundreds of comments which the original article has attracted.

Ed Bast said...

I think you're thinking too hard on the question of why. Franzen's Mr. Difficult article was simple a calculated piece of self-promotion: this is why the kind of books I writer are better than the kind of books better writers write. The Kraus book is self-promotion, too. Just look at the cover. You'd be hard-pressed to distinguish it from a Franzen Great American Novel. Certainly you'd have no idea the book was primarily a translation of someone else's work. The name, not the intellect, sells copies. The content is really irrelevant, so long as Big Publishing keeps insisting on Franzen's Greatness.

Franzen should publish a diary of his bowel movements, just for fun. It would sell a ton of copies, and the critical fawning would be hilarious.

lalasoso said...

i think several things should be differentiated from each other. first of all, one shouldn't take what franzen says about his own writing too literal. if he were explainingt his work directly, not only would he make reading his novels seem unneccessary, but it would delete the whole project of literature - as a medium engaging the reader and demanding a intellectual, emotional and personal activity.
now i personally think that his poetic project is incredibly interesting and rich in human, not political insights. if he wants to personally get in touch with a reader, he must find a way that is neither political, nor intellectual but in a mysterious way personal - not as in calling for emotional reactions, but as in leaving the reader in a perplexed position where he himself must make a choice towards meaning. its more a performative aspect in a way. freedom has so many layers of discourse to discover if approached by the signs we enfold. take the epilog: shakespeares winters tale has a whole world of subversive meanings: regarding women, regarding the idea of remarriage, regarding the function of an artist, of a friend and also the aspect of duration, of intertextuality, of ethics and politics. now i think with the kraus project he shows us how he works and provides an example of how we could read him - or any literature. the kraus project, for me, is not about a factual resemblance of two thinkers, i think it is an example of what a love for writing can be, how we can unfold layers of potential meanings in any text. not to prove which one is right or wrong but to find that meaning is only this kind of hybrid of an idea of someone else that melts together with a personal dimension of the reader and only in this way has a potential to move a person, a thought, a discourse.

S Tolley said...

Hi, it takes a big reputation to get this sort of thing published and I am enjoying the discourse. Translating is a pretty loose discipline and it's fun to see how Franzen tackles these Kraus texts. The comments are fun, too, and it's reassuring that he has been helped by specialists and acknowledges their input. That said, I am not sure that Franzen gets to grips with the text's inherent absurdity. In note 86, for instance, "Why was Kraus so angry?" Franzen sees fit to write about his own neuroses... but it's Paul Reitter who exposes the real absurdity of the current literary scene, so cautious, so anxious to please.