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Friday, Nov. 15, 2013

Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Kraus Project’

1900s Viennese satirist takes down postmodern culture

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Provocative novelist Jonathan Franzen turns historian, unearthing an insightful, forgotten essayist from a century ago. His ambitious new book, The Kraus Project (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), presents five essays by the scathing Viennese pessimist Karl Kraus in bilingual format, the original texts facing Franzen’s translations of Kraus’ difficult German prose. Running across the lower half of the pages like a set of Talmudic hyperlinks are Franzen’s extensive footnotes, explicating references by Kraus that will be as obscure to today’s educated readers as Paul Krugman will be in the 22nd century, and commenting on Kraus’ contemporary relevance. Kraus thought the culture of his day sucked; many of his complaints are applicable a hundred years on in an era when consumer feedback is mistaken for criticism and even the dumbest voices carry across the globe via the worldwide web.

Unwilling to leave Kraus’ sharply penned satire to the literary antiquarians, Franzen sets out to show why Kraus—his kindred spirit from the fin de siècle—matters now. In Kraus he finds analogs to his own distaste for the commodification of cool, with its insistence on surface over substance. One of Kraus’ most stinging remarks packs a powerful punch: “In cultures where every blockhead has individuality, individuality becomes a thing for blockheads.” Franzen, in a footnote, adds: “You’re not allowed to say things like that in America nowadays, no matter how much the billion (or is it two billion now?) ‘individualized’ Facebook pages may make you want to say them.”

The Kraus Project is one of the few books of 2013 that deserves to be called brilliant—and half of it was written a century ago!