Jonathan Franzen’s Love Letter to the Doyen of Jewish Intellectual Vienna


Adam Kirsch in Tablet:

For all its variety, Vienna’s Jewish intelligentsia had one thing in common: They all read Karl Kraus. In his autobiography, Elias Canetti describes how he moved to Vienna as a young man and was immediately told that he had to start reading Kraus’ magazine Die Fackel (“The Torch”) if he wanted to be au courant. Die Fackel was not just edited by Karl Kraus; after a few years, he was its sole contributor, and it became a decades-long virtuoso performance. The best English-language book about Kraus is titled The Anti-Journalist, by Paul Reitter, and Die Fackel can best be considered anti-journalism: journalism that attacked and criticized everyone, including other journalists.

In its pages, Kraus held up for mockery everything he hated about Viennese and Austrian society, which was everything: the government, the military, the law, business, advertising, consumer culture, the theater, literature, and above all, the press. His greatest target was Vienna’s main newspaper, the Neue Freie Presse, which was as authoritative in Austria then as the New York Times is in America today. To Kraus, however, the paper was both linguistically and politically corrupt, and he never tired of pointing out everything from clichéd language to actual cases of influence-peddling. In response, the editor of the Neue Freie Presse made a rule that Kraus’ name was never to be mentioned in its columns.

Kraus was such an influential figure, in such an influential time and place, that his name has come down to us through many channels. Canetti writes about him, as do Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem; he figures in a small way in the life of Freud, whom he predictably despised. But the actual substance of Kraus’ work remains curiously ghostly in the English-speaking world. While the whole run of Die Fackel is available online in the original German, only small selections have been translated. And even those are hard to appreciate, because of the intensely topical and critical nature of Kraus’ writing. His work took the form of commentary on local figures, passing scandals, the latest books and newspapers—none of which have even the slightest resonance for a 21st-century American reader. That Kraus exercised an enormous moral and literary authority is beyond doubt, but it’s impossible for us to really feel that authority; we have to take it largely on trust.

That situation is not changed by the appearance of The Kraus Project, the admirable and deeply eccentric new book by Jonathan Franzen.

More here.