The Kraus Project, by Jonathan Franzen

The Kraus Project, by Jonathan Franzen, Fourth Estate, RRP£18.99 / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP$27, 318 pages

October 4 2013 / Financial Times

A writer who self-consciously craves fame and the world’s applause, Jonathan Franzen is also simultaneously repelled by it. He seems to be both an introvert, who has written of his struggles with moderate depression and feelings of “estrangement from humanity”, and the kind of extrovert who feels the need to tell us in no uncertain terms what is wrong with the world, as he does with gusto in his new book, The Kraus Project.

Franzen has documented extensively his early failures as a novelist and how, retreating from social interaction, he set himself the challenge of writing the kind of grand, all-encompassing, emblematic realist novel that could speak to and for America. That novel turned out to be The Corrections (2001), his epic saga set largely in the fictional Midwestern town of St Jude, and chronicling the fortunes of one family from the 1950s to the late 1990s.

The Corrections was published around the time of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington and, in the stunned aftermath, it resonated with a nation that was traumatised and turning in on itself, asking what had gone wrong. It achieved all that Franzen could have wanted. More than a decade later, because of this and subsequent successes, Franzen is in the happy position of being able to publish pretty much whatever he wants whenever he chooses – such as The Kraus Project, which is less a coherent book than an experimental collage of texts, and all the better for it.

As a young man, Franzen went to live in Germany, and it was there that he first became seriously interested in the fin de siècle Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, whom he calls a newspaperman manqué. Born in 1874 into an affluent and sophisticated Jewish family, Kraus was one of the outstanding cultural figures of late Habsburg Vienna, the great imperial city he described so presciently as a “laboratory of world destruction”. He edited and wrote for his own journal, Die Fackel. It became the pulpit from which he scourged, traduced and ridiculed. It was not for nothing that he was known as the Great Hater. Kraus hated the power of the press and the carelessness with which so much journalism was written. Living through the long twilight of the Habsburg empire, which he considered decadent and corrupt, he believed his were the end of times (he wrote a long play about the first world war called The Last Days of Mankind). He was fearful of the new world of science and mass communication. “When I think of Adolf Hitler,” he said, “nothing occurs to me”, a brilliant comment that captures something of the vacuity and nullity of the Führer, who during his years of wandering in Vienna as a failed vagabond artist would have read Kraus, who died in 1936.

The Kraus Project is both a collaboration and homage. It reads as an extended meditation on the enduring influence of Kraus and as a counterblast against our veneration of technology. Franzen has translated five of the satirist’s essays – the longest of which is an attack on the belles-lettrism of the poet and essayist Heinrich Heine. Each is meticulously annotated and footnoted.

Franzen, who is quite a hater himself, despises what he calls our “media-saturated, technology crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment”. He refuses to buy Apple products, despises blogs and the “commercial internet”, and particularly loathes Jeff Bezos and the Amazon machine (the book was completed before Bezos bought the Washington Post). He reserves special contempt for social media, especially Twitter, which he says no serious writer who cares about language should use. Please take note Salman Rushdie, whom Franzen names and shames.

Franzen is 54 and some of his rage is surely generational, the high bourgeois disdain of a middle-aged literary man for an ultra-democratic medium such as Twitter that, if used sensibly, can be an extremely useful news source as well as a means to transcend old channels of production and distribution. Twitter can of course be numbingly banal, but that’s less the fault of the technology itself than of its users.

The Kraus Project is tremendously readable and is refreshingly sceptical of the cult of digital cool. Franzen’s prose has an appealing briskness and polemical force, quite different in style from the high burnish of his long, deliberative, multi-layered literary novels. And I like its fragmentary structure and the way it liberates Franzen to roam from one subject to another – from discussing the origins of the word feuilleton, say, to the “coolness” of Joachim Löw, the German national football coach. The techno-zealots will hate the book, if they bother to read it – Franzen is already being loudly denounced on Twitter – but as an exercise in controlled rage and as a celebration of and introduction to Karl Kraus it works just so.