Why was Karl Kraus so angry? Well, you’d angry too if….uh….

Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project’

3 minute read
Time was when Karl Kraus, the Austrian playwright, editor and social critic, was known to English-speaking audiences chiefly through an abbreviated translation of his panoramic satirical drama, The Last Days of Mankind. But now, through the novelist and Kraus scholar Jonathan Franzen, the angry old man of German satire lives anew.

The Kraus Project is an interesting piece of work from a purely structural point of view. On the one hand, it’s a brand new translation of four of Kraus’s essays, plus one of his poems; on the other, it’s a running series of footnotes/commentaries— consuming about half of the book’s 318 pages— in which Franzen explains Kraus to us, explains what Kraus has meant to him and, to some extent, reveals what makes him tick as a writer.

“Why was Kraus so angry?” Franzen asks rhetorically before providing his answer:

“Kraus hated bad language because he loved good language—because he had the gifts, both intellectual and financial, to cultivate that love. And the person who’s been lucky in life can’t help expecting the world to keep going his way; when the world insists on going wrong ways, corrupt and tasteless ways, he feels betrayed by it. He could have enjoyed a good life if only the bad world hadn’t spoiled it. And so he gets angry, and the anger itself then further isolates him and heightens his sense of specialness.”

Thought = misery?

So it appears that Kraus’s special magic was his anger. But then, aren’t most artists angry about something? Angry about their lack of success, or a success that’s not as grand as it should be, or being a great comic actor who yearns to play Hamlet? Even I am angry!

The very act of thinking too hard about life, I think, tends to generate unhappiness. It’s just not a perfect world, and men who are meant to be angels all too often prefer the glamour of the fallen angel to the hard, thankless grind of the good angel.

Still you have to admire a German writer who writes a novella-length essay— Heine and the Consequences— deflating the revered reputation of Heinrich Heine. (In fairness to both men, I doubt that Kraus hurt Heine’s reputation much. But he gave it the good old college try.)

Pied Piper of prose

One thing Kraus disliked about Heine was the ease with which he composed his poems. Kraus also disliked Heine’s embrace of a casual sort of prose writing that encouraged lesser lights to tread in his footsteps— with no good results. (The same could be said in America concerning Walt Whitman and his Pied Piper’s version of free verse.)

Indeed, it’s a tribute to Kraus’s rigorous determination to write vigorous German prose that at least one reviewer complained about how hard Kraus’s syntax is to grasp. Certainly, nothing in The Kraus Project could be mistaken for Florentine Nights.

As a sort of literary equivalent of his fellow Viennese satirist, the film director Billy Wilder, Kraus would probably get a bitter laugh out of the fact that he, no friend to the Expressionists, is now largely remembered as a lesser Expressionist playwright.

Franzen’s book may redress this situation, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. After all, people like Heine, just as modern moviegoers like Marvel superhero movies. That’s why Hollywood no longer makes movies like Chinatown.

What, When, Where

The Kraus Project. By Karl Kraus, translated and annotated by Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013. 218 pages; $27.

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