The Kraus Project, Jonathan Franzen, Fourth Estate, 318pp, £18.99, (Hardback)

Anyone else made vaguely uneasy by the barrage of platitudes being laid down in advance of the August 1914 centenary should be glad of this timely selection of Karl Kraus’s writings. Take a copy with you to your dug-out. The English translation, by American novelist Jonathan Franzen, is excellent and readers of German who have yet to tangle with Kraus’s famously (and deliberately) difficult style should find this bi-lingual text rewarding. Credit is due to Franzen for placing a well edited but non-academic introduction to this writer on the list of a mainstream British publisher.

Kraus was a Viennese satirist, ‘beholden to no party line’. From 1899 until his death in 1936, through the pages of his self-published magazine, Die Fackel (The Torch), he ‘carried out polemics from all perspectives.’ Even with thirty-thousand readers at one point – Walter Benjamin, Brecht, Adorno, Auden, Kafka and Wittgenstein among them – the ‘Great Hater’ may not have changed the course of world events. But as one of his admirers put it, Kraus saw ‘the connection between mistreated words and mistreated bodies,’ and the role of industrial mass culture in both. He situated the contradictions of his time ‘squarely in the sphere of life’s mechanisation.’

Among the longest-running and most rancorous of his many feuds was the one he carried on with Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse. This newspaper embodied, for Kraus, a public culture which was enfeebling Austria’s imaginative life, thereby rendering it susceptible to media-manipulation on an unprecedented scale. When the disaster he had warned of duly struck in 1914, the Neue Freie Presse predictably viewed the conflict in heroic terms.

As Franzen puts it in a footnote, ‘Kraus spent a lot of time reading stuff he hated, so as to be able to hate it with authority.’ His fight with the new mass culture was hand-to hand, often fiercely personal – hence the need for footnotes now. But his protest was argued from passions and principles which remain relevant to what Franzen calls ‘our own media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment’. At the heart of that protest was his style: condensed, aphoristic, full of allusions, reminding the reader of how much ‘the German feel for language’ had once mattered, how much words had meant and, by implication, how much they still might.

‘We inhabitants of a time that has lost the ability to be a posterity…’ – it is in phrases like this that he speaks most clearly across the century or so which separates him from us. Progress was ‘the pyrrhic victory over nature.’ ‘For the intellect did not understand that, in the absence of spirit, it could grow well enough within its own generation but would lose the ability to reproduce itself ‘(aber die Fähigkeit verlor, sich fortzupflanzen.)’ It was this essential sterility of the mass culture that he deplored. The true artist’s aspiration had once been to speak to the present and address the future too. Modern conditions may have ruled that inadmissible but Kraus dared to hope that his own words might have that power.

This book is an attempt to re-state and re-affirm Kraus’s hope through Franzen’s translations and footnotes by himself and two others. In some of the longest footnotes Franzen tells of his own early engagement with Kraus’s work, as a graduate student adrift in West Berlin in the early 1980s. The Kraus Project suggests that we can still, through engaging fully with our times and with writers of the past, re-discover what it means both to ‘live after’ and to live now. By doing so we might even re-learn what it means to have, or to deserve a posterity. A time when we are apparently powerless to adjust our behaviour to safeguard the future of this planet is surely just the time for such a ‘re-learning.’

With hindsight we can see the future everywhere in Kraus: ‘Something that never before existed must have entered the world. An infernal machine of humanity,’ he writes, in 1912. And he could see further than two years ahead: ‘since enlightenment comes off with soap, lies have to help out,’ wrote this Austrian-Jewish writer in the same year. He did live long enough, just, to see the rise of the Nazis. His short poem about them in 1934, a year after they came to power in Germany, ends ‘The Word went under when that world awoke.’

He was good on the present too: ‘the people whose words to the reader abide with thought are in an endlessly difficult situation,’ he wrote. This remark might put British readers in mind of George Gissing who targeted the new mass culture to similar effect in New Grub Street. This was pernicious not because it was mass culture but because it swamped that authentic utterance through which a living culture argues with and perpetuates itself.

‘My readers believe that I write for the day because I write about the day, so I will have to wait until my works become old. Then they’ll become relevant.’ Franzen credits his hero with having advance intelligence of our own times too. And certainly when Kraus describes his world as one ‘where everyone has individuality and everyone the same, and hysteria is the glue which holds together the social order’, he does irresistibly call to mind our own time, fidgeting somewhere between Facebook and UKIP.

In the first essay here, his account of Heinrich Heine’s mass appeal is an exploration of how such reputations arise and are maintained. He takes the example of Heine’s sniggering at a romantic sunset in Das Fräulein stand am Meere / The Girl Stood on the Shore, a poem which Franzen himself found irresistibly clever as a teenager. Heine’s gift, Kraus points out, was precisely to fix ‘easy’ ideas in the minds of the young, so that anyone who later tries to ‘talk an adult out of his Heine’ finds himself accused of impiety towards youth itself. Franzen’s analogy is with the case fans make today that Bob Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature. There’s an under-tow of hostility to the 1960s in this book which I didn’t fully trust but the reader is left free to produce his or her own counter-examples.

If most of Heine’s poetry, for Kraus, is what ‘authentic utterance’ is not, the next essay is as close as Kraus comes to saying what it is. The neglect of his fellow-satirist Johannes Nestroy (1801-1862) was for Kraus an excellent example of how his contemporaries had ‘lost the ability to be a posterity’. Kraus explains this neglect by contrasting Heine’s irony with Nestroy’s raw satire, the latter of which he thought lost on modern Austrians. Industrial mass culture, journalism in particular, was the root cause of Nestroy’s neglect. His essay did succeed in restoring Nestroy’s reputation in Austria, where he is still today regularly performed. The claims made in Nestroy and Posterity for satire as a creative art are a tribute to his fellow writer, a display of his own immense gifts and a moving statement of hard-won beliefs.

True poetry, he argues there, is ‘a within fetched from without, a perfect unity. Observed reality taken up in feeling, not massaged until it fits the feeling.’ Heine by contrast was that ‘speedy outfitter of stock moods’, his poetry was ‘journalism that scans’, his ideas ‘candied rather than crystallised’. Nestroy’s ‘low’ humour had landed him in trouble with the critics. For Kraus on the contrary, Nestroy’s satire was his answer to ‘mere yea-saying, a contemptible appeal to the already existing world.’ Satire expresses the true idealism, ‘inferring a lost beauty from a found ugliness and setting up little images of meaning in place of global concepts.’ It is time for a great Krausian moment: ‘The joke is nasty to the smokestack because the joke affirms the sun.’

Nestroy’s was no drawing-room facility. Shakespeare’s fools are a strong though un-named presence in this defence of satire. ‘His wit was forever taking the road from social standing to humanity,’ Kraus writes. King Lear was Kraus’s favourite play and that fusion of the buffoon with the tragic hero which he finds in Nestroy’s characters cannot but remind us of Lear’s enigmatic and doomed companion, who went to bed at noon.

Such are the daunting standards which Kraus upheld against the ‘great trick of linguistic fraud, which in Germany pays so much better than the greatest achievement of linguistic creativity, [and which] keeps working in generation after generation of newspapers.’ Such were the verbal barricades he raised against ‘the coercions of a philosophy of life that has squeezed all the motivation out of life, so as to save it for the profit motive.’ This was his way of holding out against the ‘reign of banality.’

Franzen admirably glosses the Krausian quarrel with newspapers as one with ‘their fraudulent coupling of Enlightenment ideals with the pursuit of profit and power.’ The text is well annotated and the discussion of Kraus’s conflicted relationship with his own (and Heine’s) Jewishness is fascinating. Franzen has more time than some readers will have for the continuing relevance of Kraus’s pre-1914 views of German culture in relation to its ‘Latin’ antecedents. According to Kraus, Heine’s reporting from and residence in Paris had set a fatal precedent: it had Frenchified the German language and given rise to a journalism which glossed over the very real differences between Latin and German culture.

The notion of ‘German solidity vs Romance frivolity,’ as one of the footnotes has it, has been lent new credibility, in Germany and elsewhere, by southern Europe’s debt spiral. But Franzen’s assertion, off the back of this, that German culture was and remains ‘uncool’ (as contrasted with ‘cool’ Latin culture) will surely be news to anyone who did significant growing up with the help of Böll or Wenders, while their elder brothers listened to Bowie’s Berlin albums.

A way of moving beyond this simple opposition might be to highlight Kraus’s admiration for Goethe, to which Franzen alludes several times. Goethe’s Roman Elegies, his planned re-writing of the Ulysses legend, to be set in Sicily, or his work on plants, inspired by a visit to the Botanical Gardens in Palermo: any of these might have found their way into a more sceptical account of Kraus on the iniquity of Paris and other exotic southern locations.

In fairness to Franzen, the 1917 essay in which Kraus (almost) apologises to his audience is printed here, and Franzen cites Pierre Bourdieu to excellent effect on the prominent role class background played in the formation of Kraus’s exacting literary tastes. The more obvious analogies between Karl Kraus and Guy Debord apparently escape him. Kraus denouncing the media and its ‘farce of counterfeit authenticity’, its ‘all-blanketing haze of issues’, the ‘emptied out life’, the ‘loss of life in contemporary life’ (‘Lebensverlust des heutigen Lebens’): all of these have striking parallels in Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967).

Much of the response to this book focussed on Franzen’s personal revelations and on his contention that the internet, far from having revolutionised anything, is as much in need of satirical treatment as Die Neue Freie Presse ever was. Franzen has ‘read a lot of stuff he hates’ too in an effort to do his country Krausian service. It is the faux chumminess of cable news presenters, the hype about smart phones and the internet generally with its ‘Ninth grade social dynamics’, which he dissects. That is where he finds the Neue Freie Presse of our times.

I agree with him but his case might have been enriched. John Heartfield, for example, grew up in Austria, anglicising his name during the First World War in defiance of anti-British hysteria. He moved to Munich and set up a satirical magazine with George Grosz, with whom he invented the technique of photomontage in 1920. Here was an artist of the same period, in other words, politically committed and yet using the language of the machine – the photoshop of its day – but using it precisely to undermine the machine. Heartfield’s covers for the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (forerunner of the British Picture Post) reached just the kind of mass audience which Kraus rarely did.

Kraus immediately saw the Nazis for what they were but his literary formation left him unable to respond with the same eloquence as he had to earlier corruptions of the public culture. Meanwhile, it is precisely for his lampooning of the Hitler salute and swastikas and the rest that Heartfield is most remembered. That might have made the beginnings of a counter-case for the machine/internet. I take it, though, that Franzen’s concern was less to offer us a scrupulously balanced view of the Great Hater than to introduce us to an old friend of his. I’d kept hearing about Kraus and am very glad finally to have met him.

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