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The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus (English and German Edition) Hardcover – October 1, 2013
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From Publishers Weekly
Franzen (Freedom) approaches his latest project with characteristic ambition: to provide an accessible translation of key essays by the early 19th-century Austrian critic Karl Kraus (1874–1936), explain and contextualize Kraus's biting satire, come to terms with the young man he was when he first encountered the self-styled wrathful prophet, and draw contemporary relevance from Kraus's work. The result is clear, polished, and often funny—no small accomplishment, given Kraus's notoriously difficult to translate prose. Franzen has similar aims; he leaves to Reitter the scholarly legwork of explaining obscure cultural references and providing analysis, and instead uses the copious footnotes to provide current analogies for Kraus's targets and reflect on his own studies in Germany, which lead to meditations on his upbringing, relationships, literary aspirations, and search for a literary father. Several footnotes extend for pages, turning Kraus into background music for scholarly speculation and ruminations. When the narratives coalesce, the spasm of pleasure amply repays the reader's dogged attention, revealing two literary minds operating at the peak of their maturity and strength. Agent: Susan Golomb, Susan Golomb Agency. (Oct.)
It is the achievement of The Kraus Project to provide a solid picture of what makes Kraus incomparable and, paradoxically enough, relevant. Franzen builds a very effective case that Kraus’s criticisms of media technology—particularly of the way that it deformed language and thought—pull him out of the Vienna of a hundred years ago and reveal him to be a timely visionary. Yet as valid as Franzen’s case for revisiting Kraus may be, The Kraus Project shows him as a more fascinating figure than that—a writer whose words are intransigent and dated and oddly fresh, all at once. —Eric Banks
Top customer reviews
Franzen translated two long essays by Karl Kraus ('Heine and the consequences' and 'Nestroy and posterity'), two shorter essays ('Afterword to "Heine and the consequences"' and 'Between two strands of life: final word') and a poem ('Let no one ask ...'). He was assisted by two people--Kraus scholar Paul Reitter (professor at Ohio State University), and the Austrian novelist Daniel Kehlmann. It is a bilingual edition, and there are incredibly copious footnotes by Franzen, Reitter and Kehlmann. Some of the footnotes explain what Kraus was getting at (cultural allusions, etc.). A lot of the footnotes are really autobiographical essays by Franzen describing his time in Germany in the early 80s where he first studied Kraus and became enamored of him.
The book came about a week ago, and as I read I got this awful, sinking 'the emperor has no clothes' feeling that just got stronger the more I read. I'm not talking about Jonathan Franzen and his collaborators. I'm talking about Kraus himself.
I've heard forever that Kraus is untranslatable, but what that really seems to mean is, he's almost unreadable no matter what the language. Even with the footnotes, it was a VERY hard slog to see what Kraus was getting at, and sometimes it was just plain impossible. It wasn't the fault of the translation. One of Franzen's assistants is Austrian, a native speaker of German; the other is an academic and a Kraus specialist, obviously with extreme fluency in German. If these two people threw up their hands and said they didn't know what the hell Kraus was getting at (which happened on several occasions in the book), how is a non-specialist reader supposed to figure it out? Perhaps more important, if it's that prolix in the original, why should anyone care to read it in English?
There were things I liked about 'The Kraus Project'. I don't disagree with Kraus's gimlet-eyed look at the downside of mass media and technology. The poem at the end was lovely, well translated and explained. For the most part, the footnotes were interesting and I read every single one of them (which anyone will have to do to have any hope of understanding the essays). Because this a bilingual edition, people who can read German have the original right there to compare with the translation--I often looked at the German as well as the English. The cover is great. Clearly a lot of editorial care was taken with the book.
Just as clearly, this was a labor of love on Jonathan Franzen's part, and I feel quite sad that I finished this book without feeling at least some of that love myself. I really wanted to love this, and didn't, despite the best efforts of Franzen, Reitter and Kehlmann. There were a few things I liked about it, and I think it is amazing that any publisher would have agreed to put out such a fine edition of a book that will appeal to such a tiny readership. Overall though, I can't remember the last time I have been so disappointed in a book.
Franzen first encountered the work of Kraus as an exchange student in Germany and his fascination finally culminated in this book. Four texts by Kraus are reproduced in this volume, both in the German and English translation. The ostensible subjects of the essays are the German author, Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), and Austrian playwright, Johann Nestroy (1801-1862). However, the heart of the matter, both in the originals by Kraus and in the annotations by Franzen, is social criticism then and now. As Kraus lampooned the shallowness of journalism and popular culture at the turn of the 20th century in Vienna, Franzen scrutinizes the foibles of social media, TV news, and what passes today for journalism.
Franzen observes about cable news "the phony coziness that tolerates the grotesque 'expansion' of trivial news, traffics touristically in stories that ought to have no place in public discourse, and makes no tonal distinctions in its blending of serious and meaningless news items" (247). Franzen comments: "Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself...The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world" (273). Franzen laments "the inherent antagonisms between the ascendant mass media and the (privileged) kind of spirituality/imaginativeness that, as Kraus saw it, makes us human" (277). Such reflections are increasingly astute, given we are the fish lacking perspective to notice the waters in which we are swimming (cf. David Foster Wallace, "This Is Water," Commencement Speech at Kenyon College).
While the writings of Kraus are exceedingly dense, Franzen's annotations--reflecting also about "progress," war, propaganda, and the need for resistance--provide prophetic challenges too seldom raised about what is becoming also of this generation. I give it five-stars.
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German text->English translation-> ridiculous obtuse commentary.