Two angry men rail against their culture.
Franzen (Farther Away: Essays, 2012, etc.) discovered Austrian essayist, playwright and poet Karl Kraus (1874–1936) when he studied in Berlin in 1981-1982. A prominent social critic in early-20th-century Vienna, Kraus had been long forgotten, but his work resonated with Franzen, who saw the sharp, bitter writer as a kindred spirit. Franzen calls Kraus a “farseeing prophet” who hated, above all, the media, which thrived on gossip and was antagonistic to the “kind of spirituality/imaginativeness that, as Kraus saw it, makes us human.” As a kind of homage, Franzen has translated four of Kraus’ essays for this bilingual, profusely annotated edition. He warns readers that Kraus is a difficult writer, and in translation, his work comes across as stilted and awkward. The essays themselves, however, may be less interesting to readers than the extensive annotations. Sometimes a few lines by Kraus, for example, are followed by several pages of notes: Franzen’s autobiographical ruminations and detailed, informative historical context by Ohio State professor Paul Reitter. Novelist Daniel Kehlmann, a friend of Franzen, also rings in with comments. Franzen’s personal reflections focus on his response to Kraus, his early ambitions and frustrations as a writer, his engagement to the woman he eventually married and the reasons he embraced “anger as a way of life” at the age of 22. Although he claims that he has outgrown his former rage, like Kraus, he is critical of much in his own culture: Apple products, Steve Jobs, French literary theory, Salman Rushdie’s tweets, 1,000-page biographies, the blogosphere, Amazon, John Updike, social media, Facebook and assaults to the natural environment.
Readers interested in Kraus will be better served by Reitter’s The Anti-Journalist: Karl Kraus and Jewish Self-Fashioning (2008). This book is for Franzen’s fans.