Jonathan Franzen’s Love Letter to the Doyen of Jewish Intellectual Vienna
The anointed king of American letters’ eccentric new book, ‘The Kraus Project,’ is also hate mail for our shallow culture
In this way, by crooked paths, Kraus argues that the debasement of German literature, its addiction to sensationalism and sentimentality, can be laid at Heine’s door. Whether this is fair to Heine is beside the point. Kraus’ whole life was dedicated to attacking what he saw as the shallowness of Viennese culture, and since so many of the sponsors and creators of that culture were Jewish, he inevitably ended up sounding like half an anti-Semite. (That he was besotted by the aristocracy and eventually converted to Catholicism only increases the impression.) Reitter’s notes sensitively convey the many nuances of this situation, arguing that what really infuriated Kraus was the failure of his fellow German Jewish writers to do enough with their privileged position.
Where does Franzen belong in all this? For him, Kraus seems to serve two symbolic purposes. First, he represents the freedom of all-out attack, of omnicritical satire, which liberates Franzen to lambaste the shallowness and frivolity of our own culture. Many of his complaints have already been widely discussed on the Internet and Twitter—which is ironic, since two of the things Franzen hates most are the Internet and Twitter. When Kraus writes, “In cultures where every blockhead has individuality, individuality becomes a thing for blockheads,” Franzen cheers him on: “You’re not allowed to say things like this in America nowadays, no matter how much the billion (or is it two billion now?) ‘individualized’ Facebook pages may make you want to say them.”
Ironically, however, Franzen’s criticisms of shallowness falter because they are themselves made in a shallow way. Partly out of modesty, partly in deference to democratic etiquette, Franzen ends up casting his objections to Internet discourse as a merely personal matter, a question of taste. “If I’d been born in 1159, when the world was steadier, I might well have felt, at fifty-three, that the next generation would share my values and appreciate the same things I appreciated; no apocalypse pending. But I was born in 1959, when TV was something you watched only during prime time and on weekends, and people wrote letters and put them in the mail, and every magazine and newspaper had a robust Books section,” and so on and so forth. This comes across as merely generational nostalgia, when in fact the values Franzen is trying to champion deserve a more serious and abstract defense. Whatever you can say about Kraus, he never whined.
What’s best about The Kraus Project is the other kind of Franzen footnote, in which commentary on Kraus gives way to full-blown memoir. Franzen first read Kraus in the early 1980s, when he was a Fulbright scholar in Germany, and he writes about this period in his life with a kind of amazement at the foolish, ambitious, self-destructive young writer he used to be. Stuck in a long-distance engagement he didn’t really want, grandiosely committed to overthrowing Thomas Pynchon and becoming the greatest American novelist, Franzen wrote at a fanatical pace and ignored much of the outside world.
At one moment, he writes, “I literally went crazy for about fifteen minutes. Tried to pull my face off with my fingers, tried to rip up the bedsheets with my teeth.” He writes about it now with a wary detachment that seems informed by years of therapy. Yet hovering over all these self-recriminations is the biggest joke of all: His grandiose dreams were justified, and all the craziness paid off. He became Jonathan Franzen, the most famous novelist in America, and perhaps the only one with the prestige—or the literary idealism—to get a book like The Kraus Project published.
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