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The Kraus project by Jonathan Franzen
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The Kraus project (2013)

by Jonathan Franzen

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This book contains the first English translations of two long essays by the Austrian satirist Karl Kraus. The first one of these, entitled "Heine and the Consequences", discusses the degradation of language through the popularisation of "feuilletons" - newspaper supplements originating in France and popularised in Germany by Heinrich Heine. According to Kraus, these were written in large numbers and in a style suited for readers with short attention span. Kraus blames the proliferation of this style of writing, and the public's acquisition of a taste for it, for the widespread misuse of language and resulting societal problems. The second essay "Nestroy and Posterity" discusses the under appreciation that the Austrian playwrite Nestroy has received, and analyses society through its tastes and behaviours.
Nearly half of this volume consists of footnotes to the essays, in which the text is explained and interpreted by Franzen and two other Kraus scholars. While the original essays were written in 1910 and 1912, this volume was published in 2012. Franzen highlights the relevance of the essays to current times, concluding that the dumbing down of everything that is written (which perhaps finds its worse examples on the internet (blogs/twitter/facebook/online news)), was really a process beginning over 100 years ago, and most vigourously denounced by Kraus.
I first came across Kraus as a frequently namedropped and admired wit in Kafka's works, and had the name in the back of my mind when I came accross this volume. He lives up to his reputation as the "Great Hater", and also to that of being a clever writer, however the relevance of some of the essays is lost due to its focus on then-contemporary events and people, as Satire usually does.
This book is still interesting though for a number of reasons: for the historical aspects, the discussion of literature, the social commentary, and Kraus's style of writing.
Unusual for a translated work is quite how much we learn about the translator. A lot of the footnotes embark on the autobiographical, and for pages do not abate. Franzen sees many similarities between himself and Kraus, and spent a lot of time researching him in Germany as a student. How interesting you will find these excursions though will perhaps depend on your patience. This isn't a book that I would recommend to most readers, but this is more due to its niche subject than major inherent flaws. ( )
  P_S_Patrick | Dec 12, 2014 |
A noble, deeply personal, but ultimately unsuccessful project. Kraus's deliberately obscure style coupled with the utter obscurity of the objects of his incessant intramural score settling make for a very turgid read. Franzen's footnotes only occasionally rise above the level of stating the obvious in their diagnosis of the ills of our current iteration of technophilic society. And too often he meanders into indulgently personal memorising. The last few short pieces are worth reading but the longer ones will make many readers put the book aside. ( )
  dazzyj | Jan 25, 2014 |
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Franzen in his notes brings out Kraus’s abiding preoccupations: the leveling effects of “middlebrow” culture (The New York Times comes in for mild teasing as a current example, although Franzen notes that tabloids and Internet aggregators offer closer parallels to the middlebrow of Kraus’s day); the corrosions of political and commercial language; and public blindness to the lasting harms of out-of-control, market-driven technology. These are vast themes and immense claims. Unlike his epigrams, Kraus’s cultural despondency and sociopolitical end-is-nighism are difficult to swallow whole. To Franzen’s credit, this volume makes plain that behind Kraus the palatable cafe wit was Kraus the apocalyptic prophet standing, as he thought, on a volcano’s edge.
 
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374182213, Hardcover)

A great American writer’s confrontation with a great European critic—a personal and intellectual awakening

A hundred years ago, the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus was among the most penetrating and farsighted writers in Europe. In his self-published magazine, Die Fackel, Kraus brilliantly attacked the popular media’s manipulation of reality, the dehumanizing machinery of technology and consumer capitalism, and the jingoistic rhetoric of a fading empire. But even though he had a fervent following, which included Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin, he remained something of a lonely prophet, and few people today are familiar with his work. Luckily, Jonathan Franzen is one of them.

In The Kraus Project, Franzen, whose “calm, passionate critical authority” has been praised in The New York Times Book Review, not only presents his definitive new translations of Kraus but annotates them spectacularly, with supplementary notes from the Kraus scholar Paul Reitter and the Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann. Kraus was a notoriously cantankerous and difficult writer, and in Franzen he has found his match: a novelist unafraid to voice unpopular opinions strongly, a critic capable of untangling Kraus’s often dense arguments to reveal their relevance to contemporary America.

While Kraus is lampooning the iconic German poet and essayist Heinrich Heine and celebrating his own literary hero, the Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy, Franzen is annotating Kraus the way Kraus annotated others, surveying today’s cultural and technological landscape with fearsome clarity, and giving us a deeply personal recollection of his first year out of college, when he fell in love with Kraus’s work. Painstakingly wrought, strikingly original in form, The Kraus Project is a feast of thought, passion, and literature.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:28:59 -0400)

Franzen presents new translations and annotations of the work of early twentieth-century satirist Karl Kraus, who, via his self-published magazine Die Fackel, "attacked the popular media's manipulation of reality, the dehumanizing machinery of technology and consumer capitalism, and the jingoistic rhetoric of a fading empire"--Dust jacket flap.… (more)

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