The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 318 pages ($27). Since our age has turned into one where anything but superlatives is unlikely to get people’s attention (much less hold it), here is, quite legitimately, a candidate for the wildest and wooliest book to come from a major publisher in 2013. If anyone but Jonathan Franzen – former literary “frenemy” of Oprah Winfrey and author of the Oprah-approved best-seller “The Connections” – had walked into a publisher (even one as adventurous and literary as Farrar, Straus and Giroux), it would have been most unlikely to exist. But here it is, a marvelous intellectual adventure that runs on two tracks.
The first is Franzen’s translation of some essays by Karl Kraus (1874-1936), the influential German critic and essayist whose long-obscured power and authority Franzen is putatively trying to explain to a cultural world that couldn’t possibly seem more distant – our 21st century world of tablets and iPhones and the Internet’s tyrannical Tower of Babel.
The other track follows Franzen himself through the majority of the text, which has been stuffed into footnotes where Franzen is supposedly explaining all of Kraus’ references and amplifying Kraus’ context enough to meet our era somewhere. In reality, it is indulging ostensibly Kraussian meditations on top of autobiographical musings and animadversions that are strictly his own.
Say what, one might well ask as a good 21st century omniskeptic? Well, Franzen begins by telling us that Kraus’ opposition of the words “German” and “Romance” (i.e. Romantic in the sense of “romance languages”) suggests “a more contemporary version of Kraus’ dichotomy: Mac vs. PC.” Which leads Franzen to discourse on cool vs. uncool, how much he disliked the Justin Long/John Hodgeman MAC commercial and his feeling that Kraus was a kind of proto-blogger “who spent a lot of time reading stuff he hated so as to be able to hate it with authority.”
A wonderful intellectual adventure into both Franzen and Kraus. Trying to imagine Oprah endeavoring to explain it to her book club could give those few who’d want to the literary horse laugh of the year.
– Jeff Simon