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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Kraus Project’

- - Tuesday, December 17, 2013

THE KRAUS PROJECT
By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27, 318 pages

Present-day Vienna is one of the world's most beautiful cities. But its charms are those of a museum-cum-theme park featuring a talented repertory company, a place for visitors to soak up the remnants — musical, artistic, architectural and intellectual — of a splendid but moribund past. A century ago, even as the once-mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire began to disintegrate, Vienna was still a living center of culture and commerce, rivaling Paris, London and Moscow and, at least on the aesthetic and intellectual sides, far outshining its rival German-speaking capital, Berlin.

One of Vienna's brightest intellectual lights in its imperial sunset was Karl Kraus, a brilliant essayist, critic, lecturer and all-purpose social gadfly. If his name doesn't ring a bell with you, don't feel embarrassed. Kraus' fame, even in his own lifetime (1874-1936), never spread that far from Vienna, and his dense — in the good sense of being packed with meaning — nuanced German has found few translators capable of doing it justice in English; a rare exception was the late Harry Zohn, a Brandeis University professor. Yet the incisive, acerbic and sometime hilarious words of Kraus, notably his outpourings in Die Fackel (The Torch), the one-man journal he printed intermittently from 1899 to 1936, have a lot to say to us today. As Kraus himself wryly prophesied, "My readers think that I write for the present because my writings are based on the present. So I shall have to wait until my writings are obsolete. Then they may acquire timeliness."

In the early 1970s, as a young writer, I was fortunate in having two older friends who had known Kraus: the distinguished Austrian diplomat Ambassador Arno Halusa and the composer Robert Stolz, Vienna's last waltz and operetta king, whose memoirs I co-authored. Both men gave me an early appreciation of a great writer who was then little known in the United States.

How could one fail to appreciate a man who snubbed fans as well as foes with the words, "Many desire to kill me, and many wish to spend an hour chatting with me. The law protects me from the former." Or who could dismiss an entire learned discipline with "A historian is often only a journalist facing backwards." Or, of his Viennese contemporary Sigmund Freud and his acolytes, would say, "Psychoanalysis is a mental illness that thinks of itself as a therapy." Or, who understood that, then as now, "The secret of the demagogue is to appear as dumb as his audience so that these people can believe themselves as smart as he is." Or who wrote of the arrogant jingoists who stampeded into World War I, "Lord, forgive them, for they know what they do!"

Now Kraus has a new champion, the best-selling ("Freedom" and "The Corrections") novelist Jonathan Franzen. One of the fringe benefits of having a few best-sellers under your belt is that you can then resurrect earlier, obscure work that had been gathering dust for decades. In the case of Mr. Franzen, this has meant, firstly, publishing an excellent translation, dating from his student days, of the major 19th-century German playwright Frank Wedekind's masterpiece, "Spring Awakening." Now he has followed up with "The Kraus Project," based on a translation of Kraus essays also done by Mr. Franzen as a student, but now heavily annotated by himself and Kraus experts Paul Reitter and Daniel Kehlmann. Indeed, the annotation is so heavy that there are moments when Kraus seems to be along just for the ride while Messrs. Franzen, Reitter and Kehlmann endlessly regale each other with their takes on him.

But, as Karl Kraus might have put it, half a loaf — even if half-baked — is better than none. Thanks to Mr. Franzen, a new generation of English-language readers will now be introduced, in both English and accompanying German-language texts, to a burningly angry Viennese man of letters who was also witty, wise and worth remembering.

Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.