I’m no fan of Jonathan Franzen, at least not his fiction. I didn’t care much for Freedom. But wait. That’s the only fiction by Franzen that I’ve read, so it’s unfair of me to say that I don’t care for his fiction. All right, point taken – let’s just say that, though I read the whole book, I did not like nor enjoy Freedom.
His essay “Farther Away” (it first appeared in The New Yorker and later was included in the eponymous volume, Farther Away) I found brave and engaging. That he would dare convey personal negative thoughts about David Foster Wallace in print was scandalous (to some). I found it refreshing, and interesting. Other essays in the same book are appealing as well. Franzen writes clean prose and his thinking is not trite nor his observations banal. He is a writer worth reading.
Yet he seems to be a lightening rod for animosity. Critics, offended women writers, amateur literary commentators and bloggers, all loathe him. In particular, the techies despise him and heap scorn upon him for criticizing the internet, social media, the fetishization of gadgets and technology. Oh, and heavens, he’s a birdwatcher too. Scorn! Caustic flame attack! Ridicule!
His latest publication, The Kraus Project, hadn’t been out a week before its contents had raised a firestorm of invective and condemnation. Shame on Franzen! He criticized Rushdie for using Twitter. He dared suggest that the internet and social media were NOT the greatest cultural advances since the printing press. He took Amazon to task for its destructive impact on independent bookstores. Heresy!
Yet lost in all the derision was any discussion (that I read, anyway) of what seems to me the most interesting thing about The Kraus Project, namely the concept of the work itself, and the form it takes. Basically, he presents two essays by the Viennese curmudgeon, writer, critic Karl Kraus (think fin de siecle Vienna) that he, Franzen, translated from the German. Okay, if you’re a Karl Kraus fan (and there surely are some out there) or if you’re a German lit major or a translator, you might come at this volume from your singular perspective. But if you’re like me, who’d never heard of Karl Kraus, who doesn’t care about the adequacy (or inadequacy) of Franzen’s translation (it turns out that Kraus wrote deliberately opaque & difficult prose), then you’ll come at this book from another angle. Or not pick it up at all.
I’m enthralled with it. I can barely read two pages at a time. I don’t understand most of the Kraus stuff. And I’m only 40 pages into it. But you know what? It’s fascinating! Why? Because the form is very different, very innovative. (Okay, sure, someone has to have done something like this before – who can possibly do anything completely “original” anymore?). Well, this work seems very new and fresh to me.
As I see it, the translations are simply a platform from which to jump off into a wide array of other topics; memoir-ish recollections, social criticism (the aforementioned condemnation of our gadget & internet-obsessed cultural moment), literary history, historical anecdotes, etc. It’s collage-like and divergent, informed and curious. It meanders. It rants. It elucidates. It praises.
These days it’s as if people who write about books, who review books, people who read & discuss books, all seem hell bent on either smarmy, wise-ass put-downs, or hyper-critical analysis, all very serious and edgy and pointed. After a point, I get sick of it all and have to throw up my hands with an expectorated “WTF?!” At least when it comes to Franzen, everyone tries to one up the next person in their ability to lay waste to the man’s work (or reputation, or hobbies, or choice in glasses or whatever).
Be that as it may …. I recommend this odd book. Even if you know nothing about Karl Kraus and don’t care a thing about essays in translations. Actually, it might even be more interesting if you know nothing about Karl Kraus and could care less about the accuracy of the translation from German into English. It’s a quirky original dalliance, the best of eccentric intellectual sketching.
Oh, and the footnotes. What I don’t mention above is that the Kraus essays seem like just material that Franzen can hang his footnotes on. This is not a bad thing. This is the oddity of the work, the weirdness that makes it so intriguing. The heart of the book are the footnotes. In the footnotes, we get the memoir stuff, the human connection stuff, the divergent interesting literary aside stuff. In short, we get the stuff that transcends the stuffy huffing and puffing of Karl Kraus on, per the first essay, Heinrich Heine.
But what did Franzen think when he decided to go all in with the footnote set-up? Surely he must have been aware that people would call him out on their use and infer that he was aping David Foster Wallace. Oddly, I have not seen that particular complaint leveled at him (though I stopped reading the carping reviews after a few). For what it’s worth, I love footnotes. And David Foster Wallace, for all the fame (or infamy) his extensive use of them engendered (technically-speaking, in Infinite Jest, they are endnotes, not footnotes, but they function the same), he did not invent the footnote. He used them to great effect, and Wallace’s are brilliant, engaging and, I would argue, essential to the character of the works in which he employs them. But they are not solely Wallace’s domain.
So I’ll give Franzen credit for crafting his own book around them, it’s a courageous undertaking, one that, in my opinion, earns The Kraus Project enthusiastic accolades.