Monday, April 1, 2013

The music of an ocean of mud - an invitation to read Karl Kraus before - well, see below

An invitation: please join Richard of Caravanas de Recuerdos and me as we read a selection of the works of the angry Austrian satirist Karl Kraus.  We are shooting for the end of April.  I mean I am shooting etc.

Why do you want to join us?  Many reasons.

1.  Strictly speaking the selections selected add up to about thirty (30) pages.  They are all available at Google books as part of the euphoniously titled Karl Kraus, Hermann Broch, Elias Canetti, Robert Walser: Selected Short Writings (Continuum, 2006).  Three of Kraus’s short newspaper pieces, a couple of scenes from his enormous semi-play The Last Days of Mankind (1919), and ten pages of aphorisms.  How we all love reading page after page of aphorisms.

Kraus is available in English in many forms, and I am reading a bit beyond those thirty pages.  I strongly recommend that anyone remotely curious take a look at the piece titled “Tourist Trips to Hell,” which is pure Kraus compressed into a few pages.

2.  Pure Kraus is intense.  He was the great one-man critic of his time, mostly writing in the 922 issues of his self-published newspaper, Die Fackel (“The Torch”), mostly writing the entire contents of the paper.  His special concern was language, particularly the ways it was abused by advertising and bureaucracy.

Let my style capture all the sounds of my time.  This should make it an annoyance to my contemporaries, but later generations should hold it to their ears like a seashell in which there is the music of an ocean of mud.

As part of his devotion to language, Kraus also performed one-man readings of entire plays – Schiller, Goethe, Shakespeare – acting only by voice and expression, or sang complete Offenbach operettas, “dancing” “with the fingers of his hand” (see Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind, 1975, p. 257).

I find Kraus quite funny, but his attempt to preserve language and culture was serious.  The first world war drove him to new heights of expression; the rise of Hitler silenced him.  “If proof was needed for the authenticity of Karl Kraus’s satirical work, it was provided by his knowledge that satire was defeated” (Heller, 259).

3.  Apparently Jonathan Franzen’s next book is about Karl KrausThe Kraus Project is the title.  The book appears to consist of Franzen’s translations of Kraus mixed with his essays about Kraus.  When I first saw the book I thought Amazon had been hacked by a prankster.  The translations are described as “definitive,” so screw you, previous (and future) translators, and Franzen “annotates them spectacularly,” a unique feat in the history of annotation.  The annotations also “soar[] over today’s cultural landscape.”  I believe I just mentioned that Kraus was particularly concerned with language, as corrupted by, for example, advertising? 

Regardless, it appears that the book is genuine, and that Franzen perhaps thinks of himself as something of a Karl Kraus for our time, a prophet of the coming apocalypse, this time brought on by environmental destruction, social media, and

As Kraus says, “Artists have a right to be modest and a duty to be vain.”

In September, a lot of book reviewers will be doing some cramming on Kraus, so this is your chance to get the jump on them.


  1. End of April? That's like a page a day, right? I'm in. Oh, right, I was already in, thanks. Too bad about Franzen's interest in Kraus. After I saw a clip of him and Oprah making up, I lost all respect for the guy although I never really had any for him in the first place. This has nothing to do with his writing, which I've not read, so I'm not biased against him for his novels...just as a man!

  2. Franzen is just doing his Krausian duty as an artist. Boy is he ever. Doesn't even seem like duty with him.

    He apparently got interested in Kraus decades ago, on a Fulbright in Germany. So this idea has been rattling around for a while. So who knows.

    He should rein in those copy-writers, though. Maybe I am missing a joke.

    I should mention that Penguin Classics has a new (or reprinted old?) edition of Kraus coming about in July.

    Coming this fall: Kraus-mania! Everyone's gonna be reading Kraus. I foresee some perplexing and perplexed reviews.

  3. I was wondering how Jonathan Franzen was going to make an appearance in your promised blog post. This is not what I expected (I also did not expect a glowing review of Freedom, so there's that). Thanks for the heads-up on Kraus; I will join in.

  4. I am in on the Kraus. I'll sit the Franzen out.

  5. Just think of how many libraries that currently have no Karl Kraus will soon have some, whatever Franzen has translated.

    Or maybe this is some sort of strange publishing experiment by FSG to determine the exact size of Franzen's core cult. Just how few books can he sell?

    Kraus must be some equivalent of box-office poison. I expect the Wuthering Expectations statistics, whatever those are, to crash, but to quickly recover as I move on to Hofmannsthal and Goncharov and Gombrowicz and - well, no, I expect them to be permanently reduced.

  6. I agree with Scott about sitting Franzen out. However, I'm sorely tempted to join youa nd Richard. As to your stats, they'll hardly be lowered I'm sure. You're always onto something interesting and new.

  7. It's funny how so much of Kraus, whose writing was intended as topical and particular to it's time and place, seems to fit just as well to our own. I must admit 30 pages is not enough.

    Also looking forward to Gombrowicz.

  8. Oh thanks, Bellezza. The authors make "interesting and new" very easy.

    30 pages - oh no, not at all enough. I hope to get through the quarter or so of The Last Days of Mankind that is in English.

    Gombrowicz is my 90% likely pick for the June Polish Literature Month organized by WinstonsDad.

    I believe Ricardo's Oblomov readalong is in June as well.

    1. Great, make my reading list "worse". :) Thanks for informing me about The Last Days of Mankind, Polish Lit month at Winston's Dad, and Richard's Oblomov. Thank goodness I'm done teaching June 1!

    2. My pleasure! Oblomov is long, too. That will take some planning.

  9. I'll be following the posts. The Google book selection is apparently accessible for a few pages only. Perhaps it varies from location to location. I'm looking at the euphony of writers as possible reads in the future.

  10. April 1, remember.

    1. No, the Franzen book appears to be real, not an April Fool's joke.

  11. Ah, varies from location to location. I had not thought of that. Quite possible.

    As for the writers in that volume - I know! What a combo.

  12. Did you happen to see the Jonathan Franzen interview about Kraus in the Guardian (9.15.13)?

  13. Good one. Very funny. Ver-ry funny.

    "Let me turn to my own example..." Of course, of course.

    The 6,400-word Franzen essay accompanying that article is actually presented as footnotes to Kraus in the new book, which is either a catastrophe or a sly, innovative, form-defying work of art. Or both.

  14. It's even better - the footnotes have three (3) authors total, Franzen and two co-authors. In some of the footnotes, the co-authors argue with or correct Franzen. It is something. It will be interesting to see if any reviewers go with the avant garde Kinbote thing.

    I have been doing all of my arguing and joking and self-promoting about Kraus and the JF book on Twitter, since I am told by JF that I should not.

  15. I predict that Franzen and his two co-authors will one day be revealed as pseudonyms for David Shields, and this is all an elaborate plot to turn the reading public against novelists as Shields continues his promotion of some idiosyncratic version of narrative nonfiction. I will bet you five dollars that I am right.