The cover of Jonathan Franzen’s strange, wonderful, and occasionally frustrating latest work, The Kraus Project, is immediately striking. Its peach smoke and antiquated type make for a different and mysterious feel. The typical Franzen cover is big, abrasive, traditionally American and in some cases, tactile or reflective. Into the world came The Kraus Project and it was greeted with a small well-mannered hooray and scarcely a glimmer of anticipation, like someone whom nobody was excited to see arriving late to a dinner party. The usual Franzenian hallmarks were strangely absent—there was no cannonade of tweets, motions for canonization or general controversy.
Well, there was feeble attempt at controversy. The Guardian published a lengthy excerpt from The Kraus Project that positioned the work as an excessively erudite catalogue of bitcheries, which Franzen, of course, because he hates everything, would be in a real hurry to translate and dump into the world. New York Magazine’s hashtag #stufffranzenhates only served to perpetuate the myth. This willful misreading and minimizing of content was an attempt to amplify Franzen’s curmudgeonly image. Unfortunately, that reception plus the crowded fall release calendar did the trick. Before the book could gain some traction, it was trampled underfoot by a whole host of goldfinches, luminaries and that Eggers book about Facebook, which held people a lot less responsible for their technological doings.
The Kraus Project landed in the early days of a discussion that is nowhere near concluded. What are the responsibilities of a literary critic? Is being negative constructive or even worthwhile? The quick answer for both Franzen and Kraus would be yes. In an early footnote, Franzen writes “Kraus spent a lot of time reading stuff he hated, so as to be able to hate it with authority.” Today’s critics make negativity either a cover for not reading intelligently, or even finishing a book, or merely an exercise for strengthening one’s capacity for snark or smarm. Surely, there must be a middle ground between that and completely avoiding, or worse, not publishing, negative reviews. Giving the structured and negative voice a forum is crucial if actual discussion is the goal. In the crowded, overheated, small pool of actual literary critics, and the snaking, never-ending line of online critics, waiting in line, with varied degrees of qualification, to slide into that pool, this book should have been the cannonball that wiped everyone out. But it wasn’t. If critics weren’t brave, or honest enough, any longer, to even consider negative reviewing, it would be much easier to be hypocritical and malign the book as another collection of Franzen’s whinings. So, that happened. Praise was faint, or qualified. Many just talked about its density or perceived inaccessibility.
As someone who really isn’t a fan of Franzen’s previous output, I was stunned to have The Kraus Project rank as one of my favorite literary offerings in quite awhile. Some will say it’s dense and he’d agree. Franzen, that is. Kraus would have little time for your feelings and would want you to try harder. Kraus was a kind of ur-Franzen, but all rough edges. Understanding that, Franzen prefaces the first essay with a plea:
Let me just make a small plea for patience with Kraus’s prose. He’s hard to read in German too—deliberately hard. He was the scourge of throwaway journalism and a stickler for the interpenetration of form and content, and to his followers (he had a cultlike following) his dense and intricately coded style formed an agreeable barrier to entry; it kept the uninitiated out.
Unfortunately, so much of today’s readership is absolutely uninitiated. Both in a societal way, which Kraus feared and lamented, but also more generally. Reference points are lost or known only tangentially. I’ve not spoken with anyone who knew of Kraus. When explaining the book, all I got was “oh, he wrote The Corrections, right?” Um, yes. However, in bringing this book to a general public, I’ve got to agree with Franzen: “Kraus has more to say to us in our own media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment than his more accessible contemporaries now do.” That’s why this book isn’t connecting, and why the uninitiated can hold sway. Something about looking into an abyss?
Unlike Franzen’s earlier novels and other essay collections, though, The Kraus Project is a real feat of assembly, presented in a beautiful bilingual edition, without a bit of extra fat. Comprised of two essays, an afterword to the first essay, a “final word” from Kraus and ending with a disturbing poem, the surfeit of thought, function and form is a vital and rare treat. Beneath, above, and alongside Kraus’s essays, Franzen and his two collaborators offer up footnotes discussing the essays and engaging one another. Somehow, Franzen has also managed to provide a deeply moving series of autobiographical asides in several of the footnotes, demonstrating just how much of his writing life has been dominated, or peripherally engaged, by Kraus, and German thought at large. One baffles at the chewy goodness of intellect and concept being communicated in intricate, multi-clause sentences, rendered beautifully and directly by Franzen, but seemingly reflected in a handful of German words on the opposite page. But, as Kraus writes, “The German language, however, is a companion who will think and make poetry only for the man who can give her children.” Fortunately for the willing reader, the beauty and challenge is maintained. However, don’t let its mere 315 pages fool you. You could read this book four or five times before it really clicks, and then read it in as many different ways.
Both Franzen and Kraus seem discouraged by the societies they live in. Kraus writes
The great trick of linguistic fraud, which in Germany pays far better than the greatest achievement of linguistic creativity, keeps working in generation after generation of newspapers, furnishing casual readers everywhere with the most agreeable of excuses for avoiding literature.
To which, Franzen pithily intones, “Who has time to read literature when there are so many blogs to keep up with, so many food fights to follow on Twitter?”
Occasionally, Franzen gets a little heavy-handed with his tidings of doom as he often does in his novels:
Precisely when the world accelerated technologically and our time for reading began to shrink, the average length of biographies seemed to double. It’s as if being bored has become the way to reassure yourself that you’re doing serious reading, as opposed to playing Angry Birds.
I’ve never appreciated the Franzenian cramming of a topical reference to appear current or give credence to a rant. Instead, Kraus’s concerns about imagination decreasing while technology increases makes the point far more successfully, and its implications all the more grave. Either way, both have indispensable voices that are sounding the alarm. Both worried about the worlds they lived in, and the directions they were declining in. Fittingly it’s Kraus with the final warning in the face of technology’s takeover and literature’s dissipation. “The word went under when that world awoke.” Franzen’s contribution has allowed us to keep that world from awaking. For now.