The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen – review

Franzen rails against modern life through his translation of the Austrian thinker Karl Kraus, but dilutes the strength of both men’s arguments

In 1994 Jonathan Franzen gave away his TV set. It was becoming too much of a distraction. "I understand my life in the context of Raskolnikov and Quentin Compson, not David Letterman or Jerry Seinfeld," he wrote the following year. "But the life I understand by way of books feels increasingly lonely. It has little to do with the mediascape that constitutes so many other people's present."

Eighteen years later, things are not looking up, and Franzen's tone has turned from despairing to apocalyptic. By now you'll probably know about his new book, The Kraus Project. On Friday 13 September, a 5,600 word extract, welded together for the Guardian, landed on the internet with the force of a small bomb. Franzen's target was, true to form, our "media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment", populated by internet users too doped up on "enslavingly addictive" technoconsumerist products to "face the real problems" of the modern world.

The blast was felt by anyone with a passing interest in the literary scene. When the smoke cleared, there rose up a chorus of guffaws and people began to fire back. Articles appeared with titles such as "Jonathan Franzen sounds off pompously about the internet" and "7 Smuggest Lines from Jonathan Franzen's Rant Against Smugness". A fake Franzen Twitter account (@RealJonFranzen) inevitably appeared, but failed to catch on. (It currently has 82 followers.)

Now we have the book itself. It is Franzen's translation of two long essays (and some brief follow-ups) by the Austrian satirist, journalist, aphorist and playwright Karl Kraus, a central figure in Viennese intellectual life from the late-19th century to his death in 1936. The text comes packed with copious footnotes, many several pages long, in which the literary scholar Paul Reitter and the novelist Daniel Kehlmann join Franzen in offering their commentary. These footnotes range from the scholarly to the personal, with Franzen using Kraus's text as a springboard to explore his own ideas and anxieties.

Franzen wants to champion the "biting relevance" of Kraus's "ideas about literature" and "his critique of modern media". But the way the text is presented always keeps Kraus at a distance. His style – built on dense, allusive sentences animated by a bracing moral intensity – requires sustained concentration to be even slightly rewarding. After reading a three-page footnote about Franzen's time as a Fulbright scholar in Berlin or his tortured relationship with his ex-wife, it is impossible to return to Kraus's complex sentences without feeling lost. The footnotes come at the reader like a series of text messages interrupting you every time you're beginning to get immersed.

Why didn't Franzen just write an essay about Kraus instead? Perhaps we have this translation-essay hybrid simply because he wants to deliver a little-read author to us directly. But the best essays about literature do something better than forcing a writer upon us, they make us want to go out and find their work ourselves. Franzen can do infectious enthusiasm, as his essays on Alice Munro and Donald Antrim show. Here he administers Kraus to us like some kind of medicine, with intermittent apologies for the bad taste.

That The Kraus Project fails to do justice to Kraus or to Franzen's own views is our loss. "Vehement denial is a reliable sign that an insight has hit the mark," says Franzen at one point, echoing Freud. That may be wishful thinking, but only a dedicated techno-utopian could dismiss everything Franzen has to say. For all its hyperbole, "A culture in which people can't sit still for five minutes without pawing their smartphones" doesn't seem like a wholly inaccurate description of Britain in 2013.

Franzen's problem is less content than tone. Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace have made similar points about the distracting, reductive effects of modern media far more effectively. Even Jonathan Franzen has made similar points far more effectively. But he knows this already. "It's not clear that Kraus's shrill, ex cathedra denunciations were the most effective way to change hearts and minds," he writes near the start. The Kraus Project isn't an argument, it's a howl of protest.

David Wolf

The GuardianTramp

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