An excerpt of Jonathan Franzen’s latest book, The Kraus Project, ran last month in The Guardian under the headline “What’s Wrong With the Modern World.” It prompted a week’s worth of online dissent, much of it more persuasive than the original essay. And if you are secure in your Franzen animosity, then The Guardian debate has already met your needs. If, on the other hand, trying to explain what’s wrong with the modern world by translating a fin-de-siècle Austrian satirist strikes you as a project almost endearing in its total perversity, then you will have reason to be more complexly disappointed.
Karl Kraus edited the magazine Die Fackel (The Torch) and wrote unrelenting, deliberately impenetrable criticism. Mr. Franzen acknowledges that Kraus’s work is tied “to long-forgotten controversies, to rivals now obscure, to newspapers and literary works that only scholars read anymore.” He argues, though, that it also speaks to “our own media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment.” The Kraus Project includes translations of four short works, plus extensive footnotes from Mr. Franzen describing how he came to read Kraus while studying in Germany after college and delineating the parallels between Kraus’s Vienna and the modern world. He makes the case, for example, that the “feuilleton” lifestyle journalism Kraus decried as glib and derivative is analogous to today’s online discourse. (Muddying this comparison is his equally plausible reading of Die Fackel itself as “like a blog.”)