Criticism & Features


NBCC Criticism Finalist Jonathan Franzen in Conversation with Kerri Arsenault


Kerri Arsenault, on behalf of the School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Jonathan Franzen, about his book The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus, translated and annotated by Jonathan Franzen with Paul Reiter and Daniel Kehlmann (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) which is among the final five selections, in the category of Criticism, for the 2013 NBCC awards.

kraus projectAt 6'2″, Jon Franzen fills the door frame of his New York City apartment where we meet, yet he’s not menacing in the least. In stocking feet and slightly stooping, he answers the door light-footed, friendly, buoyant even…not what you’d expect from the curmudgeonly misanthrope, Luddite, or any of the other names he’s been called by his detractors.

But scale, even at the name-calling level, is something Franzen can’t avoid. With the overall critical and commercial success of his two earlier novels, The Corrections and Freedom, and within those books his concomitant analysis of American society, he cemented the novel as not only relevant, but necessary in understanding the complexities of being human in a modern world. Needless to say, oversized gravitas shadows his work.

His stature also owes itself to his ten+ hour work days and a Midwesterner’s mettle in doing something until it's right, including writing The Kraus Project, a feat of fortitude he began over twenty years ago. Karl Kraus, the subject of the book, was an Austrian satirist who published the magazine Die Fackel (The Torch) and died in 1936. Franzen’s relationship with him began in 1981 when he went to Berlin “actively seeking literary fathers” on a Fulbright scholarship.

In Kraus, Franzen worries about techno-consumerism, not so much that it exists, but of the world’s changing relationship to it, something Kraus also presciently bemoaned. Where Kraus pokes fun at prewar Viennese journalism in “Everything suits everything always,” Franzen, in his footnote, draws a correlation to the modern day “revolving lazy Susan of news items and advertisements masquerading as news items.”

What people may miss, amid Franzen’s (and Kraus’s) prodigious literary achievements and expansive opinions, are their larger than life comedic natures. Simply said, they are funny guys. In our conversation, Franzen is more likely to laugh than argue, and if he isn’t laughing, he speaks with the disarming mien of a boyish mischief-maker, a scrawl of a smirk waiting for an opportunity to reveal itself. And unless the book is read with an eye for its irony, you’ll miss half of what Franzen and Kraus are saying within their texts and subtexts.

Franzen’s oft-discussed personal Internet suspicions aside, he also talks about his concerns regarding climate change, war, and environmental degradation, bird-killing cats, which he suggests are more serious topics than, say, writing. He is quiet and thoughtful in his responses, wiggling in his chair when the question excites him. The gaping pauses before he speaks don’t mean that he self-edits; it’s because his opinions are as uncluttered and unfettered as his sparsely furnished but light-filled apartment. He’s not afraid to make mistakes, and admits that years ago he “was taught a lesson about apocalyptic prognostications.”

Taken in equal measure, both serious and comedic, The Kraus Project, with Franzen’s prolific footnotes, illuminates the duality of larger than life literary personas and the things that should make us pause, but oftentimes don’t, like the ease in which we accept what the Internet or the media stealthily feeds us.

Kerri Arsenault: The Kraus Project has a strong memoir element. Why?

Jonathan Franzen: Maybe I was trying to show Kraus up? He couldn’t have written a memoir like that. I stress in the book, but maybe not early enough, that my enthusiasm for Kraus was a young man’s enthusiasm. So I was in a weird position coming back to him as a middle-aged writer thirty years after the first intense blush of my affair with his work.

One of the reasons I felt I’d outgrown him was that there is something shrill and not personally disclosing about his work.  He standing above everyone else as this moral and linguistic scourge and part of my outgrowing him was recognizing that is ultimately not the most fruitful place for a writer to be. That’s where I wanted to be when I was twenty-five and writing my first novel. And it has that Ex Cathedra feel, that first book, and it’s therefore almost unrecognizable to me. Also, part of it is because nowadays I can’t conceive of a full-length nonfiction project without a memoir element. I felt there needed to be extended relief, not only from Kraus’s polemics, but from my demonstrations of what those polemics might look like today.

Probably the most important reason the memoir is there is because I didn’t think the book would have enough energy without it. It would be too much of the same thing. The unfair advantage that memoir has over fiction—is if it’s a true memoir, if it’s honest, if it’s not lies—we know we’re learning secrets about the writer and that is its own kind of energy. When you’re assembling the mosaic of a book some of the tiles need to have that energy.

KA: In Kraus, sometimes I found myself reading the footnotes for pages on end, then flipping back to read the essays; in other words, there’s a lot of back-and-forth.

JF: I designed the book so you don’t actually need to read Kraus at all! Although if you do read The Kraus Project and spend time with it, especially on the re-reading, it starts to become a little less incomprehensible and some of the beauty of his wicked humor starts to emerge. But if you are struggling simply to make sense of the syntax of the damn sentence, you’re certainly not stopping to appreciate what’s great about Kraus.

KA: One of Kraus’s phrases “the infernal machine of humanity” becomes sort of a mantra throughout the book.

JF: I know, right?

KA: What is the “infernal machine”?

JF: Well, where to begin? The first thing I would say is that you got what I really had to say about that phrase, which is it gets stuck in your head and suddenly you want to apply it to everything you see.

I first started talking about the infernal machine—I think it was in conversation with David Wallace, then I used it in my 1993 essay “Perchance to Dream,” which became the 1995 essay “Why Bother.” I wrote that when I was in a very very dark place. And still rather close to Kraus, close enough to remember the phrase, to have it stuck in my head.

So it’s been almost twenty-one years since I started decrying the infernal machine of techno-consumerism that was destroying the world of fiction and its writers and readers. And obviously that world is still here.

To unpack the phrase a bit, it is machine-like and the logic of consumer technology developments seems to be “if it can be done it will be done” and “if it is done people will buy it.” There’s something very self-contained and not referring to the world I care about in that logic. I mean, is this a good way to spend our time? And yet it just keeps happening. And we keep buying.

Do the benefits really outweigh the costs? At a certain point the technology becomes indistinguishable from the consumer economic model behind it and that too has an infernal feel.

KA: Kraus switches from the media machine to the German war machine near the end of the book.

JF: He was talking about the first crude instantiation of the German war machine, or actually the second. The first would have been Bismarck’s, but the second one was nowhere near as good as the third German war machine. Anyway, the First World War was the Austrian apocalypse. The Second World War was the German apocalypse.

KA: There’s a tendency in your work to revisit, rewrite, redo, re-remember…it’s like Charlie Brown returning to kick the football out of Lucy’s duplicitous hands. He’s persistent. He’s got to get it right.

JF: I used that metaphor in describing what post-modern fiction is supposed to do to the reader.

KA: In reading some of your essays…

JF: I write novels too!

KA: In “Mr. Difficult,” you revisit William Gaddis; in “Caught,” you keep reworking the flagpole contraption until you get it right; The Corrections was about, well, corrections; and “Perchance to Dream” was rewritten with another title “Why Bother?”

JF: With my own title on it, finally.

KA: And Kraus writes: “The wish to append something else, which likewise, in the guise of a correction, allows the correctness of a deeper observation to be recognized for the first time.” Can you talk about do-overs, re-interpreting books in translation, and getting things correct?

JF: The main correction here was of the terrible first drafts of my translations. Part of the appeal of the project was ridiculous and should not have been heeded, but nevertheless, I had done a lot of work trying to translate those essays and what I had come up with more or less stank. And I was damned if I was going to waste all those months and months of the last three hours of my nine and ten-hour workdays. I would be smoking cigarettes and paging desperately through every German dictionary I had when I was twenty-three or twenty-four living in Massachusetts. I wanted to redeem that work.

I knew I could do it better now because in the meantime I translated the Frank Wedekind play Spring Awakening and was also a better writer. Paradoxically, even though I’ve lost a lot of German, I speak it better now than I did when I was a kid because I’m not afraid of making mistakes.

I had nothing to do with German language, country, or culture for twenty-plus years. Then, in the last ten, I started spending time in Berlin and suddenly had German-speaking friends. So it seemed like, yes, a good time to go back and correct the translations. And also to revisit the younger self who had been such a Kraus enthusiast.

When I first took out the file and started reading Kraus again, after twenty-five-plus years, my heart sank; I thought, “No, no, don’t be a…don’t use that tone…I tried it. It doesn’t work! You need a different relation to the reader. You’re not going to change hearts and minds this way! At most you’re going to cow, or awe, or bully people writing the way you do, man.” I didn’t want to have anything to do with it at all. But it started to seem interesting to me that I had a different view of it and that I’d come so far. Also, Kraus seemed to be talking about more, in a way, our social media moment than the feuilleton moment of 1914.

KA: Did that surprise you?

JF: Yes and no! I had borrowed some of his rhetoric in my early complaints about what technology was doing to the novel and I even borrowed phrases like “the infernal machine” so I was aware of it. It began to seem quite remarkable when I went back and looked at it more closely. And as I started working with Paul Reitter—who should definitely be getting the credit somewhere in this—for the first time I was understanding a lot of the lines, which I had never done, partly just at the syntactic level, but much more in what Kraus was referring to—and that really takes a scholar.  So yeah, it was a revisiting. Partly correction and partly re-appreciation.

KA: You, Paul Reitter, and Daniel Kehlmann spoke together last October at New York University.

JF: Couldn’t ask for nicer people to work with.

KA: You mentioned changing hearts and minds a moment ago. Do you think this book might, as it is a working in this critical mode? It’s a bit more rarified, perhaps Krausian.

JF: I have done writing where the hope was to change hearts and minds, particularly some of my environmental writing. In those cases, at minimum, I’m trying to raise awareness and sympathy and if possible, by no means with 100% success but where possible, actually change the way people look at a subject…like the beauty of the Mediterranean or the fact that you just have one cat. And the cat only kills a few birds…things like that. Because it’s actually hard to do environmental and conservation advocacy and retain full integrity as a journalist, and not abandon your sense of irony and your own penchant for self-disclosure. I’ve done a lot of thinking about how it is you manage to slip past people’s sensors and have the chance that a piece of writing will matter.

I didn’t see my mission in this book to change people’s minds. Nor even less is it ever my wish as a fiction writer to change people’s hearts and minds. The mission is more about giving voice to things readers I care about might be thinking and feeling and are not finding expressed elsewhere and consequently may be feeling even ashamed about or extremely alone with or frustrated by.

I always wanted to do a book in footnotes. One of my early intense loves as a reader was for Pale Fire so it occurred to me I could do the entire thing as footnotes and I could also even have this kind of ironically Facebook-like conversation with my two collaborators down in the footnotes. I got very psyched about the idea.

But I do think there are a lot of lies and evasions coming out of the world of techno-consumerism. There are a lot of things that really are annoying. Like [laughs] Okay, yes…When someone says “Here’s this GREAT thing that was accomplished with Twitter!”…I think of Mitch Hedberg, the late-great comedian, and him looking at a picture for a lottery advertisement and thinking “that happened once.” So I didn’t have to dig in too deep to find a reservoir of discontent about the modern world. That fueled it too.

Pieces of work have their own structural and aesthetic logic and once I started writing a few footnotes, I could suddenly see. Once I realized there has to be more dimension—this is going to be a two-dimensional book—once I saw that, all I wanted to do was do it. I thought, let me make this translation as perfect as possible.

KA: Is it?

JF: It’s not perfect…I just sent about twenty-five small corrections into the paperback publisher.

KA: Sometimes you, Reitter, and Kehlmann didn’t agree on some points, and a few sentences were even untranslatable.

JF: Yes, that’s true. Then ironically at least one critic in the New York Review of Books made errors and accepted his errors as true and accused me of having made errors.

KA: German is very phonetic.

JF: Yes. Pretty much any Western language is compared to English. It’s a beautiful language if you take it seriously.

KA: Emptying the Skies, the documentary based on your 2010 New Yorker essay on the poaching of migratory songbirds, has a distributor?

JF: So I hear. We have a global distributor and a Canadian distributor. God Bless the Canadians.

KA: In Malta, even flamingos living in sanctuaries are being killed as soon as they leave those sanctuaries.

JF: Malta is a problem. On the other hand, Albania just instituted a complete two-year ban on hunting. Which is huge.

KA: Could you explain what Kraus meant by “shadows cast bodies”?

JF: That’s one of his more concrete metaphors. He would never unpack it clearly because his whole thing was instead accreting somewhat gnomic expressions of similar points. You go over enough of them and you begin to have a sense of what he’s talking about.

I think he was referring in a very specific way to the way press depictions of the war and particularly how the press was seeming to feed and satisfy the public’s curiosity, feed it vivid accounts of the battle, was instead merely atrophying the public’s powers of imagination and supplying a lot of false images (3:22). Instead of people getting butchered by machines and trenches, the media presented it as “another glorious charge!” and “the hero lost his legs and would do it over again in a heartbeat” and “the dirty Serbs were there.” There was a fake reality, a shadow reality set up by the journalistic machine, by the media machine, whose direct result was getting into the war and staying into the war. There were actual dead bodies as a result of that shadow world.

Which is why I thought of Judith Miller.

KA: Her faulty coverage on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction?

JF: Yes. The discourse of WMD really swung people. Even the editor of the New Yorker got behind the invasion. Bush-Cheney already had the Fox people but did not have the New York Times' readers who were representative for a whole subset of America. Once they go those then it was just some dirty angry people in the street marching on a very cold day in February, as I recall.

KA: How’s good writing going to survive the infernal machine?

JF: Oh well, that’s the thing. To read Kraus you would think no culture was possible after the first world war and certainly not after the Nazis and yet, somehow they muddled through. This is a tongue-in-cheek question and response to a slightly—for the sake of pleasure—trumped up case against stuff that is ultimately not even constituent of the worlds’ real problems.

KA: But they are writer’s problems.

JF: In my own little world it does feel apocalyptic but in the larger world people are still having interesting, satisfying lives without being fiction readers. They’re threatened by climate change and a whole list of other things.

KA: You are working on a novel now; how is it coming along?

JF: It’s just a novel; it’s not nonfiction. I’m counting the months when I can get back to nonfiction. I do love it. But I’m hoping to finish the novel this year.

KA: And ending is always difficult.

JF: I figured it out!

KA: What’s your secret?

JF: Make them laugh. And then make them cry.


jonathan-franzenJonathan Franzen is the author of four novels (Freedom, The Corrections, Strong Motion, and The Twenty-Seventh City), two collections of essays (Farther Away and How to Be Alone), and a personal history (The Discomfort Zone), and the translator of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, all published by FSG. He lives in New York City and Santa Cruz, California.


KarlKrausKarl Kraus (1874 – 1936) was an Austrian satirist, playwright, poet, aphorist, and journalist. From 1899 until his death, he published the literary and political review Die Fackel.


kerriarsenaultKerri Arsenault is a nonfiction writer, freelance editor, and NBCC critic and her book reviews have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, American Book Review, and Bookslut. She is currently a student in The New School's MFA Creative Writing program and on the Board of Trustees at Minor Memorial Library in Roxbury, Connecticut where she lives.