Rumours & glimpses


Bookforum on Franzen’s new translation of Karl Kraus.

Of the major German-language writers of the past century, we may have a harder time pinning down the satirist Karl Kraus, who sat in judgment over the hothouse of Vienna from its combustible fin de siècle to the run-up to the Anschluss, than any other. We shouldn’t feel bad about it. Forever associated with Die Fackel (The Torch), the periodical he launched as a weekly on April Fools’ Day in 1899 (and to which he would eventually be the sole contributor), Kraus seemed to engage every twist and counter every turn that the intellectual, artistic, and political ferment threw up. The number of roles he took on — playwright, poet, publisher, public performer, gadfly critic, and consummate scourge — is rivaled only by the multitude of skirmishes, big and small, he waged and the depth of his mercenary independence. His career jumps from one context to the next: He was a muckraker and media critic who loved to sniff out hypocrisy, particularly in the sexual laws and mores of bourgeois Vienna; an early and tough critic of psychoanalysis; a firebrand who prophesied the cataclysm of World War I and bravely opposed the war while almost all others cheered it from the sidelines; and a near zealot regarding abuse of the German language. Over the past decades, each face of Kraus has seemed to dominate our ability to take the measure of his significance. Yet no single profile quite exhausts the idiosyncratic capaciousness of Kraus’s work. “Kraus knows no system,” Walter Benjamin wrote in his 1931 essay, which diagnosed the writer’s “strange interplay” of “reactionary theory” and “revolutionary practice.” “Each thought has its own cell. But each cell can in an instant, and apparently almost without cause, become a chamber, a legal chamber over which language presides.”

See also, ‘The Question of Karl Kraus’ by Clive James.