Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

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Jonathan Franzen as Performance Artist

To begin, I've never had much interest in Jonathan Franzen's writing, not that I thought it bad necessarily, just not the sort of thing I have much taste for (upper-middlebrow New Yorker-smooth social-realistic satire of manners—which may not be fair, but y'know), and in any case put off by the posturing around it, particularly the anti-postmodern stance (esp 'his earnest ironist outhipstering art-for-my-sake take on Gaddis'). But it would seem that Franzen displaces the pomo element to outside the text, in his crafting of a persona to complement (and market) his writing, which remerges with the text in his latest, The Kraus Project.

My primary interest in this is in Karl Kraus and in the Vienna of that age, and I wasn't about to be put off by Franzen's "Hey you kids get off my LAN!" shtick (though I was pleased to procure through Amazon, if not the Kindle edition). Per Steve Danziger, I expected that "Franzen’s quirks are a bearable tariff for this otherwise exceptional, bravely unorthodox, introduction to Kraus, and perhaps, in this context, they reflect the inevitable disorientation that accompanies any reader’s journey back to the transformative texts of his or her youth." (cf Adam Kirsch's take) I further expected that the Project involved projections (in the footnotes) of Kraus onto current culture and of Franzen onto Kraus, neither very convincingly (as expected). But this does not adversely affect the translation itself, and Paul Reitter gets nearly equal space in the notes, if not equal billing.

I segued into The Kraus Project from essays in Esther Allen & Susan Bernofsky's In Translation: Translators on their work and what it means, multiple perspectives by practitioners, the first few essays more of the same old (occasionally relieved by digression) before it gets cooking (the most interesting to me were Haruki Murakami's afterword to The Great Gatsby and Jose Manuel Prieto's annotated translation of Mandelstam's "Epigram Against Stalin" [ObCit Stalin's Blue Pencil] [both essays themselves translated]). Given Franzen's nod to Harold Bloom in settling on Kraus [over Pynchon] as literary father figure, it seems appropriate that kenosis (the breaking of the vessels) should provide continuity:

from the last essay in In Translation, Clare Cavanaugh on "The Art of Losing: Polish Poetry and Translation":
Finally, I want to quote a stanza from Milosz's exquisite "Song on Porcelain," in the splendid translation that Milosz himself produced in collaboration with Robert Pinsky:
Rose-coloured cup and saucer,
Flowery demitasses:
You lie beside the river
Where an armoured column passes.
Winds from across the meadow
Sprinkle the banks with down;
With bits of brittle froth—
Of all things broken and lost
Porcelain troubles me most.
The "small sad cry / of cups and saucers cracking." Milosz tells us in the English variant, bespeaks the end of their "masters' precious dream / Of roses, of mowers raking, / And shepherds on the lawn." Milosz violates his own translatorly preference for preserving sense at the expense of form here. This poem about the fragility of both human-made forms and the human form itself retains its pathos in English precisely because Milosz and Pinsky have managed to reproduce so movingly the stanzas and rhymes in the original. (I first heard the Polish original song in a student cabaret in Krakow in 1981, and the melody I heard fits the English version as neatly as it did the Polish original, a tribute to the translators' gifts.)

from Karl Kraus, "Heine and the Consequences" in The Kraus Project (trans Jonathan Franzen*, with notes also by Paul Reitter), a mere handful of pages after Kraus complains that Heine's lyric is lite-operettic depending for value on the music:
The structural backbone of his [Heine's] attack on Börne consists of direct quotations from Börne, and every time he brings Börne out to speak you can detect quite precisely the point at which Börne stops and Heine's own yakking takes over.[74] He does it in the heavy-handed porcelain story.[75] At every step, you want to revise, condense, deepen. "In addition to the Polish soldiers, I have characterized the occurrences in Rhenisch Bavaria as the next lever which, following the July Revolution, gave rise to the agitation in Germany and had the most profound influence even on our countrymen in Paris" is not a sentence I would have let stand. The parts without a frame; the whole without composition; that short-windedness that has to keep catching itself in a new paragraph, as if to say "So, and now let us talk about something else."
[74] ...
[75] Ludwig Börne includes an extended anecdote about porcelain. As Heine has it, Börne once explained to him that it was by publicly smashing a tea service that Napoleon tamed Europe's aristocrats. Fearing for their beloved porcelain, they became more compliant. Next, according to Heine, Börne proceeded to confess that upon acquiring a 'sumptuous' tea service of his own, he began to appreciate how those aristocrats felt. He even started to worry about how his activities as a critic might affect his porcelain. How would his porcelain fare if he had to flee across the border and there was no time to pack carefully? In the end, however, Börne gets his priorities in order. Heine closes out the anecdote by (imaginatively) citing Börne as saying, "But I am still strong enough to break my porcelain bonds, and if the authorities make it hot for me, truly, the beautiful gilded teapot, and the scenes of marital bliss and St. Catherine's tower and the Guard Headquarters and the homeland, will all fly out the window, and I will be a free man again" --PR

And this is where Franzen's contribution (beyond translation) to The Kraus Project gets interesting. Ostensibly (ostentatiously?) about the formation of Franzen's sensibilities as a writer, the cracks show: it becomes something else, a performance piece for the persona he's constructed elaborating upon the construction (or is it deconstruction?) of that persona. And it's here that there may be more kinship with Kraus, the feuilletonist ranting against feuilletonism, than is evident in the overt claims. Beyond which, the play with the translator inhabiting the author also extends to the persona (and again, "the Bloomian laugh was on me").

The most concise instance of this is Franzen's otherwise superfluous footnote to "And how gloomy the thing that brightens the idler's day": Indeed, nobody is funnier than depressives. Not only that, but the more depressive they are, the funnier they are—up to a point. My friend who committed suicide was the funniest friend I ever had. Now that's funny.

For all that, using Kraus as a springboard for such fun and games does not diminish the service in providing access to him in English. Do such fun and games add anything to our understanding of Kraus? Perhaps.