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On Translation

Franzen on Kraus: Footnote 18

September 4, 2013 | by

Oskar Kokoschka's 1925 portrait of Karl Kraus. Oil on canvas, 65 x 100 cm, Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna.

Oskar Kokoschka’s 1925 portrait of Karl Kraus. Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna.

This week, to celebrate the launch of our Fall issue, we will preview a few of our favorite footnotes from “Against Heine,” Jonathan Franzen’s translation of the Austrian writer Karl Kraus. Click here to get your subscription now!

People are very talented in the jungle, and talent begins in the East around the time you reach Bucharest.18

(p. 196)

18 This sentence is very funny in German. I can’t translate it any better, and so I have to resort, dismally, to trying to explain the humor. Kraus is again going after easiness—here, the ease with which foreign travel lends spice to writing. The joke is, approximately, that the jungle is fascinating to us non-jungle-dwellers, and that we mistake this fascination for talent on the writer’s part. Thus: people are very talented in the jungle. Kraus ridicules this phenomenon by way of contrasting himself with Heine, whose best-known prose was his travel writing and his dispatches from Paris. Although Kraus vacationed abroad and spent parts of the First World War in Switzerland, his life’s work was focused exclusively on Vienna, and it obviously galled him to hear foreign-traveling writers praised for their “talent.” Here I think his venom is directed more at admirers of jungle writing than at its producers. The former are perpetrating bad literary values, the latter merely making the most of such talent as they have. There is, after all, a long tradition of writers venturing overseas for material. The funniest fictional example may be the young man Otto, who, in William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, goes to Central America in quest of the character he natively lacks, but the inverse relationship between travel and character is found in real life, too. I’m thinking of Hemingway, whose style was as strong as his range of theme was narrow (would he actually have had anything to say if he’d been forced to stay home?), and of Faulkner, a writer of real character whose best work began after he gave up his soldier dreams and his New Orleans flaneurship and returned to Mississippi. You can’t really fault Hemingway for being aware of his own limitations, but you can (and Kraus would) fault the culture for making him the face of twentieth-century American literature.

Hemingway’s star seems to have faded a little, so a takedown of him now wouldn’t be as incendiary as Kraus’s takedown of Heine, but he’s an interestingly parallel case, not only in the general outlines (both he and Heine were expats in Paris, obsessed with their literary reputations, and famously nasty to writers they perceived as rivals) but in their literary methods. Kraus’s critique of Heine’s writing—that it was fundamentally hack journalism, dressed up in an innovative and easily copied style—could apply to a lot of Hemingway’s work as well.




  1. Justin Heinze | September 4, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    I don’t think so. Firstly he unfairly pigeonholes jungle writing as being in the right place at the right time. Hemingway vigorously sought out a broad array of life experiences and carefully studied the nature of nature and the nature of society through these adventures. He didn’t simply hop on boat and live in the jungle. He was an ambulance driver in World War I (which you could say produced A Farewell to Arms and Sun Also Rises), and entered Spain in the midst of the civil war (For Whom the Bell Tolls). That’s a far cry from “vacationing abroad” in the first world, or in peaceful and idyllic third world locales.

    With all that said, there is simply no substance to Franzen’s argument that the “jungle” made or broke Hemingway. Franzen writes “would he actually have anything to say if he’d been forced to stay at home?” and the answer is of course he would have. The symbolic wound of Jake Barnes could just as well exist in a man whose machismo had been limited by some societal cause (whatever reason had forced him to stay out of the war), and while Hemingway’s observations of the emotional waste land of society would certainly be different, but his eye no less keen.

    When you get down to it, all of life experience could be pigeonholed as “the jungle” – not just travel to the jungle. All writers experienced something unique in their lives that inevitably contributed to their work. Franzen seems to try to ignore or deny this. What is Hemingway’s experience with abortion, if not the “jungle” that produced “Hills like White Elephants”? Using Franzen’s own weak metaphor, did Faulkner’s personal experience, right down to his very family heritage, in the jungle of the South, somehow NOT create the Yoknapatawpha universe in a way that only he could create it? In a way that only he could “report back on”?

    (side note: Franzen also ignores Faulkner’s most underrated and perhaps most innovative novel, “A Fable,” a World War I story that takes place largely out-of-combat and undoubtedly reflective of Faulkner’s tour of the Great War jungle. His early novel “Flags in the Dust” emerged from the same underbrush.)

    Perhaps most importantly, however, Franzen ignores the study of Nature itself that Hemingway undertook across his oeuvre: from Big Two-Hearted River to Old Man and the Sea and the Spanish countryside fishing chapters of The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway is not merely reporting back his foreign travels, he is studying the natural world through the lens of his broad experience. Franzen seems to conflate Hemingway’s style of sparse description with a lack of substance, or at least a lack of variety.

    Everyone hates the Yankees. Especially other teams in Major League Baseball. It’s popular as puppies for fellow authors to take down “the greatest” – unfortunately, this author has done little more than dress up his personal taste in shoddy criticism.

  2. MIchael | September 4, 2013 at 5:34 pm

    Just finished re-reading Hemingway’s short stories-narrow themes? Age, Courage, Insecurity, Integrity, Love, and Loneliness. And that’s just in the first story “the short happy life of francis macomber”

  3. MA | September 4, 2013 at 5:37 pm

    Guess you are not a fan of Franzen, eh?

  4. saw | September 5, 2013 at 12:51 am

    Great, what a load of tripe. So Franzen, a sub par writer who’ll be forgotten, is trying to say that ‘if’ Hemingway had never had a life (like himself, I assume) he wouldn’t have written anything? Sigh. I’m all for taking down sacred cows, and perhaps Hemingway could be taken down a notch (has his star faded? Not sure about that), but it seems that this isn’t the way to do it.

    “this author has done little more than dress up his personal taste in shoddy criticism.”
    is right.

  5. Yoghurt | September 5, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    Wish I knew the context. In which direction am I travelling? Up from the jungle through to Paris?

    Was funny as read. First commenter tl;dr

  6. Yoghurt | September 5, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    I’m a huge Hemingway fan. His books are greasy at the library, there are many like me.

    Let his work prevail. We don’t have sacred cows in America.

  7. t. clozhni | September 5, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    Hemingway was incredible, as his writings continue to be, but be real – his themes all boiled down to his view of manliness and his own shortcomings in that regard. Of course you can throw out a hundred minor aspects of those themes that he relied on to tell a story, but in the end, he was just trying to figure out whether or not he met his own unobtainable standards for being a man.

  8. Yance | September 5, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    Mr. Franzen’s anecdotal opinion should not be given such a prominent venue as The Paris Review, albeit its blog. Why not get an erudite writer/critic like Zadie Smith to contribute instead?

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