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
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.