What’s the German for a writer who resurrects a writer who would have hated him? Until a word is coined, I’m going to go with ‘Franzen’ — after the most famous American novelist of the moment, whose commercial and critical success has brought him, if his public statements are any indication, nothing but misery. His new book, The Kraus Project, returns him to the early 1980s, before he wrote The Corrections and Freedom – two internationally bestselling epics of middle-class white America struggling with marriage, parenthood, illness and climate change – and his two earlier, somewhat disavowed systems novels. Thirty years ago he was just a Swarthmore student abroad in what was still West Berlin, exploring his vices and discovering, and tentatively translating, the great Viennese ‘anti-journalist’ Karl Kraus….
But I’m prepared to forgive him all this, as readers have to forgive Franzen everything, only because no one can ever hate him as much as he already hates himself. Franzen must know that he will never receive any review as cruel as the ones that, with each book and media appearance, he gives himself. It’s his awareness of all this, and his inability to restrain himself from betraying that awareness, that puts America’s foremost novelist in contention to become the world’s foremost Jewish novelist tout court – the inheritor of the crown of feathers. If only he were funnier, or cared a bit more about sex.