Tag Archives: Karl Kraus

In Ruse with Elias Canetti

In the first volume of his autobiography Die gerettete Zunge (The Tongue Set Free), Elias Canetti writes about his early childhood in the Bulgarian city of Ruse – Canetti uses throughout the book the old name Rustchuk -:

“Everything that I experienced later, had already happened once in Rustchuk…On any one day you could hear seven or eight languages.”

Despite having spent only his first six years in the city of his birth – the family emigrated to Manchester in 1911 and Canetti came back only once for a visit in 1915 – Ruse and its unique multilingual and multicultural atmosphere at that time left a lifelong mark on the future writer.

A small book in Bulgarian language with the title In Ruse with Elias Canetti (В Русе с Елиас Канети) sheds additional light on this early period of Canetti’s life, family background and social surrounding.

In the middle of the 19th century Ruse had developed into a thriving city. Located at the Danube it had by then attracted a lot of trading activities and the port of Ruse was the main artery through which goods were imported and exported from and to the whole region. An additional boost to the economic development was the fact that Ruse had a fast-growing Jewish (Sephardic) community which was one of the driving forces for Ruse’s modernization; this together with a general economic boom in the then revived Bulgarian state (until the Russian-Turkish War 1877-78 it had been part of the Ottoman Empire for almost five hundred years) made Ruse the then most modern and truly European city in Bulgaria.  

The authors give us interesting information about the origin and growth of the Jewish community in Ruse and trace back also the family background of Canetti’s parents. Grandfather Elias Canetti (the namesake of little Elias) came from Adrianopel (Edirne) to Ruse and became a successful trader, first with his partner in Constantinople, later on his own. He reigned his firm and his family like a benevolent despot, a true family man that cared a lot for his grandchildren and particularly his oldest grandson Elias; but at the same time he expected that his sons gave up on their own plans and would be part of the future family business with branches in all other important Bulgarian cities.

For Jacques, young Elias’ father, this was a source of permanent inner conflicts – he was a talented violinist and dreamed of a career as a musician in a chamber quartet. Also Mathilde, his wife and Elias’ mother, was a talented amateur musician (she played the piano); there are photos that show the parents as musicians in a public concert in Ruse. Another photo shows Jacques, then a dashing young man, in a carnival costume – both parents who had spent years in their youth in Vienna loved the theatre and literature, things for which Grandfather Canetti had not much interest and which he might have considered at best as harmless hobbies, but as nothing serious.

Beside this latent conflict between Jacques and Elias Senior, another quite open conflict clouded the childhood of the future Nobel Prize winner. Mathilde’s family, the Arditis, were against the marriage of their youngest daughter with Jacques Canetti. The Arditis, one of the oldest and high-ranking Sephardic families could trace back their origin until the 13th century when some of their ancestors were astronomers and doctors at the courts of the Kings Alfonso IV and Pedro IV. After 1492, the family settled in Livorno and later in the Ottoman Empire, where several of their members became famous rabbis, kabbalists and scientists; the Arditis were among the first Jewish families in Ruse and looked down on Elias Senior and his family as upstarts, who had just arrived from the Orient and were no match for the famous and cultured Arditi family. One of the remaining (and traumatic) memories of his early childhood in Ruse was for Canetti a visit in Grandfather Arditi’s house. This grandfather, who never paid much attention to Elias and never gave him a present, asked his grandson on one occasion, which of his grandfathers he loved more – Grandpa Canetti or Grandpa Arditi. When the poor boy said “Both!”, he was immediately called a liar and hypocrite by his maternal grandfather. 

One of the most interesting chapters for me was the one on the artistic talent of Canetti’s parents, especially that if his father. Ruse had quite an active social and cultural life, and much of it was initiated and kept alive mainly by its Jewish citizens. Ruse has a beautiful theatre that regarding its size and architecture could be as well in Vienna or Budapest. During Ruse’s best times, many famous international troupes visited the Danubian city, the same goes for many musicians and orchestras. There were amateur theatre groups and concerts that raised funds for the education of poor but talented Jewish children, the Bnai Brith Loge played an important role in the social fabric of the Jewish community, and there were also some of the first Zionist organisations in Bulgaria which had their headquarters in Ruse. Other chapters cover the donations made by Canetti’s grandfather and father, the efforts of Jews from Ruse to support the war effort in the Balkan Wars and WWI, either as soldiers or by financial support. Another short chapter describes how Canetti learned some folk rhymes and stories from young Bulgarian peasant girls, stories he later found again in a German book about Bulgarian fairy tales and folk stories and that left obviously a deep impression on him. Philately, the role of the different newspapers in the Canetti household (in Ladino and in German), and the comet Halley are also covered by short but instructive chapters.

The Orator is the title of the longest chapter of the book, and it deals with Canetti’s relationship with one of the most colorful members of the Canetti-Arditi family, Elias’ cousin Benjamin ‘Bubi’ Arditi (Canetti calls him ‘Bernhard’ in a letter addressed to him that is reproduced in the book). Bubi, just a few years older than his cousin, was for some time a strong influence for Canetti and he is explicitly mentioned in the second volume of Canetti’s autobiography Die Fackel im Ohr (The Torch in My Ear).

After Canetti’s parents moved to Manchester with their three sons (Elias, Nissim and Georges), Elias saw his cousin during both visits in Bulgaria; in Summer 1915 in Ruse and in 1924 in Sofia. During this period Bubi had became a fervent Zionist and public speaker. Elias was so impressed by his cousin who engaged himself with all his energy in something much bigger than himself, a cause for the Jewish community, that we find traces of The Orator also in Masse und Macht and in his Aufzeichnungen. For a short time, young Elias seemed also to have considered to become a Zionist. Bulgarian Jews were in those days frequently targeted by the terrorist IMRO (today this extremist right-wing political party that is still proud of its criminal and antisemitic origin and which propagates quite openly violence against ethnic minorities and refugees is part of the Bulgarian Government!), that openly threatened to kill those who didn’t pay hefty sums to them; blackmail, collection of “protection” money and contract killings were the main financial sources of this “patriotic” group – today, being part of the Bulgarian government, they use means that are only slightly more subtle – that was in its high time considered the most ruthless group of assassins in Europe.  – When Canetti fell in Vienna under the spell of an even greater orator, Karl Kraus, this interest in Zionist politics faded away completely. 

The book reproduces several letters of Canetti to his cousin Bubi and to people in Bulgaria who got in touch with him in his later life. He found touching words for his attachment to Ruse and the importance of the city for himself and his development as a writer.

This small book is not only very informative, it is also an important document of the renewed connection of the writers’ birthplace with this extraordinary son of Ruse. Canetti’s daughter visited Ruse for the first time in 1998 and initiated together with Penka Angelova from the University Veliko Tarnovo and other supporters the International Elias Canetti Society, which is now very active to promote the literary work of Elias Canetti, and the values for which he stood. The three engravings that show Old Ruse and that were among Canetti’s most treasured belongings, are now back in Ruse – a donation by his daughter. And there is a chance that not only the former building of the trading house Elias Canetti (Senior) in Slavyanski Street 14 in Ruse will be revived, but maybe also that the author’s birthplace at Gurko Street 13 will be turned into a museum one day. (Interestingly, the English Wikipedia page about Canetti, claims that the building at Slavyanska is his birthplace – a building that the author has rarely ever entered, since it was an office and a warehouse, not a residential building.)   

While the book provided me with interesting, new to me information and is written with real love and devotion to the subject, I have to mention two points with which I had a problem.

The book contains many reproductions of photos and other documents; that’s a good thing since it adds considerably to the quality of the given information and makes the book even more interesting and readable. However – and this really unforgivable – the book mentions absolutely no sources of any of the photos and documents, and therefore also not of the owners of the copyright of these illustrations. That is highly disappointing and doesn’t correspond with the standard of a book publication; it is even infringing the copyright – something that is considered in Bulgaria unfortunately as no offence at all by many people. For me it is a question of honesty and intellectual integrity not to disregard in such a shameful way the intellectual property of others, and it is a real pity that such an otherwise recommendable book has such a very serious flaw. 

I had also a problem with a question regarding a detail in the chapter devoted to The Orator. Bubi Arditi, a lifelong supporter of the revisionist Zionist Vladimir Zeev Jabotinsky, the Irgun, and other right-wing groups, was also politically involved with the last Czar Simeon II (and later Prime Minister Simeon Sakskoburggotski).

Simeon launched a long time ago a campaign to depict his father Boris III as the “saviour” of the Bulgarian Jews during WWII, a claim that has been a long time ago discarded by serious historians. In the contrary, Boris III was the main Bulgarian responsible for the extermination of the Jews in the annexed territories in Macedonia and Thracia. I don’t want to go into the details here regarding this topic, but it is important to know that Bubi Arditi wrote a book that supports Simeon’s revisionist theory.

After referring Arditi’s position that Boris III was the “saviour” of the Bulgarian Jews and his blaming the “Jewish communists in Bulgaria” that they are liars, the book claims surprisingly that Canetti shared his cousin’s opinion on this question. But while there can be no doubt about the fact that Canetti rejected the communist system in Bulgaria with harsh words, he was never a supporter of the thesis that Boris III was the “saviour” of the Bulgarian Jews and the reproduced letter proves – if anything – the opposite. The rather ambiguous wording of the authors in this particular context leaves room for the interpretation that they think that Canetti shared his cousin’s opinion. But Canetti was never ever a supporter of revisionist ideologues and I was rather annoyed by this passage in an otherwise very recommendable text.   

P.S. In case you wonder, the French actor Pierre Arditi is also a member of the Canetti-Arditi family. His father Georges and Elias were cousins.

.В Русе с Елиас Канети

Veselina Antonova / Ivo Zheynov: In Ruse with Elias Canetti, MD Elias Canetti, Ruse 2016

Elias Canetti: The Tongue Set Free, Granta Books, London 1999, translated by Joachim Neugroschel 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

I love science!

Scientific progress never stops – there seems to be no field in which day by day scientists make new discoveries. While I can of course not keep track of all of them, from time to time I come across something that really gets me interested. Such as this new study in the field of psychology. OK, that’s not the study itself but just a short media report on it, but don’t be such a language Nazi!

Because, as this study by scientists from the University of Michigan suggests, people obsessed with grammar are not as nice as the rest of us.

The study: the scientists showed three different sets of emails to a group of people; one set was with no mistakes, one set contained typos, and one set contained grammatical errors. The participants had to judge the three sets, and the individual participants showed of course differences in their attitude towards mistakes. The participants in this test underwent also psychological tests based on the so-called Big Five Personality index – and guess what? There is indeed a correlation between being an “agreeable” person and judging grammar errors lightly, as being not very important, and on the other hand being a “less agreeable” person who is more intolerant and harsh when it comes to accept grammatical errors.

In short: nice people accept typos and grammatical errors, not so nice people who care for orthography and correct grammar, score very low in the Big Five Personality index, and are therefore rightfully referred to as grammar Nazis.

Me thinks that this is wonderful news! Although, as a social scientist, I had at first some serious doubts regarding the chosen methodology, but then I realized that this is all not important. After all, I am an agreeable person with a high Big Five Personality index score.

It is wonderful news for various reasons:

School children will not need any longer to be tortured by less agreeable teachers who are so terribly intolerant as to insist on correct writing and grammar. We want these grammar Nazis out of school asap! If I think about how many traumas these children had to suffer – and all just because of some not so nice people who torture them with orthography and grammar, it just makes me sad.

Publishers will be very glad too – they will need no longer go through the process of proofreading and editing of texts. That will save them a lot of money, will make the books cheaper and the readers more happy! Just to think about that maybe several grammar policemen were tormenting the author with their unpleasant and unagreeable character, forcing him to correct his orthography, and – imagine! – even his grammatical errors is so sickening for me! Thank God that we will get rid of this pest now, and will be finally read texts that are free from the influence of the grammar Nazis. These new books will teach them to be more nice in the future! And for the hopeless cases: they should just let us agreeable people alone and stick to their Karl Kraus books…

And finally: this new scientific study is a relief for all of us. No more checking my writing for typos, no more thinking about how exactly I will formulate a sentence in order to express what I want to say – the empathic readers will understand probably (more or less) what I wanted to say, even when my grammar is a bit “creative” and my orthography “charming” – and whoever dares to correct me just proves that he has a character deficit. 

Isn’t that nice? I love science!

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Two anecdotes about Robert Musil

As mentioned some time ago, I am an unsystematic collector of anecdotes that have writers as subject. Here are two of them about one of the giants of German 20th century literature, Robert Musil.

Musil worked for decades on his unfinished masterpiece Man without Qualities and published comparatively little during his lifetime. As a result of his obsessive efforts, Musil was always living in very precarious financial conditions and during his exile in Switzerland during the last years of his life, he was really destitute.

Musil seemed to have been a proud, extremely self-assured, maybe even arrogant person who had a very high opinion regarding his own abilities as a writer and he detested writers that were (contrary to him) popular and successful. With particular disdain he looked at the output of Stefan Zweig and Thomas Mann. While he couldn’t deny that Thomas Mann had talent – and success! – and he probably hated him just because of that, Stefan Zweig was another case. Zweig was according to Musil shallow, superficial, trivial, always responding to the requirements of the market that liked to read another collection of (in Musil’s opinion) not very accomplished novellas or another biography in Reader’s Digest style, Zweig’s slickness and wish to fit in, to be the centre of the attention of a circle of rich people and of the literary establishment, always very much concerned about increasing his bank account, his collection of antiquities and old manuscripts. In short: Stefan Zweig was for Musil the personification of everything that was wrong with the literature of his time.  

Hans Mayer, the great German-Jewish literary critic, writes in his autobiography Ein Deutscher auf Widerruf  how he visited Musil at his home in Switzerland during their emigration. It was 1940, and there was a widespread fear that the Nazis might invade also Switzerland.

“Musil couldn’t get into the USA, and Mayer was suggesting the relative obtainability of Colombian visas as a pis aller. Musil, he wrote, ‘looked at me askance and said: Stefan Zweig’s in South America. It wasn’t a bon mot. The great ironist wasn’t a witty conversationalist. He meant it … If Zweig was living in South America somewhere, that took care of the continent for Musil.’” (quoted by Michael Hofmann: Vermicular Dither, London Review of Books, 28. January 2010)

In the third volume of his autobiography, Elias Canetti describes how he after completion of the manuscript of Die Blendung (Auto-da-fe) in 1931 sent it as a parcel with an accompanying letter to Thomas Mann, hoping that Mann would read it (and possibly recommend it to a publisher). Alas, the parcel came back unopened with a polite letter by Mann, telling the unpublished author that he was not able to read the book due to his work schedule (Mann was working on his multi-volume Joseph novel at that time). The disappointed Canetti put the manuscript aside for a long time, until Hermann Broch arranged a few readings for him in Vienna. One of them was also attended by Musil who allegedly said to Broch: “He reads better than myself.” (Not surprisingly, Canetti was an extremely gifted stage performer in the mould of Karl Kraus.)

Later on, when the novel was finally published in 1935, Canetti wrote again to Mann, who now – four years later! – congratulated Canetti and wrote also very positively about the novel (which in all probability he hadn’t read except for a few pages). With this letter in his pocket and beaming with self-confidence Canetti was running into Musil one day when Musil brought it about himself to also congratulate Canetti. Not knowing about Musil’s strong antipathy regarding Thomas Mann, Canetti blurted out: “Thank you, also Thomas Mann praises my book!” – to which Musil answered with a short “So…”, turning around and ignoring Canetti for the rest of his life.

In defence of Zweig and Mann it has to be added that both writers supported many of their colleagues in need particularly during their time of emigration. Musil was during his last years ironically mainly living from a grant he received from an organisation that supported writers in need and that was mainly funded by – Thomas Mann. Musil knew about that and felt probably terribly humiliated.

Hans Mayer: Ein Deutscher auf Widerruf, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1982/84 (2 vol.) – there is unfortunately no English translation of this highly interesting autobiography.

Elias Canetti: The Play of the Eyes (Das Augenspiel), translated by Ralph Manheim, Farrar Straus Giroux 2006

Michael Hofmann: Vermicular Dither, London Review of Books, Vol. 32, No. 02, p. 9-12, 28 January 2010 – Hofmann’s article is a real assassination of Zweig; very, very harsh and spiteful indeed, but nevertheless worth reading because he points at various serious flaws in Zweig’s writing. 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Tortoises


This blog post is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

Austria 1938. Andreas Kain, a renowned writer and his wife Eva, live in a beautiful villa just outside Vienna. What could be a normal and fulfilled life in the “loveliest city of Central Europe” turns for Kain, Eva, and Werner – Kain’s brother with whom he has a loving but nevertheless troubled relationship – into a nightmare: it is the time of the Anschluss, the Nazis are triumphing also in Austria, and for Jews like the three main characters of Veza Canetti’s novel The Tortoises (Die Schildkröten) a time of growing humiliations and deadly dangers has begun. The bank accounts of the Jews are frozen, those among them who have a regular job are dismissed, and the homes and furniture of Jewish households are being “requisitioned”. And that will be just the beginning.

While Kain and Eva have to leave their home, they have nowhere to go and visas are getting unattainable. Hilde, a Jewish girl from the neighborhood, tries to find a rather grotesque way out of this situation: with her father’s money and her charms for whom one of the new Nazi neighbors falls, she intends to hire or even buy a private airplane with which the whole group could possibly leave Austria (illegally), a project that is obviously doomed from the very beginning.

The Tortoises is a brilliant novel. Not only because of Veza Canetti’s ability to describe her own ordeal – the book is autobiographical – in an elegant, beautiful prose (well translated by Ian Mitchell). If you ever asked yourself how it was possible that the Nazis took hold of the big majority of Germans and Austrians within such a short time and how – at least on the surface – normal and otherwise decent people turned into Nazis or willing followers seemingly out of the blue then you should read this book. It gives a haunting description of the paranoid atmosphere in Vienna after the Anschluss.

Veza Canetti’s language is Viennese – elegant and always slightly ironic. The plays of Johann Nestroy, the prose of Arthur Schnitzler, the satiric furor of Karl Kraus, they all resonate in her writing. And she can write exceptionally well dialogues that sound as if they come directly from a Volksstück of Ödön von Horvath. The Nazis are ridiculous and pathetic figures; the name of the main villain in the book is Pilz (=mushroom), and this gives Frau Wlk (whose Czech name means “wolf”), the cleaner, an opportunity to denigrate this man but at the same time we readers get an insight in the mentality of even good-natured people like the landlady who is suddenly impressed by the Nazis:

“His name is Pilz-Mushroom! Toadstool, Mould, Fungus, Frau Wlk goes through all the variations. He lives down there where she lives, he’s a brownshirt, a bigwig, because he has a low number. Having a low number means he was one of the very first to be in the National Socialist Party….It seems that this low number exudes a fascinating effect. Because Frau Wlk was complaining. Even the landlady, here in this house, who is so kind, for whom she cleans the house, even she has been taken in. She who, after all, goes to church every Sunday. Who puts her last penny into the collection box to pay for a new figure of the Holy Virgin. Here in this house, the right atmosphere reigns to corrupt the landlady. The Mushroom came up and immediately won her over. And, simply because he has promised her South Tyrol, the landlady, who is so persnickety, is letting him move in here.”

Another “horvathesque” element are the dialogues between Pilz and Kain and his wife – on the surface polite (“Herr Ingenieur!” “Herr Doktor!”) and considering the changed circumstances even funny – but there can be no doubt that the new rulers will ruthlessly execute their program of extermination of the weak and of the “inferior” races, particularly the Jews.

While this is at least in the first days after the Anschluss not yet visible in the bourgeois villa neighborhood where Kain – the name is alluding not only to the biblical Kain but also to Peter Kien, the main character of Elias Canetti’s novel Auto-da-fé – and Eva are living, the open brutality of the new regime is evident from the very beginning in less privileged areas of the city. But also in the villa suburb, the signs are clear: a sparrow, and later a dog are killed by one of the new Nazis in front of a group of children to “teach” them that the weak and the useless have to be wiped out mercilessly. And the tortoises to which the title of the novel is referring, are branded with a swastika by another Nazi and sold as souvenirs, but some of them can be saved by the good-hearted Andreas Kain. As Schopenhauer says in The Basis of Morality

“Compassion for animals is intimately associated with goodness of character, and it may be confidently asserted that he who is cruel to animals cannot be a good man.”

The novel is also a book about the relationship between the brothers Andreas and Werner, and is mirroring the relationship between Elias Canetti, Veza’s husband, and his brother Georges. In this respect it is not only interesting to read Elias Canetti’s autobiography (which mentions Veza’s great importance for Elias Canetti’s intellectual development, but doesn’t say a word about the fact that Canetti’s first wife was an exceptional author in her own right), but also the correspondence between Elias, Georges, and Veza Canetti that was published a few years ago.

The Tortoises was completed after the Canettis could escape to England in the very last moment, but never published during Veza’s lifetime. She published very little during her life and in a bout of depression destroyed the manuscripts of most of her unpublished works. During the last years of Elias Canetti’s life, he published/re-published her remaining works. Veza Canetti is one of the greatest prose writers of the 20th century in German language. It is high time to discover her.  


Veza Canetti: The Tortoises, translated by Ian Mitchell, New Directions Books, New York 2001; Die Schildkröten, Carl Hanser Verlag, München 1999

Veza Canetti / Elias Canetti: “Dearest Georg!”: Love, Literature, and Power in Dark Times, The Letters of Elias, Veza, and Georges Canetti, 1933-1948, translated by David Dollenmayer, Other Press, New York 2010; Briefe an Georges, Carl Hanser Verlag, München 2006

For German speakers I recommend also the performance “Der Herr Karl” by Helmut Qualtinger, a truly revealing portrait of a (fictional) Nazi follower in Vienna – where until today a considerable part of the population views itself – quite in contrast to the overwhelming and frenetic support of the biggest part of the Austrian population for the Nazis after the Anschluss – as “the first victims of the Nazis”.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


The Kraus Project


This review is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen is a hybrid book.

It contains on the upper part of each page on the left side the original German text of four essays and a poem by the Austrian author Karl Kraus, mirrored by the English translation of the respective text on the opposite right page.

On the lower part of each page are numerous footnotes that are sometimes longer than Kraus’ text itself.  The footnotes are partly by Jonathan Franzen, partly by the Kraus scholar Paul Reitter, partly by the German-Austrian novelist Daniel Kehlmann, like Franzen an admirer of Kraus. Franzen is also the translator of Kraus’ texts.

Since Karl Kraus is almost unknown in the English-speaking world, the publisher obviously thought it a good idea to bring this book on the market with Jonathan Franzen as author on the title page. But again, this book is a translated and annotated collection of some of Kraus’ texts.

A few words about Karl Kraus:

coming from a wealthy assimilated Jewish family, Kraus grew up in Vienna at the end of the 19th century. Vienna was at that time a melting pot of people and ideas. Literature and theater (two lifelong passions of Kraus) were at its height, Sigmund Freud developed psychoanalysis that revolutionized later many aspects of our lives, Mahler and Schönberg revolutionized music, Adolf Loos, Kraus closest friend revolutionized architecture, the Vienna school of economists revolutionized economics, the Vienna Circle and Ludwig Wittgenstein revolutionized philosophy. All kind of modern ideologies came to light in that period in Vienna, including the “modern” racial Antisemitism and its natural reaction, Zionism, whose main propagandist was the journalist Theodor Herzl, a former colleague of Kraus who would become one of his most hated targets.

“Vienna’s streets are paved with culture; the streets of other capitals are paved with asphalt”,

is a popular aphorism by Kraus.

In this hotbed of culture and ideologies the typical Kaffeehauskultur developed where each faction of intellectuals had their favorite coffeehouses where they met and engaged in group and cartel building, gossiping, writing and reading. Kraus was part of this culture, but never belonged to any group. One of his most remarkable features is that he successfully obtained his absolute independence during all his intellectual life.

Kraus’ main “work” are the roughly 40,000 pages of his journal Die Fackel (The Torch), which he published between 1899 and 1936. In the first years, he admitted every now and then guest authors but from 1912 on, he wrote the journal exclusively by himself.

Die Fackel had a blog-like feel: Kraus’ was publishing whenever he had something to say and about whatever he felt he needed something to say. Although literature and theater were always prominent topics in Die Fackel, Kraus was an avid reader of the Austrian and foreign press – and from here he took most of his inspirations.

Kraus was writing about foreign and local policy, about the situation of workers in the factories, about women’s rights, he was an early advocate of equal rights of homosexuals, and he was an everyday observer of the journalism in Austria, which was in an extremely bad shape according to Kraus.

This opposition to the frequently badly written journalism made Kraus many enemies, especially since he combined it with irony and sarcasm, but also with undeniable truths. His lawyer was for sure a very busy man and it is said that Kraus won almost all his court cases. He knew the rules and acted within these rules very efficiently to expose corruption, nepotism, stupidity and wrong use of language.

He did all this in a unique style, frequently playing with words and creating a richness of aphorisms that may be rivaled only by Lichtenberg. He was also a stage persona: he gave more than 700 performances reading, singing, acting alone on a stage – his audience consisted mainly of addicted Kraus fans; Elias Canetti for example said in his autobiography that he visited more than 300 of Kraus’ unique performances. Kraus must have been a magnetic personality that had many people under his spell.

The two main pieces in The Kraus Project are Kraus’ most famous essays on the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine and on the Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy.

Heine is for Kraus on the one hand a great and extremely popular poet. Many of his poems were turned into popular songs and are part of the folk poetry. But Heine’s followers turn his spirit into something superficial. And this is not by accident, it is because of specific virtues in Heine’s works. In Kraus’ times there was a firm belief of many intellectuals that there was a deep difference between Romance and German culture. As Kraus put it:

Two strains of intellectual vulgarity: defenselessness against content and defenselessness against form. The one experiences only the material side of art. It is of German origin. The other experiences even the rawest of materials artistically. It is of Romance origin. To the one, art is an instrument; to the other, life is an ornament. In which hell would the artist prefer to fry? He’d surely still rather live among the Germans. For although they’ve strapped art into the Procrustean Folding Bed of their commerce, they’ve also made life sober, and this is a blessing: fantasy thrives, and every man can put his own light in the barren window frames. Just spare me the pretty ribbons!…”

Austria, although linguistically part of German culture, is for Kraus deeply affected by the “French” poet Heine. Even the biggest Anti-semites “forgave” Heine his Jewish origin, just because his verses appeal so much to the tendency of most of the Vienna literati to gloss over everything with patches of jokes and irony. (I owe The Kraus Project the information that young Adolf Hitler in his Vienna years supported an initiative to build a monument for Heine – Heine’s poems were later not removed from the school books in Nazi Germany, just his name; it was all supposed to be “folk poetry” then).

While the Heine essay is very acerbic in it’s evaluation of the poems of this great German writer, the big hater Kraus shows in the other main essay that he can be also a great admirer and lover: he re-discovers the Austrian actor, singer, playwright Johann Nestroy, a popular performer of the first part of the 19th century who fell into oblivion soon after his death.

That Nestroy is nowadays considered to be one of the greatest authors for theater in German  is almost exclusively a result of the decades of Kraus’ efforts to make him again popular. I love Nestroy’s plays, and there is hardly anything (with the exception of Shakespeare, and the obscure play Datterich by Ernst Elias Niebergall, written in Darmstadt dialect) that I enjoy more on a stage than his plays. To me, the Nestroy essay is Kraus’s best essay – the Heine piece, although very interesting, shows also a side of Kraus that is not very appealing: the text is not free from Anti-semitic slurs.

Franzen’s translation is a heroic and brave effort and mostly very decent in my opinion. Kraus is extremely difficult to translate and that he tackled this task deserves a lot of respect.

The footnotes are frequently related directly to the text. Paul Reitter adds a lot of his knowledge about Kraus, much to the profit of the reader. Also many of Franzen’s and Kehlmann’s footnotes are interesting. The one thing that surprised me was that Franzen is dragging the reader a lot into his personal life during the time he lived in Germany and Austria as a student. We learn many details about the person Jonathan Franzen, including the story of his failed first marriage, and a short bout of mental illness when he was in Germany. If you like Jonathan Franzen as an author (I do), you might as well enjoy this part of the annotations, but if not you will have to skip some of them. I am still wondering if it wouldn’t have been better to split the book in two: a translation of Kraus only, and a longer essay with Franzen’s view of Kraus.

Kraus was a larger-than-life author. His play Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Mankind) is about 800 pages long. The Kraus Project gives some insight in part of his work, but those who would like to discover the full Kraus and also the Vienna of his times (because most of his work can be only understood from the context) should maybe read in parallel also Carl Schorske’s excellent book Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture.

Let me close with a poem by Karl Kraus in which he explains why he kept silent for a long time after the Nazis took power in Germany:

Let no one ask what I’ve been doing since I spoke.
I have nothing to say
and won’t say why.
And there’s stillness since the earth broke.
No word was right;
a man speaks only from his sleep at night.
And dreams of a sun that joked.
It passes; and later
it didn’t matter.
The Word went under when that world awoke,

Man frage nicht, was all die Zeit ich machte.
Ich bleibe stumm;
und sage nicht, warum.
Und Stille gibt es, da die Erde krachte.
Kein Wort, das traf;
man spricht nur aus dem Schlaf.
Und träumt von einer Sonne, welche lachte.
Es geht vorbei;
nachher war’s einerlei.
Das Wort entschlief, als jene Welt erwachte.


Jonathan Franzen: The Kraus Project, Fourth Estate, London 2013

Carl Emil Schorske: Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture, Vintage 1980

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

DSM-5 or: “Progress” in psychiatry

DSM-5 is the acronym of the 2013 update to the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) classification and diagnostic tool. The full title is Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition.

In the United States the DSM serves as a universal authority for psychiatric diagnosis. Treatment recommendations, as well as payment by health care providers, are often determined by DSM classifications, so the appearance of a new version has significant practical importance. DSM-5 is also an important reference tool in many other countries.

I am neither an expert in this discipline, nor did I – fortunately – have a history as a patient in that field. But I find some of the content of DSM-5 deeply disturbing.

Grief is according to my understanding a normal reaction to the loss of a close person. And it is difficult to imagine that there is someone out there who thinks that grief is something pathological. It is very individual how and how long we grieve. But DSM-5 says: if you lost your partner, child, parent, or another person close to you and you mourn for longer than two weeks(!), you are suffering from a pathological disorder that requires treatment.

DSM-4, the predecessor of DSM-5 admitted in 2000 still a two months’ mourning period after the loss of a close person as “normal”, DSM-3 in 1980 even a one year mourning period as “normal”.

And let me guess – DSM-6 will probably consider a mourning period longer than two days as a pathological disorder. I suppose that is called “progress”. (It is indeed – but only for the balance sheets of the pharmaceutical industry.)

I hope I will never fall in the hands of a psychiatrist who is working on the basis of DSM-5.

“Progress celebrates victories over nature. Progress makes purses of human skin….Nature can rely on progress; it will avenge it for the outrage it has perpetrated on it.” (Karl Kraus)


© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

German Literature Month – My book selection



As you know from one of my previous posts, I will participate in the German Literature Month hosted by my blogger colleagues Lizzie (Lizzie’s Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) in November for the fourth time.

Luckily, I won one of the giveaways of Lizzie, Marjana Gaponenko’s novel Who is Martha? about which I have read enthusiastic reviews in the German-speaking media. Gaponenko is a young author from Odessa that writes in German. She won the prestigeous Adelbert von Chamisso Prize for German-language authors whose mother tongue is not German in 2013. Who is Martha is her second novel and I am very glad that I will have a copy fresh from the printing press for review.

It was not so easy to pick the other books I will read and review for the German Lit Month, simply because the pile of good and interesting books is too big. After some back and forth I decided that I will read and discuss these books in November:

The Nightwatches of Bonaventura (attributed to Ernst August Friedrich Klingemann) (novel), University of Chicago Press 2014 

Marjana Gaponenko: Who is Martha? (novel), New Vessel Press 2014 

Hermann Hesse / Thomas Mann: The Hesse/Mann Letters, Jorge Pinto Books 2005 

Herta Müller: The Passport (novel), Serpent’s Tail 1989 

Joseph Roth: Rebellion (novel), St. Martin’s Press 1999

I have one or two more books in mind I would like to review, but five books is already quite an ambitious programme and I am not sure if I will have enough time to read and review more in November.

Now I am really a bit excited to see what the other participants will read and review!

P.S.: Since I won – again! – a giveaway at Lizzy’s Literary Life’s ‘Wednesdays are Wunderbar!’, I am gladly adding one more book to the list:

Wolfgang Herrndorf: Why We Took the Car (novel), Scholastic 2014 

It will be a very busy month, but the books are worth it!

P.P.S.: In the last weeks, three more books have popped up that I would like to include in the German Literature Month:

Jakob Arjouni: Happy birthday, Turk! (novel), No Exit Press 1996

Kurt Tucholsky: Castle Gripsholm (story), Overlook Press 1988

Jonathan Franzen: The Kraus Project (essays), Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013

You may be surprised to find a title of Jonathan Franzen on this list, but The Kraus Project is indeed a translation of four essays of Karl Kraus by Franzen, with extensive footnotes by him, the Kraus scolar Paul Reitter, and Daniel Kehlmann.

I hope I can really read and review all this in November!


© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.