Readings — From the September 2013 issue

A Different Kind of Father

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By Jonathan Franzen, from a footnote to his translation of “Nestroy and Posterity,” a 1912 essay by the Austrian satirist, playwright, poet, aphorist, and critic Karl Kraus (1874–1936). In the essay “Heine and the Consequences,” Kraus attacks his nineteenth-century predecessor Heinrich Heine, accusing him of having “loosened the corsets of the German language”; in “Nestroy and Posterity,” Kraus champions Johann Nestroy (1801–1862), a Viennese singer, actor, and comic playwright. The Kraus Project, a collection of Kraus’s essays, translated from the German and annotated by Franzen, will be published next month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Franzen is the author, most recently, of Freedom and Farther Away: Essays.

To thrive as a man, you need to find ways both to admire your father and to surpass him. If the kinship is literary, which is to say metaphorical, you may also need to deny false paternity, as Kraus does in “Heine and the Consequences.” Because Heine is the famous and widely beloved Kraus precursor, Kraus tries to annihilate him, highlighting the differences between Heine’s work and his own and pointing toward Heine’s fundamentally bad character: if Heine had been born seventy-five years later, he would still have been a feuilletonist. Because Nestroy, on the other hand, is the neglected and undervalued Kraus precursor, Kraus praises him, stresses his kinship with him, and posits that different times would have made him a different kind of writer. Kraus, who, like Heine, was Jewish, may conceivably have had submerged assimilationist motives in choosing a gentile as a literary father, but the really important argument he’s making is that Nestroy was a great writer uncomfortably stuck in the wrong genre — thus leaving the son (Kraus) free to find the right genre and fulfill his potential. To champion Nestroy is at once to make him a more satisfactory father and to demonstrate the champion’s own superior strength. Nestroy in 1912 needed Kraus’s help, and Kraus needed to provide it.

When I went to West Berlin in the fall of 1981, I was actively seeking literary fathers. In a college playwriting workshop, I’d spontaneously generated a story about a conspiracy in my hometown, and my theater professor, Lee Devin, had said I’d better take a look at Pynchon (also, curiously, at the thriller writer Richard Condon). Because I intended to turn my story idea into a novel in Berlin, I took along Gravity’s Rainbow — a brick of a paperback that might have been a brick of firecrackers, so deliciously full of explosive potential did it seem.

(Somewhat random aside: I loved fireworks, and so did my father. Every Fourth of July morning he took me out past the county line into a jurisdiction where they were legal. He would buy himself a brick of firecrackers, half of which he would save for setting off in our front yard on New Year’s Eve, and we would go down to a gravel bar on the Meramec River, where he worked through the other half of his brick while I ignited bottle rockets and smoke bombs. For the first few years we were accompanied by a neighbor of ours, a colleague of my father’s at the railroad, and by his pyromaniacal son, Fred. I remember Fred’s father lighting firecrackers with the cigarettes he chain-smoked. He died of lung cancer when I was eight or nine. His name was Karl Kraus.)

In my last semester of college I’d read some essays of Harold Bloom in which there was a lot of talk about “strong” and “weak” poets. Since I was going to be writing novels anyway, I figured it would be much more fun and satisfactory to be a strong one. Of course, the whole thing was preposterous, since Bloom’s theory was steeped in Freud and turned on the literary ephebe’s willful but unconscious misreading of his (always his, never her) strong precursor’s work: my Unconscious would have to have been awfully feeble if reading some literary criticism had been all it took for me to stage-direct it. But I was impressed by how smart Bloom and the other theorists were. For a while, I believed that studying them would help me produce the kind of texts they considered good, as if they were Julia Child and I wanted to master the art of French cooking. I hoped they’d show me shortcuts to becoming a strong novelist, so that I could avoid the suffering of various agons (which sounded highly unpleasant) and the embarrassment of being unconscious of motives that any halfway-competent Bloomian critic would be totally conscious of. I was like Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, who is under the impression that all you need to be able to read Latin is the trick of decoding it into English, and who is stricken to learn that each Latin word and conjugation has to be laboriously memorized.

When I started reading the Pynchon, in the suburban basement of the family that hosted me for my first five weeks in Berlin, I was simultaneously reading Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, as if Pynchon were a deadly virus and literary theory the hazmat suit that would let me safely handle it. But the suit did not avail. Pynchon still made me ill, both literally and figuratively. To compound my literary self-consciousness, I was spending between two and six hours every day typing letters to my secret fiancée, V. Before I left for Berlin, V and I had agreed that our letters to each other would double as journals; our innermost thoughts would be communal property. And so I made a carbon copy of every page I wrote to her, partly to create a journal but partly also on the crazy presumption that our correspondence would eventually be seen as one for the ages; what bound me and V together, more than anything else, was our literary ambition.

it’s like the bitter irony of my picking up Gravity’s Rainbow when I can’t write these days, oh what a mess, I find Bloom’s style revolting in hindsight, his Manifesto a travesty like late Nietzsche, but I recognize Pynchon as my major precursor, the better he is the more I want to hate him but the less I can, a strange state of affairs, such as my reading list of novels in the last five years respectably large yet somehow managing to avoid all Joyce, Faulkner, Proust, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Austen, Stendhal, Mailer, my God, you’d think I’ve hardly read a thing, what fear what fear, my suitcase stuffed with more irony, you name — Derrida, Bloom, Burke, Jameson twice, Lacan, Marcuse, Lukacs, Barthes — it, but how many novels? just one, of course, cover reading “The most important work of fiction yet produced by any living writer,” influence, why fight it? does Irving? well, it hardly matters with Irving, but there’s almost nothing he does in Garp that Pynchon doesn’t do better, or Heller, and it seems that Pynchon’s Irving is just one among a dozen tricks the book is pulling off, how can you write in America anymore? how keep going without big genius? well, I hear you saying, who knows that one or both of us isn’t a genius, who says you have to be the best?

A year earlier, my departmental adviser had suggested that I apply for a Fulbright grant for study in Germany. My chances of getting one were good: the German government, understandably intent on promoting international cooperation after the Second World War, contributed heavily to the Fulbright program, which, as a result, seemed to give nearly as many fellowships for Germany as for the rest of the world combined. To make sure I went to Germany’s most interesting city, Berlin, I crafted a proposal, consisting almost entirely of bullshit, to use certain archives in Berlin to study expressionist theatrical productions. My letter of acceptance arrived on the same day and in the same mail room where V, with whom I was falling in love and would soon be sleeping, got her letter of rejection from the Fulbright people. She’d applied to go to Italy, but so had a thousand other people.

I don’t remember what prompted me to propose to V, six months later. Probably I’d said something wrong (I was always saying the wrong thing that summer) and wanted to make her feel better. We were living with throngs of cockroaches in a sublet at the corner of 110th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, in New York City; I’ve still never seen thicker Lucite security partitions than the ones in the liquor store downstairs from us. To throw my mother off the scent of my relationship with V, I’d told her that a whole bunch of my college friends were living in the apartment, not just V and me. My mother had met V only once, at our graduation, and had conceived an intense disapproval of her. (“She’s very intellectual” was the nicest thing she ever managed to say about her.) To my lie about our living arrangements I soon added concealment of our engagement and of my intention to spend my Berlin year working on a novel; my mother considered the idea of my becoming a novelist a dangerous and irresponsible fantasy. I pretended to her that my Fulbright would set me up to be a journalist, a lawyer, an international banker, or, at the very least, a German professor. She, for her part, hoped that, while in Germany, I would develop a taste for blonde, sharp-cheekboned, un-V-like women along the lines of the daughters of her good Austrian friend, Ilse.

Where was my father in this? He was retiring that summer, at the age of sixty-six and a half, from his forty-year career as a civil engineer. Admiring him was not a problem for me, but surpassing him was: I’d heard it said that he was the best railroad bridge-and-track engineer in the United States. I also had a troubling sense of false paternity. My father was a formidable intellectual arguer and a good, clear writer, but he knew and cared nothing about literature. He was a tower of honesty and integrity, whereas I was an inveterate concealer of pertinent information, sometimes even an outright liar, and was intending to make a career of writing stories that weren’t factually true. My best near-term option for surpassing him was to be more deferential to a woman, more solicitous and sympathetic, than he was to my mother. Longer term, I would have to become the nation’s best at what I did — hence the insane magnitude of my literary ambitions at twenty-two. To get anywhere with the long-term project, I needed the example of a different kind of father.

A few days after I left for Berlin, my mother was hospitalized with a near-fatal pulmonary embolism. I now think it’s a mistake to metaphorize illness, and certainly my mother’s long troubles with blood clots weren’t aggravated by her emotions the way other of her ailments were, but back then the timing of her hospitalization seemed to me inescapably significant. Her youngest child had just flown the nest for good, and for the first time in her life she had my father at home with her, being depressed and generally forcing all the marital issues that his busy work life had allowed them to suppress. I was constituted to feel responsible for this, and I began to make the argument, first privately and then to V, that I couldn’t break the news of our engagement until my mother’s health was better, for fear of worsening it with the shock of the news.

Of course, being twenty-two, I typically thought about my parents only when I felt obliged to write them a letter; they were mostly a distraction from the important subject of me. But my daily anxiety levels were very high. I self-medicated with cigarettes, a habit I not only concealed from my parents but was attempting to hide from my host family by sneaking around outside their house. In the great tradition of Fulbright anxiety (a phenomenon treated most comically in Ben Lerner’s novel, Leaving the Atocha Station), I felt anxious about the weird impression I was making on my host family; anxious about concealing my engagement; anxious about chaining myself to my portable typewriter and writing self-referential letters instead of improving my German and gathering exotic material; anxious about committing myself to marriage before I’d sampled the charms of blonde, sharp-?cheekboned women; anxious about the new buildup of tactical nuclear weapons on both sides of the German border; anxious about being a smoker; anxious about my laziness as a scholar; anxious about finding a place to live in the extremely tight low-end Berlin housing market; anxious about the many ways in which I half knew that V and I weren’t right for each other; and anxious about the badness of the story I was writing as an exercise, a fluffy confection that concerned a young man named Wallace Wallace Wallace and was so steeped in my recent reading of John Irving that there was even a bear in it.

Harold Bloom, however, was telling me I was supposed to be anxious about Pynchon:

I’m a great sublimator. Not finding an apartment, the simple raw fear, becomes not finding an apartment when you and I are poor, in two years. This fear gives way to the worry that you’re not the Practical Type. Worry about Practical Types practically stops the typing: how can I sit in here when my thoughts should be flooding outward? But what is this worry, if not pynchon-anxiety? since pynchon appears to have done almost everything in the world, he’s just bursting with details that can be had only through experience. But why pynchon-anxiety? Why decide he’s the Major Precursor? Because of the style-crisis I’m locked in with the Wallace story and with these letters. As you’ve been seeing, I’m to the point where I’ll destroy style rather than imitate someone else’s. But style-destruction is, if only momentarily, a very anti-literary thing to do to oneself; it sounds like it might be connected to the doubts I’ve been having about our neat lives as authors.

Gravity’s Rainbow seemed to me a novel of dizzying capability. Its melding of the gonzo and the literary was so effortless and brilliant it felt inevitable, and it dealt squarely with the two contemporary issues that weighed on me the most: the nuclear peril and the impenetrably complex modern System that rendered individuals powerless. Pynchon’s narrative voice was scarily authoritative the way my father’s was, and the street wisdom of his entropic proto-hippie antihero, Tyrone Slothrop, was like that of my much older brother, Tom, whom I revered. I was doubly a little pisher, and the book pushed all my buttons in this regard.

To defend myself against it, all I really had was my engagement to V. The engagement was conventional, for one thing, and I already had some awareness that I was destined to live and work within convention, both because it had served me well (I’d known how to play the game of getting a Fulbright) and because I’d seen how my brother’s unconventionality had estranged him from my parents. The engagement was also predicated on achieving a relationship of equals with V, one that fully respected her subjectivity. Gravity’s Rainbow was an absolute boy-novel, a rockets-and-erections book, its female characters fundamentally sex objects. When, in subsequent letters to V, I experimented with riffs that mimicked the novel’s raunchy tone and attitudes, she wrote back sharply to register her moral distaste, and the lesson I drew was that you couldn’t write like Pynchon and sustain an I-Thou relationship with a woman. I had to reject Pynchon’s sexism the way I rejected my father’s. It also quickly became apparent that Pynchon’s turn on novelistic convention — reading every coincidence as evidence of conspiracy — was a trick without a future. Pynchon wholly owned it, and there was no point in competing with him on his turf:

What astounds me is how easy it is to make up a plot like that, and that no one before pynchon ever did it. But now no one else can do it. He is, as Lee Devin told me two and a half years ago, the Master of Paranoid Conspiracy . . .
The pynchon-anxiety has diminished, by the way, since Sunday morning (yesterday); the anxiety that remains is strangely antipynchonesque: ominous coincidences, but no chance of a conspiracy behind them. For instance, the end of a sentence near the bottom of page 404: “?. . . a repulsive black gob of the foul-smelling substance wrapped in a scrap torn from an old Enbeski Qazaq for 17 August of last year.” Not the best spot of writing in the book, but at least all the details seem reasonable, except for the date [August 17 is my birthday], which appears nowhere else in the first 535 pages, which seems to have been planted as a sign for watchful me, a message from pynchon to the effect, “I KNOW YOU’RE READING THIS AND I KNOW WHO YOU ARE.”

Rereading these letters, with the aim of quoting from them at embarrassing length here, I’m struck by how much more authentic and persuasive my cries of pain were than the resolution I arrived at. I don’t know if this is an effect of hindsight, but I have the same feeling about the passages in my letters where I reaffirm my love of V and promise her that everything is going to be okay with us. The anxieties sound real, the optimism somewhat pat:

I’ll get over Pynchon somehow. Maybe through criticism, some discontinuity, some dialectic, that will enable me to forget him. It’s still only faith, but it hasn’t been destroyed: Novels aren’t called novel for nothing: they’re about the times and about time.

And that seemed to be the end of it. I stopped talking about Pynchon in my letters, and soon after that, having been shamed by V’s criticisms, I expunged all traces of his gonzo style. My engagement to V was a freely chosen clampdown, a truncator of anxious-makingly open-ended trains of thought, a bulwark against the boy-novel phallicism I’d found so dangerously attractive in Gravity’s Rainbow. At a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by the Berlin coordinator of the Experiment in International Living, Frau Heilgendorff, I was deep in a flirtatious conversation with the prettiest woman at the table, a blonde and sharp-cheekboned German, when Frau Heilgendorff swooped down and said pointedly, “Jonathan, how is your fiancée? When is your fiancée coming over to see you?” End of conversation. Besides being annoyed, I felt obscurely that the word “fiancée” misrepresented me. And yet, in the weeks and months that followed, as my fear of giving my parents the news of my engagement mounted to excruciating heights, I persisted in thinking that I was afraid of exposing a truth that I’d been lying about, rather than of exposing something false that I was trying to will into truth. To distract myself from my fear, I took my best rational, conscious shot at one-upping Pynchon and began to write a novel of my times in which the conspirators themselves were sympathetic characters; in which, indeed, the lead conspirator was female. A decade later, when I found myself in mortal literary struggle with the problem of Pynchonian postmodernism, amid the wreckage of my marriage, the Bloomian laugh was on me.

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