Author Jonathan Franzen '81 Cites Swarthmore Mentor in Latest Essay

by Mark Anskis

The Guardian: What's Wrong with the Modern World

In a recent essay for The Guardian, critically acclaimed novelist Jonathan Franzen '81 laments the current state of the modern world, relating it to the same era that inspired the apocalyptic essays of Austrian satirist Karl Kraus. In the  essay, Franzen - whose forthcoming book is a series of essays on Kraus - credits the late Professor of German George Avery [pdf, p. 8] for developing his appreciation of the writer.

"As a wedding present, three months after I returned from Berlin [where he lived while on a Fulbright grant], my college German professor George Avery gave me a hardcover edition of [Karl] Kraus's great critique of nazism, The Third Walpurgis Night. George, who had opened my eyes to the connection between literature and the living of life, was becoming something of a second father to me, a father who read novels and embraced every pleasure. I'd been a good student of his, and it must have been a wish to prove myself worthy, to demonstrate my love, that led me, in the months following my wedding, to try to translate the two difficult Kraus essays I'd brought home from Berlin.

"I did the work late in the afternoon, after six or seven hours of writing short stories, in the bedroom of the little Somerville apartment that my wife and I were renting for $300 a month. When I'd finished drafts of the two translations, I sent them to George. He returned them a few weeks later, with marginal notations in his microscopic handwriting, and with a letter in which he applauded my effort but said that he could also see how 'devilishly difficult' it was to translate Kraus. Taking his hint, I looked at the drafts with a fresh eye and was discouraged to find them stilted and nearly unreadable. Almost every sentence needed work, and I was so worn out by the work I'd already done that I buried the pages in a file folder.

"But Kraus had changed me. ..." The complete article.

Franzen, who in 2010 became the first living American novelist in a decade to be featured on the cover of Time, received an honorary doctorate from the College in 2005 and spoke on campus last semester. He is the author of The Twenty-Seventh CityStrong MotionThe Corrections, and Freedom.  His latest work The Kraus Project, is scheduled for release on Oct. 1.

Avery joined the Swarthmore faculty in 1959 and, though he retired in 1994, remained a presence on campus until his death in 2004. An expert on Kraus and his milieu, Avery produced an abundance of scholarly writing, including, in 2003, a book on the correspondence between Kraus and his publicist, Herwarth Walden. He also pioneered work on Swiss writer Robert Walser. During his academic career, Avery received three research fellowships to study abroad and served as chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures from 1975 - 1980.