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Intimately connected to the Zeitgeist

Jonathan Franzen talks with Bernadette Conrad about German authors, American life and his moral mission.

After the success of "The Corrections", Jonathan Franzen's "Strong Motions", written in 1992, has now appeared to much praise in German. While critics feel it is not as brilliant as "The Corrections", they laud its ambitious nature. Bernadette Conrad spoke with Franzen in New York about his book and German literature.

Scrupulousness – isn't that one of his basic traits? Scrupulousness both in the sense of utmost precision and a moral injunction? Did I hit the nail on the head there? Jonathan Franzen pulls a face. What do I mean by that? Well, hasn't he already written three novels of almost cosmic proportions? And didn't he himself refer to an idea from Thomas Mann's "Lob der Vergänglichkeit"? And then he quoted Karl Kraus and asked if I wanted to hear the whole essay, because he knows it all by heart. Now at the very latest it's clear I'm not talking with any old connaisseur of German, but with an addict, one whose passion took him to Germany as a student for two years. No sooner do we sit down to talk at the big table in his living room than he brings up German literature with fervour and detailed knowledge. Someone like that you can call scrupulous, can't you?

Jonathan Franzen lives with his companion in one of those Manhattan high rises where just getting into the entrance hall invovles considerable effort. The elevator wafts upwards in silence and then a tall, slender Franzen opens the door revealing the smooth, youthful face you feel you've known for ages. He is alert, listens carefully to question after question and scans his answers as if to check them for accuracy.

Die Zeit: Jonathan Franzen, how did you come to have such close ties to Germany?

Jonathan Franzen: My literary models were mostly Germans. Kafka was the number one person, and then, two years later, Karl Kraus. Much of the tone of "The Twenty-Seventh City", but also some of the satiric passages of "Strong Motion" are stolen from Karl Kraus. Thomas Mann had a very fine irony which I found very sympathetic. So, all along, I've considered myself a kind of a German writer.

What did you take with you from your German years?

(Grins) Addiction to cigarettes, enhanced tolerance for alcohol, scepticism about America, but I already had a bit of that. Conviction that I'd rather live in the US than in Europe. I came home cured of the desire to live on the continent. I think I came back with this very German conception of literature, which is not a bad conception to have, but there was this American playfulness and silliness that I really missed. I came back here and I recognized the jokiness, the irony, the sense of: this is where the good music is happening. This is where the modern writers are cared about. What Europe meant to me was old culture, which I craved coming from this new place. It became my weapon against America, to go to a more civilized place, with a much more tragic 20th century history. So when I got back I went to a place that seemed more hospitable to a young person. I got married and moved to Boston.

As a writer, do you have something like a moral mission?

Yes, but I understand it very, very, very differently from how I did as a younger person. I've changed my understanding of the relationship between writer and reader. There was a time when I presumed that readers were in some way stupid, and needed me to enlighten them. The way I now see it could not be farther from that, I recognize that I am just as stupid. I feel as if my moral responsibility is to talk about my own confusion, my own attempt to understand something, in an honest way. There is some chance that a reader will recognize that same confusion, that same search for something. And very importantly they may feel less freakish and alone, like he or she has company. That’s the gift I have to give, that's the gift any writer has to give.

Your novels are not only always situated in the present. They are as close on the heels of current political and social events as is permitted by the inherent time lag in writing. What does it mean for you that a book written in 1992 has only now come out on the German market, in 2005?

I personally get bored if I'm not engaged. Since writing a book requires sitting in an empty room, the only way I can keep from going crazy is to feel like I'm intimately connected to the Zeitgeist. It was an article of faith of Karl Kraus' that the things that strove to be topical, by which he meant particularly the daily press, die overnight. Things that take some longer view of the thing in the paper this morning may even seem a little obscure. He was referring to how difficult it was to read some of his own glosses, but ten years later they're probably easier to read. I would argue that the best writing is in some sort of intimate struggle with the reality the writer finds him- or herself in, and it's precisely that struggle that gives you any hope of being understandable 20 years from now.

So there is something timeless in writing, something independent of time?

What you recognize, once the topical references fall away, is the engagement itself. What you recognize is: I am pissed off about the world, and of course the things you have to be pissed off about change, and there's a character like Sophie Bentwood, feeling a sense of despair over modernity. If instead Paula Fox had written some charming narrative of 19th century drawing room culture – who would have cared then and who would care now? It's that Paula Fox was feeling enraged and depressed and ashamed in 1968 and all that stuff is still alive now, right on the page. And I am also enraged, and depressed and ashamed.

By explicitlly distancing yourself from previous positions, for example your long Harpers' essay from 1996, you show how development, change and marking this change is very important to you.

As my friend Adam Haslett said: Keep in mind - this is only entertainment. Books are leisure-time activities. They are not health care. They are not troops in the street. They are leisure-time reading for people who can afford the time and want to be entertained. I'm not repudiating the sense of concern about reading and writing in the Harper’s essay, just the absolute truth value of assertions I might make.

How far are you willing to accommodate the reading public in its need for good entertainment?

I know that Germans have a great tolerance for a lot of pretty chewy stuff. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Here in America the writer exists to give the reader pleasure. If you are an entertainer it's nice to know that people are entertained. The bigger the audience, the happier I am. I love looking out and seeing some thousand people listening. I become dead calm. If I see a full house I'm utterly happy and comfortable because I know I can entertain them, I can keep them happy for one hour – and laughing most of the time. It really is so important, ever more important for writers to think about how to connect with busy, distracted readers with a range of entertainment options. People need to have some reason to keep reading, and I think a desire to punish yourself with a really unpleasant experience is a losing strategy for writers. The dishonesty creeps in when you pretend that this is just a happy-healthful thing we're doing. There's this nauseating campaign on behalf of reading in this country whose slogan is "Reading is Fun". You know, if I cut myself with a knife, that’s a wound that heals. If you're talking about the fact that we have these over-large consciousnesses and that we are wild animals facing imminent death – that's nothing to be cured; it just doesn’t go away.

But how do you resolve the contradiction of dealing with deadly earnest topics, without sounding too earnest yourself?

Earnest – and flippancy are the opposed terms. Well, "flippant" means "unernsthaft" in a negative sense. So, for me the opposite of "earnest" would be "self-aware". And I think if you're self-aware, the first thing you have to acknowledge is: you are error-prone. And then you have some rhetorical choices, once you allow the possibility of error into your work. You can either flagellate yourself about it, or you can make fun of your stuff a little bit. That just seems the right way to go.

How close do you feel to Germany today?

I sort of feel towards Germany the way I feel towards my parents, which is, I grew up with them. Those were really important years, the two years I spent there. That’s when I decided to be a writer, that’s when I decided what kind of writer I wanted to be and what my whole relation to the world would be. That all happened in those years, the two years in Germany, and the one year back here when I read German literature. So I feel this affection for the culture and for the country itself. At the same time I've spent a lot of time away, and I'm an American. When I came home to St. Louis I would tell my parents the way things are in New York, because they didn’t know New York, and that was a useful kind of news to bring. I knew they were sort of sceptical, so it was partly my responsibility to be an ambassador from New York to St. Louis. And I feel that definitely with all of the anti-American feeling in Germany now, that there is a useful role to be played by American writers to say: there are also smart people here, who care about the same things you care about. Not everyone is George Bush.


The interview was conducted in English. The German translation originally appeared in Die Zeit on August 4, 2005.

Bernadette Conrad is a freelance journalist for Die Zeit.

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