While this blog is not the place to provide an overview of the landscape of biographical discourse on Karl Kraus, it is a good place to provide the beginnings of a general statement on a general characteristic of that discourse: namely, that Kraus’s life is, not to put too fine a point on it, an often neglected aspect of his biography. At present, the most accessible biographical discourse on Kraus is often tantamount to discussions of his views and activities as satirist and publisher of Die Fackel—so much so, in fact, that (1) Friedrich Rothe could call his well-done German academic study of Kraus not just a biography, but the biography and (2) Edward Timms’s wonderful two-volume academic study of Kraus has been confused for a biography on at least one occasion.
This is not to suggest that certain biographical facts of Kraus’s life are not well-documented and accounted for. Of course they are. Kraus was born in Jičín, northeast of Prague, on 28 April 1874, he and his family moved to Vienna in 1877, and so on. But lives consist of more than just facts, and a discussion of the views and activities of a satirist and publisher does not a biography make, however interesting those views and activities may be.
The reason that Kraus’s life is often absent from his biography may be that Kraus the man is a just a poor subject of a biography. It may be that the interesting aspects of his life consist in little more than the views he cultivated and the activities he engaged in as a satirist and the publisher of Die Fackel and that everything outside of those aspects is worthy of little more than a simple accounting for the sake of completeness. But that does not seem to be the case. The 2008 compendium entitled Aus großer Nähe: Karl Kraus in Berichten von Weggefährten und Widersachern, edited by Friedrich Pfäfflin and published by the Wallstein Verlag, suggests otherwise. The anecdotes and reports complied there suggest that, while doubtless separate from one another, Kraus’s life and Kraus’s work are interrelated with points of contact and overlap. And there is, to the best of my knowledge, no biography of or biographical discussion regarding Kraus that has addressed these interrelations in any detail.
What follows are two anecdotes illustrative of these interrelations. They are obvious, but raise the kinds of questions that need to be asked, if we are ever going to get a picture of Kraus richer than his views and activities as a publisher.
Heinrich Fischer reports that Kraus prank-called Alfred Kerr, the Berlin-based theater critic and essayist, every day for an entire week. Kerr and Kraus were in the midst of a dispute; Kraus was in Berlin for a few weeks after having struck the last blow (“Der größte Schuft im ganzen Land” (F 787-794: 1-208)), and Kerr had announced his intention to respond, though he never did. Fischer remembers:
And every afternoon after our meal at Kempinski—for an entire week—Kraus would get up, mischievously place his finger on his lips, and whisper: “Your word, you can’t tell anyone.” And then he and I would go to the phone booth to call Alfred Kerr (Aus großer Nähe 149) [my translation].
Fischer goes on to tell of two calls where Kraus pretended to be an attorney from Kurfürstendamm (Berlin) and a bookstore employee from Saxony who was just passing through Berlin—Kraus’s skills for mimicry and imitation are well-known and documented. Once he got Kerr on the line, Kraus would introduce himself in character, praise Kerr as a great literary figure, and ask Kerr what he planned to do about “that Viennese upstart” Karl Kraus (ibid.) [my translation]. Kerr would get all riled up, and Kraus would pass the receiver to Fischer, so that the latter could “enjoy the angry monolog coming from the other end of the line” (ibid.) [my translation].
Fischer’s account of these prank calls suggests that they were more than just good fun for Kraus, although they were certainly that as well. His account also suggests that Kraus had wanted to give Kerr a bit of encouragement (Fisher even uses the word later on), so that Kerr might get his response to Kraus published sooner rather than later. There seems to be a concrete relationship between Kraus’s written satire and his life. But what is it? How prevalent is it? And how are we supposed to understand that relationship?
Another anecdote that raises the same and similar questions has come down to us from Sigismund von Radecki. In the mid-1920’s, Kraus led a fight against Imre Békessy, a corrupt journalist and publisher known, among other things, for pay-to-play schemes. And Békessy pulled out all the stops against Kraus. He printed retouched and falsified photos of Kraus as a cripple and alcoholic (Aus großer Nähe 23). He even went so far as to hire detectives to stake out Kraus’s apartment. Radecki remembers that he and Kraus came up with an idea to have a bit of fun at the detectives’ expense:
With the detectives lurking behind the bushes, I was supposed to go to Kraus’s apartment door carrying a briefcase and, right before I got to the door, to open it, to look for something inside, and to drop a letter on the sidewalk, as if by accident. Then, from the window, we were going to watch the detectives jump for the letter and open it. But the letter didn’t contain anything more than a piece of paper with a single sentence written on it: “Hinaus aus Wien mit dem Schuft!”—Unfortunately, the detectives were afraid of being so obvious about taking the letter (Aus großer Nähe 273-274) [my translation].