Jonathan Franzen gives an “angry” speech
The bestselling author also pays unexpected tribute to the late Tamar Kaplan '14 and her family
Bestselling writer Jonathan Franzen, author of the novels “The Corrections” and “Freedom,” wasn’t angry during his well-attended Wednesday night dinner lecture at the Marian Marian Cook Athenaeum.
The figure at the center of one of his writing projects, however, Austrian satirist and journalist Karl Kraus, was boiling with rage during the 19th century.
“How did someone so privileged become the great hater?” asked Franzen, whose lecture was sponsored by the President’s Distinguished Speaker Series. “Maybe he was angry because he was so privileged.”
Though the large crowd of students, faculty, staff, and community members might have expected a reading and discussion from Franzen’s “Freedom,” which has reigned for multiple weeks on bestsellers lists across the country, that wasn’t what Franzen wanted to do.
“I’m tired of reading from ‘Freedom,’ ” he said, smiling. Audience members laughed. “I thought I’d give this a try. Thank you for listening.”
Though “Freedom” and “The Corrections” barely received a mention during his lecture, the 53-year-old author’s story of his discovery of Kraus while on a Fulbright Scholarship in Berlin touched on many themes found in his novels.
His talk ranged across a variety of topics—gadgetry and notions of apocalypse, the decline of the book publishing industry, his disdain for Amazon and its CEO Jeff Bezos (“maybe he’s not the anti-Christ, but he’s one of the Four Horsemen”), memoirish moments from his student days in 1980s Berlin and his abiding admiration for Kraus. (By the way: Franzen’s translation of three essays from Kraus, considered one of the most difficult German-language writers to translate, will be published next year.)
Where Kraus railed against everything and condemned the newspaper as “an infernal machine,” Franzen said there’s a better use in applying that phrase to the countless gadgets cluttering our desks and filling our pockets and purses.
Kraus’ phrase, Franzen said, “means so much to me,” especially because “it applies to all of our techno-consumerism today…. There’s this rhetoric of connection and empowerment [in using these devices] that enriches the titans who are behind them.”
Franzen also described how Kraus inspired his writing career, though he chose a different path to follow—as a novelist—in setting out to critique and offer insights into contemporary American life.
During the question-and-answer session that followed, Franzen grew particularly eloquent when a student asked him why he was so negative towards social media platforms and devices.
Franzen smiled, saying he wasn’t some unpleasant curmudgeon.
“Listen, I’m not that much older than you,” he said, chuckling. “I’m not your grandfather. I’m just against the false sense of connection that these things give us.”
To explain, he cited the experience of reading the novel “The Man Who Loved Children,” by Christina Stead, who died in 1983.
“Stead’s been dead for more than 25 years, but she’s more present to me when I read her than when I’m texting someone,” he explained. “When I read her, there’s more of a communion quality to that than there is in being constantly bombarded with information throughout the day.”
Another moment of eloquence occurred much earlier in the evening, when Franzen paid an unexpected tribute to junior Tamar Kaplan ’14, who died earlier this month after a car accident while traveling in South America.
Before his lecture began, Franzen looked out at the audience and said that he has known the Kaplan family for a long time. His memories of Tamar stretch back to when she was an infant, and the loss of her also filled him with sorrow.
It was a startling, moving revelation.
It was also an unexpected moment that created a special communion between Franzen and his listeners – not too different, perhaps, from what he felt reading Christina Stead.