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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

Kraft

by
Jonas Lüscher


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Kraft



Title: Kraft
Author: Jonas Lüscher
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 212 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Kraft - US
Kraft - UK
Kraft - Canada
Monsieur Kraft ou la théorie du pire - France
Kraft - Deutschland
Kraft - España

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Our Assessment:

B : ultimately a bit too dry-conceptual, but has some appeal

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Monde . 26/10/2017 Nicolas Weill
NZZ . 26/1/2017 Philipp Theisohn
The NY Times Book Rev. . 15/11/2020 Rob Doyle
Süddeutsche Zeitung . 4/2/2017 Christopher Schmidt
Wall St. Journal . 6/11/2020 Sam Sacks
The Washington Post A- 18/11/2020 Ron Charles
Die Welt . 6/2/2017 Richard Kämmerlings
Die Zeit . 16/2/2017 Marie Schmidt


  From the Reviews:
  • "Le livre excelle à dépeindre la faillite des sentiments à l’ère du capitalisme sans adversaires. La galerie de portraits, aussi grotesques que des peintures de Grosz, amuse." - Nicolas Weill, Le Monde

  • "Man könnte Kraft somit als Chronik einer Kapitulation lesen. Als Allegorie ist sie im Roman deutlich erkennbar (.....) Eines der Grundprobleme dieses Textes, so stellt sich bei näherer Betrachtung heraus, liegt im Missverhältnis von Charakter und Geschichtlichkeit. Die Figur Kraft hat durchaus etwas zu bieten (.....) Am Ende des Romans regt sich somit der Verdacht, dass der Erzählfaden, der das Professorenschicksal mit der Theodizee verknüpfen sollte, längst gerissen war, bevor Richard Kraft sich an ihm erhängen konnte. Die grosse und die kleine Welt, sie fallen auseinander." - Philipp Theisohn, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Composed in wry, long sentences agreeably translated from the German by Tess Lewis, Kraft serves up a digestible treatise on Europe's economic and political history of the last few decades, with the laissez-faire duo of Kraft and Istvan as cartoonish vessels for their author's findings. It's also an amusing study in how intellectuals become neutered and co-opted through venal self-interest. (...) The novel's broad satirical strokes limit its emotional heft, and a too-tidy ending fails to convince. But Lüscher is a perceptive commentator on Silicon Valley's heady and hubristic ideological climate" - Rob Doyle, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Dieser Richard Kraft ist die Karikatur des europäischen Intellektuellen, sein Versagen spiegelt den geistigen Bankrott einer Elite wider, die dem drohenden digitalen Totalitarismus nicht das Geringste entgegenzusetzen hat. Jonas Lüschers Buch vereint Campus-Roman, Gelehrtensatire und beinharte Kapitalismus-Kritik in sich. Die Souveränität und Leichtfüßigkeit, mit der Lüscher philosophische Exkurse und ein fein gewobenes Motivnetz auf nur knapp 240 Seiten zu einer luziden Gegenwartsparabel verdichtet, ist staunenswert. (...) Die kühle Intellektualität dieses Autors ist ein schöner Fremdkörper in einer Zeit, in der Reflexionsprosa nicht allzu hoch im Kurs steht." - Christopher Schmidt, Süddeutsche Zeitung

  • "This is the kind of review in which I have to say things like Kraft is the best novel about theodicy I've read all year! Hooked yet ? Hear me out. (...) Lüscher's style, a hybrid of intellectual posturing and absurd slapstick, is sharply translated by Tess Lewis, who captures Kraft's pomposity and the indefatigable march of German syntax. (...) As a devoted fan of academic comedies, I insisted on reading several passages of Kraft to my wife, who asked me to please stop. Which is to say that this peculiar book is not for everyone. The philosophical allusions present a hurdle. But a greater one may be the references to late-20th-century European politics" - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

  • "Wie plump und klischeehaft hingegen Kraft gearbeitet ist, zeigt sich vor allem in den ausführlichen Rückblenden, die das Allerbekannteste wiederkäuen: Lüscher will am Beispiel seines Helden eine Geschichte liberal-konservativen Denkens von der Ära Thatchers und Reagans bis zur digitalen Ökonomie erzählen (.....) Blöderweise kann Lüscher eines gar nicht, nämlich Frauen (.....) Was bleibt, ist ein sehr gelehrter und mit Verweisen gespickter Konzeptroman über einen Pessimisten in der Midlife-Crisis, der sich zwingt, eine optimistische Geschichtsphilosophie zu begründen, und daran, wenig überraschend, scheitert." - Richard Kämmerlings, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The title of Jonas Lüscher's novel is also its protagonist's name: Richard Kraft is a professor of rhetoric at Tübingen University; in German 'kraft' also means 'force' or 'strength' (and so, for example, for the Dutch edition of the novel they actually changed name and title to the Dutch equivalent, Kracht), though in fact Richard Kraft turns out to be anything but forceful or strong; if anything, Kraft is a novel of personal disintegration.
       The story revolves around what Kraft sees to be a sort of last chance: in honor of the 307th anniversary of the publication of Leibniz's Théodicée [English] Silicon Valley tech tycoon Tobias Erkner (founder of the 'Amazing Future Fund') has underwritten an essay competition to be held at Stanford University on the topic: "Whatever is right, is right and why we can still improve it", and Kraft has been invited to participate, all expenses paid. Each participant would have eighteen minutes to read (although: "the use of presentation software was strongly encouraged") their essay before an august audience -- and the winner would get a million dollars. Kraft finds it hard to resist -- though not primarily for the intellectual challenge.
       Though successful in academia -- he's DDr. Kraft, and has a prestigious post --, he is far from happy and satisfied with his lot, especially his personal lot. The task before him -- requiring: "a more authentic, more contemporary optimism, that is, an active and authentic optimism" -- proves daunting because, given his circumstances and situation, Kraft really has the hardest time seeing anything bright around him (least of all the future ...). On the other hand, he is motivated -- if perhaps for less than ideal reasons:

I need the money. More than any of the others. I need it to buy my freedom.
       The freedom he wants to buy is from wife number two, Heike, and their twin teen girls. He seems to eagerly leap at the chance to go to Stanford simply to get away from them, insisting he needs to spend at least four weeks there and finally settling on three, and the novel basically covers those weeks abroad -- albeit with much looking back, to both recent and distant past.
       The novel opens one week into Kraft's stay, Kraft hard (not) at work at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace. His essay isn't going well; indeed, it doesn't take long to see that neither it nor he aren't going anywhere. Lüscher nicely captures Kraft's frustrated inability to work, including the irritation at the constant vacuuming being done -- which is also what leads him to regularly visit the building's observatory, with its forty-eight-bell carillon, the largest bell inscribed with the words: For Peace Alone Do I Ring. And, yes, the story and Kraft will ultimately return here, and for peace, of a sort, the bell will toll .....
       Kraft has failed in his relationships. Even that connection with his old buddy, István -- now Ivan -- Pánzél, who invited him to the essay competition, and with whom Kraft is staying while in the United States, has faded; they don't find much to say to each other any more (as, indeed, one of Kraft's problems -- amusingly enough, for a professor of rhetoric -- is an inability to express himself or communicate in any meaningful way, with Kraft itself also very much an introspective novel).
       Kraft's relationships with women have gone even worse: there's Johanna, who abruptly fled halfway around the world to get away from him, decades earlier -- though conveniently now lives in the area, leading a restless Kraft to seek her out and perhaps find some sort of closure there in one of the novels min-episodes. There's first wife Ruth, who, when she met Kraft: "was susceptible to the biggest windbags around, and she succumbed to them without a word and in no time at all"; she too abruptly disappeared from his life, only to resurface with the dawning of a new German day six years later, Kraft then doing the honorable thing (more out of a lack of any sense of imagination, one suspects, than out of a sense of duty). That marriage, too, collapsed, and while the experiment of his second marriage had, to date, lasted fourteen years, it too was obviously a failure, both sides wanting out.
       Friend Ivan was a sort of Hungarian refugee -- though his comic story had him very passiveley finding himself left behind rather than actively fleeing to the West in the 1980s. He and Kraft hit it off, not least in their embrace of the then still unpopular in Germany "ultra-free market economic and libertarian social political system modeled on the Anglo-Saxon variety" -- embraced by Ivan in his new-found role of Communist-system denouncing émigré that he hoped to ride to success, while Kraft seems to have adopt it because he saw it as a useful contrarian position to take, setting himself apart in his corner of academia.
       As throughout, actual conviction seems to have fairly little to do with any intellectual position the characters take -- perhaps also one reason Kraft has such a hard time with his essay. Ivan does wholeheartedly, even militantly, embrace the new faith, but it still seems like he does so more out of opportunism than anything else. Rhetoric-professor Kraft, meanwhile, seems devoid of actual beliefs, completely at intellectual and emotional sea -- though in no small part this is a reflection of that particular vacuity of neoliberalism that he has hitched his wagon to (and which now finds him on this road to nowhere).
       Kraft believes he has found an escape-hatch -- at least from his current familial situation -- with this contest and the prospect of its enormous cash prize. To be clear: Kraft really needs the money. He has not spent wisely, and he has more obligations than he can handle. The cash infusion, should he win the prize, not only buys him freedom from his wife and kids, but at least gives him a bit of breathing room (though one suspects it wouldn't be enough, or last long).
       Apparently, one of Kraft's problems has always been that: "Kraft had too little interest in money, had never had any interest, really". Certainly, his messy finances suggest as much. But of course, this also suggests that the particular route out he has pinned his hopes on -- a cash windfall -- won't really help with his more fundamental problems. Similarly, his embrace of neoliberalism, with its economic focus, surely was misguided: someone who doesn't care about money (and, indeed, is careless -- even if in a generous manner -- with it) probably shouldn't be promoting specific economic policies. Lüscher suggests that if Kraft had gone about it more practically, when deciding on a field for further study after getting his masters: "he could have had a brilliant career in economics"; instead: "he decided to pursue an ambitious double doctorate in German literature and philosophy" -- and look where that led.
       Lüscher's portrait of Kraft, built up in awkward and uncomfortable scenes from the past and present, -- Kraft really is a sad sack -- is quite well done, if perhaps a bit heavy on the pathetic-comic (very, very little goes right for Kraft). It is very much centered on Kraft, with his relationships with the women in his life somewhat underdeveloped, at least from their side; if not exactly flat, they (and their reasons for sticking it out with Kraft) remain rather mysterious. (This does, however, also reflect how mystified Kraft himself is by them (and his kids), and how he can't fathom why the women put up with him (and also then why they reject him).)
       Lüscher works quite well with underlying themes and concepts, which he has bobbing up across the novel and across Kraft's life, from the essay-subject to neat, small echoes -- such as having a much younger Kraft lose himself in old Knight Rider episodes when Ruth first abandons him only to then find himself listening to David Hasselhoff croon at the Berlin Wall when he is reunited with her, six years later. This sense of everything already being there from the beginning also manifests itself in the conclusion -- and not just the obvious one (that Kraft will not finish his essay). Having exhausted all his other options -- in the lazy, half-hearted way he has pursued them and failed at them --, Lüscher has his protagonist reach the point:
     Now, finally, Kraft knows what he has to do. It doesn't come in a flash, but rather as his recognizing a possibility that has accompanied him for a long time, perhaps his entire life.
        Lüscher stages it nicely, as practically every last piece of the novel that might have seemed stray at first -- here also a conversation with some young entrepreneurs about their latest app (one promising connectivity, something Kraft has always struggled to achieve and maintain) -- fits in as well. It's no great surprise for whom the bell tolls in the end -- though it's arguably a too neat and easy conclusion, very much a novel-conclusion. Still, as a way not to win the essay-competition and as a response to the set question it certainly makes a point.
       Kraft is a philosophical novel -- in his acknowledgements Lüscher mentions years spent on a failed philosophy dissertation, and notes: "some of the material I reflected on in my academic work has found its way into the novel at hand" -- and the narrative tone strongly tends towards the effectively dryly philosophical (with more than a touch of dry amusement to go with it). The hapless-comic can get to be a bit much, but the emotional distance of the voice and lack of any sentiment does help make that more palatable.
       Kraft does remain something of a cipher -- besides being an odd duck --, too-little tied into the everyday for the critique of the picture of contemporary society Lüscher is clearly also trying to present to really sit. In both the narrative and life, Kraft remains apart -- more obviously, even, as well as differently from the usual academic-in-his-ivory-tower (though Lüscher does embrace that idea as well, opening the novel with Kraft (not-)working in what amounts to a real academic (ivory) tower, the Hoover Tower). So also, for example, the critique of neoliberalism rings a bit hollow here in that Kraft is never presented as a really convinced devotee (much less the even more cartoonish Ivan's take on/to it).
       Kraft is a polished piece of work -- but that's not entirely a good thing: as all the running themes and imagery and practically everything else suggest, this is a very deliberately and carefully structured fiction -- a bit too obviously so. An ideal book-club or classroom text, but not necessarily quite as satisfying simply as such. But there's certainly enough to it to make for an intriguing and quite entertaining read, making for a reasonably successful work

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 October 2020

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Links:

Kraft: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature

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About the Author:

       Swiss author Jonas Lüscher was born in 1976.

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© 2020 the complete review

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