Thursday, 7 April 2011

Bruce Duffy: The World As I Found It

Finished this earlier this week, Bruce Duffy's novelisation of the life of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore, and enjoyed it so much I'm now diving into the real thing, sort of. Or rather, slowly: now on Ray Monk's How to Read Wittgenstein. There's enough quotes of Wittgenstein himself in the Monk, so almost there. Next, as recommended by a friend of mine, I'll try Wittgenstein's Culture and Value, apparently aphoristic nuggets on music, literature and assorted cultural topics. Not sure how that sits with the understanding I have of his philosophy, whereby "What can be said can be said clearly; and wherefore one cannot speak thereof one must be silent", but I'm very much a novice at this stage, led - kindly and with much patience - by Monk's helpful hand.

But first to Duffy's book. Written in 1987, The World As I Found It follows the relationship between the three aforementioned philosophers, from the turn of the century through two world wars and various philosophical upheavals. The focus is mostly on Wittgenstein, whose life was certainly the oddest and most deserving of fiction, although Russell's comes a decent second. With Wittgenstein we learn of his tyrannical father and his multiple suicide brothers, the family's position in Viennese high society, his problematic relationship with his Jewish past. Duffy was particularly good at setting the scene of fin-de-siecle Vienna, surely a fascinating period, of which I'd be interested to learn more - perhaps from Allan S Janik's Wittgenstein's Vienna. Contemporary Cambridge is equally well drawn, particuarly the air of intellectual squabble taking place between Russell and Moore, and Russell and the arrogant fops that hang off Russell's mistress Ottoline.

Wittgenstein's life and career(s) remains the focus of the book however, from his academic beginnings in Cambridge through the trenches of WWI, school teaching in the backwoods of rural Austria, architecture (touched on very briefly here) and his odd later years. All of this is expertly handled by Duffy and I was hooked throughout. I'd like to learn more of the house he built for his sister Gretl in Vienna, now the Bulgarian Embassy.
This clearly corresponds to The Cone in Bernhard's Correction, and readers of that book will see many other connections between Wittgenstein and Roithamer, and I'll be reading Bernhard's Wittgenstein's Nephew too. I was disappointed that Max, Wittgenstein's savant-like friend, was not a real figure, so well is he depicted, but the conclusion gave that fact away. Knowing nothing of Wittgenstein I think was an advantage, as I might have been frustrated with Duffy's use of facts where and when it pleased him, but, as he eloquently states in the book's postscript, he ably demonstrates his decision which, given Wittgenstein's interest in such issues, seems an appropriate approach. Duffy is currently completing a similar "fictional biography" on the life of Rimbaud which I am anxious to read.
I also intend to read more of the How To Read Series. Monk is a brilliant guide, having also written the first biography of Wittgenstein, which incidentally came a year or so after Duffy's biographical novel, amazed it took so long, given his life! Anyway, this seems a better introductory series than the idiots guides and whatnot, so you look less like an idiot, while remaining sufficiently an idiot as to need help accessing the genuine article.

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