Thursday, 17 April 2014

The House of Wittgenstein

This book was recommended to me by my cousin on New Year, and it had been lying on my to-read pile for a while. I knew this book was going to take a while to read, so I only started after I’d had a week of free time. I was about five books ahead of schedule, and even with all that head start I needed to quickly read The Terrible thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket so I remained on my reading schedule: that’s how long this book took me.

If I give you the impression that I thought the novel was boring with this introduction, you’re mistaken. The House of Wittgenstein is a loosely chronological non-fiction biography about the Wittgensteins. You must have heard of the youngest member, Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher. The rest of his family was just as brilliant though. Ludwig’s brother Paul, who was the closest to his age, was a pianist who lost his right arm during the First World War but continued being a brilliant pianist nonetheless, practicing up to nine hours a day. Hans, the oldest son, was brilliant and odd; the first word he ever spoke was ‘Oedipus’. He went missing in America without any trace. Of the nine children, two committed suicide (one to save his honour in World War One, the other poisoned himself in grief at the death of a friend), and one was stillborn. Together with Hans’s disappearance this caused quite some tension at the house (scratch that: palace) of the Wittgensteins. Their mother was constantly on edge, and it is only when she was playing music that she seemed relaxed; this might explain why all her children share such a passion for music. Apart from playing music and entertaining composers and musicians at their house (palace), they also collected manuscripts by the most famous composers like Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and many others. In fact, I got the impression that when during the Second World War, when the Nazis were convinced they were Jewish and on those grounds tried to take as many valuable objects away from the Wittgenstein family as they could, that it were the manuscripts that they tried to save above all else. Some were hastily buried or hidden in garden sheds whilst another servant shoved a vase or an antique piece of furniture under the greedy nose of the inspector.
There are many other anecdotes that are just as fascinating about this family, but it’s hard to choose. Eventually it all ends at the end of the Second World War, with the remaining siblings fighting over money and politics, until they eventually all die of different kinds of cancer.

What is interesting about this book is that it took Paul Wittgenstein as its focal point instead of the much more famous sibling and philosopher Ludwig. Ludwig seems to have been quite a distant character, trying to live a sober life as a teacher after reading Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief. Descriptions of his friends at Cambridge depict him as an extraordinary philosopher with utterly unintelligible theories. Compared to that, Paul does seem to be a more obvious choice. He stayed in Vienna for a large part of his life, yet travelled all over the world thanks to his reputation as a musician. He wasn’t particularly close to his siblings – but truly, none of them were, for they fought easily unless there were friends present to dull the tension.

This is a book that I would recommend to anyone who likes history, non-fiction or classical music. I would not recommend it if you were solely looking for more information on Ludwig, but truly, the rest of his family is just as interesting.

Until next time,


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