Jonathan Mirsky

No love lost

The House of Wittengenstein, by Alexander Waugh

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The House of Wittengenstein

Alexander Waugh

Bloomsbury, pp. 366, £

It has been famously written, and often observed, that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Never was this truer than in the case of the Wittgensteins, who were also, some of them, crazy. I take notes in books for review and in this one I wrote ‘nuts’ 23 times. Ludwig, the famous philosopher, was merely the craziest. Three of his brothers killed themselves, and he often considered suicide — insofar as anything he said can be taken seriously. Almost everything he wrote, about which there have been countless decryptions, defies normal understanding. Take the epigraph of Alexander Waugh’s family biography, drawn from Ludwig’s On Certainty: ‘There are an enormous number of general empirical propositions that count as certainty for us. One such is that if someone’s arm is cut off it will not grow again.’ When I read that my heart sank. What does this mean? What is it doing as an epigraph?

Surrounded by the fortune assembled by their none-too-scrupulous father and their well-to-do mother, the brothers and sisters lived in a monstrous Viennese palace. The siblings got along with each other only when listening to music in the special hall where famous composers like Brahms and celebrated performers attended or played in the concerts. The family accumulated paintings — by Monet and Picasso for example — as well as manuscripts of some of the most famous music ever composed, including one of my favourite Schubert songs, ‘The Trout’.

If the Wittgensteins hadn’t been so rich, and if they hadn’t included the notorious Ludwig, admired by Bertrand Russell, who admitted he didn’t understand what this exotic Austrian was saying, I doubt if Alexander Waugh would have put in the enormous, meticulous effort involved in his comprehensively sourced book.

The Wittgensteins couldn’t bear each other except, as I have noted, when music was playing. The sisters were neurotic, withdrawn, dissatisfied, and endlessly involved in trying to keep the family together or at least amiable, while usually unable to make the effort themselves when some of their brothers were nearby.

Much of the book is about Paul, Ludwig’s brother, who lost an arm fighting in the Great War. For some years he achieved fame playing one-handed compositions with some of the greatest conductors of the age, on both sides of the Atlantic. Pieces were written for him by Ravel, Prokofiev, and Britten — with all of whom he quarrelled, although because he paid handsomely they couldn’t turn him down. A one-armed pianist asked if he could play some of Paul’s commissioned works.He refused: ‘You don’t build a house just so someone else can live in it. I commissioned and paid for the works, the whole idea was mine, and they are to remain mine as long as I still perform in public.’ When one of his sisters was dying in Vienna, where Paul was giving a concert, he didn’t visit her. By the time he died, his talent, which seems to have rested in part on his platform manner, had deteriorated.

Like many of the upper-bourgeois Viennese the Wittgensteins disliked Jews. This was known, Waugh writes, as ‘gentlemanly anti-semitism’. The grand- father refused to allow his children to marry Jews; the father claimed that ‘in matters of honour one does not consult a Jew’; Paul and Ludwig’s sister, the neurotic Hermine, believed the ‘Aryan and Jewish races are diametrically opposed as regards merits and deficiencies’. Paul, like his father, insisted that ‘dishonesty lies at the heart of every Jew’, while Ludwig ‘compared the Jewish people to a Beule in Austrian society. Beule means anything from ‘pustule’ to ‘swelling’. Waugh says Wittgenstein scholars ‘have been squabbling among themselves’ about just the right definition.

Waugh himself suggests that ‘out of the context of their time, judged by today’s standards, the family’s attitude towards the Jews would be considered questionable’.On the contrary, even in the context of that time, plenty of people despised such views.

But it is exactly those ‘gentlemanly’ attitudes that failed to save the Wittgensteins, once the Nazis had taken over Austria — where they were warmly welcomed. The Wittgensteins were immediately classified as Jews because a remote ancestor had been Jewish enough to be defined as a Jew according to the Nazi classification laws. As Waugh points out:

It was a typical symptom of the craziness of Nazi party policy that in June 1938 the future security of one man, his daughters, his siblings, his nephews, nieces and cousins all hung in the balance, all dependent upon who slept with whom way back in 1802.

I’m not sure Waugh intends this ironically, but the fascinating part of his book is taken up with the strenuous efforts of the Wittgenstein siblings to get themselves reclassified as non-Jews. Of course, because the Nazis were gangsters above all, in exchange for ‘racial’ reclassification they demanded the family’s money, pictures and manuscripts. They were worth many millions in today’s money. In the end, after much manoeuvring, the efforts of slimy lawyers, and of the dogged sisters in particular, Hitler himself signed the final document, which may have saved some Wittgensteins from the gas chambers. I confess that I laughed out loud when I read the words of the directive, dated 30 August 1939, ‘which rests in turn upon an order issued by the Führer that their racial classification within the meaning of the Reich Citizenship Act should present no further difficulties’. The ‘gentlemanly anti-semitic’ Wittgensteins were now Mischlings — half-breeds. q

No life of quiet desperation for Ansel Adams (1902-84). He was at his happiest tramping around the sublime countryside of the American West, with a camera and tripod strapped to his back, taking photographs of the mountains, canyons, rivers, forests and clouds he met along the way.

And what photographs they are! Their warmth and fine detail are testament to Adams’ unique methods, as well as to his ability to look beyond the surface of things and offer up new visions of old subjects. Much like Walt Whitman’s poetry, they sing: this is America, it is electric.

120 of Adams’ finest works are collated in Quercus’ handsome new volume. It passes the major test for any Adams collection — the pages are massive, giving plenty of room to his dramatic compositions. And it also includes a series of elegant annotations by Lauris Morgan-Griffiths. 

Short of going to an exhibition, there are few finer ways to see the world as Adams saw it.

Ansell Adams: Landscapes of the American West by Lauris Morgan-Griffiths (Quercus, £25, pp. 223, £16.99, ISBN 9781847245021)

Peter Hoskin

There’s nothing tremendous, startling, or even revelatory about Haruki Murakami’s latest book. The whole exercise is too pointedly modest for that. But it’s a likeable and often rewarding excursion into the writer’s experiences as a runner.

It’s also, perhaps inevitably, about Murakami’s life as a writer, since for him, the two are neatly intertwined. So much so that he claims to have come to regard running as ‘both exercise and metaphor’.

Cheesy metaphors are the stock-in-trade of the self-improvement industry, and so it is perhaps inevitable that Murakami takes the opportunity to dish out more than a few life-lessons. ‘On the highway of life, you can’t always be in the fast lane’, is one unfortunate example. But it’s not all so bad, and in fact, as a pep-talk (perhaps I was in need of one) I found this book pretty effective.

It helps that Murakami is such a clean, transparent, seemingly i ngenuous writer. This book, mostly written between mid-2005 and late 2006 (although it includes two excerpts from previously published magazine articles) comments on the importance of perseverance, the attractions of solitude and the benefits of being independent-minded.

But Murakami is refreshingly free from pushiness and, on the whole, reluctant to generalise. He doubts, for instance, the role of willpower in people’s achievements. In his experience, people just continue doing what they like doing. He likes running. And he likes writing: the stamina he needs for both comes from the liking, not from an imported act of will. But if you like what you are doing, you can tell yourself to go about it in a certain way, and much of this book details the writer’s own habits and preparations.

Murakami is in his fifties. He admits to putting on weight easily. Running helps him keep trim. Is he obsessive about it? I would usually categorise anyone who habitually runs marathons (not to mention ultramarathons and triathlons) as obsessive, so yes. But Murakami manages to make the whole thing seem pretty ordinary.

Still, he is aware that, among writers at least, running at this level makes him a rare bird. Generally, he says, ‘I run in a void’. Contrary to many people’s assumptions, it is not time he uses for thinking. But he admits there is an emotional aspect to it: he is not above running away frustration, hurt and anger.

He gives several detailed descriptions of races, not omitting various painful and even humiliating experiences. These can be great fun. During one race, for instance, ‘a tiny old lady around 70 or so passed me and shouted out, “Hang in there!” Man alive.’

But I found myself warming to the book most during passages that felt like obiter dicta: brief descriptions of luminous days by Boston’s Charles River watching pretty Harvard girls in training; and of the writer’s other life, his travels, his current projects, and so on.

Believing himself a physical, rather than a cerebral, person, Murakami is particularly good on the link between physicality and understanding. Writing novels, he says, requires a balance between imaginative power and the physical abilities that sustain it. This physical aspect of creative writing ‘requires far more energy … over a long period, than most people ever imagine’.

As far as appropriated titles go, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running does not strike me as the most felicitous. But for those who don’t know, the reference — gratuitous, as far as I can tell — is to Raymond Carver’s short story, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. (Murakami is an avowed fan of Carver and has translated his stories into Japanese.)

Towards the end, Murakami reflects on the winding-down of his running capabilities, which is nicely handled, although once or twice he slips into the kind of demented competitive sports drivel you’d think he’d be above (‘There are three reasons I failed. Not enough training. Not enough training. And not enough training. That’s it in a word.’) Never mind. This is, for the most part, a concise and enlivening little volume.