The House of Wittgenstein

Alexander Waugh wears his eccentricity proudly. After all, he descends from those Waughs: great-grandfather Arthur, the publisher and belletrist; granduncle Alec, world traveler and author of the hugely popular Island in the Sun (1956); and grandfather, Evelyn, one of the greatest comic novelists of modern times. And then, of course, there is his late father, Auberon, novelist, man of letters, and all around provocateur — an incorrigible wit whose work should be as well known here as it is in his native England. Alexander clearly doesn’t resent the family business. After a stint as a music critic and two modestly titled books, Time (1999) and God (2002), he chronicled the men in his family in Fathers and Sons (2004), a funny, unsentimental account both of the strange relation between generations of Waughs — especially Arthur and Evelyn — and of his own genuine affection for his dear dad, Bron.

All these family matters help explain Alexander’s latest book, The House of Wittgenstein, both for its interest in familial talent and torment and for its utterly eccentric focus. Those who regard Ludwig Wittgenstein as the greatest philosopher of our time, and therefore the most distinguished member of this strange brood, will be amazed to discover that Waugh’s well-written narrative mostly concerns Ludwig’s brother, Paul, a pianist famous for performing with his left hand only, after losing his right in World War I. But that gets ahead of the larger story. Waugh neatly summarizes previous accounts of the cosmopolitan milieu into which the Wittgenstein brothers — along with seven other siblings — were born: Vienna before the Great War. A city of wealth and culture, with writers and painters arguing art and politics in garrets and coffeehouses, Habsburg Vienna also claimed a distinguished musical history: Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert all lived there at some point. And music figures prominently in the lives of all the Wittgenstein siblings, not just the concert performer Paul.

The Wittgensteins weren’t just wealthy; they were, in Waugh’s words, “stupendously rich,” a fact made dramatic when we discover that the great composers of the time — Brahms, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, and Mahler — all attended concerts performed in the family’s palace, which was just one of a number they owned throughout Austria. The fortune derived from the entrepreneurship of patriarch Karl Wittgenstein (born in 1847), who considered himself a self-made man but actually began his empire with help from his wife’s trust fund. This mega-rich industrialist and his music-loving wife produced nine children, and thus begins one of the oddest family stories you will ever read, so tragic and full of death that only a few descendants exist today.

Suicide pervades this gloomy tale — sophisticated, angst-ridden young Viennese took their lives recklessly, much like the earlier wave of suicides inspired by Goethe’s Werther. Two of the Wittgenstein brothers, feeling parental pressure to enter the business, and also probably suffering from guilt over their homosexuality, took their own lives in their 20s; older brother Karl shot himself fatally in an unexplained incident at the end of the First World War. Tragedy also struck the family’s two talents: Ludwig served time as a POW in Italy, and Paul, having lost his arm in combat, was shipped to a much harsher camp in Siberia. In Waugh’s superb account, Paul emerged from this dreary circumstance and refashioned himself as an expert, if unusual, pianist. All the children were accomplished musicians, but before the war, Paul most hoped to make music a career. In the various prison camps, he maintained his sanity by developing and practicing his one-handed technique relentlessly on a makeshift keyboard. After he arrived safely back in Vienna, his family wealth allowed him to commission works especially written for the left hand. And some of the best composers accepted, however reluctantly: Erich Korngold, Paul Hindemith, Franz Schmidt, Sergei Prokofiev, and, with the piece that most endures, Maurice Ravel.

Paul’s concert career had more than a touch of the circus about it — often, his fans were less concerned with how well he performed than that he could perform at all. In postwar Vienna, where the family still maintained its reputation as patrons of the arts, Paul was often perceived as a wealthy dilettante. Waugh does great justice to the truth of his career, chronicling its highs and lows and, as a critic, giving a fair assessment of the works Paul commissioned. But readers will linger over Prokofiev’s judgment: “I don’t see any special talent in his left hand. It may be that his misfortune has turned out to be a stroke of good luck, for with only his left hand he is unique but maybe with both hands he would not have stood out from a crowd of mediocre pianists.” After the Second World War, safely in New York City, Paul distinguished himself as a piano teacher, and Waugh presents a full and engaging portrait of this peculiar old man and his life as a suburban bourgeois with two children and a wife half his age.

Which brings us to the second world-catastrophic intrusion into this family saga: the rise of Nazism. Raised in the Catholic faith, the Wittgenstein clan indulged in its share of anti-Semitism. So it was quite a surprise — especially to the naive sisters — to find that they were in fact Jewish by Hitlerian standards. Waugh digs deeply into the intricate machinations by which two of the three sisters — one was an American citizen by then — were given mischling (half-breed) status, which allowed them to avoid being shipped to the camps. Fortunately, most of the family wealth was held in Swiss gold, and coveted by the Germans. A complex deal was struck by which much of the family’s remaining assets, already diminished between the wars, nevertheless bought the women’s safety.

What about Ludwig? His story, best told in Ray Monk’s excellent biography, here becomes a study in weirdness. Waugh rehearses every negative thing he can find about Ludwig’s odd behavior, much of which readers will already know — the asceticism, his suicidal tendencies, his homosexuality. Inspired by Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief — a redaction by the equally abstemious Russian — Ludwig continually felt the need to renounce his wealth, change his identity, and reconsider his career. He taught school, worked as a gardener, and dabbled at architecture. But there was no escaping his true talent as a philosopher, a genius recognized by Bertrand Russell and his distinguished British colleagues.

And here’s where Waugh goes astray. A true contrarian in the family fashion, he mocks Ludwig’s self-agonizing and suggests that his Cambridge followers were duped by his enigmatic writings, which few readers, Waugh suggests, really understood. In the same spirit, let me just say that’s nonsense, pure and simple. And you don’t have to be an academic philosopher to appreciate the concision of Wittgenstein’s thought, the brilliant clarity of expression. Waugh stoops a bit low, too, when he suggests a few nasty rumors about Ludwig’s behavior and then supports these charges in his notes with references to a novel and a play about Ludwig!

No matter. I’d expect nothing less from a Waugh. Can you imagine Evelyn or Auberon admiring the gnomic Viennese genius? Not that commonsensical clan. In any case, this is a remarkable book, breezy in its way and never morbid despite all the tragedy. If anything, it demonstrates yet again the wisdom of Tolstoy: every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. And this one in spades.