Lars Iyer, Wittgenstein JR, book review: Sharp take on college years


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Ludwig Wittgenstein has found his way into fiction before.

David Foster Wallace, for one, was an obsessive. But here, unusually, we see the man himself take the stand. The philosopher at the front of the undergraduate classroom at Cambridge doesn’t exactly resemble the Austrian logician – he’s taller, fatter and speaks without an accent – but he “has a Wittgenstein aura”, his students agree. And his sometimes despairing pursuit of the end of philosophy provides the frame for Lars Iyer’s first novel since his cult Spurious trilogy, one which is equal parts coming-of-age story and meditation on the nature of thought itself.

We get to know Wittgenstein’s students over the course of their college years. Ede is the heir to a duchy. Mulberry is a promiscuous death-fetishist. The Kirwin twins are athletes of a sort that might have constituted the ideal for a Cambridge student in centuries past – their tragedy “is that there’s no war for them to die in”. And Peters, our narrator, is there to observe ketamine overdoses, aborted love affairs with rich hippies called Phaedra, Saturday night dance-offs and walks on the College Backs in a university town increasingly given over to the demands of modern capital.

Iyer retains the broken-up delivery of his earlier novels, with “chapters” ranging from a handful of lines to a couple of pages, but no longer, focusing on a single interaction, or event, or train of thought.

Time, and sometimes months worth of it, passes in the unwritten spaces between a party scene and a musing from Wittgenstein on his great philosophical project.

Dark humour soaks through the novel, jousting and co-existing with existential despair.

Iyer can drag the lofty Wittgenstein and his project into farce, not least with the golem he raises to fill in for the real philosophical giant.

But he can also drag the most deadly seriousness out of the sometimes pathetic and absurd burbling of the undergrads and their teacher, who imagines “shoals of dons” careening around Cambridge until “their wings hide the skies”. 

A philosophy professor by trade himself, Iyer’s work proposes a visibly different sort of British literature to that which dominates the discourse. You won’t find Wittgenstein Jr on many longlists, but the author has set an alternative path for himself, producing books you can read in an afternoon but think about for a year.

Wittgenstein JR by Lars Iyer (Melville House £12.99)