The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War, By Alexander Waugh

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The Independent Culture

Waugh writes with an historian's eye for detail and a novelist's gift for evocation. It is December 1913, a day filled with cold sunshine, and in the evening a mist spreads from the Carpathian mountains down to the rolling hills and verdant lowlands. It is a day of excruciating tension for 26-year-old Paul Wittgenstein, for he is to give his concert debut. He is unable to control his nerves and he is seen bashing the walls with his fists, tearing up his music, and hurling furniture across the room before walking on stage.

There are tensions of quite a different variety than stage fright which course through the lives of those who populate this book – the incendiary tensions wrought by family life. Indeed, Paul's younger brother Ludwig is not there to see the performance, for he has moved to a tiny village in Norway in order to escape the pressure cooker of the family.

Waugh skilfully traces the trajectory of these lives, such as Karl Wittgenstein's rise from rebellious American barman to multimillionaire Austrian steel magnate, and in so doing, elucidates the pain behind the performance; the tragedy fuelling the talent.