The House of Wittgenstein, by Alexander Waugh

The art of survival in a damaged dynasty
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The Independent Culture

One can understand why Alexander Waugh, himself a scion of a famous family, should have been interested in the Wittgenstein dynasty of Vienna. But the correct analogy for this ill-starred sept is surely the house of Atreus. The multi-millionaire Karl Wittgenstein, an iron and steel magnate, fathered nine children, one of whom died in her first month. The eight survivors were singularly unhappy, prone to cancers and all neurotic at the very least; most of them undoubtedly crossed the border into psychosis.

Hermine, the eldest child, was a repressed spinster who dabbled amateurishly in painting. Gretl, the youngest daughter, fell prey to an American wastrel who married her for money. She was sexually frigid and consulted psychoanalysts about her problems, which were compounded when her schizoid husband lost all her money in the 1929 Wall Street crash.

Waugh claims that Gretl was the warmest, kindest and most humorous Wittgenstein, but also the bossiest, most ambitious and worldly. The most normal was Helene, who married a civil servant. But it is the brothers who really fascinate Waugh. Three committed suicide, and Waugh is good on the cult of self-slaughter in fin-de-siècle Vienna after the famous suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf and his mistress at Mayerling in 1889.

That leaves the concert pianist Paul and the philosopher Ludwig as the core of Waugh's excellent book. Paul lost his right arm in the First World War and survived the horrors of Siberia as a prisoner of war until his influential family pulled strings to get him repatriated. He spent the vast fortune inherited from Karl in payment to famous composers (Ravel, Prokofiev, Korngold, Richard Strauss) to persuade them to write concerti for the left hand. Some of these episodes read like black comedy by Flann O'Brien. Paul took the line that because he had bought these works, he had the right to bowdlerise them as he saw fit.

Predictably, his relations with the composers were tense, not aided by his prima donna antics. Because classical music is Waugh's great love, it is not surprising he finds Paul by far the most interesting of the Wittgensteins. He claims that Paul was a first-rate pianist, though the consensus seems to be that he was guilty of distortions in his playing and did not allow a composer's music to speak for itself.

Even when discussing the arcana of musical composition Waugh is never boring. His narrative of Paul's struggles with the Nazis in 1930s Austria is a genuine page-turner. By sheer cussedness Paul managed to safeguard his sisters, in effect being held as hostages in Austria (he was in Switzerland), while ceding to the Nazis only a small portion of his fortune.

For most people, the name Wittgenstein invariably denotes the philosopher Ludwig, a mad loner even in his relations with his family. Gretl loathed him with a visceral detestation, while Paul, as a devotee of Schopenhauer, despised his philosophical speculations and felt uneasy about his homosexuality (the erratic Paul was a great womaniser).

Waugh is remarkably even-handed about Ludwig, and takes no sides in the "genius or charlatan?" debate, though one can discern a subtextual dislike. He is even prepared to admit that Ludwig might have been a Soviet agent – a possibility the still-influential claque of Wittgenstein worshippers tend to wave away.

Ludwig, a tortured individual who thought about suicide almost daily, was deeply influenced by Tolstoy and his gospel of Christian renunciation. It became his fervent desire to be as simple as a peasant. At this psychological level his decision to abandon the philosophy of analysis (as in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) in favour of the insipid and desiccated banality of "ordinary language philosophy" (in his late work Philosophical Investigations) should be sought. The only weakness in Waugh's fine book is that he does not seek to discover why the charlatanry of the late Wittgenstein was embraced by a whole generation of linguistic philosophers, rather as the myth of the Soviet Union was swallowed by intellectuals in the 1930s.

Waugh seems bored by philosophy, and if late Wittgenstein is at issue, who can blame him? But his book in general is marvellous, a sharp combination of some formidable scholarship in the German sources with a wonderful eye for absurdity. This is a magnificently refreshing and invigorating volume which deserves a wide readership.

Frank McLynn's latest book is 'Warriors' (BBC Books)