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World As I Found It Unknown Binding – 1987
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When Duffy wrote this novel in 1987, there had yet to be a biography of Wittgenstein's life (now there are two). But Duffy was drawn to Wittgenstein's persistent aim to comprehend how facts (and pictures of facts) and words refer to actual "things" in the world, and puzzled by how statements of fact don't relate to reality. It is these indeterminacies that lead to distortions of communication (I find that these concerns, however invisible or unknown, are the fundamentals of many misapprehensions between people). Logistic and linguistic conundrums plagued Wittgenstein his whole life; he dwelled in his logic problems to the point of despondency.
Russell: "He himself had worked WITH logic, but until Wittgenstein, he had never had the sense of someone locked INSIDE logic, struggling to escape like Houdini shackled inside a trunk. For Wittgenstein, logic was not merely a problem, it was the problem OF HIS LIFE."
Moore and Russell could distinguish their scholarly aims from their personal lives, at least enough to pursue other goals and distractions.
Duffy brings these three distinct personalities to life with an almost impressionistic brio, yet as credible portraits based on his research. Sure, he changed some facts and dates, and invented and imagined and created others. But, factual accuracy and putative recreations of concrete events aren't what is relevant or brilliant about this book. I did read Ray Monk's bio, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, but Duffy's book gave me an even deeper understanding of Wittgenstein's melancholia--as well as Russell's egotism, and Moore's passivity--and their relationship to the world as they lived it.
This book is evidence that novels can often convey more truth than non-fiction can. And how much of Monk's bios of Russell and Wittgenstein are "truth?" Information still had to be culled, predicated, and assumed from secondary sources. Plus, if you wrote a biography of your own life, how much would be accurate? It is amazing what the fallibility of memory and subjectivity can activate, deactivate, and twist. Memories are intangible, and chronicles derived from memories are often unreliable. More importantly, fact and truth are two different concepts.
If you are looking for facts, read dry testimonies. Duffy made tangible the world that these men lived in through the elegant dialectics of language, and by running recondite wires through luminous emotional sockets. He assimilates and entwines fact and fiction, and takes part in shaping ideas. Ideas shape history. These three philosophers comprehended a solitary truth, that we tend to view life from the inside, "peering out through crabstalk eyes."
Of the three men, it was Russell who achieved the most fame. Duffy penetrates the hollow halls of hallowed erudition, however, to illuminate the vanity and speciousness of celebrity. For example, Russell's best work was behind him by the time he got famous. He was resting largely on his laurels, or cynically penning slogans out of his treatises that were churned out daily in the newspapers. He craved popularity and was instrumental in politicizing his ideas. His Nobel Prize was more of a lifetime achievement award, and Russell knew it. Russell was jealous of Wittgenstein's superior talents, for his lofty morals, for his intractable nature, and scorned Moore's "lack of vanity."
The World War I combat scenes with Wittgenstein were expressed so vividly and psychologically brutal that I could hear the reports of weapons and smell the carnage. And the hand-to-hand combat scenes were so palpable and gritty, so thoroughly scorching, that I felt and heard bones crushing next to my body. Duffy's images are seared into you; it is more like inhabiting Wittgenstein than reading about him. But even more searing than the Austrian battlefield was the battlefield at home, and his relationship with a tyrannical father. The deathbed scenes between Wittgenstein and his father are blistering, harrowing, unrivaled by any other literary account of mortal curtains.
This is my ideal book, one that falls in the category of "Desert Island" reads. The narrative inseminates space, knocks down walls, opens windows to the world. It induced a chemical reaction in me, reminiscent of the verbal, labyrinthine stretches of tripping on hallucinogens. This book is manna and mojo for my deepest reader demands and desires.
In his magnificent introduction to the NYRB edition, David Leavitt hails Duffy's foray into biographical fiction as opening the door to many similar novels published later, such as Pat Barker's REGENERATION (about Siegfried Sassoon) and Penelope Fitzgerald's THE BLUE FLOWER (Novalis). He might also have added his own THE INDIAN CLERK, about the mathematician Ramanujan, which also depicts Cambridge in those heady years before the War and contains many of the same characters. For one of the things that Duffy does especially well (especially for someone who had barely visited Europe at the time) is to fill out the settings and the dramatis personae quite thoroughly. So we get wonderful portraits of Vienna at the height of its cultural hegemony, and of the dining tables and debating societies of Cambridge where the important discussions take place. We meet Wittgenstein's talented but tragic family (three of his brothers committed suicide) and a whole gallery of the English intellectual elite: Bertrand Russell, GE Moore, Lytton Strachey, Lady Ottoline Morrell, and many many others. And all in language that is always vivid and often surprising. Here is Wittgenstein, for instance, in the Viennese Prater, contemplating the possibility of some rough trade: "No, Wittgenstein did not have to go as far as the firs that day. The point was to go just far enough to singe himself without tasting, to smudge his nose against the window of that world." What a superb phrase!
Duffy never does follow Wittgenstein into the firs; he prefers to hint at the possibility. But he cannot follow Wittgenstein very far into the forests of his soul either. Perhaps part of the reason he spends so much time on the secondary characters is that the primary one is so unknowable. Wittgenstein is impressive in his brilliance and his absolute refusal to make an intellectual compromise even as a social nicety. But he is sculpted from granite and snow. Russell, by contrast, is much more colorful, more the stuff of novels, with his outspoken views on marriage, his philandering, his pacifism, and his general readiness to accept the role of public intellectual. There are many times when he simply eclipses his younger colleague. But I never get any sense of his own greatness; out of interest, I looked at a bit of Russell's vast, systematic and well-nigh opaque PRINCIPIA MATHEMATICA, and could see almost no connection between the author of that magnum opus and Duffy's portrait. Similarly, I finished the book with only the vaguest notion of what Wittgenstein actually said. I admit, though, that when it comes to philosophy I am virtually tone-deaf, so the fact that Duffy could keep me returning eagerly to his book over an exceptionally busy three-week span is testament in itself. His ability to connect heaven to earth, the universe of ideas to the world of everyday life, and to do so over such a turbulent swath of history, is a small miracle.