An extraordinary family saga

Sat, Nov 29, 2008, 00:00

BIOGRAPHYThe philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who found refuge in Ireland, came from a dynasty that was wealthy, talented and tragic The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at WarBy Alexander Waugh Bloomsbury, 366pp. £20

ONE OF THE lonelier exhibits in the greenhouse of the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin is a small metal plaque: "Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), Viennese philosopher, stayed in Dublin in the winter of 1948-1949, and liked to sit and write on these steps."

It was not the first time members of the Wittgenstein family sought to come in from the cold. In his absorbing account of the troubled dynasty, Alexander Waugh relates how Ludwig's older brother, Paul, was captured on the Russian front in the first World War, and incarcerated in the notorious Krepost in Siberia, the dungeon that had previously housed the exiled Dostoyevsky.

Paul had more than Arctic wastes to contend with. An outstanding concert pianist, he had made his concert debut in 1913, taking the daring risk of featuring works by "the inebriate Irish composer John Field". Destined for a career as a virtuoso, his future was blasted by an explosion in military action, which shattered his right arm. In Siberia, he marked out a piano keyboard with charcoal on an empty crate and began perfecting the left-handed technique that transformed him into the most famous one-armed pianist of the 20th century. On release, he was transferred to the communications office in army command, where fellow officers were astounded to discover he could type faster with one hand than they could with two.

At the outbreak of the Great War, Ludwig had already established his reputation as a wayward genius in the rarefied philosophical circles of Cambridge that revolved around Bertrand Russell. Volunteering for military action against his former British allies, he was decorated several times for valour before his eventual capture in Italy. In his satchel he was carrying the manuscript of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), perhaps the most explosive philosophical treatise of the 20th century.

The House of Wittgenstein is very much the tale of two remarkable brothers but as with the James family (Henry and William, not Jesse and Frank), the other siblings have more than a walk-on part. The Wittgensteins were one of the wealthiest families in Europe in the early 20th century, and their home in Vienna was a ferment of cultural activity, amassing extraordinary collections of art, musical manuscripts and objets d'art. Gretl Stonborough, older sister of Paul and Ludwig, was the subject of one of Gustav Klimt's richly brocaded paintings, and in the mid-1920s, commissioned Ludwig (not known as an architect) to design a stark modernist mansion for her in Vienna, an architectural masterpiece that is now the home of the Bulgarian Embassy.

Such splendour barely concealed the dark forces at work in the culture that gave birth to Freud's theory of the unconscious - and to fascism.

Three of Ludwig's and Paul's brothers took their own lives and such notes of harmony as were to be found in the family came from music. Brahms, Richard Strauss and Mahler were frequent visitors to the household and when Paul embarked on his career as a one-armed pianist, he used his considerable fortune to commission more than 20 pieces of music for the left hand from distinguished composers such as Ravel, Prokofiev, Franz Schmidt and Britten. Such was his mastery in subsequent concert performances that critics were divided over whether one could tell he was playing with one hand or not - or whether this should even be an issue.

IT WAS IN FACT the vast family fortune that proved the downfall of the family. Ludwig had renounced his considerable share of the inheritance, placing it in various trusts and foundations that, helped to support the literary careers of Rilke and Trakl, among others. The rest of the family capitalised on their immense holdings and the centrepiece of Waugh's skilfully braided biography is devoted to a labyrinthine story of intrigue and treachery, reminiscent of the shadowy settings of The Third Man, in which the Wittgensteins attempted desperately to save their lives - and their fortunes - from the Nazis.

Though the children were raised as Catholics over two generations, the fact that three of the grandparents were Jewish was sufficient to doom the family - were it not for their vast wealth, art collections that included Monet, Picasso, Matisse, and Modigliani, and musical archives that included manuscripts of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. The Nazis needed the consent of individual members to get their filthy hands on the lucre in overseas banks and one of the few loopholes under the Nuremburg laws was a trace of Aryan ancestry due to illegitimacy. A suspicion over the Jewish blood of one of the Wittgenstein grandparents was discovered (or fabricated) and, due to the machinations of the redoubtable Gretl, Hitler had to take time off on the eve of his invasion of Poland to sign a form declaring the family to be Mischling (half-breeds). As a schoolboy in Linz decades earlier Hitler had developed his hatred of Jews; among his fellow pupils, sharing a school photograph and looking equally lost, was the young Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Not least of the ironies of Waugh's compelling account is that the thinker who did most to re-integrate the mystery of the ordinary back into philosophy, Ludwig Wittgenstein, was the most extraordinary of individuals, coming from an equally extraordinary family. Fighting against depression and the early symptoms of prostate cancer, Ludwig took refuge in both Dublin and Connemara in the late 1940s to complete his second masterwork, Philosophical Investigations (1952). Bewley's was one of his favourite haunts, as was the zoo and, of course, the Botanic Gardens. On his 62nd birthday, a few days before he died at the house of his doctor in Cambridge, the doctor's wife, Mrs Bevan, wished him "Many happy returns!".

"There will be no returns," he answered. There was not much happiness, either, over the turbulent years of the house of Wittgenstein.


Luke Gibbons is Keough Family Professor of Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. He is preparing his new book, Joyce's Ghosts, for publication