The House of Wittgenstein

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

To most people, the name Wittgenstein calls to mind Ludwig, whom Alexander Waugh calls the “tortured, incomprehensible” philosopher, in his new family biography, The House of Wittgenstein. If you are not also aware that the Wittgensteins were one of the wealthiest, and most troubled, Viennese clans of the late Hapsburg Empire, Waugh (grandson of Evelyn and chronicler of his own family drama in Fathers and Sons) is here to tell you about it.

Waugh’s book is a brisk cavalcade of gossipy anecdotes. A welter of generations and siblings is quickly simplified, since so many family members eliminate themselves from the book by suicide. This allows Waugh to focus on Ludwig, whose possible homosexual tendencies are a mere footnote to his deeper flightiness, and particularly on his brother Paul—who, despite losing an arm in World War I, successfully persevered in his career as a pianist. Though a couple of the Wittgenstein sisters come off as relatively sensible, Waugh depicts virtuallay everyone as riddled with neuroses. He writes with labored snideness—simultaneously lingering over the clan’s opulent lifestyle and disparaging their endeavors as the indulgences of the overprivileged—and saddles even the most peripheral figures with spiteful epithets (“semideaf seductress” Alma Mahler, “horse-faced” Ottoline Morrell).

It’s hard to know why Waugh thought this subject worth all of his assiduous information-gathering. His potential audience would seem to be readers who have an appreciation of Ludwig’s philosophy or a genuine interest in Paul’s musical accomplishments—or who are just intellectually curious. They are poorly served by this gossip-mag treatment, which is not quite dripping with contempt for the Wittgensteins, merely moist with it.—Jonathan Taylor

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By Alexander Waugh. Doubleday, $28.95.