"Wittgenstein's Mistress" is a complex novel of simple sentences in short paragraphs describing thoughts that are all over the maps of history, the arts and the world itself. Presumably, the novel's structure is inspired by Wittgenstein's "Tractatus," a series of short propositions, sub-propositions, sub-sub etc. presented in a logical sequence culminating in the final proposition, "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." Similarly, the narrator of "Wittgenstein's Mistress," a one-time artist who has come to believe she is completely alone in the world, presents a series of short descriptions of whatever pops into her head as she's typing. Places, people, works of art, episodes of history give rise to anecdotes, apocrypha and tid-bits about other places, people, etc -often inaccurate but always illuminating both our world and hers.
The narrator forms this jumble of information into innumerable weirdly wonderful, laugh-out-loud syntheses. For example, a story that Rembrandt's students painted on his studio's floor images of gold coins, which Rembrandt would stoop to pick up no matter how often the trick was repeated, leads to the recollection that Rembrandt eventually had to declare financial bankruptcy. The narrator then combines these two anecdotes with the fact that Rembrandt lived in Amsterdam as a contemporary of the philosopher Spinoza to produce an imagined conversation between the two famous men in a corner shop. " `Oh, hi, Rembrandt. How's the bankruptcy?' `Fine, Spinoza. How's the excommunication?' "
Sprinkled among these fractured observations are obscure hints as to how and why the narrator has reached the point of what can only be madness. As the insights into her personal history increase in the final pages of the book, a repetitious list of seemingly haphazard commentaries on largely external matters becomes ever more personal. By the time it concludes with its four beautifully poetic lines, the book has created a deep, disquieting pathos made all the more poignant by the narrator's immersion in a world that is a kind of embodiment of Wittgenstein's final proposition.
Like the narrators of "Flaubert's Parrot" (by Julian Barnes) and "Waterland" (by Graham Swift), the narrator of "Wittgenstein's Mistress" takes refuge in a world of facts--in her case cultural scattershot versus the meticulous biographical fact of "Flaubert's Parrot" and local historical fact of "Waterland"--to avoid confronting a terrible personal tragedy. That this novel addresses such a theme with even more originality and craft than those two excellent books makes this a truly magnificent piece of literature.