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The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War Paperback – 1 Aug 2009
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`Waugh writes with an historian's eye for detail and a novelist's gift for evocation ... Waugh skilfully traces the trajectory of these lives. ****' --Independent on Sunday
About the Author
Alexander Waugh is the grandson of Evelyn and son of Auberon. He has been the chief Opera Critic at both the Mail on Sunday and the Evening Standard, and is also a publisher, cartoonist and award-winning composer. He is the author of Fathers and Sons, Time and God. He reviews regularly for national newspapers and magazines.
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That said, this is a vivid account, rich in incident and anecdote, of a most unhappy family: the self-made millionaire Karl was a frightening father, his wife an intimidated and cold mother; two or perhaps three of their five sons committed suicide and a fourth, Ludwig, frequently toyed with the idea of doing likewise. Only Paul, as will be seen, had a tough fighting quality under the most unpromising circumstances. Of the four daughters, one died in infancy; Hermine remained unhappily unmarried; the formidable Gretl, was unhappily married to a man who later also committed suicide; and Helene, though apparently "the most relaxed and settled of her siblings", "suffered from tensions of a pathological and neurotic kind". The siblings constantly got badly on each other's nerves, all pretty intolerant and highly critical of, though concerned for, each other. The only warm bond in the family was their playing music together; and even then the father disapproved of Paul becoming a professional pianist.
But only a year after Paul's debut the war broke out; he enlisted in the Austrian army, and within a month he had lost his right arm on the Russian front and became a prisoner of war. The Danish consul in Omsk got him moved from the hospital there to a hotel in which there was a piano; and Paul, fiercely determined to resume his career as a pianist, immediately started practising and transcribing piano pieces for the left hand only. Indeed, in 1916, thirteen months after he had reached home as the result of an exchange of wounded prisoners, he gave his first performance in a public concert. He then insisted on rejoining the army, and the end of the war saw the three surviving brothers on the Italian front, where Paul was invalided out (probably with Spanish flu), Kurt shot himself, and Ludwig was taken prisoner.
It was from prison that Ludwig via the Red Cross sent to Bertrand Russell the manuscript of the Tractatus, the philosophical treatise which, in due course, was to make him by far the most famous of the Wittgenstein brothers. His career and eccentricities are rather sketchily described here. Waugh, in contrast to the attention he pays to Paul's achievements in music, makes no attempt to explain those of Ludwig, altogether devoting to him a fraction of the space he devotes to Paul. Although Ludwig's career is amply chronicled elsewhere (notably in Ray Monk's biography - see my review), some readers will find Waugh's treatment of Ludwig distinctly cavalier.
That Ravel composed a concerto especially for Paul (and a fraught birth it was) is well-known; less well known that there were several other composers (including Hindemith, Prokofiev, Britten and others who were famous in their time though less well-known today) who did the same; and Paul performed to great acclaim and under the most distinguished conductors all over the world, from Los Angeles to Moscow. In his personal behaviour he was as wildly eccentric and as liable to lose his temper as was Ludwig.
In 1938 the Nazis took over Austria. Three of the siblings' grandparents, though converts to Catholicism, were Jewish-born; according to the Nazi racial laws, that made the whole family, with its antisemitic prejudices, `full Jews'. Paul, who was an ardent and right-wing Austrian patriot, vainly claimed that he was `only' a half-Jew (who were at that time spared the full rigours of the treatment accorded to `full Jews') on the grounds that his Wittgenstein grandfather, born in 1802, was reputed to be the illegitimate offspring of a German princeling. When the Nazis discovered that he had a non-Jewish mistress who has born him two children, he was liable to additional penalties for miscegenation. The saga of Paul's subsequent escape to America via Switzerland, of the Nazi discovery of the attempt by his elderly sisters Hermine and Helene to escape with forged passports (Gretl had become an American citizen), and of the fraught negotiations with the Germans but also within the family - not to allow them to emigrate, but to have them classified as `half-Jews' - in exchange for huge sums of money, is told in heart-stopping detail. Everything depended on the agreement of Paul (and, for that matter, of Hitler personally). Paul eventually gave in to family pressure, and Hermine and Helene lived unmolested in Vienna all through the war. Paul never spoke to Gretl or Ludwig again, nor did he visit the dying Hermine or Helene when he was in Vienna in 1949 to play in a concert.
However, having now read it, I can say it is an absolutely fantastic book... really well written, a truly fascinating topic put in the most brilliant context and with a lightness and page-turningness (sorry) you would expect from a thriller, not a family history with three suicides, two deaths from cancer and a one-armed pianist.
I agree with another reviewer who found the story hard to follow in the early chapters, e.g., because there were lots of relatives, ... but as the narrative settled down and focused on Paul and Gretl, and particularly on the 1930's as WW2 approached, the story became fascinating. Paul is the leading figure in the story, and he (one handed after a WW1 injury) built a career as a pianist, philanthropist and music sponsor.
The coverage of Ludwig Wittgenstein is limited. One would hardly guess that he was putatively one of the leading philosophers of the twentieth century, and the comments made seem to support the idea of his active homosexuality and the force of his temper (eg problems when school-teaching). I had not realised that Ludwig was so influenced by Tolstoys thought about the Gospel.
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