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Wittgenstein Jr. Hardcover – 4 Sep 2014
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LONGLISTED FOR THE JERWOOD FICTION UNCOVERED PRIZE 2015
NOMINATED FOR THE 2015 FOLIO PRIZE
'Iyer's work proposes a visibly different sort of British literature to that which dominates the discourse...The author has set an alternative path for himself, producing books you can read in an afternoon but think about for a year.' - The Independent
"Iyer is an author who rejects the parochialism and timidity we often associate with British novelists in favour of an ugly grapple with the big themes." - The Spectator
"Curiously profound, strangely touching, and, best of all, deeply insulting." - The Observer
"Lars Iyer...has been redefining the existential anti-hero for several years now, combining fiction and philosophy with great wit and invention." -TLS
"Paints a richly grotesque panorama of Britain, from Manchester to Middlesex." - The Independent
"Uproarious." --The New York Times<br \><br \>'Elegaic and lulling... clever satire on academic life that is also a love letter to the world of ideas.' - 5 stars in the Daily Telegraph
'Superbly done ... Iyer wins on laughs.' - The Guardian
"The novel makes you feel a little sad, as any true story of first love would, and, as any book by a true philosopher would, gives you a lot of food for thought." - The Independent on Sunday
'An endlessly interesting subject, and Iyer does it justice in Wittgenstein Jr, a lightly and wittily written novel... the depiction is very close to the historical Wittgenstein: the idiosyncrasies and intensities, the agonies, above all the mysticism, all beautifully and funnily drawn in.' - --Quadrapheme
'Meanwhile, the novel is in crisis and I intend that as a compliment. In other words, the books that are asking what a novel might be ...[including] Lars Iyer's Wittgenstein Jr are by far the best.' - Gaby Wood's Best Books of 2014, The Telegraph
'A twitchy philosophy professor arrives at Cambridge on the brink of either total enlightenment or a mental breakdown. His new students, a hapless bunch of over-privileged boozers and junkies, turn up to class to observe their tutor's rambling, paranoid disintegration. All ends well though, with an unexpected spot of non-theoretical romance.' - --Simon Armstrong, buyer for the Tate Bookshop
About the Author
LARS IYER is the author of two books on Blanchot ("Blanchot s Communism: Art, Philosophy, Politics" and "Blanchot s Vigilance: Phenomenology, Literature, Ethics") and the novels "Spurious" (which was "3: AM Magazine" s Book of the Year in 2011), "Dogma," and "Exodus." His literary manifesto, Nude in Your Hot Tub, Facing the Abyss, appeared in "Post Road" and "The White Review."" --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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Meanwhile life outside goes on all around him. The novel casts a jaundiced and witty eye upon the commercialisation of Cambridge University and the shallow careerism / hedonism of its students. The episodes of student bacchanalia act as a comic counterpoint to the austere and deadly serious life of the mind espoused by Wittgenstein.
As the novel progresses, the plotline draws several parallels with the real Wittgenstein's life in Cambridge, and the young don's opaque and gnomic utterances very much recall the format of Wittgenstein's own Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. However, 'our' Wittgenstein seems to share as much common ground philosophically with Maurice Blanchot as with Wittgenstein himself, particularly in his obsession with death and also his tortured difficulty in truly perceiving the 'real' through the obscuring gauze of language. Tellingly, Lars Iyer has written extensively on Blanchot elsewhere, and the clotted logical paradoxes with which the young don so torments himself are pure Blanchot. There's also a strong undertow of religious symbolism: it's surely no coincidence that there are 12 'disciples' in Wittgenstein's class, and the one with which he becomes closest is named Peters.
So far so good, but where this novel fell down somewhat for me was in its weird portrayal of student life in Cambridge, which is depicted as a drug-crazed version of Eton in the 1930s. The novel centres on what must be the only all-male philosophy class in modern British academia, whose students bizarrely all address each other only by their surnames. Even more improbably, Iyer locates St John's College in King's Parade; it wasn't there last time I looked. All in all the book feels like an outsider's view of Cambridge, and the minor misfires that result do blunt its edge a little.
Still, as a dramatisation of the sheer brain-wracking difficulty of modern philosophy, Wittgenstein Jr is appropriately thoughtful and constantly entertaining. Recommended as a fun sorbet to cleanse the brain of anyone suffering from fatigue after reading too much 'real' Wittgenstein (or Blanchot).
The novel is set in Cambridge, and the characters are undergraduate students of philosophy. A new tutor impresses them sufficiently by his evident seriousness and apparent weight of intellect for them to name him 'Wittgenstein'. Though the novel is set well after the real Wittgenstein's death, Iyer draws on his biography to flesh out the character, who in postmodern ludic mode both is and is not the philosopher.
Readers of the trilogy looking for more of the same will immediately recognise Iyer's comic manner, established and elaborated in 'Spurious', 'Dogma' and 'Exodus' – the mixture of high seriousness about, and low humour at the expense of philosophy and philosophers. Events then proceed roughly along the expected lines for most of the book. All amusing enough, but a mild disappointment from an author who has made the case for innovation and the original voice: the dangers of self-imitation were already becoming clear in the latter stages of the trilogy. In 'Wittgenstein Jr', Iyer doesn't always avoid the charge that he is now repeating himself, but more diffusely and at lower pressure: the jokes too familiar, the satire less biting, the point too elusive. Nonetheless, there are elements new to Iyer's writing here: in particular, an attention to the life of the emotions and the body that in the trilogy was confined mainly to the effects of gin and a very English sort of environmental horror. Drinking there is, and in full measure – these are undergraduates, after all – but the erotic also rears its head, and along with it forebodings of trouble that can't be dismissed with a philosophical bon mot.
The crux arrives in a drastic change of tone in the final section of the book, which has been ambling along in an entertaining but rather uninvolving manner. A character who to that point has been almost a passive onlooker joins 'Wittgenstein' centre-stage, and it becomes clear that this is something closer to a traditional Bildungsroman than a simple comedy of university life. Much depends on how one reacts to this: which is where the reader new to Iyer may have an advantage. Readers who are here purely for the jokes and the sarcasm may find that this unexpected emotional change of temperature is not what they signed up for. As a reader already familiar with the trilogy, I was heartened that Iyer had had the courage to try to develop away from the manner with which he had first attracted attention. I wasn't sufficiently convinced to re-evaluate my opinion of the opening sections completely: but I was at least able to forgive them their shortcomings.
I think it's a shame that 'Wittgenstein' has emerged after the trilogy. For much of its length it reads like an earlier, less focused attempt on similar material. I would recommend the final section, which might have made a fine short story, to anyone: the rest to Iyer's admirers. The uncommitted would probably do better to begin with 'Spurious', and see how they go.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
The portrait of the teacher, Wittgenstein Jr, superb as it is, is not quite as superb as the portrait of the students. Herein lies Iyer's genius quintessential. The Kirwin Twins, Ede, Titmuss, Doyle, Mulberry and the quiet, long-suffering Peters, our narrator as it happens, are drawn with such economy and wit, highest wit I tell you, as to rival almost the bard himself. Here are groundlings, high-brow, Oxbridge university level groundlings, of such depth and duncehood as to become paragons for the ages of the students that every teacher has privately railed about for aeons. This bunch are St Augustine's students in Carthage, the very reason he fled Africa and sought better working conditions in the academies of Rome. These bright wastrels are bonded into a brotherhood of brilliance aspirant that Samuel himself would smile to see, to hear, to go drinking with. These dear fellows may be the most heroic group of students ever to grace the pages of literature, heroic pages of literature, servants, are they, to the utter greatness of their calling, to be students of the master himself, WJr.
After all of this, Iyer brings the book to as sweet and beautiful and moving a close as you can imagine. Such a magnificent re-telling of life of the mind and heart at the heart of the love of learning.
The story-telling is oblique and quirky, like experience itself.