This is my review of The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War by Alexander Waugh.
I read this book on an impulse, having recently become interested in philosophy. However, Ludwig Wittgenstein, although perhaps the most famous member of the family, was not allowed to dominate the tale.
This was more than just the biography of a family, but a window on Viennese life in the dying days of the Hapsburg Empire leading to the Nazi occupation and its aftermath. The story is full of entertaining anecdotes, and reads like a novel. In some ways, the main character, possibly the one with whom the musical author most empathises, is the pianist Paul. He typified the extraordinary determination and eccentricity which marked the dynasty, by succeeding in his driven ambition to become an internationally renowned concert pianist, despite the loss of his left hand in the First World War. Another interesting aspect was the way in which the family used its great wealth, with a strange mixture of philanthropy and greed, only to face the terrible levelling of being deemed Jewish under the Nazi regime. Yet again, the neurosis which bedevilled such an initially privileged group of people is well-explored.
The beautifully translated exchanges between the family members, as recorded in letters, make fascinating reading.
I fear I shall never be able to take Ludwig seriously as a philosopher again, since even he seemed to feel that much of his writing did not make sense, and it appears that his reputation is founded on the magnetic attraction he exerted on the male Cambridge academics of the day. He is portrayed as what we would call bi-polar with some individual and laudable ideas e.g. about the damaging effects of wealth, marred by at times bizarre behaviour e.g. resolving to become a teacher for altruistic reasons, only to beat unconscious a pupil who failed to meet his exacting standards.