I recall, a good number of years ago, reading that ‘a philosophical novel is an impossibility.’ I maintain that it was Iris Murdoch who said this – I remember being struck by the idea that, if anyone were to know, it should be her – but I can’t for the life of me dig it up via Google. Irrespective – if this were true, bad news for Sophie’s World and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – but not for Lars Iyer’s 2014 novel Wittgenstein Jr, because, despite the name and the nominal subject matter, it is in fact a love story.
The narrative follows, loosely, a group of philosophy undergrads in present-day Cambridge over the course of their degree, united by the presence of a shared lecturer. A lecturer they half-jokingly refer to as Wittgenstein Jr, as if he were a diminutive version, in all the eccentric mannerisms, of the more famous namesake. The jumbled-together nature of the cast – boys from different backgrounds and with different approaches to and desires from life – is highlighted in the work itself, resulting in moments of humour and pathos in equal measure as they strike off one another and maintain an uneasy friendship. This is balanced against the somewhat abstract maunderings of Wittgenstein Jr (whose real name is never offered up) which, while they don’t necessarily build to a coherent philosophical project, do massage the story forward.
No normal, straight-ahead tale, the prose style throughout the work is in a state of flux: at times, dialogue is laid out as a screenplay – named characters in block print, followed by words that we assume are passing in some manner of ordered temporality. At other times, we have the situation related to us by our protagonist, Peters, in a clipped, present-tense reportage that curtails any worries that he might not be the most faithful of narrators. Thirdly, we have the broad-stroke, hermetic declarations of the titular Wittgenstein Jr, as filtered by Peters, thrusting themselves between the actual events of the story.
It’s somewhat difficult to dissociate my own experiences from those of the novel – I fear that, being situated in Cambridge myself, I’m giving too much of the benefit of the doubt to the book. How much am I filling in gaps within the presentation, when I too have walked along the University backs, drank late at night on Cambridge’s rooftops, spent lazy afternoons meandering to Grantchester? Doubly, I’ve been an undergrad in a philosophy program, too. Much of the experience rang true – Iyer was a lecturer in philosophy at Uni of Newcastle before taking the position of Reader in Creative Writing, so he ought to know, if most recently from the other side of the equation – but how much is just my own insertion? Then again, the experiences we each bring to a reading inform it – there can be no distilled, pure version of any such affair, can there?
My biggest complaint, structurally, is brought on by my own experiences: no women in the class itself, and the female characters outside the main, male undergrad set are little more than set-dressing. In my own cohort, the few female colleagues amongst the majority male crowd were by far the best of us – but, and this is something endemic to analytic departments, few is the rule. Likely, my friends and colleagues performed so much better than the rest of us because of the unvocalised assumption that they were, even in the 21st century, interlopers, and thus had to outstrip the rest just to get by. I can only assume that Cambridge, at the undergrad level, is even worse on this. It would have been positive if Iyer was able to critique this state of affairs in some way, but I appreciate the lampshading nonetheless. The reported romances, those few that involve women, are dealt with on an abstract, allegorical level (and it is the disappointment thereof, the inevitably mundane nature of the amoureuse, that stalls the romance).
Rather than receive reports on the minutiae of the didactic process, the descriptions of the classes the group take with Wittgenstein Jr are opportunities for gnomic, aphoristic utterances that do more to provide an atmosphere to the book than anything of a linear, plotted construction. There are through-lines, such as the idea of the ‘English lawn,’ which resurface at various points. The metaphor is used as a heavy-handed critique of the modern Oxbridge reality, without necessarily hearkening back to a ‘better’ past:
“The English lawn is receding, Wittgenstein says. And with it, the world of the old dons of Cambridge.
New housing estates, where once was open countryside… A new science park where once were allotments and orchards… New apartment blocks near the station, their balconies in shade … And towering barbarisms: Varsity Hotel, looming over Park Parade; Botanic House, destroying the Botanic Gardens; Riverside Place, desecrating the River Cam…
They’re developing the English lawn, Wittgenstein says. They’re building glassy towers on the English lawn. They’re laying out the suburbs and exurbs on the English lawn. They’re constructing Megalopolis on the English lawn.
And they’re developing the English head, Wittgenstein says. They’re building glass-and-steel towers in the English head. They’re building suburbs and exurbs in the English head…
The new don is nothing but a suburb-head, Wittgenstein says. The new don – bidding for funds, exploring synergies with industry, looking for corporate sponsorship, launching spin-off companies. The new don, courting venture capitalists, seeking business partners, looking to export the Cambridge brand. The new don – with a head full of concrete. A finance-head. A capitalist-head.”
Iyer does a good job at presenting the self-important priggishness of overly-clever young men, puffed up on their own abilities and lacking the self-awareness to temper their more brash statements. Your humble reviewer may or may not be able to attest to the veracity of the following passages…
“EDE: Have you noticed how the rahs are all saying literally now? I was like literally exhausted. I was like literally wasted. But nothing they say actually means anything! Literally or figuratively! Most of the time, they don’t even finish their sentences. I was literally so… They just trail off. They barely speak, most of the time. Mmms and ahhs. Little moans, nothing else. Oh reeeealllly. Lurrrrrvely. Coooool.
And they use the word uni, which is unforgiveable, Ede says.”
“We speak of our desire for despair – real despair, Ede and I. For choking despair, visible to all. For chaotic despair, despair of collapse, of ruination. For the despair of Lucifer, as he fell from heaven…
Our desire for annulling despair. For a despair that dissolves the ego; despair indistinguishable from a kind of death. For wild despair, for heads thrown back, teeth fringing laughing mouths. For exhilarated despair, for madness under the moon.
Our desire for despairs of the damned. For crawling despairs, like rats, like spiders. For heavy despairs, like those on vast planets, which make a teardrop as heavy as lead…
Our desire for the moon to smash into the earth. For the sun to swallow the earth. For the night to devour both the sun and the earth.
We speak of our desire for extinction, for cool mineral silence. For the Big Crunch, for the end of all things. For the Great Dissipation, when electrons leave their atoms…”
Truthfully, the only thing that saves these extended sections from contemptibility is the earnest, charming honesty by which they are delivered. As much as they signal – on their surface – entitled, inexperienced boasting, the reality is that of young, nerdy men bonding, building a friendship to push back against the often-hostile, imperfect world they wish they could change for the better, or at least to their conception of what that might mean. Moments of shared, unselfconscious awkwardness – such is the mortar of friendship.
There are passages where the reader is offered glimpses of Wittgenstein Jr’s mounting paranoia – never so sharp, though, as to turn the tenor of the book, which remains fundamentally light in its touch. The sheer outrageousness of it, though deadly serious in delivery, can’t but undercut itself. One can almost picture Bernard Black uttering the below –
“The dons are always ready to pounce, he says. Always ready with their greetings. Hello, they say. Nice weather we’re having, they say. How are you?, they say. How are you getting on?, they say. What have you been up to?, they say. Each time: an assault. Each time: a truncheon over the head. Hello. Nice day. Hello. Hello.”
As I had mentioned earlier, though, the work really shines when it is relaying the essence of Cambridge, descriptions of the physicality and references to the culture combining to provide a hefty psychogeographical distillation. One where you can almost feel the sandy crumbling of acid-rain washed architecture under your fingers, the heaviness of all this accumulated, academic prerogative bearing down on you.
“Flooded pasture. Meadows full of standing water. Salt-water wetlands. Tidal creeks and meres. Rivers braiding, fanning out.
You get a sense of what the Fens used to be like, before they were drained, Wittgenstein says. Settlers building on banks of silt, on low hills, on fen edges. Towns like islands in the marshland.
We imagine the first scholars, expelled from Oxford, founding the new university in Cambridge. We imagine the first colleges growing out of boardinghouses. The first classes, teaching priests to glorify God, and to preach against heresy. The first benefactors, donating money for building projects. The first courtyard design, at Queens College, the chapel at its heart. The first libraries, built above the ground floor to avoid the floods. The lands, drained along the river, and planted with weeping willows and avenues of lime trees. The Backs, cleared, landscaped lawns replacing garden plots and marshland. Cambridge, raising itself above the water. Cambridge, lifting itself into the heavens of thought…”
I started off this review by denying the idea that it should be a ‘philosophical novel,’ and instead declaring it a love story. I think I’ve shown some of the appreciation it has for the particular moment in life the characters share; the physical place they find themselves in. There is a more prosaic, more carnal love story that winds its way through the piece, but, I think, to give it away here would be a disservice to the reader. As much as it comes to the fore towards the end of this relatively short piece, it does a good job of injecting a degree of energy, of providing motion that makes sense of and solidifies the earlier passages.
Suffice to say, if you yourself have come from a humanities background, or really from any space where a volatile, passionate friendship has sprung up – one that hangs together despite itself, and burns the brighter for it – and it’s something you’d like to see represented; if you’ve a desire to get a feel for what Cambridge is like as a place and a head space; if you’re interested in intriguing and challenging narrative forms, there are worse tales to read than this.
Plus, it’s quite funny.