by Perry Meisel
The World As I Found It, by Bruce Duffy. 546 pp. New York: Ticknor & Fields. $19.95.
When the wealthy and cultivated young Ludwig Wittgenstein burst upon the hermetic world of Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore at Cambridge in 1912, three lives were changed forever. The Viennese Wittgenstein struck even Russell as perhaps more than his match. The unflappable Moore shared in a fierce but collegial relation that survived two world wars. As a combatant in the Austrian Army late in World War I, Wittgenstein completed the only book he saw fit to publish during his lifetime, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). Returning to Cambridge in 1929, he began to question his own assumption in the Tractatus that the study of language could yield systematic rules, preferring instead to delight in the indeterminacies of linguistic reference, and composing, among other works, Philosophical Investigations, published in 1953, two years after his death.
So alluring is Wittgenstein's appeal that it has stirred Bruce Duffy, a writer who lives in suburban Washington, to produce a historical novel centered on Wittgenstein and his English friends. Its sweeping arrangement of fact and fancy is vivid, passionate and funny. Mr. Duffy adheres faithfully enough to the outlines of Wittgenstein's life as we know them (a full-scale biography has yet to be completed), although his book is really an accomplished orchestration of the spheres of Russell's urbanity, Moore's domesticity and Wittgenstein's wanderlust that is organized around three key points in Wittgenstein's experience - his first years at Cambridge, his service in World War I and his return to England.
Mr. Duffy intersperses his absorbing narrative with deft flashbacks that fill in the pasts of all three men (the death of Wittgenstein's father in Vienna is probably the novel's most extraordinary sequence). He writes with great wisdom about love, work and fame, painting raucously humorous and uncommonly moving portraits of his three principals. Russell stews deliciously in his inwardness; Moore gobbles his meals at high table at Trinity with such methodical relish that his philosophical hedonism is explained more convincingly than it is in most academic accounts.
The rendering of Wittgenstein is more dramatic and less naturally inward, testimony to his daunting intractability as both a man and a thinker. Wittgenstein's melancholy narcissism was so profound that it frequently turned into its opposite - the feeling that he hardly existed at all. In reply to a friend's request to take his photograph, Wittgenstein remarks: ''You may develop your film and find no image whatsoever.''
The novel's title comes from a passage in the Tractatus (''If I wrote a book called The World As I Found It, I should have to include a report on my body'') that concludes with the difficult statement that such a book would be ''a method of isolating the subject, or rather of showing that in an important sense there is no subject.'' Mr. Duffy exemplifies Wittgenstein's point both by apprehending him within a matrix of social contexts, and by dramatizing the elusiveness of subjectivity in the dream of a world he fashions with a prose that aspires to a combination of visionary expansiveness and postmodern terseness.
There are, to be sure, a few hitches. Bertrand Russell did not, pace Mr. Duffy, split infinitives. Nor did Lytton Strachey have a booming voice - it squeaked. There are also some lapses into melodrama - a visit to a Yiddish theater in Vienna, a family friend-turned-Nazi and Wittgenstein's painful acknowledgment of his Jewish roots at the onset of World War II. Such moments aside, Mr. Duffy's is an achievement in both fiction and historiography which deepens Wittgenstein's mythology and should attract a wider audience to it.
Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, October 11, 1987