Bruce Duffy, David Markson, and the Philosophers

Bruce Duffy’s excellent novel, The World As I Found It (New York Review of Books), re-imagines the lives of philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and George Moore. In the way that you might tell a story from your past so many times that it begins to change upon each telling, Duffy uses the biography and mythology of these men, and the history that surrounds them, to create a new story. Facts are mixed with his own fiction but—what I think is the true feat here—these facts do not grate against his fiction. It’s a seamless re-telling of the lives of men who shaped schools of philosophical thought but struggled to manage the basics of living.

In one particularly memorable passage, Duffy has Moore reflecting on an incident at Cambridge when he, Russell, and Wittgenstein watch as their colleague, Alfred North Whitehead, challenges a pupil to a rowing race. The young pupil wins without much effort, leaving Whitehead “badly beaten; it was painful to see him sagging over the oars, sucking wind.” The spectacle causes Wittgenstein to erupt. “He said they might as well have watched a bullfight; it was just as brutal and senseless… Dogs tearing out each other’s entrails— that’s what this is!… This is so vile we don’t deserve to live!”

To my delight, this very same scene came up again a few weeks later while reading David Markson’s excellent and incomparable novel, Wittgenstein’s Mistress (Dalkey Archive). The narrator, Kate, writes:

“Once, Bertrand Russell took his pupil Ludwig Wittgenstein to watch Alfred North Whitehead row, at Cambridge. Wittgenstein became very angry with Bertrand Russell for having wasted his day.”

Kate believes that she is the last person on earth, and she writes her story in short, mostly one-sentence paragraphs, a form that alludes to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Kate’s remembrances come scattered, with no care for chronology. With the absence of other people comes the absence of time. One thing kinda sorta leads to the next. In fact, hers is not a story at all. It’s a mess really, but I mean that as a sort of odd compliment. Kate’s musings seem to be attempts at molding the past in order to give coherence to her present. An understandable aim, and not just one for the last person on earth.

Later in the book, Kate again mentions the day Russell wasted Wittgenstein’s day watching a rowing match, only in this retelling, Guy de Maupassant is in the boat.

Kate tries not to lie but she doesn’t have to try too hard. There’s a lot of room between inarguable facts and outright falsehood. –Molly


Bruce Duffy’s retelling of French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s life, Disaster Was My God, will be published by NYRB in July.