Protesting altogether too much, Lars Iyer's fourth book carries the subtitle 'A novel'. Readers of Iyer's Spurious trilogy will know that he pays little attention to the conventions of the novel form, with characterization and plot of secondary importance to the mechanics of setting up a good joke or, better, diatribe. Wittgenstein Jr is a little different. It isn't really a novel, or not only a novel. It's more interesting than that.
Our narrator is Peters (we learn only his surname, and that through reported speech), a sophomore student of Philosophy at Cambridge University, the once-august institution now swarming with 'Ethno-sloanes', 'Sloane-ingenues', 'rah boys in gilets', 'yummy-not-yet-mummies' and the various other sects concomitant with privilege, public school and the assumption that higher education is a drunken rite of passage rather than an intellectual adventure. Though it is not made explicit - the reader is never provided with Peters's backstory, nor direct access to the workings of his mind - it's easy to infer from the anthropologist's distance with which he reports on these tribes that he does not belong to them. He is the archetypal provincial scholarship boy, expected to be grateful for access to a world he does not understand, and by which he is at once awed and appalled.
Peters is among the more reserved of a motley group of male friends united by their dedication to the reckless consumption of recreational drugs, konb jokes, conspicuous Weltschmerz, and showing off. Cynical and confused, beautiful and damned, they belong to a generation 'too late for politics' and conscious of the corruption of academia by market-capitalism. Into this morass steps a young new professor - radical, aesthetic, inscrutable - whom the students nickname Wittgenstein Jr. This plot development is dealt with perfunctorily, and beyond the generational fig leaf Iyer takes no pains to disguise the fact that our hero is modelled on his historical namesake. A native German speaker, he has 'come to Cambridge to do fundamental work in philosophical logic' (Iyer is fond of italicis). He is haunted by his brother's suicide (three of Wittgenstein's four took their own lives); he rebels against the academy; he is working on a book called Logik, 'with a k' (Wittgenstein's thesis of the same name was rejected by the university). This is a fictionalized portrait of Ludwig Wittgenstein as a young man, parachuted into contemporary society in order to pass damning judgement on it. Drawing on source material including the diaries of David Pinsent (to whom the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is dedicated) Wittgenstein Jr might have easily been subtitled 'Historical Novel'. Or 'Historical-Philosophical novel'. Or 'Tragic-Comical-Historical-Philosophical-Novel'.
This character, 'pompous' and 'ridiculous' as he seems to them, fascinates his twenty-first century students ('we confide our desires to share in Wittgenstein's walks. To become, if not fellow thinkers, then at least fellow walkers, companions in thought'). They compete for his attention, responding to his disdain for their ignorance with desperate attempts to gain his respect. Their admiration is predicated on the authenticity of Wittgenstein's obvious suffering, which gives the lie to their own theatricalized performances of despair, and Wittgenstein comes quickly to resemble a messianic figure (a Second Coming, perhaps). Foremost among his acolytes is Peters, mocked by Ede as a 'virgin gay' with 'a thing for genius. You want to be fucked by genius'.
The double act was a defining feature of Iyer's previous novels, built on the bickering of two lecturers in Philosophy, and here he establishes a productive comic tension between the students' anarchic dissolution and Wittgenstein's Mitteleuropean po-facedness (his diatribes against Labradors and lawns, those metonyms for English gentility, are among the funniest of many funny passages in the book). The dialogic mode is a vehicle to expand on his own preoccupations, which have little to do with psychologizing depths, interiority, direct characterization or any of the other conventions of the British novel since the middle of the nineteenth century. Instead the author creates characters who are almost allegorical in their one-dimensionality, and through which he can vent unreservedly on his favourite themes, specifically the parlous state of higher education in the UK, the corruption of a society that equates progress with gross domestic product, and the romance of intellectual endeavour.
Fans of Iyer's previous work will relish the comic hyperbole of these polemics, to whoch the author's barracking style is perfectly suited, but Wittgenstein Jr is distinguished from its predecessors by the possibility of redemption to be found in the relationship between teacher and student. Incorporating allusions to Wittgenstein's own writing alongside nods to sources as various as Bela Tarr and Derek Jarman, Iyer has compiled an idiosyncratic - and surprisingly tender - paean to love and learning.
Times Literary Supplement, 17th October, 2014