Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

"Wittgenstein Jr" by Lars Iyer (Melville House, 2014)

The lecturer of some Cambridge philosophy students is nicknamed Wittgenstein because of his style. Few students go to his lectures. Those who remain (all male) resemble the "History Boys" (except that 2 of them are in a relationship). There's lots of Wittgenstein parody in short sections ended by page breaks, leaving plenty of white space. Wittgenstein goes on about his brother, an Oxford philosophy don who killed himself. There are a few entertaining passages, my favourite being the lawn-based rant starting on p.60. Here are some others -

  • Ede conjures up an image of Benwell in his old pit village, wandering past slag heaps and barred factory gates. Past rasping ex-miners on mobility scooters, past workless lads and grey-faced mothers, past the drug-addled and the muttering mad, up to the lonely moorland (p.24)
  • The Cambridge mistake is to believe that thought simply comes when you whistle, he says. But thought must whistle to us! Thought should not be tame! Thought should tear out our throats! (p.41)
  • In the high summer, dons would sit out on the grass like restless lions, his brother said. They'd picnic on the lawn, like kings at peace. They'd recline in their deckchairs, laying their Leob editions facedown on the grass.
    Autumn lent the dons a valedictory air, his brother said. In autumn, when the first leaves were falling from the trees, the dons would know a gentle melancholy. Sometimes a tear would appear in the eye of a melancholic don. Sometimes a don would let out a great sigh, as he sat in his leather armchair by the fire
  • Truth is indivisible, hence it cannot recognise itself. The only way to truth is through one's own annihilation. Torment is the beginning of religion. The will to think is the will to pray (p.104)
  • The students are given brochures - "Your future starts now (image: graduates throwing mortar boards in the air) " (p.164) - but they feel that "We are nymphs, yet to shed our bodies ... We feel as though the future were rummaging through us" (p.165)
  • after philosophy, there will be no more teaching, only learning, he says. No more studying, only encountering. No more classrooms, only walks along the Backs (p.167)
  • After philosophy, there will be nothing important at all, he says - everything will be important. Everything will take on significance. The light on a particular afternoon will be as rich as the collected works of Kant (p.171)
  • Dons looking out with approval at the low-rise homes being built at Clay Farm. At the new office complexes being built round Addenbrooke's. At the new multistorey car parks. At the new biomedical campus (p.215)

I was less sure about -

  • Everything is true, he thought to himself (p.66)
  • The campus, deserted (p.189)

There's little plot. It's all rather linear. Wittgenstein grows increasingly gloomy about philosophy and himself. Come the Xmas vacation, all the students leave except Peters. He (I presume Peters is male) and Wittgenstein sleep together. They have an intense few days. Wittgenstein leaves Cambridge on Xmas eve, having suddenly resigned.

Other reviews

  • Tibor Fischer (The novel is a strange mixture of Tom Sharpe satire, Zuleika Dobson farce and mimicry of Wittgenstein ... Iyer's impersonation and re-creation of Wittgenstein is superbly done, but I don't need page after page of it. ... For a philosophical novel, the book could be a bit better thought out; it is more of a witty short story or novella that has been bullied into the territory of a novel.)
  • John Williams
  • Anna Aslanyan (The novel makes you feel a little sad, as any true story of first love would, and, as any book by a true philosopher would, gives you a lot of food for thought.)


  1. Dear Tim

    This sounds interesting! I had to study Wittgenstein at university and thought that his Tractatus possessed a Cartesian clarity. There is an excellent biography of the real Wittgenstein by Ray Monk.

    Best wishes from Simon R Gladdish

  2. Dear Tim

    I almost forgot to wish you a very Merry Christmas!

    Best wishes from Simon

    1. Happy Xmas to you too. I don't think that this is much of a novel.