Melville House, 192pp, £12.99
Lars Iyer’s fourth novel carries an epigraph from Ludwig Wittgenstein, impelling thinkers to “descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there”, but its core theme lies in the lament of its central character, a lecturer at Cambridge, that: “The philosopher’s misfortune is to be a part of nothing. To stand apart from everything.”
That standing apart is usually not through choice – this is an observation of a man torn down by external forces. “Wittgenstein Jr” is a nickname given to him by a group of students; his “aura” makes him an object of fascination, especially for the narrator, Peters, one of the few working-class northerners to attend Cambridge in an age when “raves are full of posh girls . . . and the DJs have double-barrelled names” and undergraduates are expected to do no more than “fill the classrooms, and pay the fees”.
His gang consists of 12 young men who veer between re-enacting Socrates’s execution and drawing cocks on their notebooks, including Ede, the self-loathing Old Etonian who feels doomed to squander his family’s heritage; tedious Titmuss, enlightened after his Indian gap year; Scroggins, who nearly dies after a ketamine overdose; and the athletic Kirwin twins, whose tragedy “is that there’s no war for them to die in”.
Besides the sad realisation that after graduating these people will never be together again or realise the potential that their teacher seems to see in them, there is deep melancholy beneath their fantasies about Wittgenstein Jr praising them or asking them to help him solve problems. As in Iyer’s Spurious trilogy, about two philosophy lecturers called W and Lars Iyer, the humour derives from the gulf between the protagonists’ world-changing ambitions and their awareness of their own impotence as anyone who does not fit in with the neoliberal vision of universities as sources of income is driven out.
Fighting indifference above all, Wittgenstein Jr is unashamed about reaching only a small audience, preferring to focus on those who might alter things rather than being led by numbers. As in Spurious, a crucial problem is that the ostensible comforts of 21st-century western society make the stakes feel so low. “You could say he’s risked nothing more than paper cuts,” reflects Peters, but Wittgenstein Jr wants thought to “tear out our throats” and his fulminations against “English lawn” dons who facilitate the monetisation of Cambridge provide the angriest, funniest monologues. His biting dismissal of them as the “intellectual equivalents of suburban cul-de-sacs and out-of-town retail parks” has an economy familiar from the brutal put-downs that characterised Iyer’s trilogy.
A lecturer at Newcastle University who has also written two books on the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot, Iyer has never been to Cambridge and the university functions as an academic everyplace. However, the specifics of the real Wittgenstein’s life do feed into that of Iyer’s fictional hero: three of Wittgenstein’s brothers killed themselves and the suicide of Wittgenstein Jr’s brother as a 20-year-old Oxford student provides this novel’s great tragedy.
Like Iyer’s previous works, this book is written in short chapters, most just a couple of pages long, and anything longer stands out. The most striking passage is an expressionistic account of Wittgenstein Jr’s brother going to Norway to strive towards the totally logical language that Wittgenstein demanded in the Tractatus and returning with such knowledge of the human condition that he cannot survive.
Deftly, Iyer changes pace and scene, moving to a dance-off between two students before cutting back to “the look of relief on his brother’s face, when they cut down his body”. Iyer’s use of italics gives not just emphasis but rhythm to his most emotive scenes and the device is employed to heartbreaking effect in these scenes. With four words – “Philosophy invaded his brother” – this tragedy becomes that of anyone who values thought for its own sake, however burdensome such insight can be.
Eventually, the boredom, alienation and despair give over to warmer emotions as Wittgenstein Jr and Peters grow closer, but ultimately it seems as though madness is the only option left. The lecturer tells his class, “Philosophy stands between us and salvation,” knowing that the stakes remain as high as ever. The dons and the powers above them know this; hence their insistence that the subject is useless and their denial of access to it for those likely to question their monetarist ideology. There will be a time “after philosophy” but it remains to be seen whether that is because it is no longer needed or no longer allowed. Right now, Iyer’s novel insists, utopian thought remains an urgent necessity.