Suicide Squad

Jim Holt in The New York Times:


By Alexander Waugh

Wit “A tense and peculiar family, the Oedipuses,” a wag once observed. Well, when it comes to dysfunction, the Wittgensteins of Vienna could give the Oedipuses a run for their money. The tyrannical family patriarch was Karl Wittgenstein (1847-1913), a steel, banking and arms magnate. He and his timorous wife, Leopoldine, brought nine children into the world. Of the five boys, three certainly or probably committed suicide and two were plagued by suicidal impulses throughout their lives. Of the three daughters who survived into adulthood, two got married; both husbands ended up insane and one died by his own hand. Even by the morbid standards of late Hapsburg Vienna these are impressive numbers. But tense and peculiar as the Wittgensteins were, the family also had a strain of genius. Of the two sons who didn’t kill themselves, one, Paul (1887-1961), managed to become an internationally celebrated concert pianist despite the loss of his right arm in World War I. The other, Ludwig (1889-1951), was the greatest philosopher of the 20th century.

Who better to chronicle such a clan than Alexander Waugh, himself the scion of a distinguished and colorful family? In his previous book, “Fathers and Sons,” Waugh wrote with a fine comic touch about his grandfather Evelyn and his father, Auberon. Here he moves from a farcical to a tragic vein. Yet the Wittgensteins, for all their Sturm und Drang, can be as funny as the Waughs. We are told, for example, that the first spoken word of one of the Wittgenstein boys was “Oedipus.”

The author brings another advantage to his subject: he is a music critic (and sometime composer), and the Wittgensteins were the musical family par excellence.

More here.