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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Wittgenstein Jr

Lars Iyer

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To purchase Wittgenstein Jr

Title: Wittgenstein Jr
Author: Lars Iyer
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014
Length: 226 pages
Availability: Wittgenstein Jr - US
Wittgenstein Jr - UK
Wittgenstein Jr - Canada
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Our Assessment:

B+ : good, clever fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 12/9/2014 Tibor Fischer
Independent on Sunday . 7/9/2014 Karl McDonald
Independent on Sunday . 28/9/2014 Anna Aslanyan
New Statesman . 25/9/2014 Juliet Jacques
Publishers Weekly . 28/7/2014 .
The Telegraph A 17/9/2014 Jon Day
TLS . 17/10/2014 Ben Eastham

  From the Reviews:
  • "The novel is a strange mixture of Tom Sharpe satire, Zuleika Dobson farce and mimicry of Wittgenstein. (...) 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." - Tibor Fischer, The Guardian

  • "Dark humour soaks through the novel, jousting and co-existing with existential despair. (...) You wonít find Wittgenstein Jr on many longlists, but the author has set an alternative path for himself, producing books you can read in an afternoon but think about for a year." - Karl McDonald, Independent on Sunday

  • "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." - Anna Aslanyan, Independent on Sunday

  • "(T)he humour derives from the gulf between the protagonistsí 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." - Juliet Jacques, New Statesman

  • "Like an upbeat, comic version of a Thomas Bernhard novel, the book occasionally exhausts its central joke but scores points for its outstanding strangeness, its rapid dialogue, and, of course, its grotesque, man-out-of-time hero-philosopher." - Publishers Weekly

  • "The book is written in the repetitive, lulling metre that Iyer perfected in the Spurious trilogy. (...) Wittgenstein Jr is as much a satire on the contemporary academy as it is an existential novel of ideas. But it is also a love story. Ultimately itís a novel about the idea of philosophy" - Jon Day, The Telegraph

  • "It isnít really a novel, or not only a novel. Itís more interesting than that. (...) Fans of Iyerís previous work will relish the comic hyperbole of these polemics, to which the authorís 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." - Ben Eastham, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Wittgenstein Jr is an academic novel -- campus novel, classroom novel, student-teacher-relationships novel, with philosophical trimmings littered throughout. Set at Cambridge, it is narrated by undergraduate Peters and centers on a small circle of student-friends and the class they all take together, the philosophy lectures of the teacher they call 'Wittgenstein'. He doesn't physically resemble his famous predecessor:

     But he has a Wittgensteinian aura, we agree. He is Wittgensteinisch, in some way.
       The class diminishes quickly in size -- forty-five the first week, down to a hard-core dozen a month or so into the school year. Wittgenstein's style -- Wittgensteinisch, indeed -- isn't everyone's cuppa:
     His classes are just a series of remarks, separated by silences. Ideas, in haiku-like sentences, full of delicate beauty and concision.
       The students are in a sort of awe, but tend also to be properly befuddled, not quite sure how to take what he says, not sure what he wants. He is their brilliant, opaque (intellectual) guru and ideal, the embodiment of pure thought. Wittgenstein's classes are the most overt demonstration of the intellectual inadequacy they feel at university. What he does and asks of them is completely beyond them -- though he barely seems bothered by their inability to respond in kind to his philosophizing (though he occasionally berates them, wondering why they bother to come to class: "When we do not need philosophy ? When we do not suffer from our need for philosophy ?"); he remains in his own intellectual rapture -- which is, of course, part of his so-appealing-to-the-students aura.
       University generally also isn't quite everything it's cracked up to be. Wittgenstein rails against the debasement of Cambridge and of university ideals (much like Thomas Bernhard's protagonists railed against debased and corrupted Austria), and even Peters recognizes that the institution doesn't live up to Wittgenstein's -- or most academic -- standards any longer:
     No one expects very much of an undergraduate: he should know that. None of us will fail our degrees, it is true -- no one fails anymore. But none of us will excel, either. We're here to fill the classrooms, and pay the fees. We're here to populate the corridors, and sit decorously on the steps.
       Peters mentions some "learned journals in locked cabinets", wondering whether anyone ever read or needed them:
     The journals make us uneasy. They are not of us, not accessible to us. They are not for us, yet they surround us. Isn't Cambridge supposed to be our playground ? Isn't Cambridge supposed to centre on us ?
       Iyer does a very nice job with much of the undergraduate-campus-life aspect of the novel. There's little attention paid to academics, beyond Wittgenstein's class -- it isn't even clear what most of these students are studying -- but the socializing, the fascination with Wittgenstein, and the mix of student-backgrounds and the loose sort of friendships that form (with little depth to them) make for a fairly convincing (and entertainingly decadent) snapshot of twenty-first century student life.
       The almost entirely cerebral Wittgenstein -- himself practically a walking abstraction -- is intently focused on the purest of thought, his ambition a comprehensive work on (cold, hard) logic. He has other commonalities with his namesake, but among the differences is an older brother, an Oxford mathematics prodigy who was similarly Wittgensteinisch but ultimately overwhelmed -- adding a human element to Wittgenstein's ruminations.
       Eventually, Iyer shifts from group-dynamics to the more closely personal ones, as Peters is the only one from Wittgentein's class to remain at Cambridge over the term-holiday, and his relationship with his teacher becomes a more intimate one, from taking dictation to a different level of involvement. It's not an entirely successful shift -- though it does at least come across appropriately uncomfortably -- and Iyer opts out quickly and rather easily. Arguably an almost necessary turn in a story that milks the intellectual philosophizing for all its worth but needs to eventual ground itself in the more human, it makes for a somewhat abrupt conclusion. Still, this too fits with the undergraduate experience, as yet another episode for Peters along the path mapped out in what could be a chapter in a Bildungsroman.
       Iyer excels with the Wittgensteinian blather -- philosophy at a religion-like level, and easy to accept as either profound or non-sense (or, indeed, both). He does dialogue very well -- or, in Wittgenstein's case, essentially monologues -- and the student-chatter is entertaining throughout. University life -- in particular the varieties of social life the students are involved in -- is also keenly and effectively observed.
       Wittgenstein Jr really is very good entertainment -- enjoyable reading, with just the right touch of gravity, good fun, but with a sense of the almost-profound in the shadows.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 August 2014

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Wittgenstein Jr: Reviews: Ludwig Wittgenstein: Lars Iyer: Other books by Lars Iyer under review: Other books about Ludwig Wittgenstein under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       Lars Iyer teaches at Newcastle University.

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© 2014 the complete review

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