What the Prospect staff are reading:
After the recommendation of a colleague, I’ve recently finished reading Ray Monk’s biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius. It’s a brilliant synthesis of biography and philosophical exposition, and offers an important riposte to the stern idol that most people—naturally enough— make out of Wittgenstein after reading his philosophy. I loved finding out about Wittgenstein’s fondness for Westerns, pulp detective magazines and terrible puns, and Monk’s measured integration of this with his profound love of culture (classical music, above all) and equally profound despair in the face of much of modernity. A thought not acted upon was, for Wittgenstein, worthless: during his life he gave away one of the largest fortunes in Europe, travelled across the Alps on foot in winter to apologise to children he had struck as a teacher more than a decade previously, and refused to publish more than one book because, he felt, the only standards worth judging any work by were absolute ones.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. I found it near perfect—satisfyingly terse, poignant and devastatingly funny. Most will know that the book’s central event is the firebombing of Dresden; a moment to which shell-shocked protagonist Billy Pilgrim keeps returning. Vonnegut himself was a witness to this event, and he was one of the first writers to portray it as a colossal human tragedy. Since publication, the accepted casualty toll of Dresden has been reduced (Vonnegut borrowed numbers from David Irving’s analysis), but the book provided an important counternarrative to the triumphalist propaganda that prevailed at the time, and it’s still a powerful indictment of all war and violence.
Billy Pilgrim’s mind, fractured through trauma, has come “unstuck in time”: hence the narrative jumps from moments in bed as an old man back to childhood, then to POW camps, to encounters with the alien species of Tralfamadorians. But the phrase “unstuck in time” is also an apt summation of the book itself: it can claim an important historical moment, but could equally be set today, in a world where the most ludicrous euphemisms for death and destruction (“friendly fire,” “collateral damage” etc) are still in regular use.
I’ve finally caught up with Granta‘s “Best of Young American Novelists” issue. A few of the names on the list were already familiar to me, not least because two…