Wittgenstein’s Nephew

Title: Wittgenstein’s Nephew
Author: Thomas Bernhard
Publication Date: 1982 (translated into English in 1988)
Genre: Fiction, Autobiography, Satire
Page Length: Approximately 125 pages (may vary based on edition)


Wittgenstein’s Nephew, written by Thomas Bernhard, is a fictional autobiographical novel published in 1982. It provides a profound insight into the author’s troubled friendship with Paul Wittgenstein, the nephew of the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, amidst a backdrop of 1960s Vienna. Through a combination of satire, dark humor, and raw introspection, Bernhard explores themes of madness, genius, societal judgment, artistic struggles, and existentialism.

The novel is divided into five chapters, each delving into different aspects of Bernhard’s relationship with Paul Wittgenstein, while also offering a broader critique of the society and culture they inhabit.

Chapter 1:
The initial chapter provides an introduction to the author and his relationship with Paul. Bernhard describes Paul as a former concert pianist who, following a mental breakdown, is now confined to a private clinic outside Vienna. Bernhard reflects on the numerous times he visited Paul, their discussions on art, music, philosophy, and the eccentricities of his friend. This chapter presents the first glimpses of Paul’s deteriorating mental and physical state, as well as his unwavering admiration for his famous uncle, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Chapter 2:
In this chapter, Bernhard takes the reader back to their earlier years in the 1960s. He recalls a road trip he took with Paul through Austria, where they encounter various bizarre characters and engage in profound conversations about art, life, and the human condition. The author highlights the stark contrast between their free-spirited existence and the pressures of societal expectations. Bernhard also delves into the murky waters of the art scene, exposing the pretentiousness and superficiality that often accompany success.

Chapter 3:
This chapter provides a significant turning point as Bernhard brilliantly intersperses personal anecdotes with societal critique. He discusses Paul’s obsession with symphony conductor Karl Böhm and his frustration with the world’s refusal to recognize Böhm’s genius. Bernhard reflects on the pervasive negativity in Paul’s life and the impact it had on his mental state. The author meditates on his own struggles with artistic creation, creativity, and the societal pressures to conform to norms.

Chapter 4:
In this chapter, Bernhard recounts Paul’s admission to a different sanatorium in Vienna after his initial clinic was destroyed in a fire. The author’s despair is palpable as he describes the dehumanizing environment, the oppressive hospital staff, and the lack of support for Paul’s recovery. Despite the darkness, Bernhard also illustrates the moments of hope and spiritual connection he experiences with his friend during this time. The chapter ultimately ends on a tragic note, as Paul’s mental state continues to deteriorate.

Chapter 5:
The final chapter serves as an epitaph for the friendship between the author and Paul. Bernhard addresses Paul’s death and reflects on their last encounters, their disagreements about art and philosophy, and the immense challenges they both faced within themselves and society. The author’s raw honesty and portrayal of his own struggles with depression and isolation add depth to the novel’s exploration of the human condition and the quest for meaning.

Wittgenstein’s Nephew is a highly introspective novel where Bernhard uses wit, sarcasm, and acerbic observations to provide a scathing critique of societal norms, artistic pretensions, and the human condition. Despite its dark themes, the book serves as a powerful exploration of the complexities of friendship, the struggles of artistic creation, and the philosophical questions surrounding individual identity, existence, and personal growth. Bernhard’s distinctive narrative style, combining passionate ramblings and intricate character studies, offers an immersive reading experience that challenges readers to question their own views on society and the nature of human relationships.