The book is 546 pages long, and I’m now at page 383. I’m just beginning to experience the beginnings of that odd sort of regret that comes to you when you’re so enthralled by a book, you don’t want it to end. The book leads you inexorably on, with its inescapable forward motion, but you begin to fight, in your mind, against its finishing.
I think that’s one of the reasons I recently went on a holiday with some other books: I saw them as palette-cleansers.
I read, for example, Graham Green’s The Comedians (a wonderful read), S.Y Agnon’s In the Heart of the Seas (ditto) and Aharon Appelfeld’s Badenheim 1939 (predictably chilling). I got quickly bored with and therefore bogged down in Steig Larsson’s huge bestseller, The Girl Who Played With Fire (it’s now headed back to the Salvation Army), pushed determinedly through Meryle Secrest’s dogged biography of broadway composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, read half of Jeanette Winterson’s brilliant but tiring Sexing the Cherry, half of Martin Cruz Smith’s political thriller Havana Bay (it didn’t thrill me enough) and as much as I could bear of Iris Nowell’s skimpy book about my late friend, artist Harold Town. I also read around in Edmund White’s huge earnest biography of Jean Genet (promising to come back to it), and breezed through a few of the stories from Alice Munro’s collection, Dear Life (all of which I found less sparkling and revelatory than I had hoped).
So, a bibliophilic holiday. And now I was famished again for The World as I Found It.
My recent progress through the book—slow, because of my delight in lingering over a Duffy phrase, sentence, paragraph—has taken me through Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore’s uncomfortable journey to visit Wittgenstein, now living in a brutally abstemious shack in Norway (he writes to his wife that he is “playing midwife to a rhinoceros?); Bertrand Russell’s first ocean-going encounter with an iceberg on his way to a lecture tour in America, while the war-clouds darkened over Europe: “…The news, meanwhile, grew worse. Returning to his cabin after breakfast one morning, Russell saw his first iceberg, a glowing, white-hot hull whose heights it seemed he could never scale as he watched it slip by, smoking white against the fog and alive with the cries of birds he could not see.”
After which war breaks out and the book settles into over a hundred pages (almost a novel within the novel) of the most frighteningly sustained incarnation, in language, of the brutal, wasteful, unspeakably savage, unbearably tedious mass laceration that was World War 1. The long sections devoted to Sergeant Wittgenstein’s hopeless struggle to maintain his authority over the Austrian troops under his command, as they languish in their filthy trenches a couple of hundred metres away from their enemy, the Russian troops languishing in their trenches, is so skilfully managed it bears comparison with the greatest writing to come out of WW1: Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That, Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier and (somewhat later, in 1971) Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun.
It seems indisputable to me that Bruce Duffy has here written one of the great novels of the 2oth century—and of the 21st as well. The book—which, astoundingly, was the writer’s first—is seemingly about Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, D. H. Lawrence, Lady Ottoline Morrell and a phalanx of politico-cultural figures in England and Germany during the early years of the last century.
But of course it’s an encyclopaedic book, a vast, sprawling, frighteningly intelligent, deeply poetic book, and it bodies forth not only an entire social, cultural and political landscape, but—most importantly—makes deep, repeated raids on the very nature of the poignant and probably hopeless desire to come to the solidity of truth in a ramshackle world that will have none of it.