Wittgenstein's Nephew

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  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2009-10-13
  • Publisher: Vintage

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It is 1967. In separate wings of a Viennese hospital, two men lie bedridden. The narrator, named Thomas Bernhard, is stricken with a lung ailment; his friend Paul, nephew of the celebrated philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, is suffering from one of his periodic bouts of madness. As their once-casual friendship quickens, these two eccentric men begin to discover in each other a possible antidote to their feelings of hopelessness and mortality a spiritual symmetry forged by their shared passion for music, strange sense of humor, disgust for bourgeois Vienna, and great fear in the face of death. Part memoir, part fiction,Wittgenstein's Nephewis both a meditation on the artist's struggle to maintain a solid foothold in a world gone incomprehensibly askew, and a stunning if not haunting eulogy to a real-life friendship.

Author Biography

Thomas Bernhard was born in Holland in 1931 and grew up in Austria. He studied music at the Akademie Mozarteum in Salzburg. In 1957 he began a second career, as a playwright, poet, and novelist. The winner of the three most distinguished and coveted literary prizes awarded in Germany, he has become one of the most widely translated and admired writers of his generation. He published nine novels, an autobiography, one volume of poetry, four collections of short stories, and six volumes of plays. Thomas Bernhard died in Austria in 1989.


IN 1967, one of the indefatigable nursing sisters in the Hermann Pavilion on the Baumgartnerhohe placed on my bed a copy of my newly published bookGargoyles, which I had written a year earlier at 6o rue de la Croix in Brussels, but I had not the strength to pick it up, having just come round from a general anesthesia lasting several hours, during which the doctors had cut open my neck and removed a fist-sized tumor from my thorax. As I recall, it was at the time of the Six-Day War, and after undergoing a strenuous course of cortisone treatment, I developed a moonlike face, just as the doctors had intended. During the ward round they would comment on my moon face in their witty fashion, which made even me laugh, although they had told me themselves that I hadonly weeks, or at best months, to live. In the Hermann Pavilion there were only seven rooms on the ground floor, accommodating thirteen or fourteen patients who had nothing to look forward to but death. They would shuffle up and down the corridor in their hospital dressing gowns, then one day disappear for ever. Once a week the great Professor Salzer, the foremost authority on pulmonary surgery, would appear in the Hermann Pavilion, always wearing white gloves and walking with an enormously imposing gait, while a bevy of nursing sisters flitted almost noiselessly around him as they escorted him, a very tall and very elegant figure, to the operating theater. This famous Professor Salzer, whom the private patients had to perform their operations, staking everything on his reputation (though I had had mine performed by the senior ward surgeon, a stocky farmer's son from the Waldviertel), was an uncle of my friend Paul, the nephew of the philosopher whoseTractatus Logico-pizilosophicusis now known to the whole of the scholarly world, to say nothing of the pseudoscholarly world. At the very time when I was lying in the Hermann Pavilion, my friend Paul was some two hundred yards away in the Ludwig Pavilion, though this, unlike the Hermann Pavilion, did not belong to the pulmonary department, and hence to the so-called Baumgartnerhohe, but belonged to the mental institution Am Steinhof. Male Christian names are given to all the pavilions on the Wilhelminenberg, which occupies a vast area in the west of Vienna and has for decades been divided into two parts—a smaller part, reserved for chest patients and called the Baumgartnerhohe for short (this was my territory), and a larger one, occupied by mental patients and known as Am Steinhof. It seemed grotesque that my friend Paul should be in the Ludwig Pavilion of all places. Whenever I saw Professor Salzer striding purposefully toward the operating theater, with never a glance to left or right, I could not help recalling how, time and again, my friend Paul had described his uncle alternately as a genius and a murderer, and every time I saw the Professor entering or emerging from the operating theater, I wondered whether I was seeing a genius or a murderer entering, a murderer or a genius emerging. This man's medical fame exercised a great fascination over me. Before my stay in the Hermann Pavilion, which is still devoted to lung surgery and specializes above all in lung cancer surgery, I had already seen many doctors and made a habit ofstudyingthese doctors, but from the moment when I first saw Professor Salzer, he put all the others in the shade. He was magnificent in every way, and this magnificence I found utterly unfathomable. His persona seemed to consist partly of the man I saw and at the same time admired, and partly of the rumors I had heard about him. According to my friend Paul, Professor Salzer had for rnany years been able to work miracles: patients who had apparently no chance of survival had gone on livingfor decadesafter he had operated on them, while others, so Paul told me time and again, had died as the result of asudden unforeseen change in the weather under a knife grown

Excerpted from Wittgenstein's Nephew: A Novel by Thomas Bernhard
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