Bruce Duffy’s new book Disaster Was My God about Arthur Rimbaud has been getting a lot of attention recently. It was reviewed in The New York Times, an a new translation by John Ashbery of Rimbaud’s famous collection Illuminations was published this year (the poem ’After the Flood‘ was also published in our cousin publication The New York Review of Books).
Duffy’s first novel The World As I Found It, originally published in 1987, was republished by us last year. Hailed by critics as a masterpiece of historical and biographical fiction (Joyce Carol Oates called it “one of the five great nonfiction novels” and “one of the most ambitious first novels ever published”), the book is a study of the intersecting lives of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Betrand Russell, and G.E. Moore as they meet and become friends in Cambridge, and are then broken apart by World War I.
Several years after publishing, Bruce Duffy gave a lecture on The World As I Found It, which is included in our edition. Here are the first few paragraphs:
“Wittgenstein found facts and pictures of facts, immensely mysterious. I must say I do too. Like him, I’m puzzled by how facts and words refer to actual things in the world. And I’m equally puzzled by facts, or statements of fact, that do not refer to reality—by this I mean fictions.
Consider the phrase ‘the present king of France.’ France, of course, has no present king. The words make sense, but they conjure a nonexistent person, a linguistic unicorn. Yet how strange when you think about it, that we can talk about this royal personage, can even play with his nonexistence, For instance, we can say, ‘The King of France is wise.’ Or, ‘The king of France is wild about the American actor Mickey Rourke.’
I can see why apparently meaningful nonsense like this so intrigued Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell. But what truly haunts me are names of people who actually lived—names for whom there were once living faces. Among other things, my novel The World As I Found It reflects my puzzlement—my hautedness, I guess—with names and facts and faces.
Take Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Who is this person—this name, I should say—in relation to the historical personage Ludwig Wittgenstein? And who is this historical personage relative to the legends and memories (good or bad or faulty) of the various people who actually knew him? How do we even remember a man like Wittgenstein, who went through so many radical changes in his life? For that matter, how do we speak of ‘Wittgenstein’s philosophy’ when that philosophy also changed so dramatically—at times almost constantly? How, in short, do we think of a human spirit over time? Oh, and one final question: How does our memory of a person consort, or coexist, with the reality of what it was like to actually be that person—assuming, of course, that anyone but God or the person himself would ever know such a thing?”