THE WRITER WAS DRUNK.
That much was obvious to Bruce Duffy when he answered the telephone late one night. Duffy figured the guy had gotten himself sloshed to ease the delivery of some bad news.
He was right. That 50-page manuscript Duffy had been working on for almost two years . . . the writer
had read it. He'd shown it to some people. He had to talk.
"Bruce," he began, "this is -- brilliant." Duffy could tell the writer was sincere; but he also knew there was more. "And nobody is going to publish it. Why are you doing this to your talent? It's unbelievable! You're ruining yourself."
THIS OCCURRED SIX YEARS AGO AND BRUCE DUFFY, 36, IS far from ruined. The manuscript swelled to more than 500 pages over the next half-decade and became a novel, The World as I Found It. In spite of dire warnings from various oracles, drunk and sober, it was published earlier this year. It is a great heavy tome with a serious, gloomy cover, looking much like a chore to begin and a martyrdom to finish. The dust jacket explains with forced enthusiasm that the book is about a philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein.
But the old saying about books and their covers is still true. The World as I Found It is "raucously humorous and uncommonly moving," according to The New York Times Book Review. The Philadelphia Inquirer called it "a rich, eloquent, poised masterwork." At the same time, critics seem startled by Duffy's wildly improbable achievement: He has taken some of the most impenetrable philosophical discourse in history and, without trivializing it, has made it enjoyable. "It is hard to know which is more outsized," wrote Richard Eder of the Los Angeles Times. "The talent of Bruce Duffy, or his nerve."
Duffy's special quality is an effervescent mixture of both. Talent and nerve combine in him to produce, like soda and vinegar, an explosion of energy, as well as a reckless tendency to venture where more prudent writers and intellectuals might not. The Greeks call this quality hubris; the Jews call it chutzpah; and Duffy found out he had it the night of the phone call.
Duffy is a tall, gawky fellow who bears some resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. Unlike Lincoln, though, he smiles a great deal, his beard stretching across his face like a caterpillar wrapping itself around the trunk of a tree. But when he remembers his mood in the wake of that phone call, the smile disappears, the caterpillar droops, and President Lincoln resurfaces, grim, as if he had just heard the news from Fort Sumter. "I was furious," he says.
He was also frightened and depressed. He trusted his writer friend, even drunk, as "someone who had some sense of my talent." Duffy had been an aspiring author for almost 10 years and had just turned 30. He was recently married, living in Takoma Park, Md., and coming to grips with his first white-collar job. If he was going to be a writer, hadn't he better write something that people would read?
"You know," he says, "you don't always have a choice of what you're going to write. You're not like a cow that can give ice cream with one udder and milk with another. So, I said, 'Screw it!' I don't care what anybody thinks. Whether it's publishable or not, I'm going to write it."
The next day, he rose before dawn. Writing would demand a monastic discipline: Up at 4:30, a jog, a shower, then into his cramped study, hunched over his Kaypro computer, waggling his stiff fingers and pumping out a novel that nobody was likely to publish.
And what a novel! A Viennese Jew, Wittgenstein endures an affluent but stifling boyhood, dominated by a father so monstrously autocratic that two of his brothers are driven to suicide. He grows up to become a successful engineer, but one day in 1912, while flying a kite, he has an epiphany and turns to philosophy. At Cambridge University he meets Bertrand Russell, who becomes his mentor. Russell, with much of his most important philosophizing behind him, sets out to revolutionize the world social order, beginning with his own sex life. Wittgenstein, initially Russell's favored pupil, metamorphoses into his nemesis, assaulting his former master with critiques. An ethicist, G.E. Moore, does his best to mediate between them. Moore, a profoundly kind man given to overeating, finds romance at an advanced age (with a former student) and becomes a soothing contrast to both the lascivious Russell and the guilt-racked homosexual Wittgenstein.
Still, it is Wittgenstein, with his extraordinary powers of observation, who dominates the work. We follow him all over Europe: from his remote Norwegian garret to the trenches of World War I, to a backwater Austrian village where, as a schoolmaster, he is tormented by rambunctious pupils and superstitious village yokels. Returning to Cambridge, he teaches such classes as were never seen there before or since, more closely resembling seances than lectures, arguing that the most profound philosophical truths are those that point beyond philosophy, those which are, in fact, unsayable.
The novel is based on fact, but fact so leavened and kneaded by Duffy that the real-life principals would hardly have recognized themselves. Duffy's goal is not biography but a meditation on Wittgenstein's philosophical journey. And reflected in that journey is an awesome chamber of horrors, the 20th century itself, with its mountains of mutilated corpses, its anxious, desperate, groping masses and, finally, its quiet corners of fragile beauty. This was Bruce Duffy's sole concern each day at sunrise, while many in Takoma Park were tuning to "Good Morning America."
And then, promptly at 8 a.m., it was time to go to work. Ten minutes of hysterical preparations, slithering into shirt-and-trousers, out the door, onto the Metro and into his frigid office cubicle. Here he would be called upon to prepare pamphlets and slide shows for government clients. "There was," he says, "an absolute confusion in my life in going from being a writer of fiction to a writer of non-fiction -- or of government fiction." This confusion intensified at 5:30 when, toting "a massive cup of coffee," he would climb on board the Metro and head back to Takoma Park. Then, after a second shower and a couple of chin-ups, he would work until 9, when his wife Marianne would call him to dinner: "It's cold and getting colder!"
She laughs at the memory, but it hasn't always seemed so funny. Marianne Glass Duffy tolerated seven years of her husband's obsession. She read his drafts, conducted research and carried out innumerable small tasks, all while holding down a full-time public relations job. He would often come home from work in a daze, twitching from the coffee. Sometimes, she'd try to give him a hug, but he'd be preoccupied. Their survival as a couple under such circumstances seems as improbable as the success of Duffy's novel, but the marriage is Marianne's achievement as much as the book is Duffy's. The course of his life was somewhat out of his control anyway. He had discovered that when he was just a boy. BRUCE DUFFY'S MOTHER WAS FROM New York and didn't think much of her new suburban home in Garrett Park, Md. She regarded it as the sticks, and, in fact, the little cottage-style brick homes in the neighborhood give it a small-town feel. Duffy, an only child, was close to his mother, who, he says, was charming but had a streak of irrepressible self-importance.
One afternoon, when Bruce was 11, he was out playing ball in the street with the rest of the neighborhood boys. His mother was taking a nap indoors, and the caterwauling woke her. Most mothers would have regarded this as an annoyance, but Joan Duffy regarded it as a crime. So she called the cops. "People were just outraged that she would call the police on their children," says Duffy. In retaliation, she was ostracized, and he felt the weight of it. "There were kids saying, 'Our parents say we shouldn't blame you because your mother's an ass.' "
These strained circumstances continued for the next few weeks, even when Bruce's mother developed appendicitis and had to go into the hospital. He remembers her telling him how frightened she was, how she didn't want to go. The operation was successful, but there were "complications." He visited her once but remembers only the sight of her arm with black and blue marks running up and down.
A few weeks later, Bruce's father picked him up at school in the middle of the day. As they drove the short distance home, Duffy says, "I remember him nervously switching the radio between stations, as if he couldn't find the right frequency with which to transmit some news." Finally he said this: "There's a very strong possibility your mother's going to die."
They arrived home in time for a telephone call. "That was the hospital," his father said. "Your mother just died." This, Duffy says, was a turning point in his life, not simply because he was suffering every child's nightmare, but because he had no idea how to react. "I watched television all the time as a child, and the only way I could think of to react was the way movie kids would. So I ran into his arms and shrieked, 'She's dead!' and sort of cried. But I felt completely false doing that. It was not an authentic reaction." Soon the priest was there, whispering comfort, but Duffy recalls nothing of what he said: "I just remember that going right through me." Later, upstairs in the shower, he was able to cry real tears for his mother, "but I was totally alone in there, crying, the shower almost pulling the tears out of me."
A few days later, Pumphrey's Funeral Home was packed with people saying their final goodbyes to his mother's corpse. Duffy stood there feeling guilty and sacrilegious because he'd just had an accident with a pistachio ice cream cone and spoiled his funeral finery. "When they were about to close up the coffin," he says, "my father kissed my mother. Then my grandmother seized her and kissed her. And then all eyes were on me to see what I was going to do. I decided I wasn't going to kiss her. And I didn't. The thought of kissing a corpse was unpleasant to me, but also, there's this other thing that's always been with me and that's in my book: the sense of eternity. I was rejecting social duty, and it would stand like the stars. I would have to live with it."
Duffy could no longer bear to act inauthentically. He began watching himself and others with a critical eye, thinking, "What do I really feel? How sad am I? Are other people really sad? Or are they just like seals barking for fish? I remember having that image." He was 11 and motherless and thinking like a philosopher. "WRITING CAN OFTEN BE ABOUT LOSS, about what was and what is no longer." So says Duffy, recalling his feelings about the book as it neared completion. "I was getting at things that had evaded me for years. When you finally do that, it's like throwing the perfect pitch. You're able to do things you know are good, you're almost trembling as it comes out. You're not straining for any effect or trying for anything at all. It's just what it is."
And maybe, Duffy began to think, what it was could be published after all. He corralled an agent, Malaga Baldi, who mentioned the work to Katrina Kenison, an editor at the publishing firm of Ticknor & Fields. "It got to be a joke between us," Kenison remembers. "I'd say, 'How's that novel on Vit-gen-stine coming along?' " Late in 1985, when Kenison was in Maine editing a biography of Frederick the Great, she started reading Duffy's manuscript for diversion. After a few pages, she was stunned. "I said, 'My God, if he can keep this up, we'll have a masterpiece.' I'll never forget the experience of reading it." Returning to Boston, she typed out a memo, explaining to her peers "that, yes, it's a 600-page novel on Ludwig Wittgenstein. But don't panic."
Bruce and Marianne Duffy, relaxing on their living room sofa, still wriggle with happiness remembering a day in November 1985 when the news arrived that Ticknor & Fields had agreed to publish the book. They bolted from their offices, his in Rosslyn, hers in Dupont Circle, and cabbed to Georgetown, where they met in the street, embracing, elated. Just then, an ancient philistine of a woman came hobbling by, regarded them for a moment and hollered: "That's disgusting!" Duffy, whose progress as a novelist had come in defiance of other forms of corseted stodginess, savored the ironic appropriateness of this outburst. "Hey, you like this?" he leered, grabbing his wife and kissing her again.
The euphoria dissolved as Duffy realized the enormous difficulty of meeting his publisher's deadline. His already spartan routine became more relentless. The morning wake-up call was pushed back to 4:15, all social life was scrapped, and every minute of every day was considered precious. "There was not time to fail at anything, or to do much plotting. It was very scary." The consulting firm granted him a leave of absence, and he began to experience the most intense anxiety he had ever known. "It was conscious tension. I felt like I was in a tube that I might never get out of."
But there was light at the end of the tube, and as he approached it, there arose what Duffy calls "an incredible sense of mastery. I would feel as if I were standing up in a kind of control tower, and somebody else was writing. I'd be at once feeling emotional about the characters and at the same time feeling a tremendous emotional distance from them, a kind of towering resignation before it all. And that was a wonderful feeling. Those are some of the most impeccable moments of my life."
So profound was this sense of mastery that Duffy's view of the novel as a public creation came full circle. Five years before, he had plowed ahead in spite of the fact that he had every reason to believe the work would never be published. Now, as he placed the finishing touches on his final draft, he was certain of success. "At the risk of sounding arrogant, I just stood outside myself at the end and felt: There's something very right about this. I really felt a kind of stammering awkwardness before it. I felt absolutely sure. And I'm not usually that way."
Duffy acknowledges the book is "not for everybody," but he is proud of having taken a world that was the exclusive preserve of academics and "brought it to life."
"That's the wonderful thing about writing," he says. "Life becomes a kind of fallow field where there are things vaguely below the surface, not quite germinating. You can stir those things out of the depths of the world, and out of yourself, and, from that, conjure much, much more. Wittgenstein looked upon philosophy as a means by which we can overcome the bewitchments of language, the bewitchments of our beliefs, bugbears and fictions. And I'd say the same can be true of a novel.
"Or at least," he concludes after a thoughtful pause, "of this novel." ::