The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bruce Duffy, who explored philosophers’ lives in critically praised debut novel, dies at 70

Novelist Bruce Duffy in 2011. (Stephen Voss)

Bruce Duffy, whose first novel, “The World As I Found It,” was a challenging and ambitious exploration of the life of Ludwig Wittgenstein and other philosophers and one of the most celebrated literary debuts of the 1980s, died Feb. 10 at a hospice center in Rockville, Md. He was 70.

He had brain cancer, said his daughter Lily Duffy.

Mr. Duffy, who lived in the Maryland suburbs his entire life, was 36 when he published “The World As I Found It” in 1987. The novel, more than 500 pages long, examined the complicated ideas and even more complicated life of Wittgenstein, the Vienna-born philosopher whose studies of logic made him one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century.

It took Mr. Duffy more than seven years to do the research and writing. The idea for the novel grew from a few stray facts he learned about Wittgenstein, who was born in 1889, renounced his family’s wealth and, for a 10-year period, gave up the study of philosophy. Three of his brothers died by suicide.

Mr. Duffy had never visited Austria or Cambridge, England, where Wittgenstein spent much of his life. Yet he inhabited that world each day at 4 a.m., when he rose to write before going to his day job at a consulting company.

“You know, you don’t always have a choice of what you’re going to write,” he told The Washington Post in 1987. “So, I said … I don’t care what anybody thinks. Whether it’s publishable or not, I’m going to write it.”

Mr. Duffy sought to bring drama and passion to the heady life of Cambridge philosophers, including Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore. Russell, who was Wittgenstein’s mentor and intellectual rival, called his Austrian protege “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived.”

Mr. Duffy took his title from a phrase Wittgenstein had written in the only book of philosophy he published during his lifetime, then painted an elaborate portrait over the known biography: Wittgenstein once worked as an aeronautical engineer, studied at Cambridge, fought on the Russian front during World War I, retreated for long periods to rural Norway and Austria and practiced architecture in Vienna before returning to Cambridge in the late 1920s.

The book also explored Wittgenstein’s struggles to come to grips with his Jewish ancestry and his attraction to young men, developing deep bonds with some of them.

“In the collective memory of those who knew him,” Mr. Duffy wrote of Wittgenstein, "he would become sort of a splatched and angled concatenation of images, wishes, evasions, running feuds, regrets. For some who knew him, his name would evoke pains such as old men feel — sharp, bunionlike pangs that would shoot out at the mention of Witt-gen-stein, that fractious weather system of remembering and forgetting which finally consumes the life of the thing remembered.”

In a review in the Los Angeles Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Richard Eder wrote, “It is hard to know which is more outsized; the talent of Bruce Duffy, the author, or his nerve.”

“By turns wicked, melancholy and rhapsodic,” critic John Leonard wrote in Newsday, " ‘The World As I Found It’ is an astonishing performance, a kind of intellectual opera in which each abstraction gets its own aria.”

Even critics who complained that some passages were overwritten or that the dialogue did not sound realistic, said there was much to salute in Mr. Duffy’s effort.

“If this novel fails,” author Frederic Raphael wrote in the Sunday Times of London, “it fails with a certain magnificence.”

Mr. Duffy received a Guggenheim fellowship, a Whiting Award for emerging writers and a two-book contract for his next novels. He appeared on talk shows, lectured on Wittgenstein, and the BBC optioned the novel for a project that never came to fruition.

He traveled around the world — Haiti, Bosnia, Afghanistan — for high-profile magazine assignments and rode the rails across the United States, chronicling some of the last of the hoboes.

Critics praised the expansive scope and vision of Mr. Duffy’s first novel, noting that he had defied the standard practice of publishing a loosely autobiographical, coming-of-age story. In 1997, his second novel, “Last Comes the Egg,” came out: a loosely autobiographical, coming-of-age story about a boy from suburban Maryland whose relationship with his father falters after the death of his mother.

The book followed the central character and two of his buddies as they steal a car and travel south, in a journey that reminded some reviewers of a combination of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” and Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”

The book “crashed and burned,” in Mr. Duffy’s words.

He started and abandoned another novel, bought out his publishing contract and went to work as a corporate speechwriter. Finally, he found another historical subject for a novel, the 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, and in 2011 published a novel based on his short, tempestuous life, “Disaster Was My God.”

He contemplated the malevolent forces in Rimbaud’s life — his overbearing mother, his destructive relationship with poet Paul Verlaine — that led Rimbaud to renounce poetry at 21, move to Africa and declare, “Art is stupid and a lie and, above all, useless.”

Bruce Michael Duffy was born June 9, 1951, in Washington and grew up in Garrett Park, Md. His father had an air conditioning business, and his mother was a homemaker who died when Bruce, an only child, was 11.

Mr. Duffy considered his mother’s death, of complications from appendicitis, the formative event of his childhood, leading him to question the purpose and meaning of life. He determined to become a writer and studied English at the University of Maryland, graduating in 1973.

He worked as a security guard while writing fiction and poetry, which he asked one of his college professors, Marjorie Perloff, to read.

“She said I had to be more conscious about really learning my craft,” Mr. Duffy told Washingtonian magazine in 2011, “and really looking at writers I admired and say, ‘How did they do that? Why does it work?’ It made me look at the alchemy of words, as Rimbaud said.”

He started a novel, which he threw away, before discovering Wittgenstein and writing “The World As I Found It.”

Mr. Duffy was overcome by “an incredible sense of mastery,” while writing the book, he told The Post in 1987. “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.”

In 1999, author Joyce Carol Oates hailed “The World As I Found It” as “one of the most ambitious first novels ever published.” It was released in a new edition in 2010 by the NYRB Classics, a division of the New York Review of Books.

Mr. Duffy’s marriage to Marianne Glass ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 16 years, Susan Segal; two daughters from his first marriage, Lily Duffy and Kate Duffy; a stepson, Sam Kupfer; and a granddaughter.

Shortly before his death, Mr. Duffy completed a manuscript for a new novel about the birth of the atomic bomb.

“Some people say he should have written more,” novelist and journalist Bob Shacochis told Washingtonian in 2011. “Bruce has written one great book, one of the best books by anybody of my generation. In this country, there is a ghost brigade of really good writers who get little or no notice. Bruce is a captain in that brigade.”