Ni­et­zsche, the soap opera

This en­er­getic bi­og­ra­phy tears down the im­age of the philoso­pher as men­tor to the Nazis, says Nakul Kr­ishna

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - BOOKS -

A464pp, Faber, £20, ebook £14.99

nother bi­og­ra­phy of Friedrich Ni­et­zsche: do we need one? Cer­tainly, Ni­et­zsche’s in­tel­lec­tual im­por­tance is be­yond ques­tion, now that we are past see­ing him as the tute­lary spirit of the Third Re­ich. His life is both in­ter­est­ing in its own right and di­rectly rel­e­vant to the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of his phi­los­o­phy. But there are a good few bi­ogra­phies al­ready – the most re­cent, by the philoso­pher Ju­lian Young, only eight years old. Be­fore him, we have had per­fectly ser­vice­able lives by Cur­tis Cate (2003), an English trans­la­tion of Rüdi­ger Safran­ski’s Ger­man bi­og­ra­phy (2001), and a re­vised edi­tion of RJ Holling­dale’s 1965 clas­sic that came out in 1999.

The out­lines of Ni­et­zsche’s life – the re­li­gious child­hood, the pre­co­cious aca­demic suc­cess, the as­so­ci­a­tion with Wag­ner, the peri­patetic years of hor­rific ill­ness and fren­zied writ­ing, the even­tual de­scent into mad­ness, the em­brace of his views by the Nazis af­ter his death – have been cov­ered well enough in these books that a new bi­og­ra­phy couldn’t be jus­ti­fied by a claim to be telling a ne­glected story. I read Sue Prideaux’s new bi­og­ra­phy with some plea­sure, oc­ca­sional il­lu­mi­na­tion and a strong sense of déjà vu, the sense never leav­ing me that I had heard this story be­fore, and told at least as well.

Prideaux’s nar­ra­tive is roughly chrono­log­i­cal, and the ap­proach pleas­ingly old-fash­ioned. There are psy­cho­log­i­cal spec­u­la­tions but Ni­et­zsche, for one, could hardly be­grudge them. He was, af­ter all, the pi­o­neer of see­ing the work of phi­los­o­phy as “a kind of in­vol­un­tary and un­con­scious mem­oir”. But Prideaux nei­ther seeks nor en­ter­tains any grand psy­cho­an­a­lytic ex­pla­na­tions.

We fol­low Ni­et­zsche from his early child­hood in a strait­ened house­hold of de­vout women, through his days at school and uni­ver­sity, to his ap­point­ment at an ab­surdly early age to a pro­fes­sor­ship at Basle. Then be­gins his as­so­ci­a­tion with Richard and Cosima Wag­ner, a fraught friend­ship to which some of Prideaux’s best pages are de­voted.

She is good at ren­der­ing these soap-op­er­atic episodes, sen­si­tive to the con­stant shift­ing of the Wag­n­ers’ at­ti­tudes to their sin­cere, but all too in­de­pen­dent-minded, ad­mirer, and justly mock­ing of their self-im­por­tance and an­tiSemitism. She is also good on Ni­et­zsche’s fas­ci­na­tion, and later dis­ap­point­ment, with that bril­liant and im­pos­si­ble femme fa­tale Lou Salomé, who would later en­rap­ture Freud and Rilke.

There is an ar­gu­ment of sorts run­ning through the nar­ra­tive: that Ni­et­zsche was not, de­spite his later co-op­tion into the Nazi pan­theon, the anti-Semite of the old de­monology. This is no longer con­tro­ver­sial in schol­arly cir­cles, but the point re­mains worth mak­ing and Prideaux makes it well, ar­rang­ing her ev­i­dence thought­fully through­out the text. Ni­et­zsche had noth­ing but con­tempt for the at­ti­tudes of such stan­dard-is­sue racists as his sis­ter, Elis­a­beth, and her equally ris­i­ble hus­band, Bern­hard Förster. Prideaux’s brisk ac­count of the Försters’ ill-fated at­tempt to set up a colony of pure-bred Aryans with a band of naive fel­low anti-Semites in Paraguay is, in turns, funny, alarm­ing and damn­ing.

Prideaux’s Ni­et­zsche is – in his ex­cel­lent phrase – “hu­man, all too hu­man”, a bona fide ge­nius given to vain­glory. He is, from his child­hood on­wards, a vul­ner­a­ble crea­ture, all the way to the ig­no­min­ious decade of mad­ness when he was sub­ject to the min­is­tra­tions of doc­tors and his mother or pa­raded be­fore guests in a white dress­ing gown by his un­speak­able sis­ter.

Prideaux rightly sees in Ni­et­zsche’s state of health and his anx­i­eties about it the im­pe­tus for the in­creas­ingly fren­zied writ­ing of his mid­dle years and his fond­ness for a frag­mented, al­lu­sive and apho­ris­tic style full of el­lipses and de­lib­er­ate eli­sions. As she has it: “Brevity held great at­trac­tion for him be­cause the pe­ri­ods when he was ca­pa­ble of read­ing or writ­ing were be­com­ing briefer.” Her ren­der­ing of his fi­nal de­scent into in­san­ity, with an un­glossed slide show of quo­ta­tions from a set of in­creas­ingly un­hinged let­ters, is chill­ing yet com­pas­sion­ate, and shows her at her best.

Prideaux writes in un­man­nered, faintly caus­tic prose, with a tal­ent for the well-timed di­gres­sion.

Her sen­tences are sprightly, her chap­ters short, and the char­ac­ters, ma­jor and mi­nor, painted in broad brush­strokes. The pho­tographs printed with the text have been thought­fully cho­sen, and there is even a help­ful ap­pen­dix col­lect­ing Ni­et­zsche’s best-known apho­risms. The nar­ra­tive has the en­ergy of a James Bond movie, ever anx­ious to get to the next set piece in some at­trac­tive Euro­pean city. It is of­ten funny, usu­ally at the ex­pense of

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