Helen DeWitt – Books that speak directly to the type of person who thinks boredom a fate worse than death

Helen DeWitt and Ilya Gridneff, Your Name Here (Noemi Press, forthcoming)"Some years ago, the novelist David Foster Wallace submitted himself to a long television interview with Charlie Rose, the PBS chat-show host. It was a terrific performance, and in it Wallace talked about why, in much of his work, narrative is split into body-text and footnotes:
There’s a way, it seems to me, that reality’s fractured right now, at least the reality that I live in. And the difficulty about… writing about that reality is that text is very linear and it’s very unified, and… I, anyway, am constantly on the lookout for ways to fracture the text that aren’t totally disorienting – I mean, you can take the lines and jumble them up and that’s nicely fractured, but nobody’s gonna read it.Last year, Helen DeWitt posted this passage on paperpools, her blog: it ‘says everything I might have wanted to say about life, the universe, postmodernism and Your Name Here.’ Your Name Here is a 120,000-word novel; DeWitt is one of its authors, the category of authorship itself having been split. (At this point, it might have been appropriate to spin off into a footnote about its other author, Ilya Gridneff, an Australian journalist of Russian origin, born in Sydney in 1979 and currently working in Papua New Guinea for the Australian Associated Press, except that the DeWitt/Gridneff partnership doesn’t do much fracturing with footnotes. Epistolary structure and multiple avatars, yes, scans of original documents, including contracts, because ‘without the contractual details any book is just fogbound Jamesian kitsch,’ but not really footnotes: perhaps because, since it’s an authorship made up of two people, the challenge is to discover how, like Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, Don Gately and Hal Incandenza, they might ever be brought together at all.)
In 2000, DeWitt published a first novel called The Last Samurai; it sold a hundred thousand copies in English, was translated into ten languages and turns up on various best-cult-classics lists. But no second novel has been published under her name. Instead, the author has moved from London to New York to Berlin, where she seems to have settled, and from where she has, over the past couple of years, relaunched as DeWitt 2.0, blogger, e-smallholder and co-author of Your Name Here – finished about a year ago but so far without a publisher.
A few months ago, Your Name Here was extracted in the New York journal n+1. To see it was like catching a flicker of the future on one of those move-your-head-and-the-picture-changes bendy cards. It begins ‘up in the air, literally’: travellers on an aeroplane are settling down to read their books. Each is addressed in the narrative as ‘you’ and each has bought a different three-for-two airport paperback – one has Pity the Nation, another has Harry Potter, another has Dan Brown. But the texts keep morphing into Arabic in front of the readers’ eyes:
انجيلينا Angelina
بانانا Banana
تيتكاكا Titicaca
‘All the travellers’ books, to their great consternation, are intruded upon by the Arabic language,’ the n+1 editors helpfully point out in a note. ‘A reminder of the supposedly “terroristic” world out there, for which “entertainment” is supposed to be a means of denial and escape.’ Is it a threat, though, or a promise? Mightn’t it be that these alien word-forms are only trying to help?
Straight after the shock of seeing those pages – like the writing on Belshazzar’s wall – I was on Amazon, buying a cheap copy of The Last Samurai. And straight after that, I started following the blog, on which DeWitt posts on such topics as linguistics and transliteration software, irritation with publishers, ‘Arabic verbs of vague application’, how she recently transported all her books to Berlin. There’s also a PayPal button by which you can ‘donate’ $1.15 to her when you buy The Last Samurai second-hand, thus paying the author roughly the same as she would get in royalties from a book sold new. ‘The norm in traditional publishing is for a second-hand book… to bring no financial benefit to the author – the book may have saved the reader from suicide, but there’s no mechanism for the reader to acknowledge the person who made this possible.’ Suicide, pro and contra, is a big theme in The Last Samurai, so this is not as melodramatic a thought as it may appear.
The novel starts in the voice of a woman called Sibylla, a young American living in London who wants to tell us, in a voice that is brainy and prickly but enchantingly funny and clear, the story of her education. Her father, it seems, won a full scholarship to Harvard but let himself be tricked into giving it up; she herself sneaked her way onto a Classics degree at Oxford, only to find herself defeated by the sterility of academic work. She wants to tell us about the job she got after that, and the party she went to, and the awful writer she slept with, mainly to shut him up. She wants to tell us why she likes living in London (something to do with Carling Black Label ads and the way the signs on British fast-food outlets mimic KFC). She’s been reading Schoenberg and wants to tell us about her vision of literature in the future: ‘Perhaps a writer would think of the monosyllables and lack of grammatical inflection in Chinese, and of how this would sound next to lovely long Finnish words all double letters & long vowels in 14 cases.’ Fatally, she finds herself discussing with the terrible writer her dream of an airport-paperback Rosetta Stone: there should be a law obliging publishers to furnish all new books with ‘say, a page of Sophocles or Homer in the original with appropriate marginalia bound into the binding’; it would be a gift to posterity, a second chance for people put off ancient languages at school, something to stow in your carry-on in case you crash on a desert island and find yourself in need of something to
WHY ARE THEY FIGHTING?
But something, or somebody, keeps interrupting her flow.
WHY ARE THEY FIGHTING?
It’s her small son, Ludo, the unexpected issue of the sex with the appalling writer, to support whom she now labours day and night, working at home tagging text for the online versions of hobby magazines. She started teaching him to read at two, with flashcards and Dr Seuss (‘I thought that this would be an enormous help to L for very little trouble to myself’); then, when the child starts gobbling through it, moves him on to algebra, Hebrew, French, anything she can pick off her bookshelf that might furnish pester-diversion and buy her a little peace. Then she reads in a newspaper that it is ‘essential’ for ‘the single mother’ to provide a son with ‘male role-models’. What to do? Clearly this cannot be Ludo’s father, whom she despises so much she refuses to reveal his identity, calling him ‘Liberace’ in recognition of his ‘terrible facility’ and ‘terrible sincerity’, his appalling talent for throwing out ‘logical fallacies like tacks behind a getaway car’. As a substitute she gets The Seven Samurai on video, and together mother and son contemplate what is essential to male heroism while practising their Japanese.
Page 195 out of 530 and everything changes. Ludo is six, speaking for himself, and desperate to know the identity of his father. His mother won’t budge, so eventually at 11 he embarks on the search himself, a search defined not by biological parenthood, but by Kurosawa’s – which is to say Ludo’s, which is to say DeWitt’s – ideas about what might constitute the good-enough man. A couple of travel writers are tested; one is easily pleased with himself, the other suicidal. There’s a gambler, a concert pianist, a self-immolating artist, an anthropological linguist, a Nobel Prize-winning astronomer. The world of the novel, previously so narrow and skittery and badly lit – the world of a depressed, frustrated woman stuck to her computer screen – opens out to take in Chad, Central Asia, the Amazon. Brains, courage, integrity, self-discipline: which can and can’t we expect of the samurai these days, and would even these qualities be enough? Where, in our enmeshed age, can the threatened ‘village’ of Kurosawa’s film be said to start and stop? The narrative appears to support quite old-fashionedly heroic answers to this, though the surrounding apparatus floats something more complicated. The dedication is to Ann Cotton, the founder of CamFed, a charity that supports the education of girls in sub-Saharan Africa, as a note explains – so never mind Oxford or Harvard.
To read The Last Samurai for the first time is to experience an odd mix of emotions. With its kanji and its carbon dating, it seems so new and at the same time so ancient. It’s like plunging forward, forward, back, back, back, to swim once more in the warm sea of Ulysses and the Cantos – imagine what Joyce or Pound would do with the internet! Imagine what the internet might have done to them! And yet, that bliss is accompanied by something sadder. As Ludo grows ever more daring, competent, articulate, we watch his mother seem to shrivel, exhausted and emptied, ready to die, she thinks; and the narrative diminishes with her, speeding up and thinning out, faster and faster, thinner and thinner. It’s as if the form of the novel were miming the energy that is being transferred from the mother to the son. Which is to say, while The Last Samurai reads like one of those ambitious, arrogant works of Modernism with designs on becoming a reader’s hotlink to the universal, an open university of the airport bookstalls, a foldaway Rosetta Stone, there is also a sense throughout of limitation, of a losing struggle, with time and/or funds and/ or stamina running out. While no serious artist ever wants gender or class or any other contingency or circumstance adduced as any sort of an excuse for anything, it’s also a fact that The Last Samurai is a novel in which we witness
WHY ARE THEY FIGHTING?
the captivating sibylline voice continually interrupted by that of the demanding little boy, who must have food and heating and clothes and love – not easy when you have no one to support you, replenishing your own supply – and schooling and skateboards and role-models and endless books
.
DeWitt was born in 1957, so was in her early forties when The Last Samurai came out. Before that, in the would-be dazzling dizziness of blurbspeak:
Daughter of an American diplomat, Helen DeWitt grew up in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador… She started a degree at Smith College and dropped out twice, the first time to read Proust and Eliot while working as a chambermaid, the second time to take the Oxford entrance exam… In 1988 she started her first novel. Over the next decade she started work on around fifty others.Readers impressed by those ‘around fifty’ novels may be interested to note that she has recently started referring to The Last Samurai as ‘Opus 101’.
In 2003, DeWitt signed a two-book deal with Talk-Miramax in the US. But then Miramax went pear-shaped and DeWitt found herself stranded, under contract but without a champion. The rights for one completed book have only recently reverted to the author; work on the other one collapsed. In 2004, it was reported that the ‘acclaimed author’ had disappeared after sending an email to friends threatening suicide. DeWitt disputes this story: she says there was only one email, to a lawyer, with instructions for the disposal of her body, then one more when she changed her mind. In 2006 she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to work on a project she calls ‘Invisibilities’, ‘an attempt to attack … textual and intellectual segregation … accompanied by a website, making possible a more thorough introduction to Arabic and Hebrew texts, to the powerful graphics of the statistical program R, and to other material than is consistent with the formal requirements of a novel’. The beginnings of such a project are among the resources available on helendewitt.com.
Back in 2003, however, when things were beginning to go wrong, DeWitt met Ilya Gridneff in an organic pub in East London: well-read, funny, swashbuckling and drunk as a skunk. A version of what happened next forms the spine of Your Name Here:
Got an email a month later, anarchic, obscene, insanely funny… Gridneff was in London upstaging the BAs formerly known as Y… he was in Cairo chasing Angelina Jolie for the National Enquirer. He was in Berlin chasing Britney Spears for some other rag. He was reading Deleuze, DeLillo, Burroughs, Bukowski, Houellebecq. He used his tabloid money to go off to the Middle East, wandering around Iran in search of pharmaceuticals with a dodgy phrasebook: ‘Give me painkillers, the strongest you have.’ Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Kurdistan, Iraq (not necessarily in that order), Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, the who what where why when remains unjournalistically unclear.It took DeWitt some time to reply, but when she did, the pair of them began an email correspondence. They are not, on the surface, compatible: he is a tabloid fixer and party animal, an imbiber and ingester; she is a solitary intellectual, weaving quietly at her website, batting away unwanted phone-calls, signing her tagline, Ithaca, on her blog. But that, to begin with, was what she liked about him: ‘It was like the world of Fellini, that sordid glamorous world in the rubble of a dead empire, it’s like nothing she knows.’ She wants to help him, this talented young writer, and in helping him, perhaps she is hoping to help herself; ‘I think I’ve discovered the next Hunter Thompson,’ she writes to her publisher – the tone is bigged-up, swaggering, grandiose.
And so, she has her brainwave. They talk a lot about movies, and they both like movies (8½, Charlie Kaufman) in which an apparent impasse is solved by a recursive turn: ‘I love The Sweet Smell of Success. I love Malkovich in Les Liaisons dangereuses. I love Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich; I love Adaptation. Brilliant idea! We could write a book about this! We could write a book about writing a book about this! Bad idea…’ In a way, Your Name Here is simply a scrapbook, attesting to an odd, tense friendship, told through emails, avatars, fictional fragments, with the lack of conventional coherence compensated for by beautiful images, grabbed from the internet, of ‘Felliniesque… sordid glamour’ – Mastroianni and Ekberg, Mastroianni and cigarette, Adorno on YouTube talking about Beckett’s ‘deformed subject’. Gridneff’s avatars have a series of joke-Russian names (Alyosha Pechorin, Alexander Chatsky, Misha Kropotkin), and they all write much the same sort of emails. DeWitt sticks mainly to Rachel Zozanian, the prodigious but damaged author of a surprise bestselling novel called Lotteryland. Lotteryland itself features regularly, a Big-Brother-Blair-type satire in which ‘lucks’ are distributed by Lottomonitor, a cross between a home computer and a junkified I-Ching. And there’s a fictional memoir, of Rachel’s Oxford days in the late 1990s: the undergraduate body, after the abolition of the student grant, is visualised as engaging in a squalid carnival of desperate money-making schemes – phone sex, online poker, scratchcards, working, as Rachel does, as a prostitute in a Black Watch kilt.
The best and funniest ideas in the book involve the duo’s plans for diffusing Arabic throughout the notoriously obdurate medium of English-language culture – putting handy words and phrases, such as ‘Please’, ‘Don’t kill me,’ ‘I am a mother,’ in an Arabic-enhanced edition of The Accidental Tourist. Readers, DeWitt has noticed, will happily expend energy on things with which they feel a fantasy connection – she uses Tolkien as her main example – and so the writer, she decides, must become ‘an alter-Tolkien, creating desire for the languages of the Middle East rather than Middle Earth’, spreading knowledge of real-world languages, peoples, conflicts, instead of narcotising stodge about elves. Imagine a world in which every scholar of Elvish could follow Arabic as well: ‘Whatever events of terror might have been committed in that possible world, it’s unlikely that interrogators in it would be holding people in Guantánamo Bay four years after the event for want of competent Arabists to interrogate them.’ Not for the first time, DeWitt’s pedagogical daydreams lead to questions of fundamental human rights.
Following the example of Omar Sharif, who apparently taught himself bridge between takes because he found film-acting so boring, DeWitt and Gridneff cook up a plan to get A-list stars working through a Hollywood guide to Arabic. You start by learning vowel sounds via Arabic approximations of ‘Nicole’, ‘Tom’, ‘Thurman’, ‘Yoko’,
which enables one to segue smoothly, surely, into a sample verb. Which in turn enables one to segue… to the variations on three-letter core meaning which are the key to the elegance of the language. KiTaaB book, JiHaaD holy war, QiTaaL, struggle; KaaTiB writer, QaaTiL murderer, TaaLiB seeker; muKaTiB reporter, muJaHiD, holy warrior; maKTuuB thing written, letter, maJHuuD, endeavour, maTLuuB, wanted, sought (in classified ads).‘In the world as we know it,’ the authors add, ‘the fact that you can now read more Arabic than 11,967 FBI agents is worrying.’ Indeed.
There are, however, ‘gnats in the Coppertone’, as Your Name Here puts it, and as David Foster Wallace acknowledged in his remarks about splitting text. By choosing not to impose a traditional artificial finish on the ‘reality’ you see around you, you risk giving up on one of the main art-carrots: how the hell can anyone, reader or writer, get through a book without a clear narrative line? And you can stick in an aesthetic-ethical quagmire. How will you know if the incoherence you are rendering is real, valid, accurate, necessary, or a mere artefact of your own ignorance or self-absorption? Throw out, by all means, the phoney warmth and sentimentality – the shellacked mystery, the Vaseline on the lens, of that ‘fogbound Jamesian kitsch’. How can you be sure, though, that what you are left with is not merely charmless and cold?
The Arabic apart, Your Name Here does not have the clarity and exuberance of The Last Samurai. ‘I think this is really part of something larger, the sale of souls,’ Rachel writes in an email to Misha Kropotkin, and she’s right. Although the book may appear, to begin with, to be plotless, it turns out to be tightly organised: a Godard-like enfilade of shaftings, a frontispiece-of-Leviathan-type portrait of the world as a great ‘Biz’ made up of millions of little bizzes, ‘a book-within-a-book-within-a-book-within-a and you… the minimost perestroikist in a nest of Gorbidolls’. I’ve read it three times now, and some of the patterns are clear to me, and there are others I sense but don’t quite get – partly because bits of it don’t work. Gridneff’s emails, for example, cause problems. The communication that starts DeWitt on her quest is written from London, in which ‘the past three days have been wrecked. Drunk karaoke on Thursday night in abject Dalston Chinese restaurant, the prawns, pork rolls, beer and in the style of Tina Turner, me grabbing the mic and singing led zepplin, guns and roses sweet child o mine.’ On he goes on his knock-off bicycle, throwing houmous at a branch of Blockbuster Video ‘for ruining film and colonising cinema’, posting his half-eaten Turkish flatbread into the late-video-return slot. You can see why DeWitt was excited: the writing is delightfully shameless, dishevelled and dissolute; globalised and pornified and digitised somehow, bit after bit after bit. He mails, a little later, from Iraq:
It didn’t start too well at the border… I rushed through a police line nearly causing them to draw weapons – too lazy to shoot and my clown-like shouts of ‘toilet toilet’ and no doubt the extreme look of terror on my face – after local water drunk due to that special kind of forced local kindness led to a rapid digestive process if not immediately dealt with post haste a suicide bowel bomber, think body without organs, would be on their hands… and feet-face etc etc.So yes, DeWitt is right to think that Gridneff gives terrific email – and yet, they’re just emails. The writing is great, but it’s unchecked, unstructured, unsustained. As well as calling him ‘the new Hunter Thompson’, Rachel reminds her ex-publisher that ‘Tom Wolfe’s Kandy-Kolored whatever whatever was basically a stream-of-consciousness letter that Wolfe sent to his editor at Esquire’ (an anecdote that serves mainly to remind one how far away those bogroll-in-the-typewriter days of Beat/Gonzo legend now seem, and how very much one doesn’t want to go back there). Besides which, Thompson had a team of editors dedicated to crafting essay-like forms from his rants and torrents. Would any publisher nowadays bother giving such support to a writer who – unlike, say, the not-entirely-on-a-different-wavelength Russell Brand – has not already been organised as a living logo, down to his very name?
When I stumbled on Your Name Here for sale on DeWitt’s website, I emailed to check that she considered the text published, and so up for review. She replied to me that it was. But she also mentioned dealings with a literary agent who felt that it might yet be sold in a different form, as ‘essentially a postmodern Bell Jar’; citing Barthes, she said that since the text had already been through many versions, she could not see why it should not go through many more. The idea of the text as open to endless revision, never finished but only abandoned, as Auden put it, is not new. What is new is that with web publication, it becomes as easy as a couple of keystrokes to put into practice, opening – as has already become clear with the advent of MySpace and Second Life – unexpected dimensions to the familiar questions of privacy and publicity, concerning intimacy and vulnerability, self-awareness and self-defence. DeWitt and Gridneff are not daft teens posing in their underwear, but there are other ways in which the boundary between personal and public discourse can get disturbingly confused.
DeWitt has many reasons to mistrust publishers. Many writers do. And yet at the same time they know they rely on them, for income if nothing else. It is a relation of mistrust and dependence; of resentment, in other words. Some of Rachel’s sections have the attenuated, brittle feel of not-entirely-worked-through personal pain, and several are a vent against the ‘Biz’ of writing for a living: the crap deals, the loneliness and depression, the slippery publishers and ‘betazoidal’ agents and so on. Most writers think such thoughts, and for valid reasons, but they are not interesting to most readers, for equally valid reasons, and have a way of appearing disproportionate when given shape on a page.
Writers would not so resent publishers if the relationship were only about royalties and advances; but it’s also about deep and terrible emotions, to do with acceptability and rejection and the awful impossibility of ever getting it right. Most writers know the horror of the impending deadline, the jointed mechanical hand reaching out to snatch away one’s poor tender little creature, submitting it to the flaying eye of critical judgment, the swirling knives of the marketplace, the blunted machete of the consensus view. ‘It’s bad, very bad to deal with the biz, but it has to be done,’ as Your Name Here has it; and ‘it has to be done’ because, until very recently, tradition and expediency have deemed the work not in the world until the jointed hand has done its abominable work. Publication is unavoidably painful, and not just because the ‘Biz’ may be cloth-eared and exploitative and dumb. By self-publishing, is DeWitt trying to avoid that excruciation? And what does that avoidance do to the work?
To follow DeWitt’s adventures on her website is to experience blogging as an art-form, arranged sculpturally by the author, but given life only when you, the reader, pick a route. One day fiction might be as elegant and responsive, with maybe audial maybe visual maybe verbal branches, lovely sweeps of information waving and pulsing with the movement of the author’s mind, so close, so direct, so touching, you feel them brush against your cheek. Except that, once you really take that to heart, it’s difficult to see much point in continuing with novels at all, or not as we know them.
Your Name Here is a novel that doesn’t really believe in novels; that is harsh and bleak and weirdly proportioned; that talks about the readers of Anne Tyler and other perfectly decent authors as ‘ostriches’; that dismisses most contemporary fiction. You, on the other hand, are a reader committed to the art of fiction. Do you really need to go to DeWitt’s website and fork out $8 to buy what even a sympathetic reviewer makes sound like a stressful slog?
Writing in this paper about Oblivion, David Foster Wallace’s most recent collection of short stories, Wyatt Mason complained that although he found in it ‘a bright array of sad and moving and funny and fascinating human objects of undeniable, unusual value’, the book exhibits ‘a fundamental rhetorical failure’. You have to work a little at putting stories together from their fragmented state; Mason describes this as making ‘unreasonable demands’ of readers:
Wallace has the right to write a great book that no one can read except people like him. I flatter myself to think that I am one of them, but I haven’t any idea how to convince you that you should be, too; nor, clearly, does Wallace. And it might not be the worst thing in the world, next time out… were he to dig deeper, search longer, and find a more generous way to make his feelings known.
Perhaps because its form is more broken and non-text-based, perhaps because so much of their subject is economic desperation, DeWitt and Gridneff’s work shows up the fallacy in Mason’s argument even more clearly than Wallace’s writing. Generosity has nothing to do with it. Writers only ever get one choice, really, about what they write. Either you give in before you’ve even started and write to some fantasy of ‘the market’, or you go flat out, trying to say something useful about the world as it appears to you. Among the fascinating, touching, tragic, funny or otherwise worthy-of-consideration new ‘human objects’ contained in Your Name Here: the superfluous (wo)man in the age of Wikipedia; celebrities (yet again); global-blackspot tourism, as indulged in by the world’s ambitious and privileged young; security of information, in a world with no shortage of disaffected temporary workers and failed states; the systemic decline in humanities education, down to which books Penguin publishes as cheap classics, since the abolition of the student grant; that weird neurotic fear, post-9/11, in the English-language media, that ‘we’ are being watched and judged and accordingly branded by aliens who conduct their peculiar writing from right to left. And lots of other things – and also, something else.
In her review of The Last Samurai, A. S. Byatt noticed a ‘curious thing’: ‘Though it is the ideas that drive the [novel]… the characters are more human, more simply important to the reader, than in many finely constructed, primarily psychological studies.’ This paradox will be familiar to readers who enjoy complicated Modernist novels: the effort the reader has to put into her engagement transfers itself into a flood of the warmest fellow-feeling for the struggles of the characters – and for the authors, and for the books themselves. You simply don’t feel that way about things that try to be obliging. And so, with art as in life, it seems, the relationships that are the most rewarding turn out to be the ones into which you’ve sunk most work." - Jenny Turner

Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai (Miramax Books, 2000)

"Ludo, age six, is a prodigy. His mother, Sibylla, raises him alone and tries hard to keep his voracious intellect satisfied, while she struggles to make ends meet. With her exasperated guidance, he teaches himself Greek, so that he can read The Odyssey, before moving on to study Hebrew, Arabic, Inuit, and Japanese. And both Sibylla and Ludo share a passion for Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, which they watch repeatedly, absorbing its lessons of Samurai virtue. Soon Ludo embarks on a quest to find his father, and approaches seven men to test their mettle. Each of them—prominent, powerful, or flawed in his own way—has to rise to a unique challenge.
An intellectual tour-de-force, playful, multi-layered, but wonderfully readable, The Last Samurai is full of stories of remarkable exploits, tables of Japanese grammar, snatches of Greek poetry, passages of Icelandic legend, and ingenious math problems. But it also has a rare emotional depth, as the little boy's search for a father, or even a man heroic enough to be his father, gradually reveals a new and unexpected dimension of love. And at the book's heart is the relationship between Sibylla and Ludo, which is moving and oddly memorable in its fusion of solidarity, frustration, and tenderness."

"The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt, her debut novel, is a book quite unlike any other, and in the process of reading it, one learns the basics of ancient Greek and Japanese. It is set in the present day, but within the pages echo the ancient past where the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as other Greek classics, are rediscovered.
The main character is the mother of a child prodigy. She herself is exceptionally intelligent, but due to the lack of a father figure in the family, she is left as the sole provider for the family. So while she works everyday and makes as much money as possible so she and her son can eat and survive, her needs his teaching.
At school he is not use, excelling in every discipline and reaching such a level of completion in set assignments that he affects the rest of the class. There is little choice but to keep him at home and let he mother teach him all she knows. His tools are the great texts, the Iliad, the Metamorphoses, the Odyssey – whatever he can get his hands on. Not only does he read through these texts with a voracious hunger, but he also reads them in their original language.
Even though he knows nothing of other languages at the beginning of the book, he begins at the start with the painstakingly slow operation of learning ancient Greek, learning what the letters represent, what they mean, and how to pronounce them. For help he has his mother, who is well taught in many languages.
They both share a passion for Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, quotes and passages of which are featured throughout the book. When the boy reaches an older age he takes on the proposition to find out who his real father is. Thus begins a long journey, a mirror of the Seven Samurai, where each man the boy seeks is one of the samurai, but each time he is disappointed. The book concludes naturally with the discover of who his father is, after many hopes being shattered.
The layout of this book is very appeasing, with a wide variety of spacing, resulting in a relatively fast read. For anyone who reads The Last Samurai, they will benefit greatly in a multitude of ways, from learning the essentials of basic languages, to discovering the complexities of characters, to learning everyday knowledge that everyone will find useful." - The BookBanter Blog

"Sibylla Newman, a single mother whose 6-year-old son has had no formal education, decides one day to bring the boy to school. The teacher, Miss Thompson, cordially advises the boy to try out some building blocks in the classroom. But the boy wants to talk about his worries that he may not be up to the level of his prospective classmates. ''Have they read Isocrates' Ad Demonicum?'' he wants to know. ''What about the Cyropaedia?'' Miss Thompson says she has never heard of these books, but that her 6-year-old students need not worry about the curriculum, because people have different abilities and interests, and so they read different things. The boy replies, ''Well, I have only read the Iliad and the Odyssey in Greek and De Amicitia and Metamorphoses 1-8 in Latin and Moses and the Bullrushes and Joseph and his Manycolored Coat and Jonah and I Samuel in Hebrew and Kalilah wa Dimnah and 31 Arabian Nights in Arabic and just Yaortu la Tortue and Babar and Tintin in French and I have only just started Japanese.'' To place this list on a more teacher-friendly level, the third book from the last would appear to be the French version of ''Yertl the Turtle.'' Miss Thompson points out that children develop at different rates, that what matters is what someone can do with what he knows and that ''one of the most important parts of school is just learning to work as a member of a group.'' The boy, serious rather than arrogant, proceeds to engage her in a debate about John Stuart Mill and then finds her guilty of fallacious reasoning. It is at this point in the conversation that Sibylla returns from having spoken with the head of the school and announces the good news that her son will be able to be enrolled. ''But it looks as though he won't be in your class.'' '' 'What a shame,' '' Miss Thompson ''regretted,'' writes Helen DeWitt, herself any schoolroom pedant's worst nightmare. In an exhilaratingly literate and playful first novel punctuated by divine feats of intellectual gamesmanship, Ms. DeWitt joins Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith and Michael Chabon in going to the head of this year's class of flamboyantly ambitious novelists whose adventurousness spins out on an epic scale. And like their books - A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,White Teeth and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, respectively - her Last Samurai is a sprawling, aggressively showy book with flashes of genius to keep it soaring. It is possible to recognize the hubris here without, like Ms. DeWitt's characters, being able to read that word in Greek or elaborately analyze its derivation. But it's also possible to be utterly delighted by this author's high-risk undertaking and her fresh, electrifying talent. The Last Samurai seemingly centers on the bond between Sibylla and her son, whom she meant to call Hasdrubal or Rabindranath or Fabius Cunctator before deciding that Steve or David might be an easier name for a boy to bear. But it's an exuberantly clever book that can in no way be mistaken for a standard mother-son story. As a linguist and a classicist, among her apparently countless other interests and avocations, Ms. DeWitt uses Kurosawa's Seven Samurai as a means of giving her book a mythic dimension. Because the boy, who wound up being called Ludo, does not know the identity of his father, and because Sibylla refuses to tell him, their obsessive habit of watching and discussing Kurosawa's male-bonding masterpiece becomes central to their lives. It gives the 11-year-old Ludo a model for how to undertake the search in London for father figures, even as it turns Ms. DeWitt's book into a display of what the film scholar Donald Richie has called Kurosawa's predominant theme: ''the education of the hero.'' What this elaborate premise may obscure is that 'The Last Samurai,' in its coolly cerebral way, is so much fun. Anything is possible on Ms. DeWitt's pages, from eye-chart-like typographical escapades to streams of numbers being toyed with by Ludo to learning how the subtitles of ''Seven Samurai'' sanitize its real dialogue. (''What a wonderful language, said Sib, ''they seem to have toned it down quite a bit for the subtitles. I knew 'Japanese Street Slang' was a bargain at $:6.88.'') Along the way, the reader will also learn the Icelandic word for seal meat and the precise way (''heptakaiogdoekontapodal'') to indicate an 87-legged spider, which is a concept Ludo comes up with after he sketches an 88-legged one and imagines that it got into a fight and lost a leg. Ms. DeWitt, an American who seems to have written this book as if her life depended on it and poured vast reserves of inquiring intelligence into the process, saves her most fanciful efforts for presenting potential candidates for the role of Ludo's father. She spins enchantingly surreal stories about the overrated artist, the Nobel laureate, the foreign correspondent and the bogus consul (''When asked why he had impersonated a member of the Belgian diplomatic corps he had replied: Well, someone had to'') on the short list of candidates whom Ludo sequentially discovers. But even as the son looks for a masculine ideal, the question of paternity is settled early on, as Sibylla describes her meeting with a writer whose work is so awful that she feels the need to shield Ludo from it. She went to bed with him mostly to make him stop talking and says his writing is ''like the Percy Faith Orchestra playing 'Satisfaction.' '' One day, Sibylla introduces Ludo to some sentimental, really bad writing and really bad art, then announces: ''You will not be ready to know your father until you can see what's wrong with these things.'' ''When will that be?'' the boy asks. ''I don't know,'' replies his mother. ''Millions of people have gone to the grave admiring them.'' Ms. DeWitt herself, on the other hand, warrants admiration for impeccably good reason." - Janet Maslin

"The Last Samurai is a story of the first years of a precocious child named Ludo and his mother Sibylla, both linguistic geniuses. A single mother, she struggles to provide him with the right stimuli and guidance. The book is brilliant, witty, depressing.
Any book has to find a way to draw us in, and here it starts with: my father was, my mother was, I was glad to get out of my hometown and make it to Oxford – and then I got pregnant from a guy I couldn’t abide. We’re inside a unique story.
"I thought ideally it should be a name which could work whether he was serious and reserved or butch... The problem was that I liked David better than Stephen, and Steve better than Dave, and I couldn’t get round it by calling him Stephen David or David Stephen because a series of two trochees with a v in the middle would sound ridiculous. I couldn’t call him David and Steve for short; that would be quaint." That’s our narrator: wry, cerebral, obsessed with language.
Sibylla stays home to take care of her small son, typing old issues of periodicals into the word processor: Crewelwork Digest, Carpworld, British Home Decorator, etc. Inspired by The Seven Samurai, a film Sibylla has chosen to provide him with some male role models, Ludo begs his mother to teach him Japanese. She evades the issue by giving him a huge reading list to complete beforehand: The Odyssey (in Greek of course), Thousand and One Nights, 10 chapters of Algebra Made Easy, and more. Did I mention that Ludo has now reached the age of 5?
Our narrator’s stream-of-consciousness writing is frequently interrupted by the obnoxious questions of a genius child, demanding explanations to understand the world around him. Though Ludo is phenomenally brilliant, he’s also a normal little boy, with a tendency to get cranky and a need to take naps and so forth. Sibylla’s language skills are amazing (Greek, Hebrew, Japanese), but her 5-year old son’s something else. She needs all of her energy to keep up with him. For instance, Sibylla and Ludo develop a method of taking texts apart: transcribed word, its English meaning, grammatical analysis thereof. Complete passages of the book are constructed this way, in e.g. Greek and Japanese.
Ludo is simply dying to know who his father is, and Sibylla will only tell him "a travel writer." As he picks up on every possible clue to determine who it could be, he takes over the narration of the book. A bridge is built to the Seven Samurai as he seeks out his genetic and surrogate fathers in a series of encounters with men he’s chosen.
In absolutely no way, shape or form does the book resemble a cheerful American how-to book, e.g."How to Handle Your Precocious Child." Our narrator was quite young, unformed, sure only of what she wanted to get away from (her oblivious father and miserable mother; the US; most people she had encountered). She cannot abide logical fallacies and utterances that are not thought through: "He is capable of logical thought. It makes him appear exceptionally intelligent. The fact is that most people are illogical out of habit rather than stupidity; they could probably be rational quite easily if they were properly taught."
The book is not short and it doesn’t move in a straight line. The intellectual excursions into the minds of people confronted with unorthodox dilemmas are diverting and do relate to the larger story – and yet, you have to bear with DeWitt.
An expat by choice, I identify with the narrator: Sibylla and I have a bit of built-in distance to the country where we now live, and we both made more of a step away from what we had than towards something. And then there are the thoughts about language in this book: "It is truly something and something which the something with the something of this something has something and something, so something also this something might something at first something." This is Sibylla working to teach herself German. As a language lover, I was stunned by the linguistic and philosophical excursions." - Nancy Chapple

"This is a difficult, playful novel. Sibylla is the mother of Ludo, a precociously intelligent child. An American expat who fibbed her way into Oxford, Sibylla now lives in London and single motherhood. She has to earn a living, so she works at home typing endless pages of Carpworld. However, having a ferociously intelligent young son in the same room as she works is more than a little distracting. One of the delights of The Last Samurai is the techniques DeWitt uses to place you in the same room as Ludo and Sibylla. Ludo is not introduced as such into the text, he barges his way through like the headstrong and loud toddler that he is. The free style of the text is only natural following the typing of so many copies of Carpworld.
Sibylla is a quite unconventional mother. Despite her love for London, England (the only place in the world that you can buy Alaska Fried Chicken), Sibylla is still very much an alien. She makes an elementary error when she takes Ludo to the local school at the age of six, and discovers that schooling begins at five in Britain. Although she has had friends in the past, to whom she alludes via pseudonyms, her life with Ludo is all time-consuming and isolated. Ludo is the result of a drunken fumble, and Sibylla cannot bring herself to get back in contact with Ludo's father, who's more a frog intellectually than a prince. Thus Ludo is beset by the mystery of his father's identity. To make up for the lack of male role figures in Ludo's life, Sibylla takes to watching Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai with her son repeatedly. Although Ludo gets to learn a lot of Japanese from it, he stills feels a hole in his life and so embarks on a search for his father. Like Oedipus, Ludo has to work out his father's identity by striving to interpret his mother's riddles. But Ludo is only too aware that there is a gulf at the centre of Sibylla's life, for she has tried to kill herself before...
No doubt many readers will be put off by the amount of intellectual activity within this novel. Sibylla is shocked when she reads a school book on Samurai and finds that it's full of errors. Yet Helen DeWitt does make one singular mistake that hasn't been picked up by her editors. On page 29, she refers to the American child prodigy Boris Sidis. However, the child prodigy's father was the famous psychologist "Boris Sidis", and the child prodigy's name was "William James Sidis". This mistake is unfortunate since one of the big themes of the book is child prodigies and hothousing. DeWitt offers the Sidis tale as an example of the horror story for all parents who embark on hothousing: the child prodigy who burns out at an early age. Yet this is the popular view of Sidis as presented by the US press, and does not comprise the whole story. Dan Mahony has done a great deal of research on William James Sidis and discovered that he did a whole load of very important work at the same time that the public viewed him as burnt out. The reason why this work remains largely unknown was because Sidis went to great lengths to hide himself from the unwanted attention of the Press, and published anonymously. One of the downsides of hothousing and self-education is that you can be quite ignorant of some basic things, as Ludo later discovers in the book. Going round in rhomboids on the Circle Line has done nothing for Ludo's knowledge of geography.
There is something balladic about The Last Samurai's structure. What goes around does come around. It is very pleasing to see strands from the earlier part of the novel coming to fruition towards the end. However, one might suspect that Helen DeWitt has cobbled lots of good stories together (her bio on the dustjacket does say that she's worked on loads of novels before this one). It helps her plot that Sibylla went to Oxford, a pivot around which a few of the men in the novel dance. Although she had to fake her way into Oxford, Sibylla does fit in there, as she is rich in cultural capital - perhaps richer than she ought to be, given her motel background. The flitting around from place to place in her childhood would seem to reflect DeWitt's background as the daughter of an American diplomat who had assignments in various Latin American countries. I don't think it's a coincidence that Ludo prefers The Odyssey to The Iliad, with its epic quest for home.
Helen DeWitt certainly lives up to her name. The humour is brilliant and quite vital. I loved Ludo's scenes in school. For the most part, I admired the narration of Ludo very much. The novel does really come alive when we see the world from his point of view for the first time. As there is wit, so there is darkness and poignancy, which seemed to be combined during the scenes where Ludo's father keeps interrupting the boy's consciousness (much as Ludo the toddler kept barging in on Sibylla's typing of Carpworld). I've written a play with themes similar to the Red Devlin sequence, but Helen DeWitt's writing here is sublime. The book could definitely have done with more editing, but overall, there are sections of this novel that are quite perfect." - Kevin Patrick Mahoney

"Most “cult” writers find their disciples only after years of semi-obscurity; Helen DeWitt, who published her first novel The Last Samurai in 2000, found hers in the first sentence of the jacket copy. “Destined to become a cult classic”: thus spoke the oracles of the Talk Miramax/Hyperion marketing department, and subsequent events seemed to bear out their augury. Last summer, in a New York magazine poll, the critic Sven Birkerts called The Last Samurai “The Best Novel You’ve Never Read.” And now the Young Turks at n+1 have gone him one better, devoting 40 pages of their winter issue to an excerpt from DeWitt’s second novel, Your Name Here, “a complicated and important work of art which unjustly has not yet been able to find a publisher in the United States or England” – a “cult” work in the making.
We learn as children, of course, that only the morally obtuse stoop to judging a book by its cover, but in revisiting The Last Samurai – which is indeed complicated, important, and a work of art – it’s worth considering the mixed blessing of all prophecy, and the backhanded compliment implicit in that jacket-copy prediction. Why “cult?” Why not just, “destined to become a classic?” A biographical critic might connect DeWitt’s “cult” status to her uncompromising authorial persona. The word “reclusive” appears three times in the n+1 introduction, which nods approvingly at her expatriatism (she has lived in England and now resides in Germany). Like her literary forebears, DeWitt has embraced cunning, exile, and the writer’s version of silence. Yet she is hardly J. D. Salinger. She keeps a blog called paperpools. For a few dollars, you can download a short story from www.helendewitt.com – in Microsoft Word format, no less. One recent customer even got a nice email from the author. “Reclusive” doesn’t seem to be the right word.
An overhasty reviewer might offer an equally easy and equally unsatisfying answer to the question of “cult”: The Last Samurai’s erudition limits its audience. The story concerns two linguistic prodigies, a mother and a son, and their learning gives the novel its texture. Greek and Japanese characters pepper the page – one imagines a typesetter groaning, head in hands – as do math problems and intertextual allusions ranging from Homer and Ovid to Kinski and (natürlich) Kurosawa. Intellectually, then, DeWitt seems aligned with the post-Ulysses school of anatomic novel-writing, which has produced more than its fair share of “cult” writers: William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace…
Following Joyce, though, the anatomist embeds and signifies his learning in a style of pyrotechnic complexity; his cult status (a sign of high seriousness) is secured not by the range of his references, but by his refusal to translate his shibboleths. DeWitt deploys her erudition quite differently. She doesn’t merely write Greek and Japanese; she teaches them. The patient reader emerges from The Last Samurai able to read a Greek cognate such as ανδρασιν (“men [M. dative plural]”). In this, the novel harkens back to a premodern, rather than to a modernist, tradition. Helen DeWitt has taken quite literally the Horatian injunction to instruct as well as to entertain.
Her prose, too, diverges from the gnomic prolixity of other “cult” writers. This is not to say that she isn’t a stylist, but rather that she seems determined to distance herself from the stylist’s customary repertoire. Linguistic and cultural references may enrich the diction, but DeWitt’s basic unit of composition is the simple, declarative sentence. Take this passage from the prologue, in which Sibylla Newman, the narrator, tells us how she came to be born: “My father was struck speechless with disgust. He left the house without a word. He drove a Chevrolet 1,300 miles.” These sentences are like the logical propositions Wittgenstein describes in the Tractatus. Each corresponds to, and so depicts, a state of affairs. The syntax seems almost reactionary: subject-verb, subject-verb, subject-verb. Keep reading, though, and you discover that simple propositions bend toward the moral and the metaphysical as surely as the dream-tongue of Finnegans Wake:
In later years my father sometimes played a game. He’d meet a man on his way to Mexico and he’d say, Here’s fifty bucks, do me a favor and buy me some lottery tickets, and he’d give the man his card. Say the odds against winning the jackpot were 20 million to 1 and the odds against the man giving my father the winning ticket another 20 million to 1, you couldn’t say my father’s life was ruined because there was a 1 in 400 trillion chance that it wasn’t.With its colloquial repetitions, its undifferentiated dialogue, and its gallows humor, this passage is typical of the novel as a whole, as is the leap from the quotidian “fifty bucks” worth of lottery tickets to the melancholy grandeur of ruined lives – the scale of a number like 400 trillion, ineffable but terribly exact.
Beneath the simple surface of DeWitt’s propositions, then, lurks a vast ambition: an ambition that privileges form over fact and inquiry over knowledge. Like the early Wittgenstein, DeWitt wants to clear away the confusions that arise from the sloppy use of language, and like the later Wittgenstein, she wants to run against the boundaries of language and to gesture at what lies beyond them. The result is a peculiar tension between precision and disorder. That DeWitt sustains it for more than 500 pages is as much an ethical statement as an aesthetic one.
The beginning of the novel proper deposits us in present-day London, in the company of Sibylla, who has dropped her graduate studies at Oxford after an unplanned pregnancy. Her narration of these circumstances never quite reaches the point of conception, both because Sibylla keeps digressing about various historical geniuses and because she keeps being interrupted by her five-year-old son Ludo, himself a
“Why are they fighting?
WHY ARE THEY FIGHTING?
WHY ARE THEY FIGHTING?
Can’t you read what it says?
OF COURSE I can read it but WHY
Well, they’re looking for samurai to defend the village from bandits.”
DeWitt presents Ludo’s interruptions just as I have presented them here, unannounced and unexplained, and as they proliferate, The Last Samurai’s early chapters become a bricolage of narration and digression and bits of the books and movies with which Sibylla tries to occupy her son. The effect is both artful and the opposite of artful: it feels like the truth. Apparently, the life of a single mother with a child prodigy is more disorienting than glamorous.
Social facts peek through the gaps between the different narrative registers. Lacking a labor permit, Sibylla works off the books, typing up old issues of magazines like Sportsboat and Waterski International for digitization. At the same time, she attempts to keep an eye on Ludo. They live in a cramped, sporadically heated apartment, and in an economy that privileges utility over talent. They are barely hanging on. Sibylla earns our sympathy by playing this situation for comedy:
I should be typing Advanced Angling as they want it back by the end of the week, but it seems important to preserve my sanity. It would be false economy to forge ahead with typing until maddened to frenzy by an innocent child.It becomes apparent that she herself is a genius, and one might think she’d want to furnish her genius son with the tools to avoid meeting a fate like her own. Instead, Sibylla feels an obligation to protect him from the vulgarity and stupidity of a world that, for example, pays people to retype Advanced Angling. She likens conventionally successful people, such as Ludo’s otherwise unnamed father, to Liberace; against them she sets her personal pantheon of iconoclasts: Glenn Gould, Rilke, Akira Kurosawa.
A running set of epigraphs from Kurosawa makes it clear that Sibylla sees these heroes as latter-day samurai, bound to a code that transcends the philistinism of daily life. She cultivates the code in Ludo, too. After she takes him to a poorly received concert by an avant-garde Japanese pianist, one Kenzo Yamamoto, a quest, of sorts, is inaugurated. Ludo decides to use the scant information his mother has given him to look for his missing father. He will test seven men – the pianist, an artist, two journalists, and two adventurers – to determine their suitability.
The introduction of an old-fashioned plot into The Last Samurai’s principled disorder is jarring. The model, however loose, is The Seven Samurai, in which, we are told a young ronin joins a band of warriors to defend a village against bandits. Ludo is the ronin, obviously. But who are the bandits? And what is the village? More jarring still is a concurrent shift in voice. Halfway through the novel, without warning or ceremony, DeWitt has switched narrators, so that the second half of the book will be Ludo’s. As a structural enactment of the child’s ego-separation from the parent, this is wholly appropriate. However, we hunger for Sibylla’s point-of-view, and as Ludo’s search for his samurai takes him farther and farther from the apartment, we will spend less and less time in her company.
In place of the comforting rhythms of a well-made modernist novel, DeWitt, characteristically, has given us something asymmetric and surprising. We think not of the painter of modern life, imposing form on chaos, but of the bansai artist, whose scissors follow the tree where it wants to go. The form of any novel, of course, tends toward a narrative end, and Sibylla’s digressions and distractions, however captivating, have thus far frustrated our desire for plot. Indeed, Sibylla increasingly sees herself at loose ends, or even a dead one.
Though Ludo’s voice bears a filial resemblance to his mother’s, his world is still full of possibility, and as he explores it, the story accelerates. One of his seven samurai punches him. One slices Ludo with a knife. One, having stared too long into the abyss, thinks of jumping. Each has a story of his own, a nested narrative, and each of these stories is more moving than the last.
More importantly, Ludo offers us a clearer understanding of what we read in the first part of the book. Sibylla, a charming and very literary eccentric, emerges in his eyes as a fully articulated human being – and as a woman whose frustration with the world threatens to destroy her. We recall, for example, that she tried to kill herself before her son was born. “What if a person called the [suicide hotline] and they weren’t very helpful?” Ludo asks one of his samurai.
What if there was a person who thought the world would be a better place if everyone who would enjoy seeing a Tamil syllabary had access to a Tamil syllabary? What if there was a person who kept changing the subject? What if there was a person who never listened to anything anybody said?
He said: Did you have anyone special in mind?
I said I was speaking hypothetically.
This is a lie, of course. As Ludo continues, we can hear in his anaphoric fragments the measure of his desperation:
The type of person who thinks boredom a fate worse than death. The type of person who always wants things to be different. The type of person who would rather die than read Sportsboat and Waterski International.He asks his interlocutor to help him save the person of whom he’s been speaking. And in the space of a few sentences, the novel’s resistance to imposing a conventional form on its material starts to look more like a refusal to let the story ripen before its time. All along, the quest of DeWitt’s last samurai has been not to seek out like minds, but to redeem one very particular mind. And note, too, that The Last Samurai can be read as either singular or plural: there may be more than one. Redemption, the calling out from samurai to samurai, seems very much like the project of the novel.
It is difficult to know what to make of DeWitt’s more recent work, which resists even more forcefully received wisdom about what fiction should look like and how it should read. But by turning her back both on the formal strictures of the well-made novel – which, absent their ability to surprise, decay into meaninglessness – and on the stylistic habits of postmodernism, Helen DeWitt has crafted at least one book that speaks directly to “the type of person who thinks boredom a fate worse than death.” It is a small band, no doubt, like the mystery cults of Greece, or the Gnostic Christians, hermetic and even self-involved, but absent the safety of crowds, the ideal reader of The Last Samurai depends on art to make sense of the world. Which is a way of saying that the novel dignifies the term “cult,” and not the other way around." - Garth Risk Hallberg

"Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai is an erudite, silkily written book that is alternately enthralling and stultifying. The book is about an eccentric single mother, Sibylla, whose only child, Ludo, is a genius. Sibylla raises the six-year-old Ludo in the style of John Stuart Mill, flooding him with multiple languages, advanced science, and books well beyond his age. Ludo absorbs them all instantly. But despite his vast intelligence, Ludo begins to feel a pressing need for the simple pleasures of a father; and, basing his quest on Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, with which both he and his mother are obsessed, he embarks on a search for a man to call his dad.
Two things about The Last Samurai stand out immediately. The first is its funky, experimental style. The entire book is written like an internal monologue, with only slightly more structure than a stream-of-consciousness narrative. For a typical example, take this paragraph from p. 364, which I quote verbatim:
Sib was saying All I'm saying is if we imagine setting up a society with no knowledge of the place we are to occupy, we are highly UNLIKELY to sentence ourselves to 16 odd years' absolute economic dependence upon persons of whose rationality there can be no guarantee, and highly LIKELY to stipulate a society in whichYes, the actual paragraph ends on this sudden break; the capital letters are also all sic. The rhythm of DeWitt's narrative voice does become seductive, and there are a few luminous passages that would be unattainable without this free-form style. But, for the most part, I found this just aggravating. Too often, it felt artificial and undisciplined, disconnected from the ultimate purpose of this special voice. I admit that I do place the burden on authors to justify any writing more offbeat than, say, Hemingway's, but I think I'm justified in doing so.
The second notable thing about The Last Samurai is its enormous erudition. DeWitt throws out passages in multiple languages (including Japanese, ancient Greek, and, weirdly, Icelandic), ruminates on advanced physics, and engages in exhaustive analysis of The Seven Samurai. It's all very impressive, and it provides a good simulation of Ludo's curious education. But at times I felt that DeWitt had become enamored with her own learning, with some very long expository passages that, to me, didn't advance the book at all. Admittedly, the individual digressions were quite interesting in their own right, but they distracted from the rest of the story.
What saves this novel from total mediocrity is the surprising power of some of its individual chapters. Ludo's interactions with each father candidate are amusing, terrifying, and sad. The penultimate chapter, involving the fictional adventurer Red Devlin, is an absolute masterpiece.
Also interesting is Ludo's growing awareness of his mother's weirdness. The novel effectively conveys a young boy's innate trust in his mother, and his dawning awareness that perhaps his mother's foibles (which have found such a powerful mirror in him) are more than mere eccentricities. There is a dialogue sequence near the end of the novel where Ludo desperately questions one of his father candidates about a hypothetical woman whom he wishes to help. The hypothetical woman is clearly his mother; and Ludo's simple but penetrating questions are a heartbreaking window into the fears that he has kept bottled in.
Like Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, The Last Samurai's individual components are more compelling than the book as a whole. But whereas The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles was one continuous sequence of stunningly powerful vignettes, The Last Samurai's highs are somewhat fewer and further between. The book makes some important and insightful points about childhood, family, and the emotional emptiness of intellectualism. But there's a lot of blathering in there too." - Steven Wu
"If we lived in a better, more literate society, I would not have to preface this post with the caveat, "This book has nothing whatsoever to do with the execrable Tom Cruise film."
Sometimes I find myself caught in a moment of naive optimism when it comes to these same-title-different-works things. When I saw a poster for 2005's milquetoast Michael Keaton horror film White Noise, my first thought was, "I wonder how they're going to film the Airborne Toxic Event." Looking at the poster again, I wonder what the hell I was thinking. But then again, how would you design a movie poster for a DeLillo novel?
You would think I would have learned, though, after Underworld turned out to be about werewolves or something and not J. Edgar Hoover, B-52 installation art and Bobby Thomson.
At any rate, Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai is, as I've said, not in any way related to Tom Cruise. However, it is in many ways related to Don DeLillo. It shares with his novels many of the traits which have been identified with (and, I think, consolidated around) the aesthetic James Wood notoriously dubbed "hysterical realism."
In DeWitt's novel, information is a pervasive, animating presence, operating inside the novel with a character's force and function—namely, to move the plot along by virtue of its qualities and its quirks. Plot details and characterizations do not defy realism or possibility, but rather dangle off the outer edges of plausibility and persuasiveness. And they do so not in a challenging way, but with an affable degree of condescension; the bounds of realism are not expanded; they are jocularly nudged.
More importantly, density of feeling is avoided—not intensity, which is intermittently present, but density, which is flattened into thinner sheets when it threatens to consolidate. Emotions are displayed as complex in the novel, but they are simplified in the reader; emotional calibrations are meant to be challenges for the characters, but not for the readers.
Geez, I'm ripping on this novel as if I loathed the time I spent reading it. Not true! I enjoyed it a lot, and would unreservedly recommend it. Why? Well, here's the rub: The Last Samurai, and most other hysterical realist novels, are books for people who enjoy enjoying books. This type of novel gives the reader lots to do, and many different types of things to enjoy. It gives the reader exactly what they want—the knowledge that they are enjoying the book as they are reading it. Not the story, not the characters, not the jokes or the emotions or the constitutive ideas or themes of the book, but the book itself—and not the material book, but the idea of the book, the idea of the book as a whole entity, to be enjoyed.
It is puritanical and perhaps a little daft to say that this is a bad thing (although clearly too much of it is a bad thing), but I do not believe Wood is saying that it is a bad thing to have books like this existing in our literary ecosystem. I believe what he has always decried about this type of book is the type of writer it creates—a writer of hysterical fiction. Yes, he's saying that a book like White Teeth is inferior to a book like Moby Dick, but that's not really contested, is it? What Wood's point in critiquing the genre was—and subconsciously, his critics have picked up on it, for this is precisely what enrages them—that Zadie Smith is (or was) less of a writer than she could be because she uses these hysterical realist strategies only when she's evading something in her novel that might be harder and more real, more dense, than she wants to handle in the text. That is not to say that there is nothing hard or real or dense in White Teeth, but that what is any of those things is permitted (and sometimes even wedged) in, while many other of these things which might be there are dropped or sidestepped.
I do not believe there are very many cases of sidestepping in The Last Samurai—mostly because DeWitt is skillful in not requiring very many. The novel and its characters are so competently generated and fitted together that no moment threatens to disturb their smooth working order. The Last Samurai is a tremendous example of what hysterical realism can be about and do, and it is an extraordinary achievement for the author. I say that not because I believe DeWitt to be incapable of doing something other than what she has done, but because it is clearly so incredibly difficult to do what she has done well.
I didn't end up talking about the things I had intended to discuss, so I may post again tomorrow with those thoughts." - www.blographia-literaria.com

"The state of contemporary fiction seems to be, to me, a buckshot scatter across genre and style: we live in an age where there is no “proper” way to write or even read a text, and no singularly dominant school or method.
The way to read a text is an important thing to consider, for every novel, no matter how straightforward, instructs the reader how to approach it. Such is most certainly the case with Helen DeWitt’s first published novel, The Last Samurai, and more. This is a novel that not only seeks to entertain, but also to educate the reader. It is a novel of ideas, particularly the wonderful, bone-shatteringly beautiful ideas that exist in this world and are available to every single one of us who wants to explore them: languages, music, literature, mathematics, film.
The crux here, though, is that the novel conveys a truly compelling story. And I am honest when I mean compelling: I completed its 530 pages in a single sitting (and memorized the Greek alphabet, available on page 49 of my edition). The Last Samurai initially tells the story of Sibylla, a mother who may just be losing her mind—or perhaps is just too brilliant to be alive—trying to raise a child prodigy alone. The story then shifts to her son Ludo’s attempts to try and discover who his father is and, subsequently, someone who can fulfill that role in his life (or, at least, his conception of what that role should be). To say that the book is based upon Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai would be… well, let’s just say the movie, probably one of the greatest ever made, plays an important role in this book: Ludo goes on to learn the stories of and meet with seven fascinating men who may or may not fulfill his desires—desires which morph and transform as the story progresses.
The Last Samurai is written as a series of journal entries and letters addressed to posterity, so don’t expect a wholly linear plot or quotation marks, for that matter. This novel is funny without being slapstick, sad without being maudlin, and truly beautiful in as many ways I can think, from the simply typography and layout of the page to the content and style of the prose itself. " - S.P. MacIntyre 
  
Interview by Mieke Chew

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