The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt. New Directions. 576pp, $18.95.
Fifteen years after its first publication, Helen DeWitt’s novel The Last Samurai is back in print. Its long absence has owed to the messy legal history of Miramax Books, rather than lack of interest from readers: many have remained devoted to the novel, which is still a fresh and startling work. In the intervening years, DeWitt has published a good deal of other writing, including two novels (one co-authored) and a book’s worth of short prose. The republication of The Last Samurai provides a useful occasion to assess this body of work as a whole. DeWitt’s work consistently brings off a striking double movement: her fiction is at once a very modern examination of the relationship between art, science, and commerce, and an exploration of enduring philosophical and moral questions. It is also entertaining, lively, and darkly humorous.
The Last Samurai presents the story of Sibylla and her son Ludo. Sibylla emigrated from the United States to study at Oxford, and remains in England as a form self-imposed intellectual exile from American philistinism. Sibylla is a woman of extraordinary intelligence, yet she makes a very marginal and dull living: she spends her days at her (pre-internet) home computer, where she is paid a piece rate for transcribing the complete runs of magazines like Weaseller’s Companion and Carpworld. Ludo, who is nearing school age as the book begins, appears to be a prodigy. By the age of six he has learned Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Japanese, and much else besides; after a disastrous month of primary schooling, Sibylla opts to continue his education at home despite the financial and practical difficulties this will cause. Most of the first half of the book is narrated from Sibylla’s point of view. We receive a frank account of her struggle to encourage her talented son, preserve her sanity, further her own learning, and manage the household’s marginal finances. They do not have enough money to adequately heat their house, and during the winters they economize by taking interminable rides on London’s Circle Line, a stroller full of books and stuffed animals in tow.
Sibylla proclaims boredom to be a fate worse than death, but she subjects herself to a boring life because of her own understanding of moral necessity. She is, by choice, a single mother. She has never informed Ludo’s father of his son’s existence, and she refuses to reveal to Ludo the identity of his father, a datum he greatly desires. Ludo’s father is the travel writer Val Peters, a comfortably middle-class and more or less decent man, surely the sort who would “do the right thing” if asked. But Sibylla believes that Ludo’s development might be greatly harmed by knowing his father: Val is a middlebrow, the sort of person who believes John Updike to be a great writer and confuses evolutionary selection at the level of the gene and the level of the organism. (Sibylla’s recollection of their one night stand is one of the book’s funnier episodes. She initiated sex with Val because she could not think of any other polite way to make him stop talking.) To provide a morally suitable male role model, Sibylla has Ludo regularly watch Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai.
Soon after his eleventh birthday, Ludo discovers the identity of his father; by this age, he is capable of rejecting Val for the same reasons that Sibylla has. The second half of the book, narrated by Ludo, takes the form of a quest modeled after the recruiting scenes from The Seven Samurai. Recognizing that his relationship to Val Peters is a mere biological accident, Ludo undertakes to convince a group of more worthy men that he is their son. In succession, he attempts to persuade a linguist, an astrophysicist, an artist, a professional bridge player, and another travel writer of their paternity; over time, these are less genuine attempts at deception, and more gambits to open an acquaintance with interesting people. By the book’s close, Sibylla’s faith in Ludo has been thoroughly vindicated: he is astonishingly learned, though that does not distinguish him from the ordinary run of child prodigies. (This is supposing that he is, indeed, a child prodigy. In her new Afterword, DeWitt nods to John Stuart Mill’s autobiography, in which he famously argued that he was no more intelligent than any other child, only lucky to receive the opportunity for real education. DeWitt suggests nearly two centuries later that such opportunities are still too rare for us to know what ordinary children are capable of learning.) More impressively, Ludo is an independent person. He is resourceful, socially adept, and a strikingly complex moral thinker: he acquiesces in the suicide of his fifth substitute father, Red Devlin, who cannot overcome the trauma of several years spent as a hostage. Ludo also shows a remarkably clear appreciation of Sibylla’s peculiar system of values, a matter I discuss below.
From this description, The Last Samurai may sound like the sort of book that is often characterized as “difficult.” It is long, formally complex, and deals with topics like suicide in a thoroughly philosophical, unsentimental fashion. It is liberally sprinkled with writing in Japanese and Greek, as well as digressions on topics ranging from twelve-tone music to solid state mechanics. Yet the book sold hundreds of thousands of copies when it was first published, for reasons that are easy to appreciate. The novel does not feel difficult. The Last Samurai is funny and well-plotted. Its learning is brought forth in such a way that the reader is invited into Sibylla and Ludo’s enthusiasms. We are regularly presented with the spectacle of curious people taking pleasure in learning new things, rather than already-learned characters overawing the reader with their intellects. In this respect, Sibylla and Ludo make for much better company than the members of Salinger’s Glass family or Wallace’s Incandenzas.
The Last Samurai happens to be the first book that DeWitt published, but its republication provides a useful excuse to read her body of work backwards: The Last Samurai nearly resolves dilemmas that are commonly posed but left open in her other works. Nearly all of DeWitt’s writing considers whether, and to what extent, artists should accede to the dictates of the market, and by extension, to the tastes of people who are not truly cultivated, however impressive their formal educations may be. Sibylla chooses poverty over compromise. So does Kenzo Yamamoto, a former piano prodigy who figures as a minor character in The Last Samurai. Many other talented, poor characters face similar dilemmas in her work. These include the author Peter Dijkstra in the story “Climbers,” the unnamed painter who narrates the story “Brutto,” and a clutch of author avatars in the elaborately metafictional Your Name Here (co-written with Ilya Gridneff), including “Helen DeWitt,” Rachel Zozanian, “Rachel,” and Ephraim. At a further level of abstraction, the relationship of art to commerce is a major subject of Lightning Rods. On face, the novel is a satire on the stilted language and impaired moral reasoning of American business culture, but at another level of remove—a level overlooked by most critics—it is a parody of the conventions of literary realism and an indictment of the publishing industry’s belief that books should not be too varied or demand too much of the reader.
To the extent that the novel is a uniquely modern genre, there is a strong case to be made for money as its great subject. DeWitt is keenly aware of the compelling dramatic interest of money: all three of her published novels are animated by characters’ attempts to solve financial problems. Yet many of DeWitt’s lonely and unhappy characters are financially secure: overcoming want provides little comfort if one still feels alone in the world. Ludo’s most striking demonstration of his maturity is his understanding that money is a problem for his family, but that absence of money is not the final cause of Sibylla’s periods of depression. This recognition prompts him to make what may appear to be an extravagant, wasteful gesture. While he is acquiring fathers, Ludo obtains a work of art worth several thousand pounds. In the final pages of the novel, he decides—correctly, I believe—that he can do more for Sibylla’s happiness by using this money to produce an unusual musical recording for her rather than paying bills. In microcosm, DeWitt’s writing dramatizes a point formulated memorably by John Maynard Keynes: material want is the problem of our time, but it is not the ultimate human problem.
DeWitt explores both problems. The money plots that drive her novels and stories leave plenty of space to explore larger questions of meaning. Although it would be easy to classify DeWitt as a postmodernist writer, I believe she is better understood as a renovator of a much older literary tradition; in spirit, her writing has much in common with 18th Century novels produced by authors like Rousseau and Diderot, whose works are enduring in their strangeness, and unapologetically examine ideas as they tell stories. There is certainly something of an Enlightenment impulse in The Last Samurai. Embedded within its modern story are explorations of serious, persistent questions: When may people take their own lives, and is life inherently worth living? What if young people were treated as moral agents and given a true opportunity to realize their capabilities? What if authors took the intelligence of their readers seriously? DeWitt’s writing also takes a view of knowledge similar to the Encyclopédistes, and very much at odds with both the divisions of the Two Cultures and the narrowly practical view of education currently prevalent in the English-speaking world. For DeWitt and her characters, every language and culture is interesting, everything is worth knowing, and nothing genuinely separates humanistic and scientific achievements. A good novel can, and should, compass the entire range of human learning and accomplishment, and far from being a didactic exercise, The Last Samurai shows that such material is the very stuff of compelling fiction.
Ben Merriman’s essays and criticism have appeared in publications such as Boston Review, the Chronicle of Higher Education, n+1, and Threepenny Review. Read more at benmerriman.tumblr.com.
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