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the complete review - fiction
The Last Samurai
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A : exceptionally good and clever -- and a lot of fun
See our review for fuller assessment.
|The NY Rev. of Books
|The NY Times
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|The New Yorker
|The Washington Post
Tremendously ambitious, but some find it all a bit much
From the Reviews:
- "DeWitt has intelligence, wit and unusual stylistic bravery. However, she distances the reader with lengthy asides (not to mention passages in Greek and Japanese), seeming more interested in her writerly preoccupations than in allowing Ludo to become the hero of his own highly original story." - Lisa Darnell, The Guardian
- "This bizarre, bold, brilliant book, originally published in 2000, is original both in content and form. (...) Perhaps the book is a little bloated, but DeWitt’s zeal cannot fail to enchant." - Emily Rhodes, The Guardian
- "Sibylla’s struggle to retain her train of thought is, of course, also the reader’s struggle; DeWitt forces not only her characters but her readers to deal with fragments, to forge a whole. The point of the demanding first part of The Last Samurai is that forging a whole is something that Sibylla herself is unable to do. A potential criticism of DeWitt’s style is that it lacks texture, consisting as it does of lists and enumerations of thoughts and insights; particularly in the first two hundred pages, there are times when you feel less as if you’re reading a novel than sitting next to a brilliant crank at a departmental social event. But if Sibylla’s delivery is, for all the intellectually rarefied subject matter, curiously flat and sometimes a bit too adorable -- it’s as if Glenn Gould were being channeled by Bridget Jones -- the two-dimensionality, the lack of psychological texture or the sense of a coherent subject behind the brilliant word-spinning do successfully convey the extent of Sibylla’s dilemma." - Daniel Mendelsohn, The New York Review of Books
- "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. (...) (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." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times
- "Helen DeWitt's exuberant first novel is largely about translation. (...) Like her characters, DeWitt is eager to display her intellectual and artistic gifts. It is easy to be carried along by the tempo of her prose, which alternates between short, sharp sentences and sprawling passages that leave you gasping for breath. At its best, the writing is playful and engaging, a mix of David Foster Wallace's intellectual colloquialism and the modern fabulism of Aimee Bender. (...) The Last Samurai would have benefited from deeper character and plot development and a editor more willing to excise chaff, but Helen DeWitt shows she is a writer willing to take chances. Though the book worships too long at the altar of the intellect, her intelligence provides sparkle as well as promise." - Myla Goldberg, The New York Times Book Review
- "Instead of feeling they won't like you, you feel you are one of the élite these two would single out as companions(...) It is about a belief that a sense of correctness is among the highest senses." - Anna Schapiro, The Observer
- "Una, en definitiva, brillantísima aproximación experiencial -- construida ante el lector -- a esa criatura llamada Padre. Leyéndola se llega a la conclusión de que Helen DeWitt no sólo debería haber formado parte de la next generation, sino que debería haber ocupado el podio, junto a David Foster Wallace y George Saunders." - Laura Fernández, El País
- "Strip away the layers of erudition -- not that one would want to -- and an elegant structure remains: a book about a boy and his mom; about the search for a father; about trying to find one's way in the world. The Last Samurai is an original work of brilliance about, in part, the limits of brilliance. And in literature as in life, DeWitt understands that what we like most of all is a good yam." - Elizabeth Gleick, Time
- "As its young hero's name implies, this is a book about playing games -- specifically, those to do with language and identity. Its fondness for digression, skilfully deployed in the opening chapters, means that a relatively simple tale is expanded to more than 500 pages. But telling a story is not, one feels, the author's main concern. In fact, it is hard to escape the feeling that, like her freakishly bright young protagonist, DeWitt is a bit too keen on showing off her own considerable learning. (...) Outré is one word for it; pretentious is another. Which, unfortunately, is an accurate description of this clever, but rather annoying, book." - Christina Koning. The Times
- "With its erudite humour and intellectual titbits, this densely packed novel cocks a suave snook at modem dumbing down and constantly delights with its verve and eccentricity." - Suzanne Stevenson, The Times
- "DeWitt plays fast and loose with English grammar and punctuation, often writing in a kind of narrative shorthand that keeps things moving at an exhilarating clip. (In this regard she reminds me of British novelist Nicholas Mosley, who shares DeWitt's interest in science and ethics, and who should have won the Nobel Prize for Literature by now.) The novel is self-consciously experimental--The Last Samurai will crown DeWitt this year's It Girl of postmodernism--but then the best art often is to some degree. DeWitt is formidably intelligent but engagingly witty, not afraid to walk on the Wilde side (her pun). To paraphrase a sentence early in her novel (a fabricated school evaluation), DeWitt has wide-ranging interests and an extraordinarily original mind; she is a joy to read." - Steven Moore, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Early on, most of The Last Samurai is narrated by Sibylla, an American who had frittered away her days at Oxford: "infiltrating classes on Akkadian, Arabic, Aramaic, Hittite, Pali, Sanskrit and Dialects of the Yemen (not to mention advanced papyrology and intermediate hieroglyphics)" and, by the summer of 1985, still in her early twenties, has been reduced to taking a secretarial position in London with a publisher specializing in: "dictionaries and non-academic works of scholarship" -- a job that at least permits her to remain in England and avoid returning to the United States.
(She really does not want to return to the United States.)
A year into the job she has a one-night-fling with a successful writer whom she refers to as 'Liberace', leading to pregnancy and the birth of a son whom she calls Ludovic -- Ludo, for short.
(The name on his birth certificate is a different one, and in some circumstances then he is referred to as Stephen.)
Sibylla's narration begins when Ludo is five -- and already proving himself to be quite the child prodigy, quick to learn to read -- soon in language after language.
He's already curious about who his father is, but Sibylla won't reveal his identity; eventually, an older Ludo will go on a quest to find his -- or a -- father.
In the meantime -- among much else -- a weary Sibylla, looking for male role models and father-figures for the son she is raising by herself, decides: "well, if L needs a role model let him watch Seven Samurai & he will have 8".
The Kurosawa film, Seven Samurai, becomes an oft-viewed touchstone and fallback in their lives (as the novel's title -- and its original one, The Seventh Samurai -- already suggest).
Weighing whether to let him watch this film when he is still just five, Sibylla admits: "I think he is probably too young but what can I do ?"
It's practically the theme of his childhood: ridiculously precocious, Sibylla struggles to keep the boy busy and can hardly keep him in check, guiding him through languages and reading material, much of which is generally hard to think of as age-appropriate.
Of course, Ludo can compare himself to John Stuart Mill -- and is annoyed that he came to, for example, Greek later than the famed philosopher ("he started Greek when he was three. I only started when I was four").
Sibylla manages to put off trying to teach Ludo Japanese for a while by giving him a reading list to get through and other languages to master first, but Ludo is determined and happily takes up the challenge, plowing through the first eight books of Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Odyssey, among other things.
As she notes, he is: "a child with no sense of proportion whatsoever".
Sibylla is constrained in her own intellectual pursuits by the need to earn enough to support them, and to take care of the inquisitive boy.
For her: "to live the life of the mind is the truest form of happiness", but the demands of life and the responsibilities of single parenthood rarely allow it.
On cold days, to save money on heating, she travels with Ludo on the Circle Line -- he's not quite well-enough behaved for them to hole up in the city's museums.
Eventually, she tries to enroll the six-year-old in school, but unsurprisingly it proves a poor fit.
Sibylla does her best to indulge Ludo's intellectual pursuits, with DeWitt managing to make both of them seem quite credible as characters and voices, despite the patent absurdity of Ludo's preciosity.
So, for example, when Ludo is narrating, he reports:
Today I finished Kon Tiki.
I have decided to learn how to clean a fish.
This is followed soon later by:
Today Sibylla and I practised cleaning a fish.
Sibylla was rather annoyed because I did not want to eat it.
I was still reading Arabian Sands.
It was interesting.
The Bedou do not wear shoes.
This is to harden their feet.
I asked Sibylla if we could clean a chicken today and she said No.
Ludo's learning is, in many ways, simply consumption. There is no critical discernment here -- nor, in most cases, much sense of meaningful understanding.
Knowledge here is largely for the sake of knowledge -- one reason, too, for the focus on language-acquisition (although there is also some maths and science).
Sibylla does insist that a certain maturity is required before Ludo can know who his father is: taking the examples of Liberace's music, Lord Leighton's paintings (specifically Greek Girls Playing Ball), and a travel-writer's magazine article she insists:
You will not be ready to know your father until you can see what is wrong with these things.
It is, of course, at first, beyond the boy -- and remains so for quite a while.
He is good at accumulating knowledge, but struggles beyond that -- and doesn't know what else he can do:
If she would just tell me who he is I could stop wasting my time on things that might just happen to come in handy and concentrate on the things I actually need to know.
I've had to learn five major trade languages and eight nomadic languages just in case.
The early part of The Last Samurai is narrated by Sibylla but Ludo becomes the dominant narrative voice -- with the novel also then jumping ahead to when he is eleven and, more independent, he goes on his quest in search of a father, repeatedly venturing out on his own.
(Sibylla fades a bit into the background here -- not least in her oversight of the still very young boy.)
There is a significant shift here in this second part of the novel, the emphasis no longer as much on rote- and book-learning.
Ludo seeks out several men who he believes could be his father, amusingly gaining access to them in a variety of ways and engaging with them -- testing them, as it were.
These are distinct episodes, often more like short stories within the novel, with the men often describing and discussing more of their own lives and thoughts.
The assortment of generally successful and in part brilliant men -- one is a Nobel laureate -- makes for a neat gallery.
If the encounters seem, in many ways, even less realistic than the earlier sections of Ludo's great and easy learning, they are nicely used by DeWitt to address a variety of concerns -- of how to live; of what accomplishment and learning is; of parenthood (several of the men have other children, too -- allowing Ludo also to compare how they and he have been raised).
There's a variety of drama -- one man is suicidal, and Ludo tries to come up with ways of keeping him from going through with it -- and, ultimately, also a pleasing resolution in the last encounter, with a character from much earlier on reïntroduced, a man true to his art even as he understands how limited the audience for it is.
The Last Samurai is an impressive work -- not least for how much fun it all is.
For all the scholarly mentions it wears its learning deceptively lightly -- helped, in part, by Ludo's still very young and literal take on much of what he apprehends and is exposed to.
The deeper, complex issues at the heart of the novel are deftly handled -- again, in part, by the directness of much of the presentation (Sibylla -- and occasionally some of the other adults -- speaking to a child), but also in how they are presented as part of the characters' daily struggles, especially Sibylla's.
Much of the activity here is, in actuality, drawn-out and monotone -- Sibylla's typing-work; struggling through texts in foreign languages with dictionary at hand; riding the Circle Line -- but DeWitt's light presentation manages both to convey that without bogging the reader down in wearying description.
(A playfulness with even typography -- including text-bits in foreign languages and some number play -- also keep the narrative from becoming too dense.)
The novel does have two distinct parts -- the first basically focused on Sibylla and how she is raising Ludo, the second Ludo's quest tales as he looks for a father -- and the story doesn't entirely satisfactorily bridge them, but each is so strong that it doesn't matter all that much.
Sibylla and Ludo are also, for long stretches, very isolated characters, and the extent to which they live apart from the world at large does, at times (and conveniently), tend the novel to thought-experiment rather than real-world fiction, but even this DeWitt mostly gets away with.
The Last Samurai will obviously appeal to bookish readers who like their characters to be learned, and, especially at first, it can seem like just another variation on precocious-child-fiction.
But there's considerably more depth to it -- and, as central as learning is to it, DeWitt builds easily upon it, making for a story that is surprisingly accessible and much more widely resonant.
Any way you cut it, it's a very, very good -- even exceptional -- read.
- M.A.Orthofer, 8 November 2022
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The Last Samurai:
Other books by Helen DeWitt under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
American author Helen DeWitt was born in 1957.
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© 2022 the complete review
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