How Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai cultivates ambition in its readers.
In the late nineties, Helen DeWitt, a then-unpublished writer with a Ph.D. in classics from Oxford, got an offer on her first novel, The Seventh Samurai. It had been seventeen months since her agent had indicated she would be able to get an advance based on the first six chapters of the manuscript—which, in the absence of a contract, DeWitt had diligently been attempting to finish. After she received the offer, she wrote to her agent; she felt she was likely to commit suicide if she had to continue working with her. Looking over her editor’s comments, she scarcely felt more hopeful. When a contract arrived, she decided not to sign it.
Some time later, a friend showed the manuscript to Jonathan Burnham, then at Talk Miramax Books; he immediately offered her $70,000. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, the novel caused what can fairly be called a sensation; but the enthusiasm of foreign houses did not make English-language publication any easier. DeWitt spent months battling her copy editor, who had ignored DeWitt’s edits and imposed hundreds of standardizing changes of her own. It was, DeWitt told the Observer in 2011, as if they were trying to “kill the mind that wrote the book.”
In 2000, DeWitt’s novel was released as The Last Samurai. (DeWitt was forced to change the title, only to see its Google results buried, three years later, beneath the Tom Cruise movie of the same name). In The New Yorker, A. S. Byatt hailed it as “a triumph—a genuinely new story, a genuinely new form.”
And then, in 2005, the imprint that had published DeWitt’s novel was absorbed by Disney’s Hyperion Books. By the time The Last Samurai was excitedly recommended to me, in 2007, by an ex-boyfriend I was still eager to please, it was out of print—which only, of course, added to its allure. This was not a book for just anyone, was the implication. News of it traveled by word of mouth—and if that word reached you, it said something about the kind of reader you were: attracted to the recondite, undaunted by formal difficulty, unconventional in your tastes.
Now that the novel has been reissued by New Directions, my hope is that its cultish sheen will dull. Of course The Last Samurai is not a novel for everyone—no novel is—but it is a novel for many people. It is deliberately—proudly—erudite and intertextual; it is, like the mind of its author, stubbornly idiosyncratic. But also, importantly: it is a novel less interested in being ambitious for ambition’s sake, than it is in cultivating ambition in its readers.
Near the beginning of The Last Samurai, the protagonist, Sibylla, buys a copy of Arnold Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony. Sibylla is a secretary at a small British publishing house. Before that, she was on scholarship at Oxford, where she became disillusioned with her research after spending forty-seven hours struggling through an untranslated German text by an academic whose so-called textual discoveries turned out to be no more than self-justifying logical fallacies. She had come to Oxford to “live among rational beings”; her disappointment was extreme, if plainly evoked. “I put,” DeWitt writes, in Sibylla’s voice, “my head on my hand.” The secretarial post has allowed her to abandon her research but stay in England. Sibylla, who spent her childhood being shuffled from one town to the next (her father was a precocious scholar turned bitter motel developer) and lied her way into university by faking letters of recommendation, refuses to return to the dead end the States represents.
Sibylla is also brilliant. She spends her time at Oxford “infiltrating classes on Akkadian, Arabic, Aramaic, Hittite, Pali, Sanskrit and Dialects of the Yemen (not to mention advanced papyrology and intermediate hieroglyphics).” The sections of the novel she narrates are littered with allusions: to Glenn Gould and Homer and Kurosawa, whose film The Seven Samurai inspired both of the novel’s titles. She has no patience for art that’s sentimental or illogical or purposelessly beautiful.
I suspect Sibylla would object to being called brilliant. I suspect she does not believe that she has access to truths unavailable to others; that she believes merely that others usually prefer to avoid traveling the sometimes-arduous path to those truths. “The fact is,” she explains early in the novel, “that 99 out of 100 adults spare themselves the trouble of rational thought 99% of the time.” Sibylla seems like the kind of person who’d only admit to being the one out of the hundred who doesn’t. (Though if this is true, what else could brilliance consist of but refusing to be one of the ninety-nine?) Regardless, Sibylla is a woman confident in her convictions. Immediately after her declaration about adults’ general reluctance to engage in rational thought, she concedes, parenthetically, “studies have not shown this, I have just invented the statistics so I should not say The fact is, but I would be surprised if the true figures were very different.”
Sibylla buys Theory of Harmony and, being either brilliant or just rational, begins to apply Schoenberg’s twelve-tone compositional technique to literature. She’s always thought that “books should be more like the film The Godfather, in which at one stage Al Pacino goes to Sicily and the Italian is all in Italian,” but now she sees the possibilities expand. In the future, she muses, “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 or lovely Hungarian all prefixes suffixes, & having first thought of that would then think of some story about Hungarians or Finns with Chinese.” The recalibration Sibylla imagines goes beyond the mere linguistic. If one is thinking first of tonal contrast—of a lack of grammatical inflection alongside double letters and long vowels and words that are all prefixes and suffixes—one is not thinking primarily, or perhaps at all, about content or meaning.
This all seems designed to make one wonder: Why, then, is The Last Samurai written in English? Why is it a novel, with characters and a plot and psychologically appropriate backstories, at all?
As it turns out, DeWitt—being either brilliant or just rational—has anticipated this query and its implied critique by putting a similar question in the mouth of Ludo, Sibylla’s ten-year-old son. (Ludo is precocious, but the fact of his age nevertheless stings.) The pair is discussing a magazine article by a writer Sibylla finds facile. (This conversation is also, tangentially, about Ludo’s father, a travel writer Sibylla calls “Liberace” because his prose resembles the pianist’s playing: all “slick, buttery arpeggios” and “self-regarding virtuosity” and “professional sincerity”; Sibylla won’t tell her son his father’s name until Ludo can explain to her what is wrong with three pieces of bad art, the magazine article among them.)
Ludo points out that the writer is regarded by “one reviewer … as the greatest writer in English in the world today.” “Anything follows from a false premise,” she snaps. “If you accept that American novels should be written in English then it also follows that the Pope is a Jew.” “Well in that case,” Ludo replies, “Seven Samurai can’t be any good because it’s in black and white and Japanese.” Sibylla’s response reads like a defense of DeWitt’s own endeavor: “There is an obvious difference,” she tells her child, “between someone who works within the technical limitations of his time which are beyond his control and someone who accepts without thinking limitations which are entirely within his own power to set aside.”
If DeWitt could not set aside the limitations of her time, The Last Samurai certainly struggles against them. Narrative trains of thought are interrupted, mid-sentence, and then picked back up, pages later. Font size varies wildly (initially, and to great effect, to indicate a younger Ludo’s ever-louder shouts of impatience). Ampersands abound, and punctuation reflects the rhythms of speech rather than the strictures of traditional grammar. (Liberating, on the page; yet one cannot help but think, with a small pang, of the copy editor DeWitt battled, and the proofreaders that followed.) Blocks of text are reproduced from Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar and a book on aerodynamics. Though the book is primarily written in English, several other languages do appear: Japanese, Greek, Icelandic (all helpfully translated).
Novelistic conventions prove slightly harder to overthrow. The Last Samurai is fragmented and episodic, yes; but in its later two-thirds, the novel, now narrated by Ludo, becomes a kind of quest narrative. Inspired by the plot of The Seven Samurai, the eleven-year-old tests various men for paternal suitability after learning the identity of, and being thoroughly disappointed by, his biological father.
And yet, everywhere, DeWitt makes her suspicion of narrative pleasure clear. For example: Sibylla finds the study of foreign grammar soothing; rarely is she seen enjoying a novel. The most prominent novelist in The Last Samurai goes unnamed; Sibylla snidely nicknames him “Lord Leighton” after the “Hellenising late-Victorian painter.” Like Leighton, the novelist’s problem is not lack of skill, but its empty overabundance: “a character,” she remarks, “could not look, or step, or speak, without a gorgeous train of sentences swathing his poor stupid thoughts and unfolding in beautiful languor on the still and breathless air.” (Trying to guess which contemporary novelist DeWitt might be eviscerating is one of the many delights of The Last Samurai.)
And then there is the fact that coincidence is the engine that sets The Last Samurai going. A series of coincidences—an atheist is sent to seminary school and while there happens to visit a synagogue and at the synagogue meets a Jewish guy who eventually introduces him to his youngest sister, the last in a line of thwarted musicians—leads to the marriage that produces Sibylla. Ludo’s own birth is the result of a chain of similarly unlikely events. (So, for that matter, was the novel’s own publication and subsequent disappearance.) The recognition of coincidence anticipates the birth of a narrative: from an endpoint already invested with meaning, a set of preceding events are mentally linked. And what goes in as happenstance comes out looking a lot like fate—or at least like a story. But if DeWitt cannot avoid employing this kind of machinery, she can call attention to it; the coincidences she describes are pointedly outlandish, and she never transforms them. They remain what they are: accidents of chance.
In a 2012 interview with Mayday Magazine, DeWitt explained that her use of Greek letters in The Last Samurai was a bit of the old “Show don’t tell.” Ludo begins learning Greek at the age of six; DeWitt thought that by spelling English words with Greek letters, she could demonstrate how easy it would be to teach a child Greek using precisely that method. “You will wonder,” she said, “why nobody bothered to teach YOU in first grade (and you will then think, OK, maybe first grade is a bit young, but surely by FOURTH GRADE . . . !!!!).”
This was not precisely the experience I had, when I read The Last Samurai—either for the first time, a little less than a decade ago, or for the second time, earlier this year. Or rather, it did indeed seem possible to teach a child how to spell English words in Greek by this method, but I thought pityingly of the instructor who might have tried to help me, at nine, make the leap from English-in-Greek to Greek-in-Greek. It was jarring, as a twenty-year-old whose personality could have been summed up as “good at learning things,” to find she was dumber than both a fictional six-year-old and the book he inhabited. It was shaming to discover, at twenty-eight, that this remained true.
And yet there was pleasure in the shock, and the shame: the pleasure that accompanies the possibility that these feelings eventually, through effort, will be overcome. We are all too dumb, I suspect, for Helen DeWitt, if only because we are too lazy to be the one out of the hundred who refuses to spare herself the trouble of rational thought. (If we weren’t, perhaps DeWitt wouldn’t have had to translate those passages of Japanese and Greek. Perhaps she would have written a different book entirely, filled with Hungarians and Finns and Chinese.) But discomfort is not, on its own basis, to be automatically rejected. It can be, in fact, a delicious spur. DeWitt pushes against the limitations of the novel as a form; reading her, one wants to push against the limitations of one’s own brain.
Miranda Popkey is a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.