Fantasia on Assorted Themes: Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai

Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai. New York: Hyperion, 2000.

FathersThis volume was awaiting me courtesy of ABE Books when I returned from Europe, and when I realised its length (530 pages), my jet-lagged self was conscious of one of those sinking feelings: I’ve promised to have this read in less than ten days, and my brain is still eight hours behind me.

FathersHowever, I read the book in about five days and ended with mixed feelings. It is first and foremost a very clever work and then very playful. I wished I had actually seen Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai more recently than 1967. I wished I had worked harder on my Latin and had progressed further than letter recognition in Greek. I wished I remembered more than a few letters and phrases of Hebrew and knew more about the construction of Chinese and Japanese characters and their linguistic and philosophical significance. I was glad I’d read The Odyssey and was familiar with the map of the London Underground. Much of this novel takes place on the Circle Line.

Fathers Told by two first person narrators, first Sybil and then her son Ludo (note the names: much significance can be drawn from them), the novel covers Ludo’s conception, his growing to adolescence as the highly gifted son of a single mother in London, and his search for a father. I’m giving nothing too important away when I say he does succeed in finding his biological father but finds him somewhat wanting. The other father figures he confronts are way more satisfying as role models and kindred spirits.

FathersThere are moments in the book that one recognises so well: the bewilderment of teachers confronted with the gifted child, the absolute boredom of wondering how to deal kindly with while still getting away from a man who thinks he is far more interesting than he is. At other times, one is irritated by ridiculous hyperbole of it all. But then, of course, as one of my reading group reminded me as I complained, satire is hyperbolic. I still didn’t feel complete sympathy for Sybil, however. I was annoyed with her for not doing something more suited to her talents than typing magazines into a database. Yes, I know the highly intelligent can’t always find the right job, but she had years to find something better.

FathersMy initial thought when I finished the book was that if the text were given to Nick Hornby to edit (heavily) and make into a screen-play it could make a hilarious movie. But DeWitt’s The Last Samurai is not a movie; it is an allusive, illusive, and sometimes, if one wants a single concrete thread of meaning to hold it all together, elusive novel.

FathersMy second thought about the novel is that it felt somewhat as if a highly gifted English major had sat down with a check list:

Hero’s journey and quest motifs        check

Power of Language                              check

Shifting signifiers                                check

Allusion to other works                      check

American ex-patriots in Europe          check

and so on . . . .                                     check

FathersThen I thought, well, even if that is the case, you’re just jealous that you couldn’t do it as well as DeWitt does it.

So what are my conclusions about The Last Samurai? It is extremely clever and light-heartedly erudite. It is probably too long. I found myself thinking about Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and looking up Glenn Gould and The Art of Fugue: appropriate responses to the novel, I think. Fathers





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