Helen DeWitt’s first novel, The Last Samurai, did not go unnoticed when it was published in 2000: it was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award as well as for the UK’s prestigious Orange Prize; in the New Yorker, A. S. Byatt called the novel a “triumph.” And yet the book more or less vanished from the shelves of American bookstores, to the point where we can now be grateful to New Directions (which also published DeWitt’s second novel, Lightning Rods, in 2011) for bringing it back into print.
At first, The Last Samurai is narrated by Sybilla, a young American who is struggling to raise her son, Ludo, in London. Having landed an improbable job retyping the text of magazines with titles like Practical Caravanning and Tropical Fish Hobbyist for a “project into 20th-century language,” she distracts Ludo by feeding his insatiable appetite for knowledge: already, at age five, he knows Greek and Latin, a smattering of Hebrew and Arabic, and some elementary number theory. Ludo’s father is not in the picture, so Sibylla gives him a wealth of surrogate fathers in the form of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film, Seven Samurai.
This is a whimsical premise, and what follows is in some ways a whimsical book — think Tristram Shandy as told by a broke single mother — but Sibylla’s passionate commitment to language and to Ludo gives the novel so much intensity that you can’t refuse to take it seriously. There are any number of virtuosic fictions in the world, and any number of narrators who are eager to lead us around their mental cabinets of wonders, showing off long words and odd facts; but The Last Samurai is one of those rare books that seems genuinely to care whether you (or Ludo, or someone) learns something from it.
And in fact there’s a surprising amount of knowledge on offer here: if you follow Ludo’s education with a little patience, you stand a chance of mastering the Greek alphabet and getting an idea of how Greek counting numbers work; you might also pick up a few words of Japanese, and a kanji or two, not to mention an intimate familiarity with the central scenes of Seven Samurai. For all its pedagogy, though, DeWitt’s novel is hardly dry. Sibylla’s intensity, and her high standards for what counts as rational behavior lead her into some extremely funny situations, as when, leaving the bed of a travel writer (Ludo’s father, it turns out) whose drunken advances she was too polite to resist, she writes a note glossing part of the Iliad:
κιησας, moving [masculine nominative singular aorist participle] δε and [connective participle] κάρη head προτί . . . μυθήσατο addressed [3rd person singular aorist middle indicative] όν his θυμόν soul/spirit/mind/heart [masculine accusative singular]
You can’t help but wonder what the single masculine person accused by this note thought when he woke up. Probably the boor didn’t understand what Sibylla has been teaching us for 125 pages at this point: that language is a beautiful thing, capable of moving our heads and our hearts, if only we pay it close attention.
Whatever you might think of Sybilla’s parenting techniques, The Last Samurai is one of the great novels about raising a child, and being a child, to have been written in the last half century or so. (Other books that might be on that list: Knausgaard’s My Struggle, which DeWitt’s novel resembles in some ways; Steven Millhauser’s Edwin Mullhouse, which it resembles in others.) And like other novels about childhood, it has a hidden drumbeat: Ludo is growing up. When The Last Samurai begins, he is a brilliant five-year-old brat, shouting out the names of hypothetical many-footed cephalopods in Greek; by the end of the novel he is nearly twelve and actively in search of his missing father. By means of a kind of narratorial judo (a martial art Ludo studies) which you don’t often get to see in fiction, he takes charge of telling the second half of the book, and it picks up speed as he interviews one unlikely candidate for fatherhood after another. The range of DeWitt’s talents as a writer may be on display here — although I wouldn’t be surprised if she had other ranges of talent, hidden behind the first, like mountains behind mountains — as she renders deft portraits of two journalists, a painter, a bridge champion, a pianist, and an astronomer, all of them more or less entrenched in London’s upper crust but few of them any match for the fierce Ludo, who has taken his samurai upbringing to heart.
Ludo’s ascendancy leads The Last Samurai farther and farther from Sibylla; in the last third of the novel we get what amount to self-contained tales about an Irish prodigy in Central Asia, an artist who bathes, literally, in lamb’s blood, and a gambler who relies on the number 28. There’s a bit of Bolaño’s stunt-flying in these stories — and maybe more than a bit of the French genius and madman Raymond Roussel, whose Locus Solus goes about as far with the self-contained tale as you can go. DeWitt’s dazzling miniatures tumble kaleidoscopically one after another, but a diptych of images that emerges from them is increasingly clear, and sad, and exhilarating. One half is a portrait of Ludo, becoming more and more independent; the other is of Sibylla, who has spent her life trying to get away from her own oppressive childhood in the States, but who can’t quite seize for herself the freedom which she is so wonderfully capable of passing on to her son. DeWitt’s hyperkinetic playfulness is a long way from the hyperrealism of Knausgaard, or the more tightly controlled knowingness of Elena Ferrante (another great writer about childhood, whose books The Last Samurai does not resemble at all); but it has an emotional reality and a fierce vitality of its own, which deserve to be rediscovered.