The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai

by Helen DeWitt


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780811225502
Publisher: New Directions Publishing Corporation
Publication date: 05/31/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 576
Sales rank: 58,734
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Author of The Last Samurai and Lightning Rods, “Helen Dewitt knows, in descending order of proficiency, Latin, ancient Greek, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Arabic, Hebrew, and Japanese: ‘The self is a set of linguistic patterns,’ she said. ‘Reading and speaking in another language is like stepping into an alternate history of yourself where all the bad connotations are gone’ (New York Magazine).”

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 4

19, 18, 17

1 March, 1993

19 days to my birthday.

I am reading Call of the Wild again. I don't like it as well as White Fang but I have just finished White Fang again.

I am up to Odyssey 19.322. I have stopped making cards for all the words because there would be too much to carry around but I just make cards for words that look useful. Today we went to the museum and they have a picture of the Odyssey, it is supposed to show the Cyclops but you can't actually see him. It is called Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus. Ulysses is the Latin name for Odysseus. There was a card on the wall saying you can see Polyphemus on the mountain but you can't. I told the guard they should change it and he said it was not up to him. I asked who it was up to and he said maybe the head of the gallery. I tried to get Sibylla to take me to see the head but she said he was too busy and it would be more polite to write him a letter, she said I could write him a letter and practise my handwriting. I said why don't you write a letter. She said he had probably never had a letter from a five-year-old before, if I wrote a letter and signed it Ludo Aged Five he would pay attention to it. I think this is stupid because anybody could sign a letter Aged Five. Sibylla said true, one look at your handwriting and he won't believe you're a day over two. She seemed to think this was hysterically funny.

2 March, 1993

18 days to my birthday. I have been on the planet 5 years and 348 days.

3 March, 1993

17 days to my birthday. We rode the Circle Line today because we couldn't go back to any museums. It was tedious in the extreme. One funny thing that happened is that a lady got into an argument with Sibylla about two men who were about to be flayed alive. Sibylla explained that one of the men dies of heart failure at time t and the other at time t + n after having someone peel off his skin with a knife for n seconds and the lady said pas dev and Sibylla said I should warn you that he speaks French. Then the lady said non um non avanty il ragatso and Sibylla said not forward the boy. Not forward the boy. Not. Forward. The boy. Hmmm. I'm afraid I don't quite understand, you clearly have a command of Italian idiom which I cannot match and the lady said she thought it was not a suitable subject for discussion in the presence of a small child and Sibylla said oh I see, and that's how you say it in Italian. Non avanty il ragatso. I must remember that. The lady said what kind of example do you think you are setting and Sibylla said would you mind if we continued this discussion in Italian, I feel that it is not a suitable subject for discussion in the presence of a small child or as they say in Italian non avanty il ragatso. After she got off the train Sibylla said she should not really have been so rude because we should be polite to people however provoking and I should not follow her example but learn to keep my inevitable reflections to myself. She said it was only because she was a bit tired because she had not been getting much sleep and otherwise she would never have been so rude. I am not so sure but I kept my inevitable reflections to myself.


Chapter 5

We Never Go Anywhere

Early March, winter nearly over. Ludo still following scheme I do not understand: found him reading Metamorphoses the other day though he is only up to Odyssey 22. Seems to have slowed down on Odyssey, has only been reading 100 lines or so a day for past few weeks. Too tired to think of new places to go, where is there besides National Gallery National Portrait Gallery Tate Whitechapel British Museum Wallace Collection that is free? Financially in fairly good position as have typed Advanced Angling 1969-present, Mother and Child 1952-present, You and Your Garden 1932-1989, British Home Decorator 1961-present, Horn & Hound 1920-1976, and am now making good progress with The Poodle Breeder, 1924-1982. Have made virtually no progress with Japanese.

Another argument about Cunliffe. L: Why can't we go to the National Gallery again?

I: You promised you wouldn't go through doors marked Authorised Personnel Only.

L: It didn't say Authorised Personnel Only. It said Staff.

I: Exactly. In other words people who worked there, because the people who work there want to get on with their work without being disturbed by people who don't work there. If at some stage you decide to reject the theory of a Ludocentric universe do let me know.

We go to Tower Hill to catch a Circle Line train. The Circle Line is experiencing delays, so we sit down & I discover that Ludo has smuggled Kalilah wa Dimnah into the pushchair. He takes it out and starts reading, turning the pages quickly -- the vocabulary is pretty easy and repetitive, should really have picked something harder but too late now.

A woman comes up & stares & admires & comments, How on earth did you teach so young a child?

She says she has a five-year-old herself & presses me for my methods which I explain, such as they are, & she says surely there must be more to it than that.

L: I know French and Greek and Arabic and Hebrew and Latin and I'm going to start Japanese when I finish this book and the Odyssey.


L: I had to read 8 books of the Metamorphoses and 30 stories in the Thousand & One Nights and I Samuel and the Book of Jonah and learn the cantellation and do 10 chapters of Algebra Made Easy and now I just have to finish this book and one book of the Odyssey.

[What!!!!?] My admirer says that's wonderful & that it's so important for small children to have a sense of achievement, & then drawing me slightly aside says that all the same it's important to keep a sense of proportion, one needs to strike a balance, dangerous to carry things to extremes, moderation in all things, not that she means to interfere.

By the looks of things I have about three days' grace before I start teaching Japanese to a child with no sense of proportion whatsoever.

My admirer is still hovering & hesitating, having struck a blow for moderation she says something or other about her own child who is no genius.

I say What about French, she might like to learn French

& she says I know it sounds awful but I haven't the time.

I say she is probably expecting too much, why not teach her just one word a day & let her colour it in in a book wherever she finds it, the secret of success is to complete a single simple task on a daily basis.

Is that what you did? she asks looking awestruck at Kalilah wa Dimnah (which is completely ridiculous as it is a very easy text, far too easy in my opinion).

No, I say. But it is still the best method.

Two Circle Line trains came and went and a District Line train pulled in and pulled out on its way to Upminster. She said But how did you get him to do all that work and I explained about the five words and the Schwan Stabilo highlighter & she said Yes but there must be more to it than that, there must be more to it than that --

so that I could not help thinking of things I would rather not think about, such as how hard it is to be nice and how hard it was going to be to be nice.

She seemed to be really interested because now a Barking train came and went and still she was here. She said what she meant was for example she had studied Latin herself, well if you teach a child French the simple task could be a word whereas in an inflected language the grammar was so frightfully complicated surely beyond the grasp of a four-year-old child.

I said I thought small children liked matching things up, it was not that big a deal, I just explained that the words had to match and he could see that they matched, though of course it probably made more sense when he got used to the idea.

She was smiling sympathetically. What a nice thing to explain to a four-year-old child.

I had not planned to give him a whole declension on the first day as I knew very well what Mr. Ma would think. L seemed to be having such a good time colouring in words with his highlighter, though, and it is always such a relief when a small child finds something to do that it is happy to go on doing, that I wrote out some tables for him (including the dual), with the comforting reflection that Mr. Ma was not there to see it. I told him he could colour in any of the words that he found & then I went back to John Denver leaving Iliad 1-12 on the chair.

Four or five hours went by. After a while I looked up and he was doing something on the floor. I went over to him and he smiled up at me. He had gone back to the beginning of Iliad 1 in my Oxford Classical Text, and he had highlighted his five words and all occurrences of the definite article all the way to the end of Iliad 12, so that every page had blocks of green scattered over it.

He said Where is Volume Two? I need to finish this.

I said patiently after a short pause I don't know where it is, I was looking for it earlier, and I added patiently Perhaps you should learn some more words and go back over Volume I again instead. You could use a different colour. If you need more practice you can go on to Volume II.

He said All right. Can I have ten words this time?

I said Natürlich. You can have as many as you want. This is tremendously good. I thought it would be too hard for you.

He said Of course it's not too hard for me.

& I looked again at the coloured page and I said


That was all I said, & it was too much. A chittering Alien bursts from the breast to devour your child before your eyes. He looked down at the page,

& I returned to my work and he returned to his work.

I had tried to be patient and kind but this was not very nice.

A week went by. I have heard it said that small children have no powers of concentration. What in God's name is to keep a small child from concentrating on something? L anyway was a monomaniac. He would leap out of bed at 5:00 in the morning, put on four or five sweaters, go downstairs to get out his eight Schwan Stabilo highlighters and get to work. At about 6:30 or so he would rush upstairs to report on his progress waving a fluorescent page in my face and I disapproving of the type of parent who fobs a child off with Wonderful Wonderful would murmur Wonderful and then disarmed by a face like a new penny ask questions. Elephant stampede up and down stairs for a couple of hours & time to get up.

A week as I say went by. One day I snatched a few moments from typing to read Ibn Battuta & L came up and just looked. He didn't say anything. I knew what this meant: it meant for all my good intentions I had not been very nice. So I said: Would you like to learn it? And he naturally said he would so I went through the whole procedure again, and I gave him a little animal fable to read in Kalilah wa Dimnah. And now each night I would look up the next twenty words in each book and write them down for him so that it would not be so boring for him at 5:00 in the morning.

Four days went by. I tried to be careful but you can't always be careful and one day I went to look something up in Isaiah. I got out my Tanach and he came over and looked and that was that.

Copyright© 2000 Helen DeWitt

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The Last Samurai 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
posthumose on LibraryThing 7 months ago
A boy tries to discover the identity of his father by researching the lives scientists and artists and their works when his intellectual mother refuses him any information. The mother's obssession with a Kurosawa film explains the title, NOT the recent Cruise movie. A masterpiece of originality and a hoot as well.
jddunn on LibraryThing 7 months ago
I re-read this partly to figure out if I really love it as much as I thought I did(I do.) and also to sort of figure out why, since it seems to be greater than the sum of its parts somehow. I'm still not exactly sure what the secret is, but I'll take a circuitous stab at it. It incorporates a lot of elements that I love in other books: It's a bildungsroman and frame narrative(tons of other things I love.) It teaches me stuff and incorporates info-dumpy type elements, but not in a Neal Stephenson overbearingly expository sort of way... in a way that's integral to the characters and who they are(see Richard Powers.) It uses other cultural touchstones as sort of frameworks on which to hang shared meaning and around which to form identity, but not in a tossed-off and lazily referential sort of way(The difference between say, Murakami and Coupland, or Ghost World and Garden State is what I'm getting at here.) It's got a cracked and rather dry sense of humor. It employs a conversational style and a really distinctive voice(Vonnegut, but that's a double-edged sword because it also becomes what annoys me about him, and I was afraid that would be the case the second time through on this, but it wasn't). It's tangential and jumps around and weaves together narratives, but not to the point of it being ticcy and distracting about it.I think where it really excels is in characterization and in short set-piece storytelling, and most of all in the intersection of those two. The various juvenile-adventure-style tales she tells to introduce and flesh out Ludo's surrogate-father candidates are just wonderful; they work both as character sketches and as adventures and are sad and hopeful and beautiful and true. And the way she skates right on the edge of suspension of disbelief when it comes to drawing out Ludo's character is impressive too. Somehow she manages to make him believable as both an intellectual prodigy and a moral and experiential adolescent, and his constant confused and fumbling attempts to apply the rules of one sphere to the other are touching and ring true to anyone who read dictionaries and did math well before they figured out how to deal with other people.In that vein, it also has a real moral center and moral sense, even if a rather stoic and resigned one. The evolution of Ludo's relationship with his mother(also a well-drawn and unique character and mind), to the point where he's the one who has the capacity to care for her in the end, is well done. Maybe a little cliched in this day and age, but I didn't mind that at all, and perhaps the contrast even works in its favor.So, yeah, this has lots of pieces that aren't particularly amazing on their own, but combined in an artful and unusual way. It takes lots of the best tricks and elements of postmodern writing and combines them with older-fashioned bildungsroman-y notions of character and moral development and sense of childhood wonder and adventure. It combines a lot of themes, styles, references, and so on that I'm a sucker for, but without pandering or playing connect-the-dots. A masterful job of self-confident-but-not-arrogant authorial restraint and range and imagination.
janey47 on LibraryThing 7 months ago
Not about Japan and only about samurais in the respect that the son uses Seven Samurai as a model for searching for his father.It's about what makes a worthwhile life or a life worth living. And it's about the value of granting an individual autonomy over his/her own existence and what, if anything, we can responsibly do to aid a person who is in distress without compromising their autonomy. And it's about what it means to look for your father, and who is a father, and what is it to have a father.And it's about brilliance and the limitations of brilliance.I love this book beyond all reason.
Capfox on LibraryThing 7 months ago
I picked this up mostly because I remember a friend recommending it at some point, and then I left it around for a few months before finally picking it up. And boy, did it not disappoint at all.The story, basically, is that of a woman trying to raise her intelligent son without a father, and then the search by the boy for his father. The name of the book comes from Sibylla, the mother, watching and rewatching Seven Samurai in an attempt to provide male role models for Ludo, the son.Really, though, the book is much more than that. The style is dizzyingly interesting at points, and varies over the course of the book. I didn't like some of it in the earlier parts, particularly with the pacing and interruption of narrative flow, but once it gets going, it's great. The plot is driving, and the working of the themes of interpersonal connectedness, finding the ones most meant for you, and the nature of intelligence are thought-provoking and artistically superb. Structurally, it's very interesting as well, with threads coming in and going out at unexpected points sometimes. It builds very nicely.I thoroughly enjoyed this, and believe it to really be a great work of fiction. I just have to try to get more people to read it.
chriszodrow on LibraryThing 7 months ago
Not THAT story!! A better one. The essential question: what is character and where does it come from? Is it fate, circumstance, parentage or none of the above? What makes a man a man? A heart-breaking and humorous read about identity. "Gnothai seauton" (know thyself) through the eyes of an eleven year-old polymath. Excellent.
lriley on LibraryThing 7 months ago
I found this to be an amazing first novel. Helen Dewitt's The Last Samurai is narrated mostly by a young boy Ludo (aka David, Steven) who's mother Sybylla is an American ex-pat ekeing out a living in contemporary London doing odd jobs related to the publishing industry. Ludo is a very precocious young man. Along with the incidentals (books and toys) of a pre school aged boy he is learning to read Homer in the original source language. As well he works obsessively on other languages and complex mathematical and scientific problems. Being a product of a one night stand he worries his mother continually about his paternity. She for her part is not forthcoming. She'd rather forget him. He bugs her and bothers her about all the above as she works at home prepping and typing material for her various sources of income. Economically things are very tight for them--and if I'm getting the picture right--the both of them often ride the London tube around to get away from their home (sometimes stopping at libraries and museums where they don't have to payfor entry) so as to save on the heating bill--young Ludo often making quite an impression on other riders and/or passersby with his mathematical and linguistic skills. At home he and his mother watch Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai incessantly--Ludo using it to improve on his Japanese and as a device to look into the worlds of adulthood and human conflict. An attempt to enter him into the local school system at age 6 turns into a debacle. Being light years ahead of the other kids in practically everything he becomes a disruption to the whole class. As the novel moves along we see Ludo as well as a young teenager--searching through his mothers papers he discovers his fathers identity. He tracks him down but is disappointed by the man he finds. He beings a new search for a surrogate father. An adventurer, an artist, a Nobel prize winning scientist, an aristocratic gambler etc. He follows them back to their homes claiming to be a son from a past romantic affair. It doesn't always convince and he finds all his prospects to be in some way or another fatally flawed. His last candidate as it happens is already predetermined on a course of suicide. Our young prodigy is more or less left at this point to determine his own course through life.To conceptualize is one thing--to bring about that conception is another. What makes this book remarkable is that Dewitt dreams big and has the talent and the will to realize it. For me it's a remarkable book from beginning to end. And it's a challenging one in many respects as Dewitt makes clear right from the beginning that human beings are capable of much more than they think--that perhaps too many of us set our sights too low throughout their lives. 3 year old Ludo does not think that knowing Greek or working on Japanese alphabetical characters is a big deal. It may astound all the grownups he runs into but if a 3 year old can do it why can't anybody? And it's something I find true. I can't speak Spanish but I can read it at least somewhat (I'm horribly out of practice right now though) because of a project I gave myself several years ago. Anyway Dewitt has a very finely tuned ear for conversation, inner conversation as well and a very subtle sense for the comedic turn. The prose seems to flow effortlessy and there are no real gaps or inconsistencies in her story. It's an enjoyable read--and certainly recommended by this reviewer.
booksbooks11 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I wasn't going to review this but none of the other reviews really said what I want say. I was disappointed by the book in a few ways. FIrstly it's quite disjointed, the first half set in America about her parents and so on is almost a different book from the later half in England. I did enjoy toying with the idea of such a child genius and although it was taken rather too far to be realistic I think that was part of the point of it. Not being particuarly multilingual myself I did wonder about all the harping on about different languages, was DeWitt trying to display something of that genius herself and trying a little too hard for me. It may have taken me a while to twig to the enivitiability of the seven fathers but I really did groan with dismay and started flicking pages after about number four. The fathers got more and more fanciful and less connected to the real world, so I became less interested in the book. I nearly gave up at this point but being nearly at the end made it through, it was worth it but mainly because it filled most of a boring plane trip.
cestovatela on LibraryThing 8 months ago
A boy genius raised in isolation by his genius mother sets off to find his absentee father. The young protagonist's journey from one potential parent to another are entertaining and I enjoyed the twist at the end, but on the whole, the book didn't quite come together.
girlunderglass on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Recommended for: fellow whizkid-lovers!, fans of the Glass family, people interested in foreign languages, education, and child-rearing, people who like bildungsromans, smartasses.I have mentioned my obsession with whizkids many times before, although now that I think of it, it was never on this site. So then you won¿t mind if I repeat myself. Here goes. I LOVE WHIZKIDS. There is possibly no subject matter in the world more certain to get my attention. If you happen to mention in passing a movie that has a child prodigy protagonist in it, or a child prodigy secondary character, or possibly even a child prodigy chimney sweeper that only appears for five seconds during the entire movie, chances are I¿m gonna watch it. This all started years ago with Salinger¿s Glass family, my favourite favourite favourite fictional characters which no one has yet ¿ and probably never will ¿ manage to dethrone. There were many whizkids I fell in love with after that. Stanley Spector from Magnolia, Klaus and Violet from the Series of Unfortunate Events, Dexter from Dexter¿s Laboratory, Brain (Pinky & the Brain ¿ although not exactly a ¿child¿), Hermione Granger, Velma, Teddy and Esme and more recently (recently for me) Joshua Waitzkin from Searching for Bobby Fischer. Like I said none of these will probably be able to dethrone Seymour and Zooey Glass from their no.1 spot. But Ludo, age seven, child prodigy and the protagonist of The Last Samurai sure comes in a close second. I loved this boy with all my heart. And though usually when people say they love a kid they only mean it in a ¿aww he¿s so cute¿ way, I mean it in a ¿aww he¿s so cute and smart and interesting and brilliant and damaged and fantabulous and loveable and heartbreaking and great and can-I-please-please-please-order-one-just-like-him-somewhere?¿I want to make one thing clear in case you were wondering: the title coincides with the title of a known Hollywood movie with Tom Cruise in it. That is just an unfortunate accident . The book in fact takes its title from another movie: Kurosawa¿s Seven Samurai. The relationship between Seven Samurai and this book is not so straightforward as the back cover would have you believe. Yes, there is the obvious plot connection: Sibylla, Ludo¿s mother is worried about her son growing up without a role model since his father is ignorant about his existence, so she decides to play the movie every day for him in order to give him not one but 8 male role models: the seven samurai and Kurosawa himself! But the relationship between book and movie is much more complex than that. There are beliefs and ideologies embedded in the movie that have become part of who Ludo is. There are life lessons to be had from it. There are languages to be learned. There are words of wisdom to be memorized and repeated. There are fictional characters that become real friends. The complexities of the parallel that DeWitt is trying to draw between the two is mostly up to the reader to figure out. I don¿t want to say anything more because I don't want to spoil this wonderful novels for anyone. Suffice to say, The Last Samurai ties with I Know This Much Is True for my top reads of 2009. Go read it.
Pferdina on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Quite complex but excellently conveys the excitement and pleasure of learning. The book is about single mother Sibylla and her young son Ludo who are living in London. Ludo is a genius. Sibylla intends to stimulate him by teaching him a second language at an early age, but this unleashes an unstoppable force which is always hungry for more. After several languages (Arabic, German, Hebrew, Greek...) and a lot of mathematics, he also begins to study sciences. He reads everything. Sibylla fears the effects of growing up without a male role model so introduces Ludo to the classic Japanese film "The Seven Samurai" in the belief that the characters as well as the director will substitute for his absent father. The film provides a unifying theme throughout the book. Later, when Ludo is about ten years old, he becomes interested in meeting his father and the remainder of the book relates his adventures with several candidates as well as what he learns from this project.The book is written in an unusual style. The first part is mainly from Sibylla's point of view and it is almost stream-of-consciousness. Apparently, the author has no need for quotation marks to set off dialog. Further along, Ludo's voice is heard more and more until the book is entirely from his point of view and Sibylla becomes less and less involved. It was a bit difficult to get used to this style at first, but afterwards it was very quick-moving and pleasant.I think the book conveys the real pleasure of learning things. When Sibylla and Ludo are discussing languages or comparing their grammars, the detail is very satisfying. One can be amazed that, not only do the terms for such things exist, but that people know and use them to talk about language. The mathematics and science is weaker, more superficial (such as the references to "learning the periodic table" and recitations of the properties of the elements--atomic number, stable isotopes, boiling point--instead of any actual chemistry) presumably due to the author's own lack of familiarity. At one point there is an error when a minor character is described as sharing a Nobel Prize for Physics with three others; as far as I know, a maximum of three people may share a Prize in any field. However, this is not important to the story and most readers would never notice.Highly recommended for those who like a good story with interesting characters and who do not mind something a little different.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
reviewer5831 More than 1 year ago
Many books offer either intellectual stimulation OR touching narrative OR mystery-level drama. The Last Samurai gives you all three without making you feel all dirty about it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
When I fisrt picked up this book, I'll admit, I was a bit intimidated by its size, but not for long. Once I began reading it, I was hooked. Ms. DeWitt has captivated a great theme in this story: a child's need for his father. The lengths main character, best known as Ludo, goes through to find a father figure is a laugh-out-loud experience to read. I am truly in love with this story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Last Samurai has beeen one of my favorites and will read over and over again. Written as if a train of thought makes the novel humble yet elevates the compexity of the characters. Ludo is an amazing child, I even envied him, but with his accurate social difunction makes him a real person. His mother and her struggles and blantant relastionship makes it all the more interesting. Their failures and sucesses left me in awe of it all as well. I love this book. I couldn't put it down and recommend it to anyone.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have started my second read of this intelligent, funny book. Extremely well written in a refreshing style which entertains while examining the learning process, parent child relationships and the movie 'The Seven Samurai'. I laughed out loud. A must read for anyone who considers themselves to be an intellectual with a sense of humor.