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The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai

by Helen DeWitt


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Called “remarkable” (The Wall Street Journal) and “an ambitious, colossal debut novel” (Publishers Weekly), Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai is back in print at last

Helen DeWitt’s 2000 debut, The Last Samurai, was “destined to become a cult classic” (Miramax). The enterprising publisher sold the rights in twenty countries, so “Why not just, ‘destined to become a classic?’” (Garth Risk Hallberg) And why must cultists tell the uninitiated it has nothing to do with Tom Cruise?

Sibylla, an American-at-Oxford turned loose on London, finds herself trapped as a single mother after a misguided one-night stand. High-minded principles of child-rearing work disastrously well. J. S. Mill (taught Greek at three) and Yo Yo Ma (Bach at two) claimed the methods would work with any child; when these succeed with the boy Ludo, he causes havoc at school and is home again in a month. (Is he a prodigy, a genius? Readers looking over Ludo’s shoulder find themselves easily reading Greek and more.) Lacking male role models for a fatherless boy, Sibylla turns to endless replays of Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai. But Ludo is obsessed with the one thing he wants and doesn’t know: his father’s name. At eleven, inspired by his own take on the classic film, he sets out on a secret quest for the father he never knew. He’ll be punched, sliced, and threatened with retribution. He may not live to see twelve. Or he may find a real samurai and save a mother who thinks boredom a fate worse than death.

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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: 204,081
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Helen DeWitt was born in a suburb of Washington, DC. Daughter of American diplomats, she grew up mainly in Latin America, living in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador. She went to Oxford to study classics for a BA and D.Phil. She left academia to try to write a novel, moving eventually to London and acquiring UK citizenship. She had some 100 fragments of novels when she began work in 1995 on the novel that was published as The Last Samurai in 2000. The book caused a sensation at the Frankfurt Bookfair 1999, going on to be translated in 20 languages (DeWitt reads some 15 languages to various degrees of fluency). On the reissue of The Last Samurai by New Directions in 2016 it was hailed by Vulture Magazine as The Best Book of the Century. She is also the author of Lightning Rods, a Mel Brooksian satire on sexual harassment, and Some Trick, a collection of stories. She has been based in Berlin since 2004, but also spends time at a cottage in the woods of Vermont improving her chainsaw skills.


Read an Excerpt


My father's father was a Methodist minister. He was a tall, handsome, noble-looking man; he had a deep, beautiful voice. My father was an ardent atheist and admirer of Clarence Darrow. He skipped grades the way other boys skip class, he lectured my grandfather's flock on carbon 14 and the origin of species, and he won a full scholarship to Harvard at the age of 15.

    He took the letter from Harvard to his father.

    Something looked through my grandfather's beautiful eyes. Something spoke with his beautiful voice, and it said: It's only fair to give the other side a chance.

    My father said: What do you mean?

    What it meant was that my father should not reject God for secularism just because he won arguments with uneducated people. He should go to a theological college and give the other side a fair chance; if he was still of the same mind at the end he would still be only 19, a perfectly good age to start college.

    My father, being an atheist and a Darwinist, had a very delicate sense of honor, and he could not resist this appeal. He applied to various theological seminaries, and all but three rejected him out of hand because he was too young. Three asked him to come for an interview.

    The first was a seminary with a fine reputation, and my father because of his youth was interviewed by the head.

    The man said: You're very young. Is it possible that you want to be a minister because of your father?

    My father said he did not want to be a minister,but he wanted to give the other side a fair chance, and he explained about carbon 14.

    The man said: The ministry is a vocation and the training we offer is designed for people who feel called to it. I doubt very much that you would benefit from it.

    He said: This offer from Harvard is a remarkable opportunity. Couldn't you give the other side a fair chance by taking a course in theology? I believe the college started out, after all, as a College of Divinity, and I imagine they must still teach the subject.

    The man smiled at my father kindly and he offered to give him a list of books to read if he would like to do any more in the way of giving the other side a fair chance. My father drove home (they were living in Sioux City at the time) and all the way he thought that this might give the other side a fair chance.

    He spoke to his father. The point was made that one course in theology in a strongly secular environment would probably not make a very considerable impact, but all the same my father must decide for himself.

    My father went to the second seminary, which had a good reputation. He was interviewed by the Dean.

     The Dean asked him why he wanted to become a minister, and my father explained that he did not want to become a minister, and he explained about carbon 14.

    The Dean said he respected my father's intentions, but still there was something whimsical about it, and he pointed out that my father was very young. He recommended that my father go to Harvard first and then if he still wanted to give the other side a fair chance he would be delighted to consider his application.

    My father returned to his father. The beautiful voice pointed out that a man with a degree from Harvard would find it hard to resist the temptation of going instantly into a career, but it said that of course my father must decide for himself.

    My father drove to the third seminary, which was small and obscure. My father was interviewed by a Deputy Dean. It was a hot day, and though a small fan was blowing the Deputy Dean, a red fat man, was sweating hard. The Deputy Dean asked why my father wanted to be a minister and my father explained about the fair chance and about carbon 14.

    The Deputy Dean said that the church paid the fees of the seminarians who planned to become ministers. He said that as my father did not plan to become a minister they would have to charge $1,500 a year.

    My father returned to his father, who said that he supposed my father could earn $750 over the summer at one of the gas stations, and that he would then give him the rest.

    So my father went to a theological college. When I say that he went to a theological college I mean that he enrolled at a theological college & went every Saturday to synagogue out of interest because there was no rule to say you couldn't, and spent most of the rest of the time shooting pool at Helene's, the only bar in town that would serve a 16-year-old.

    He waited for my grandfather to ask how he was finding it, but my grandfather never asked.

    At the synagogue my father met someone ten years older who ran the services and did most of the readings. He looked a lot like Buddy Holly, and in fact people called him Buddy (he preferred it to Werner). At first my father thought this was the rabbi, but the town was too small to support a rabbi: The services were run by local volunteers. Buddy had wanted to be an opera singer, but his father had insisted he train as an accountant, and he had come from Philadelphia to take up a job as an accountant. He too spent a lot of time shooting pool at Helene's.

    By the end of three years my father was very good at shooting pool. He had saved up about $500 from his winnings, and he played carelessly so as not to win too much or too often. He could beat everyone in the bar, but one night a stranger came in.

    By some accident the stranger played everyone else first. He played with smooth, economical movements, and it was obvious he was in a different class from anyone my father had played so far. My father wanted to play him; Buddy kept trying to warn him off. He thought there was something not quite right about the stranger; either he would win more than my father could afford to lose, or he would lose and pull a gun. My father thought this was ridiculous, but then the stranger's jacket rode up as he bent over and they saw a gun strapped to his waist.

    The game came to an end and my father walked up. He said: My friend here says you're dangerous. The stranger said: I can be.

    My father said grinning broadly: He says you'll kill me if I win.

    The stranger said: Are you so sure you'll win?

    My father said: There's only one way to find out.

    The stranger said: And who might you be?

    My father said he was at the seminary.

    The stranger expressed surprise at finding a seminarian in the bar.

    My father said: We are all sinners, brother, in a rather sarcastic tone of voice.

    The stranger and my father played a game and five dollars changed hands.

    The stranger said: Do you want your revenge?

    They played another game which took longer. My father was still playing carelessly; he naturally did not talk while the stranger was playing, but when it was his own turn he answered the stranger's questions with sarcastic stories about the seminary. The stranger was a man of few words, but he seemed amused. My father won in the end with a lucky shot and five dollars changed hands.

    The stranger said: Now let's make it interesting.

    My father said: How interesting do you want to make it?

    The stranger asked how much money my father had in the world and Buddy Holly mouthed the words NO NO Don't tell him you stupid jerk from behind his back and my father said he had $500.

    The stranger said he would give any odds against the $500. My father couldn't tell if he was serious.

    He said: A hundred bucks. Best of five.

    The stranger said in that case he'd like to see the color of his money, because he had to get back on the road and he was not going to hang around for a hundred bucks. He said 5 to 1.

    My father had $25 on him. He borrowed $25 from Buddy and the rest in tens and fives from people in the bar who knew he was good for it.

    They played two games and the stranger won them both easily. They started the third game and the stranger began to win easily, but then my father's luck turned and he pulled himself together and won. He won the fourth game, though it was a hard fight, and then he won the fifth game and it was silent in the bar. Other people in the bar had seen the gun too.

    The stranger reached inside his jacket and everyone froze. Then he took out a wallet. He extracted five $100 bills from a thick stack.

    He said: I don't suppose you've had this much money all at one time before.

    My father pointed out that he already had $500.

    The stranger said: $1,000! That's a lot of money.

    He said: I hate to see a man with money who doesn't know what to do with it.

    My father said: What do you mean?

    The stranger said if you knew something a little ahead of other folks you could sometimes make money if you already had money.

    My father said: What do you know?

    The stranger said he wouldn't be surprised if the new highway was built that way.

    My father said: If you know that for a fact why don't you do something about it? Buy some real estate.

    The stranger said: I don't like property. It ties you down. But if I didn't mind owning property, and I had $1,000, I'd know what to do with the money.

    The bar closed and the stranger drove off. It happened that Mrs. Randolph, Buddy's landlady, wanted to sell her house and move to Florida, but no one was buying. My father pointed out that if the stranger was right they could buy this house and turn it into a motel and make a lot of money.

    If, said Buddy.

    The fact was that they were both convinced that the stranger knew what he was talking about; the gun lent a mysterious conviction to the story.

    My father said he wasn't going to have time for that though, because once he was through with the seminary he was going to Harvard. He had written to Harvard to take up the earlier offer.

    A few weeks went by. A letter came from Harvard explaining that they would like to see what he had been doing for the past few years and asking for his grades and a reference. My father provided these, and a couple of months went by. One day a letter came which nmst have been hard to write. It said Harvard was prepared to offer him a place based on his earlier record, and it went on to explain that scholarships however were awarded purely on merit, so that it would not be fair to other students to give one to someone with a D average. It said that if he chose to take up the place he would need to pay the normal cost of tuition.

    My father went home to Sioux City for Easter. Buddy went home to Philadelphia to celebrate Passover. My father took the letter to his father.

    My grandfather looked at the letter from Harvard, and he said that he believed it was God's will that my father should not go to Harvard.

    Four years earlier my father had had a brilliant future. Now he faced life with a mediocre degree from an obscure theological college, a qualification absolutely useless to a man incapable of entering the ministry.

    My father was struck speechless with disgust. He left the house without a word. He drove a Chevrolet 1,300 miles.

    In later years my father sometimes played a game. He'd meet a man on his way to Mexico and he'd say, Here's fifty bucks, do me a favor and buy me some lottery tickets, and he'd give the man his card. Say the odds against winning the jackpot were 20 million to 1 and the odds against the man giving my father the winning ticket another 20 million to 1, you couldn't say my father's life was ruined because there was a 1 in 400 trillion chance that it wasn't.

    Or my father might meet a man on his way to Europe and he'd say, Here's fifty bucks, if you happen to go to Monte Carlo do me a favor, go to the roulette table and put this on number 17 and keep it there for 17 spins of the wheel, the man would say he wasn't planning to go to Monte Carlo and my father would say But if you do and he'd give him his card. Because what were the odds that the man would change his plans and go to Monte Carlo, what were the odds that 17 would come up 17 times in a row, what were the odds that if it did the man would send the money on to my father? Whatever they were it was not absolutely impossible but only highly unlikely, and it was not absolutely certain that my grandfather had destroyed him because there was a 1 in 500 trillion trillion trillion chance that he had not.

    My father played the game for a long time because he felt he should give my grandfather a sporting chance. I don't know when he played it for the last time, but the first time was when he left the house without a word and drove 1,300 miles to see Buddy in Philadelphia.

    My father parked in front of Buddy's house. A piece of piano music was being played loudly and bitterly in the front room. Doors were slammed. There were loud voices. Somebody screamed. The piano was silent. Somebody started playing the piano loudly and bitterly. My father found Buddy who explained what was going on.

    Buddy had wanted to be an opera singer and was an accountant. His brother Danny had wanted to be a clarinettist and worked in his father's jewelry business. His sister Frieda had wanted to be a violinist and worked as a secretary before marrying and having three children. His sister Barbara had wanted to be a violinist and worked as a secretary before marrying and having two children. His youngest sister, Linda, wanted to be a singer and she had now refused point-blank to go to secretarial college; his father had refused point- blank to let her study music. Linda had gone to the piano and begun to play Chopin's Prelude No. 24 in D minor, a bitter piece of music which gains in tragic intensity when played 40 times in a row.

    The fact was that their father was Viennese and had very high standards. The children could all play five or six instruments with flair but they hated to practice: They emerged from each piece either bloody but unbowed or miraculously unscathed, and they had all assumed they would be musicians. Buddy was the first to find they would not. Mr. Konigsberg thought that either you had talent or you did not; none of his children played like a Heifetz or a Casals or a Rubinstein, therefore they did not have the talent to be professionals; therefore they would be better off just enjoying their music, and he explained when Buddy finished high school that he thought he should be an accountant.

    Buddy said to my father: You know at the time I didn't want to upset my father, I didn't want to make a big thing of it, I thought who am I to say I could be a singer, but then all the others gave in without an argument. I keep thinking, what if it's my fault? If I'd put my foot down maybe my father would have gotten used to the idea whereas instead they all thought they didn't have a choice, I keep thinking what if it's all my fault?

    & he waited hopefully—

    & my father said: Of course it's your fault. Why didn't you stand up to him? You let the whole side down. The least you can do is make sure it doesn't happen again.

    My father knew that he would always hate himself for respecting his own father's wishes, and he now thought that at least someone else could avoid this mistake.

    Does she have a place? he asked.

    No, said Buddy.

    Well she should go for an audition, said my father, and he went into the front room followed by Buddy to argue for this point of view.

    In the front room was a 17-year-old girl with fierce black hair, fierce black eyes & ferocious red lipstick. She did not look up because she was halfway through her 41st consecutive rendition of Chopin's Prelude No. 24 in D minor.

    My father stood by the piano and he suddenly thought What would be the odds against going to a seminary and going to synagogue and learning to play pool, just suppose he fell in love with a Jewish girl from Philadelphia and made a fortune in motels and lived happily ever after, say the odds were a billion to one that was still not the same as impossible so it was not actually impossible that his father had not, in fact—

    Linda plunged down to the bass and hammered out three bitter low notes. Doom. Doom. Doom.

    The piece was over. She looked up before starting again.

    Who are you? she said.

    Buddy introduced my father.

    Oh, the atheist, said my mother.

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