Category Archives: fall read: the last samurai

The Last Samurai: The Author as Woman

Inevitably, we’ve already had a couple of references to Helen DeWitt’s gender in the comments to the first week of The Last Samurai discussion, so I’d like to toss this point out there to everyone. I’m not one of those readers who thinks that an author’s biography is irrelevant to her work, and the fact is that several aspects of The Last Samurai make DeWitt’s gender germane to a discussion–in particular, the postmodern novel of information tends to be a boy’s club, so it is noteworthy that DeWitt is a woman; also, the plot of Last Samurai deals in no small part with fathers, sons, mothers, and parents in general, all things that will be seen in very different ways depending on which gender’s perspective you are looking from.

I thought Elise’s comments on DeWitt’s gender are interesting:

One of the comments above says “I don’t read many women authors and probably wouldn’t have picked this up without your suggestion.” Too bad, but one thing I love about DeWitt is that she quite bravely takes on a narrator and some subject matter (a mother and motherhood) that often confine women authors to women readers and does it in a way that rejects the gender corner.

I’d like to hear what other people think about this. Is DeWitt tackling these subjects in a way that’s significantly different from how most female authors would tackle them, and if so what should we make of that?

I don’t want to prime the discussion of this point too much, but I am certainly one of those readers with little interest in reading a book whose primary goal is to dramatize the dynamics of a parent/child relationship without leaving that Elise calls “the gender corner. (And this goes for writers of both genders; I have little taste for domestic drama regardless if it’s from the man or woman’s point of view.)

Now, obviously, parent/child relationships are one of the main themes–if not the main theme–of Western literature, and a lot of great books have worked this relationship in ways that expand–rather than diminish–it. And I think that’s certainly what DeWitt is doing here so far. So I have two questions: What is DeWitt doing right? And is this something that women authors in particular fail to do right?

The Last Samurai: Chance, Blocked Geniuses, and Irregular Grammar

einstein

Based on the evidence of the first section we’re reading of The Last Samurai, I think it’s fair to say that Helen DeWitt likes to layer her works in the best tradition of the postmodernists. Already, I’ve noticed a number of themes that she has returned to in various ways again and again: the role of chance in life, the likeness of writing (particularly grammar) to other forms of art, blocked geniuses, cultural literacy, and parents and children. All of these pop up in at least two distinct threads from the first 84 pages, and most of them more. This kind of layering/concatenation strikes me as central to the styles and world-view of postmodernists like Wallace, DeLillo, and Pynchon, and I see it very much in evidence in DeWitt. It even happens on a phrase level, as in “anxious to seem anxious to please,” [70] which is very reminiscent of Wallace in particular, who used similar effects to continually point out the self-consciousness of even supposedly sincere personality tics.

To exemplify the chance theme, I’d like to quote a bit of text that reminded me very much of one of my favorite postmodern romps of 2010, Cesar Aira’s The Literary Conference. While reflecting on the role that just one book has played in shaping the narrator’s life, she tells us: Continue Reading

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

And here you have it, folks, your fall big read. No, it’s not the book that sub-par Tom Cruise movie was based on, in fact it has nothing to do with Tom Cruise or any movie he’s ever been in.

So what is The Last Samurai and why did I choose it? The book was published in 2002 to strong acclaim, though that hasn’t kept it from being labeled a “cult” novel ever since. It was DeWitt’s first book, and it has inspired a devoted, if narrow following.

To get some idea of the kind of splash Samurai made, here is a little anecdote: when DeWitt published her second book as a PDF, it was promptly reviewed in the London Review of Books and serialized in prestigious journals. If:book explains:

Despite not having a print release, Your Name Here garnered a review in the London Review of Books by Jenny Turner; it’s been excerpted in print in n + 1 and Oxford Poetry.

That’s a dedicated following.

But back to The Last Samurai. From what I’ve read, it appears like a postmodern novel of information with a realist bent. There are carefully drawn characters. As you read the book, it will teach you to read Ancient Greek. The book is about geniuses, and there is a lot of incidental erudition scattered throughout. As Garth Risk Hallberg wrote in Open Letters Monthly,

Greek and Japanese characters pepper the page–one imagines a typesetter groaning, head in hands–as do math problems and intertextual allusions ranging from Homer and Ovid to Kinski and (natürlich) Kurosawa. Intellectually, then, DeWitt seems aligned with the post-Ulysses school of anatomic novel-writing, which has produced more than its fair share of “cult” writers: William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace . . .

Garth makes the book sound highly fragmented, and, indeed, this was a point noted by many critics. For instance, writing in The New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn said

what really interests DeWitt is something else you keep running into when you study the classics, which is fragments. In the case of Sibylla and Ludo, the fragments are not merely the bits and pieces of scientific theories and musical compositions and languages and literary texts and film scripts to which Sibylla, Ludo’s equally brilliant, impecunious, depressive mother and the narrator of about half the novel, manically refers as she eccentrically empties her and “L”‘s stories onto page after page, but indeed Sibylla and the boy, Ludo, themselves: a husbandless mother, a fatherless boy, two abundantly gifted and yet still somehow partial beings in search of completion.

And yet, many of the critics I read made it clear that despite the wooliness, the book has a strong story and is a riveting read. In The New Yorker, A.S. Byatt wrote:

So Helen DeWitt is taking risks in writing a fat novel about a highly educated single mother of a boy who may well be a young Mozart or an Einstein—or may, as she recognizes, be heading for the kind of nervous collapse produced by the hothouse education of John Stuart Mill. “The Last Samurai” (Talk Miramax; $24.95) is in fact a triumph—a genuinely new story, a genuinely new form, which has more to offer on every reading but is gripping from the beginning of the first.

As the above excerpts should make clear, it is not difficult to find praise for this book. It looks every bit like a long, meaty read, and I think it’ll give us much food for thought over the course of a month and a half.

As to that, let’s talk logistics. The majority of you were interested in a read that lasted somewhere between 4 and 8 weeks and that consisted of roughly 80 to 100 pages per week. At 530 pages, Samurai fits that schedule to a T. Let’s start this one with the fall solstice on the week of Sunday, September 19. Here’s the schedule:

Week 1: Sept 19 – Sept 25: pp. 3 – 84
Week 2: Sept 26 – Oct 2: pp. 85 – 186
Week 3: Oct 3 – Oct 9: pp. 187 – 274
Week 4: Oct 10 – Oct 16: pp. 275 – 360
Week 5: Oct 17 – Oct 23: pp. 361 – 472
Week 6: Oct 24 – Oct 30: pp. 473 – END

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