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Category Archives: helen dewitt

Toward An Understanding of The Last Samurai: Quests

The Last Samurai is an exceedingly long and complex novel, and I don’t want to try and attempt a full and rigorous reading of it here. But I do think I can say a number of useful and interesting things about the book without going quite that far.

I think it’s worthwhile to consider how Samurai might be a variant of the quest novel. That’s what I’m going to explore right here. It might be a little slow-going at first, but bear with me and I think you’ll find that there is a payoff at the end.

The books starts out with the line, “My father’s father was a Methodist minister,” the first of many indications that the main theme of Samurai will be a quest for the father. Other clues abound: the book’s first half is girded by Ludo’s reading of the Odyssey (the example par excellence of the classical quest story, and a quest for a home, if not a father). Samurai also returns repeatedly to the point in the movie Seven Samurai at which the samurai Mifune presents a false ancestry to his peers. (Indeed, the fatherless character Mifune is mentioned numerous times in this context.) And of course the story of Ludo’s mother, Sibylla, centers around her (mis)conception of Ludo with a man she ultimately deems unworthy, which then causes her much anxiety over hiding his identity from Ludo.

So there are lots of hints that quests and fathers will be important to this novel. Continue Reading

The Last Samurai: Charles-Valentin Alkan

I just finished up with The Last Samurai today, and I was tickled to see the composer Charles-Valentin Alkan make an appearance toward the end. While I’d disagree that Alkan is quite as obscure as DeWitt makes him out to be (or maybe his reputation has grown in the 10 years since TLS was published), it’s very true that he gets nowhere near the acclaim of his more celebrated contemporaries (e.g., Chopin) even though he did compose some remarkable music.

If you’d like to listen for yourself, the pianist Marc-André Hamelin (not sure if this was one of the five DeWitt claims actually still plan Alkan) has done a bunch of fine recordings of Aklan’s music. I like the pieces collected on the Symphony for Solo Piano disc (though the cover art seems a little geeky to me).

Of course, the appearance of Alkan makes one final entry in the “obscurity vs genius” theme that runs the length of the entire book, and how fitting that Ludo manages to discover his “father” by recognizing a neglected genius playing the work of another neglected genius. One imagines that the cultural knowledge necessary for Ludo to recognize Alkan and thus find his “father”–in conjunction with the social skills needed to maneuver said “father” into accepting his overture–indicate that he has finally started down the road toward developing a cultural literacy to match his prodigious literary literacy.

The Last Samurai: A Good Samurai Will Parry the Blow

I was out of action for half of last week, but I’m hoping to finish up The Last Samurai today and get together some concluding thoughts on the book in short order. In advance of that, here’s something that I can’t quite reconcile: I’m struck by the fact that Ludo compares declaring a man is his father to an elegant samurai cutting down a man with one awe-inspiring blow of his sword.

It’s funny, because in the first few iterations of this little game Ludo is playing, this oddness of this comparison didn’t register. But then it hit me, and now that I’ve seen it, this thought is coloring all the scenes where Ludo engages with prospective fathers. Where did Ludo get this idea that making a man his father is killing him?

This thought keys into another thought that I’ve been resisting since I started reading The Last Samurai: that one should have seen Seven Samurai to read this book. I generally don’t like to insist on the necessity of extra-textual materials to understanding a book, but given the centrality of this scene to Ludo’s understanding of life, one begins to believe that the scene should be apprehended as Ludo would have seen it. There might also be some value in knowing how this scene relates to other key scenes that are repeatedly evoked in The Last Samurai (e.g. the scene in which the samurai poses as a monk to kill the thief), as these scenes are quite clearly part of the “language” Ludo uses to comprehend the world.

The Last Samurai: Why Have So Many of Us Petered Out for the Moment?

(Thanks to Tom from the comments for coming through with an excellent post for this week’s chunk of Last Samurai text. I’ll be chiming in on the comments with my own thoughts, and will be back next week to bring this group read to an end.)

“We don’t do anything.” We said this to our parents, and now we hear our children saying it all over again. Ludo’s complaint is plastered in the most obvious place imaginable: chapter headings at the beginning of the novel. Think back: . . . . . . . . . .

As the novel grows, the situation gets better, for Ludo at least. He starts doing things. Not just turning around in circles on the Circle Line. He starts to be able to orient himself in London and in his budding life. We know at one moment what aspect this orientation takes on. Search for the father, a kind of speed dating thing to see how far he can go with bamboo swords. At another moment, closer to our spoiler line, we know that Ludo has opted for another aspect of the same orientation: he’s going to go out and get money in order to do his thing. Is he selfish? Has he caved in? Petered out? No, of course not. He’s as worried as he ever has been about his mother, and wonders what he shall do. “What shall I do?” The question brings all the rebellious fragments of this novel together. Everybody is on a shuttle between “we’re doing nothing” and “what shall we do?” Everyone seems concerned with the real life implications of the Japanese kanji for “DO”: the way, the path, the road.

Sib chips in her own not very gifted voice to the chorus: what shall we do? At one point, it becomes drastic and desperate. She’s tired, discouraged, fed up, and in the throes of mental disorganization. A quote perhaps, from page 440, or page 448. But no, let’s save space. Let’s segue to Ludo, who’s more interested in her plight than we could ever be. Let’s posit that the boy has an incredible gift or disposition for playing his point/counterpoint in his rendition of the two or three thngs he knows about her. (The only flight path for the critic consists in a rigorous respect for Ludo’s head start and his ledes concerning the state and status of his mother’s burden.) He’s worried, he’s distraught, he’s aggravated, but, to take a line from Jacques Brel, le pessimisme n’est pas de mise. Talking straight, with no chasers, doesn’t necessarily tip the scales toward pessimism, sadness, or despair. Tragedy is not sad. Tragic is the way the world is, for those alive enough to live it. Tragedy is as upbeat as you want, as upbeat in the swirl of existence as what you are able to sustain and endure. In this novel, people can sustain quite a bit, and quite a few of them buckle under the strain. Ludo concludes that his mother has been bent to the ground, but hasn’t snapped. Here are a few references: pages 467-468, page 527.

There are hundreds or millions of ways of trying to stand, to stay standing, on the moving web or carpet of a novel, to say nothing of the moving skein of life! One way is to go out to some corner and become a specialist, far from the madding crown. A crank, a weirdo, an eccentric, an elegant dandy, from the Meiji period to Andy Warhol’s New York, and out to B.A. Ellis. Oxford is a place seemingly teeming with eccentricity. And singularity. The world of science too. To say nothing of the worlds of letters and music, and bridge, and baseball. (Just think for a moment about the Giant’s young prodigy, Lincecum!) There’s something, not glorious, but intensely appealing, about going out on a limb, out to the limits or edges of existence, seeking radicality and refusing to compromise. Practically every character in The Last Samurai belongs to the “category” of this type of person. But the really interesting thing about the novel is how these people get drawn into the wilder side of life, how, the most often unwittingly, they must take a walk on the wild side. This may sound corny or clichéd, because it is, except that it’s keyed to a novel in which none of this is corny or clichéd. It’s one of the most important dimensions of what allows the author and the characters she creates to keep standing up to critical scrutiny, and to keep standing tout court. All these characters are elitist, but with a twist, and the twist is what is most singular and noteworthy about them. The twist takes them out into the wild. And the wild proves to be the ordinary existence of ordinary human beings. I know this will have to be substantiated, but I’m willing in the meantime to take bets with this or that person who thinks this is totally off the wall. How about dinner at the Three Sisters in New Orleans? Or lunch at the Editors in Paris? Or breakfast at Tiffany’s? You name it, I’m on. The twists of these characters have nothing to do with their genius, but with their range and aim, systematically in direction of Tom, Dick and Harry, Joe the Taxi and . . . . . But not Mr. Chips! Mr. Chips falls through the carpet. He can’t stand the pressure. He thus becomes modest and nondescript.

Let’s dwell a moment on Sorabji. What’s his secret? I mean, what’s his secret appeal to TV spectators? He’s like Kambei. Kambei is an unapparent hero, certainly not a genius. Sorabji is both. Both are men to whom a lot of people look up to. Admire and desire. Something along the lines of Robert Donat. Sorabji succeeds because of his good looks. He’s knock-down gorgeous. Very important in the flight paths of existences! (Derrida would never have been as successful as he was had he not been so good-looking.) He’s a Robert Donat lookalike. The guy who starred in Hitchcock’s 39 Steps, in which “he escaped across moors and jumped on and off moving trains.” (p. 367) Sorabji is on TV every Thursday at 9:00. The author apparently feels there no sense in specifying that this is 9 in the morning: no one would put even the good-looking Sorabji in the prime-time slot of 9 PM!

Donat is mentioned three times in the novel. This is enough to make him a candidate for novelistic and existential centrality. Donat could very easily have taken over the privileged position of the Seven Samurai. There’s no reason why he couldn’t. There are circumstances, limitations on time and trouble, but nothing essential would keep Donat from becoming Kambei. The 17 role models could not be modeled on the 39 steps, because these are spies. But a case could be made. Especially if Donat is allowed to survive in Sorabji. There we would have the entire The Last Samurai in miniature, as indeed we do!

Once and for all, let’s be clear as to the mise en abyme of this novel. You have Kurosawa’s film relating how strong and less strong men and young men come to the rescue of a village. Level One. Then you have a mother who decides that this structure is more than adequate to come to her rescue as regards the psychological and spiritual needs of her son. Level Two. Then you have the huge and for most of us impossible level three, where we have to decide if there’s anything in our lives worth rescuing, if the question means anything in a context where we have been taught that TINA–(there is no alternative). Sorabji is someone who is given to us in all the explicit detail of something very close, not to orgasm, but to libidinal satisfaction, as seen by Ludo, who narrates the following, the definitive rejoinder to Madame Thatcher:

Sorabji kept pacing up and down talking about the school. His eyes were flashing; he waved his hands; gradually he made it sound more and more attractive. It was not as exciting as going to the North Pole or galloping across the Mongolian Steppe, but it seems to be something that could definitively happen (page 403).

What is to be done? What shall I do? Here is an answer, from a very seductive televised presence. All of us are convinced that television is bad for us, but how many of us can stomach this throw-back to an age when television belonged to the likes of Rosellini and Hitchcock? This novel, published in the year 2000, gives new credit and rope to an old belief, the belief of Kurosawa’s father, that there’s an education to be had at the movies.

Sorabji gives us the bottom line on genius. “Any idiot can learn a language.” (page 413) But idiots and others have to answer the question: what is to be done? Without getting angry, and without despairing. Kambei is acted out by Takashi Shimura. His eyes burn every bit as much as those of Rikichi. But they burn even more in the film that served Kurosawa as a springboard to move back to historical fiction; Ikuru. Living, in English. Yet another story about a poor son-of-a-bitch who ends up having to answer the call to rescue a village–here to put up a playground. Shimura’s eyes, in the role of Kanji Watanabe, are mesmerizing. (That’s a verb way too close to Val Petered Out for me to be comfortable with) He becomes the peerless warrior of a cause that will brook no opposition, no objection. The way of the samurai is death, Mishima, but what will you say when it’s impending death that sets you on the way of the samurai? What will you do?

At the end of the day, what’s wrong with the elite band of specialized warriors thesis? It’s that there’s no room for the power of Kambei’s gaze, which at last can respond to Rikichi’s imploration. There’s no room either for the stupefying occurrence of his willing crafty castration. Nobody can survive or continue business as usual after being hooked by this act given in advance in Kambei’s gaze, which just happens to be a perfect, but easily overlooked, concentration of human desire. What Kambei wants is what Kambei gets. Strictly equivalent to: what you see is what you get!

So where have all the flowers gone? All those people rounded up for a read: at least 30! It’s almost a hecatomb. I’m sure there are good enough reasons, but I’ll stand up for my hunch: what kind of patterns are there that would explain why you don’t manage, don’t find the time, to write about what you’ve read? This doesn’t mean you are to become another Scott Esposito, Tom Collins, Harold Bloom or Bernard Stiegler. It just means that if you’re reading without writing, something along the way has been short-circuited. We share a novel, and are waiting, with burning eyes, to see it come alive. There are voices whispering and shouting and being retrieved from childhood saying it’s not worth the trouble. Please take the trouble. It’s incredible, when you think about it, that we have for a few days still, the insane privilege of being able to talk about the same thing, about something that so often remains private and closed up like in a cell or a clam. Come on (Red Devlin says this to carry the day, as you know): quote 15 sentences, and see if you’re still intent on remaining mute. There’s no way. I’ll bet you there’s no way.

The Last Samurai: Fathers and Reasons

I’ve been thinking a lot about the story of Hugh Carey this week, which comprises roughly the last half of this week’s reading. I like the story a great deal, but the way it relates to the rest of The Last Samurai remains elusive.

There clearly are some links. Carey’s story of a search for a lost, silent tribe resonates quite obviously with that of Yamamoto the musician, from around page 166. As Yamamoto, Carey is a genius who is drawn far from civilization for his own obscure reasons. Also like Yamamoto, there’s a young boy to be saved, and things all turn out differently from what Carey first imagines.

Everything I’ve just described can be thought of as the story’s second part, with its first part being the story of the education of Carey and his friend, Raymond Decker, at Oxford. Quite different from the second part, this first is about the constraints that the typical structured education puts on genius: in order for Decker to pass his exams, Carey must goad him into not thinking so hard by making him play chess rapidly, thereby getting used to not looking for deep answers to questions. Decker’s problem is that he always tries to answer his exam questions as though they are serious questions, instead of tools to get him to demonstrate knowledge in a given line of inquiry.

Insomuch as its about anything, the whole of Carey’s story seems to be about a genius’s attempts to define his own reality. At one point int he story Carey reflects, “I can’t go back . . . What shall I do?” [333] This seems to be the question confronting geniuses again and again in The Last Samurai: convinced that they do not fit into the ready-made categories given by their family, school, society, etc, they seek to get outside them. You can see that in a very limited sort of example–as with Sibylla’s mother, who simply wants to leave her home situation and study music at Juilliard–or in a much more maximalist way, as with Carey, who attempts to leave human society altogether.

Carey’s story also throws young Ludo’s ambitions, or lack thereof, into relief. Immediately after finding out that Carey attended Oxford at the age of 15 (“if I get in at 15 people will always say He got into Oxford when he was 15” [321]), Ludo wants to go at 11 (the youngest possible age for him). Similarly, both Carey’s and Decker’s stories demonstrate the essential pointlessness of learning something for any reason other than that you find it important to know. As such, it again raises the question of just why Ludo wants to be studying things like the mathematics of aerodynamics, which he does near the middle of this week’s section despite the fact that he finds it “practically impossible.” [315]

But, at any rate, I’ve gotten almost 500 words into this post without one saying the word father, so I feel like I’m burying the lede: in this section Ludo has two very unsatisfactory meetings with two potential fathers: “Liberace,” who is unmasked as the middlebrow travel writer Val Peters, and Carey. The former is identified by Sibylla as the man in question, but Ludo seems to raise the possibility that Carey might be his father, as he and Sibylla knew each other not too far from when Ludo was conceived.

I thought the meeting between Ludo and each man was very well handled–in each case Ludo gets something very different from both what he wants and what he thinks he’s going to get. I particularly liked the brief section after Ludo meets Peters: he tries to teach himself aerodynamics, but his thoughts are consistently impeded by the memory of his brief exchange with Peters, who never actually learns that Ludo is his son [314-5]. That section bespeaks of powerful emotions without ever describing them as such.

Another observation: I’ve finally accepted that, though Sibylla swears many times that it is a masterpiece of cinema, she only seems to ever watch one section of Seven Samurai. I wonder if that’s because this section (about a search for fathers and mastery of technique) makes a powerful impression on Ludo, and thus is the only part that he ever records in his journal; or rather is it in fact an exchange the Sibylla watches obsessively for her own reasons?

And lastly, since this section once again references the painting Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (image above), I thought this gloss was interesting, as it essentially turns it into a parable about genius overcoming obstacles:

He had been himself shut up by one-eyed people, in a cave ‘darkened by laurels’ (getting no good, but only evil, from all the fame of the great of long ago) — he had seen his companions eaten in the cave by the one-eyed people — (many a painter of good promise had fallen by Turner’s side in those early toils of his); at last, when his own time had like to have come, he thrust the rugged pine-trunk — all ablaze — (rough nature, and the light of it) — into the faces of the one-eyed people, left them tearing their hair in the cloud-banks . . . and got away to open sea as the dawn broke over the Enchanted Islands. [13.136-137] — Landow, Aesthetic and Critical Theories

The Last Samurai: Week 4 Notes and Annotations

We’ve pulled into the nice, fat middle of The Last Samurai. Here are a few notes I found for this section–add yours in on the comments.

Tyrone Power school of acting. Now hat Sibylla has mentioned the “Tyrone Power school of acting” more than a few times to deride certain individuals, I thought I’d pull up an image to we can see what she means when she says, for instance, “and he did change, but only in the way that someone from the Tyrone Power school of acting would show maturity: mouth set, furrowed brow, this is someone thinking tough thoughts.” [318]

Hugh Carey and Raymond Decker. If you’ve gotten this far yet, Week 4 has a wonderful story about two geniuses going to school in Oxford: Hugh Carey and Raymond Decker. Sibylla introduces them as though they are real people, though if you do a quick Google search you won’t find anything for these names resembling the individuals described in The Last Samurai.

Sibylla and Ludo. Even since we encountered the named of the lead and her son, I’ve been meaning to see what references can be dug up for each. Here’s what Wikipedia has to offer.

Sibylla has a ton of entries to disambiguate from:

* Sibylla of Jerusalem, queen regnant of Jerusalem
* Sybilla of Normandy, queen consort of Scotland
* Sibylla of Acerra, queen consort of Sicily
* Sibylla of Lusignan, queen consort of Armenia
* Sybilla of Burgundy, duchess of Burgundy
* Sibylla of Anjou, countess of Flanders
* Sibylla of Armenia, princess of Antioch
* Sibylla of Anhalt, duchess of Württemberg
* Sibylla Schwarz, a German poet
* Princess Sibylla of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, mother of King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden
* Sibylla Budd, an Australian actress

Sibylla might be too:

* Sibylla (genus), a genus of mantis
o Sibylla pretiosa, one such species
* 168 Sibylla, an asteroid
* Sibylla (fast food), a classic fast food concept marketed in Sweden

There is also the Sibyl, which seems the most promising, a word from Greek meaning “prophetess.”

As to Ludo/Ludovic, here’s what I found:

The boy’s name Ludovic \l(u)-do-vic\ is a variant of Louis (French, Old German) and Ludwig (German), and the meaning of Ludovic is “famous warrior; famous fighter”.

Ludovic has quite a bit of disambiguation:

Ludovic is a given name, and may refer to:

* Ludovic (opera), by Fromental Halévy
* The main character in Ma vie en rose, a Belgian film

or to the first name of the following:

In sports:

* Ludovic Assemoassa, French-born Togolese football defender who currently plays for Ciudad de Murcia
* Ludovic Badey, French race car driver
* Ludovic Butelle, French football goalkeeper
* Ludovic Giuly, French footballer who plays as a winger
* Ludovic Mercier, French rugby union footballer
* Ludovic Obraniak, French-born Polish international footballer
* Ludovic Roux, former French Nordic combined skier
* Ludovic Turpin, professional road racing cyclist

In literature:

* Ludovic Halévy, French author
* Ludovic Kennedy (1919-2009), British journalist, broadcaster, and author

In politics:

* Ludovic Stewart, 2nd Duke of Lennox, Scottish nobleman and politician
* Ludovic Vitet, French dramatist and politician

In other fields:

* Ludovic Arrachart, French aviator
* Ludovic Lindsay, 16th Earl of Crawford, prisoner at Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1644 and 1645
* Ludovic Zamenhof, eye doctor, philologist, and the initiator of Esperanto

And then Ludo:

“Brit a simple board game in which players advance counters by throwing dice
[from Latin: I play]” (defined here)

* Ludo (board game), a board game of the Cross and Circle game family
* Luděk Mikloško Czech football goalkeeper.
* Ludwig II of Bavaria, nicknamed ‘Mad King Ludo’, a king of Bavaria who reigned between 1869 and 1886
* Ludo Bagman, a character from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
* Ludo (band), a band from St. Louis, Missouri

* Ludo (Ludo album), the self-titled debut album by the band of the same name

* Ludo (album), a 1967 album by Ivor Cutler
* Ludo (character), a character from the 1986 film, Labyrinth

The Last Samurai: Cultural Literacy and Other Grown-Up Things

Now that we’re into the meat of this book, I think it’s time to talk about a theme I’ve been tracking for a while and that has really taken center stage in our third section. That would be cultural literacy.

You can see it in there throughout the book as a sort of correlate to Ludo’s genius–yes, yes, he can learn to track down strings of letters and to put them together into groupings of sound and meaning, but can he actually tell you what they say?

We get a couple of strong developments of this theme in week three’s chunk of text. The first that I noticed is the entry of Kurosawa’s first film, Sugata Sanshiro, into the discussion. The film is about judo and Sugata is a judo prodigy, and though I haven’t seen this film, from DeWitt’s discussion of it the film seems to tell a coming of age tale about Sugata, his judo mentor, and a villain. Sugata is very much an “unformed” man, in that he constantly keeps learning and aspiring, whereas the villain has reached an endpoint in his development, something that is implied to be an essential part of his villainy.

What struck me most was a quote from Donald Richie’s The Films of Kurosawa Akira. Continue Reading

The Last Samurai References and Annotations Thread: Week 3

Last Samurai-ers–you know what to do.

And here’s a thought that occurred to me from last week’s section. During Yamamoto’s interview from last week’s section, he mentions how the African community whose music he tried to listen to “would play a piece of music with six of seven rhythms all at once.” [166] That seems to be a dead-on reference to Seven Samurai, how the film is spinning out seven (or eight, or nine) different rhythms all in counterpoint to each other.

Or you could look at it in terms of the multiple narratives DeWitt is overlaying here.

And of course, that’s just a couple of the ways this could be applied to the book.

The Last Samurai: The Burden of Genius

I don’t know how everyone else feels, but from this week’s section I got the distinct feeling that being a genius really sucks.

For instance, the section starts out with the piano-playing dreams of the narrator’s mother (and I like how each of our sections has begun by narrating the life history of each of the narrator’s parents). It turns out that when her mother goes for an audition at Julliard, she’s essentially told that though she is a pianist of talent, she is nowhere near prepared to explore that talent. So she is instructed to perform a set of exercises ever day for two hours for a year, after which she may be prepared to begin.

That’s hard. It’s hard in terms of being incredibly difficult to manage that kind of a regimen (particularly if you have life responsibilities to attend to), as well as hard in terms of being forced to flush huge personal resources down the drain with no promise that they will ever pay off in any substantive way.

Throughout this section we see the burden of genius in a very different way: Ludo. Am I the only one who was frequently reminded of Rosemary’s Baby by this child? Not that he doesn’t seem generally cute and sweet, but there is something definitely disturbing about the work ethic this 5-year-old exhibits, not to mention how he frequently takes to expressing his higher intelligence by screaming out things (like counting up from negative 262) that demonstrate his genius and make his frightening, or maybe uncanny, to be with.

In this section I am getting the distinct impression that DeWitt wants to interrogate our ideas of genius and cast them into a negative light–or, at the least, to reveal the darker, quotidian side of genius to go along with more lurid popularizations of what genius is like.

A related theme here is the idea that genius takes a hell of a lot of work to flesh out. Much as I hate to say this, reading about all the work that Ludo and the narrator’s mother had to put in to exploring their genius, I’m reminded of something that Malcolm Gladwell once wrote about–an idea (which I don’t believe he was the first to expound) that genius takes roughly 10,000 hours of repetition, practice, etc to “unearth.” We would seem to be seeing something of this drudge work of genius in this section.

And lastly, I can recall at least one place in this section where genius was a distinct liability: that would be when the narrator chooses to compose a mock Rosetta Stone to leave as a “Dear John” letter by the bedside of Ludo’s father post-conception, rather than some innocuous note. She spends approximately two hours in the wee hours of the morning putting this together, and I can only imagine (or perhaps we will be told the effects later) that “Liberace” did not get the radically convoluted and bizarre message that the narrator imagines he will. Clearly in this instance she would have done better to have taken off the genius hat for a moment and not made things so ridiculously complex. This is perhaps ironic, as we frequently see Ludo’s mother attempting to ameliorate the ways in which Ludo’s genius already makes him a cultural outcast, as well as her frequent attempted to give him the cultural literacy necessary for him to fit in as a “normal” 5-year-old boy. (Indeed, the struggle between her desires for him to see his genius through and her desires for him to just be “normal” seem to be evolving as one of the book’s main psychological tensions.)

A couple more questions/observations to toss out there:

I find it noteworthy that in settling in Britain to escape something from her past, the narrator is effectively reversing the immigrant narrative set up by her grandparents. Generally, the first generation of an immigrant family must subsume its personal dreams in order to make a life for its children, who then have more opportunity to prosper as they see fit. Yet in moving to Britain, the narrator is effectively starting this process over from the beginning.

Did anyone else notice how the narrator loves to invent names for virtually everyone she comes into contact with? Did this seem noteworthy to anyone? And is it possibly related to the fact that her and Ludo’s form of genius is in the realm of language? (And, as a related question, why language? Why choose that particular form of genius, and how does it fit into the thematic and narrative structures DeWitt is creating so far?)

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 Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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