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