The Last Samurai and why did I choose it?" />

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Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A group read of one of the '00s most-lauded postmodern novels. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

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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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31 comments to Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

  • It’s one of the best books of the past decade. I’ve bought copies to give to several friends over the years. This organized read may be the spur I needed to re-read it.

  • DN

    I see that book all the time and made the mistake of thinking that it was the basis of the movie. I am now super excited.

  • Richard

    What a fascinating–and excellent–and somewhat surprising–choice! I’m very much looking forward to this. I’ve read some things about this novel over the years since it was published, and have always found myself staring at it, flipping through it, weighing it (not literally but metaphorically) in my hand at the bookstore, but just never actually bought it and read it. Now I have excellent reason to do so–great choice, Scott.

  • cee

    This is one of my favourite novels, a really brilliant book – and as I’ve just bought a new copy to replace the one I gave away, I am in exactly the right place for a reread. I’ve been wanting to join a group read for a while, and it’ll be great to start with something I already love.

  • Neil

    This was totally off my radar. Consider me intrigued. One of the reviews puts her in the tradition of the Pynchon/Gaddis/Foster Wallace school. This is interesting to me, since there aren’t many female authors who are mentioned in this particular vein of literature, so I find this choice refreshing.

  • Ginny

    I’m one of those very few dedicated followers of this novel. It’s fantastic, one of my favorites, and I would put it in the same category as EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED or HOUSE OF LEAVES for a novel that bent the form of storytelling into a completely new form. Great choice!

  • Neil: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that DeWitt’s gender was one of the factors in my decision, but it certainly did sweeten the pot, since, as you point out, the postmodern school the book fits into tends to be a guy’s club.

  • As someone whose work is “long,” although in short bits, I just want to say that it’s heartening to hear of a group of readers who actually want to read 100 pages a week!

  • jed_

    I’m in. looks intriguing.

  • Matt

    Great, and actually quite unexpected, selection. Unfortunately I have several books I have to read for work during that time frame but Ill do my best to pick it up and contribute.

  • Jonathan Post

    I’m in the camp that thought this novel was what the movie was adapated from, and have previously been very surprised (even in a judgemental way! I confess) to see this book on several of my friends’ digital bookshelves. Now, after checking out a few pages, it’s going to be hard for me to wait until September. Seems like a great pick!

  • Great choice! Looking forward to it.

  • Edward

    Cool. You guys know about the Criterion blu-ray edition of Seven Samurai coming out mid-October, right?

  • [...] Bryan Wilson's Inveterate and Unrepentant Book Collecting: A Guide to My Favorite… »Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWittAnd here you have it, folks, your fall big read. No, it's not the book that sub-par Tom Cruise movie [...]

  • cindyash

    I read and discussed this years ago, loved it. Your site was linked on Bookballoon so I thought I’d reread it and discuss it again. Looking forward to joining in!

  • Ted

    Can anybody join in? I’d been in a reading group for several years, and now I’m the only one who hasn’t moved away. I need to talk (post) about books!

  • One of my favorite novels. The kind of book you finish for the first time and then immediately go back and start again. I’ve read it at least four times.

  • tom

    I concur that this was an inspired choice! One of the parallel concerns throughout the reading of this novel will necessarily touch upon the complaints, or “complaintes” of the novel’s author –in her post this morning she talks about the “broken record,” — with respect to all the people everywhere thinking and saying what a great novel it is, without taking into account to what extent the viable existence of the author qua question mark to publishers, agents, and litterati, is constantly in question. I admit that this is an uncomfortable and unwieldy issue to raise in the summer preceding the autumn send-off. Many people may say that the very fact of this reading cannot fail but contribute to the survival, not of the author, but of her conception and practice of literature. I dream of hundreds of comments and takes on “The Last Samurai” but I also count on a few voices to take up the broader/narrower concern that Helen DeWitt has been drumming for years now: “you like this book, then start thinking about why there aren’t more like it! I’m not a genius. I’m a journeyman. Come join up with me, with us.”

  • Ted: Absolutely. This group is free and open to all.

  • Ted

    Thanks Scott. I love your blog; I have to thank you for John D’Agata. Have you ever read any Bohumil Hrabal?

  • Dan

    I hadn’t heard of this at all, but it sounds like a great choice!

  • [...] Dan: I hadn't heard of this at all, but it sounds like a great choice! [...]

  • Shirley Mac

    I’m looking forward to a challenge.

  • alice

    I think I may be the only person on the internet who didn’t like this book. I won’t subject myself to a reread, but I look forward to eavesdropping on the conversation. Maybe it’ll illuminate just what it is about this one that people like so much.

  • jed_

    the last page on the UK edition is page 482 which is a slight problem. given the way the book is subdivided it might be hard to determine what sections to read.

    If Scott could provide me with the last sentence of each week’s reading and the first sentence of the next i’ll be able to match those up to the UK pages and provide page numbers for that. email me or message here, thanks.

  • David Caruso

    I’ve ordered my book and I’m in. I look forward to our discussions.

  • [...] Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt Starting Sept 19, read one of the '00s most-lauded postmodern novels. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site. The Summer of Genji Two great online lit magazines team [...]

  • Geoff Chalkley

    Have read 7 pages so far and caught myself laughing out loud twice. Looking forward to reading the rest and our discussion. Thanks for the opportunity.

  • [...] Geoff Chalkley: Have read 7 pages so far and caught myself laughing out loud twice. Looking forward to reading the r… [...]

  • tom

    WHAT I’VE LEARNED IN THE COURSE OF THIS READING WITH OTHERS

    I wanted to put this recap post in the company of the many enthusiastic readers who were willing to give this a go!

    I learned something important from David C. and from Scott. Something that took me a long time to admit. Both readers insisted frequently on how strange (Scott’s word for it is “odd”) it seemed that Sibylla would keep watching The Seven Samurai, and only certain sections of SS — the screeing process especially. I wondered why I didn’t feel the oddness of this. And I had a lot of ill feeling toward David for playing the psychiatric nurse in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Of course I’m the cuckoo this fall.

    There is a scene in the Szegeti section, page 465 of the American edition. Szegeti describes what it was like for him to be sitting next to a woman and trying to watch The Seven Samurai. He was after a kiss, and perhaps too the midnight equilibrium of a one-night stand, but this was not to be. The film was too engrossing! And Szegeti was not engrossed. Onto the screen of the projectin of Kurosawa’s vision, we read (we almost see) the projections of Szegeti’s obsessions, almost totally blocking out the former.

    I’m now willing to admit that something similar happened to Sib each time she sat down to watch the movie. Something parallel to the descriptions I have given of the impact of cinema on a viewing consciousness. Recently, David, after having graciously accepted to publish 7 final posts, posted one talking about how silent Sib had become in the second half of the novel. This time, instead of getting angry, I realised that he was right, except for the typo of mistaking the second part of the novel with its inception. Sib is indeed silent about the most significant and traumatic thing that has happened to her: her attempt on her own life. This is part of the secret clamp the movie has on her. These men accept to try their best to save the village, and Sib will try her best to save her skin, but the after-images of her acting out are as vivid as those of Szegeti in his own obsessive world of bridge.

    This is an aspect of novel writing that brings David Foster Wallace into proximiy with Helen DeWitt’s work. They both leave important, crucial matters outside the ken of the novel. Sib never gives voice to the originating act of the novel. Many of us have stomped on that decision and that posture, prefering to write that “she’s not very good with people.” Instead of getting my gander up, I now prefer, thanks to these exchanges, to wonder why it’s easier for me to stomach this posture and to feel some sort of empathy with such a decision. Full Disclosure in the next life. I was a news vendor for many years, and I remember losing all presence of mind when Michel Foucault wrote in “Le Gai Pied” that wonderful article about how natural it was to put an end to one’s life. That was many years ago. It makes me an old man now. Unfortunately not a sage. But someone still in the screening process. Many thanks to you all.

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