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

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:

There are 60 million people in Britain. There are 200 million in America. (Can that be right?) How many millions of English-speakers other nations might add to the total I cannot even guess. I would be willing to bet, though, that in all those hundreds of millions not more than 50, at the outside, have read A. Roemer, Aristarchs Athetesen in der Homerkritik (Leipzig, 1912), a work untranslated from its native German and destined to remain so till the end of time. [17]

Now here’s Aira:

An intellectual’s uniqueness can be established by examining their combined readings. How many people can there be in the world who have read these two books: The Philosophy of Life Experience by A. Bogdanov, and Faust by Estanislao del Campo? Let us put aside, for the moment, any reflections these books might have provoked, how they resonated or were assimilated, all of which would necessarily be personal and nontransferable. Let us instead turn to the raw facts of the two books themselves. The concurrence of both in one reader is improbable, in as far as they belong to two distant cultural environments and neither belongs to the canon of universal classics. Even so, it is possible that one or two dozen intellectuals across a wide swathe of time and space might have taken in this twin nourishment. As soon as we add a third book, however, let us say La Poussière de soleil by Raymond Roussel, that number becomes drastically reduced. If it is not “one” (that is, I), it will come very close. Perhaps it is “two,” and I would have good reason to call the other “mon semblable, mon frère.” One more book, a fourth, and I could be absolutely certain of my solitude.

At heart, these are both statements about solitude and chance, as well as perhaps how the books we read come to define us.

If you’re reading along, you know that the narrator’s thoughts about Aristarchs Athetesen in der Homerkritik are all part of a chain of causation that she traces down to the birth of her son, who appears to be a genius. (At six, he reads Greek, among other languages, and is learning Japanese.) He’s far from the only genius here: the narrator’s father appears to have been one, the narrator might be one, and there are plenty from history: Mozart, Chopin, Schoenberg, just to name a few. It is certainly not lost on the narrator that many of these people saw their genius blocked: Mozart died at 35, Schoenberg never had the means to finish his great opera, Moses und Aron, her father wasted a chance to go to Harvard 15 and ended up owning a motel. One already suspects that the narrator tries too hard not to block the genius in her own son.

To pause on geniuses for a moment here, since it seems to be such a prominent part of the book, The Last Samurai seems to be cultivating a sort of discussion of the variety of geniuses. For instance, in the midst of a long discussion of a writer of distinction (never named), the narrator calls him a “stupid virtuoso,” [72] among many other things, as she tries to define the exact quality of his particular genius with words. The Last Samurai seems to be a book obsessed with genius in the many different forms that it can take.

If you’re reading along, you’ve no doubt noticed by now that DeWitt likes to use odd constructions and to break up her sentences in haphazard ways. Part of this is very much in keeping with the story itself, as one lengthy section includes about 3 separate threads–the narrator’s attempts at adult thoughts, her son’s continual distractions, the film Seven Samurai, playing in the background–all of which keep interrupting one another. This kind of functional fragmentation strikes me as very useful–it’s innovative/experimental writing in service of communicating something real about the times this book is trying to evoke, instead of simply for obfuscation’s sake. I like it so far.

In addition to the kind of formal narration in parallel I mentioned above, which can get quite complex at times though not overwhelming, DeWitt also gives us sentences like this:

Only the pen of Lord Leighton the writer could do justice to the brush of Lord Leighton the painter, for just so did Lord Leighton (the writer) bring the most agitated emotions to an airless to a hushed to an unhurried while each word took on because there was all the time in the world for each word to take on the bloom which only a great Master can give to a word using his time to allow all unseemly energy to become aware of its nakedness and snatch gratefully . . . [71]

Interestingly, although it feels like there are definitely words and punctuation marks missing in that sentence, the whole thing hangs together cognitively: I feel like more or less understand what the narrator’s trying to communicate.

So some questions:

What do you think of this style so far? Are you enjoying it? Does it feel too fractured? Does it feel suitable to the narrative and themes that are being unfolded here?

Are you liking the story? (I didn’t comment on this above, but I found the book a very engaging read so far, pure on a level of plot.)

What other themes, layerings, etc are you noticing so far?

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First off, thanks so much for picking this book, Scott. It’s one of my favorites, probably read it four or five times now (the first time I finished it, I immediately went back and started again). Even after all those readings I still find something fresh and new when I read it.

Your comments about the blocked geniuses are quite astute. I hate to bring biographical elements in, but, knowing now what I’ve learned about DeWitt from reading her blog, I can see the connection with her own attempts to get her work out (if not necessarily (who knows) as a genius at least as an artist).

The layers and repetitions of layers play out throughout the book, my copy of the book is filled with little notations of such. I was particularly struck this time by the story of the narrator’s father and his run-in with the pool playing stranger. In a strange sense this is a mixing of themes that play out in the book: fathers and (mostly metaphorical) duels, which in this section also starts coming into play with the Seven Samurai references and the references to Rilke.

So far I really appreciate the attention she pays to each sentence. I’ve had to reread quite a few ones to get the rhythm right. She pays particular attention to punctuation, or lack thereof, by frequently omitting commas, which causes strange word juxtapositions that would generally be separated. I left my book at home, but I made some notes and will share some of the sentences later. There’s one short one on 104 in particular that I found particularly interesting.

I definitely don’t appreciate the attention I paid to my last sentence above.

This is my third read. I read it when it first came out and then reread it for a great discussion at the old Readerville site (Hi, Derik!). I haven’t completed rereading the first assigned section, yet, but I’m eager to participate and will finish it soon.

Just wanted to post this link in re: to the punctuation remarks by Scott. The author addresses the issue here.

I’ve read novels where I found the lack of punctuation more gimmicky than effective. In this novel, its non-use felt entirely organic to me.

Scott, thank you for picking this book. So far, (in the first 85 pages) it has been a very interesting read, drawing me in constantly. The draw comes little from the story (although the part about the narrator’s father was quite a tale), and more from the way it is being told. I am loving the references from The Seven Samurai, and enjoying the by-lanes such as the Theory of Harmony.
What has been disconcerting is the frequent insertions from Greek (like the whole of page 58 – the least enjoyable page of the book so far). Even the skipped word here and there is distracting in the flow, and seems like has been done only for the style effect as the narrator otherwise seems a person with good command of language and grammar.

I’m enjoying the book quite a bit so far, especially the humor. Good choice!

That said, having just followed Pat’s link to DeWitt’s discussion of punctuation, I was a little disheartened. While the editors certainly sound to have behaved badly in many ways, I’m not sure DeWitt herself comes across so well either. I’m fine with most of the unusual punctuation choices I have seen so far and agree that she has every right to them (as well as her use of numerals). Surely, though, the copyediting stage of the publication process is an appropriate time to have to justify those choices, and surely there were some actual errors (which, given how she discusses her use of her contractual authority, I worry may have actually wound up in the final text). Plus, implying the copyeditor marked things just to extend paid hours? I believe a lot of her complaints about the editors, but come on.

OK, sorry to be so dreary, especially as I am enjoying the book. I’m hoping to finally get a post up today with some initial thoughts. Is there anyone else posting (or planning to post) at their own blog?

Hi Pat. I’ve actually got the Readerville thread on the book saved somewhere on my hard drive. I should mine it for comments.

FYI, Scott: Your comments RSS feed is not working.

One theme I noticed is point of view. She is telling us the story of her struggles with her son’s precocious desire for knowledge, but also her father’s and brother’s (and sister’s) education in the first person. While not an exactly unreliable narrator, she is continually pointing out the filter of personal experience in shaping our perspective. She mentions Rashamon (which I prefer to Seven Samurai) in which the same story is told from 4 perspectives and is fractured in each, which leads into Seven Samurai’s 8 perspectives and the reader’s (viewer’s) need to evaluate whether something “seems to be true or is just what somebody says is true,” (75) This sums up, for me at any rate, a primarily postmodern approach to story telling. A slight twist on the misintepretation of a certain “reality” cracks me up – the variety of American fried chicken franchises (Alaska Fried Chicken!?) scattered across London. The focus on translation as a filter on perspective is also a pretty strong theme as well. I laughed out loud at her first attempt at reading Roemer: “It is truly something and something which the something with the something…” (17)
Thanks for choosing this Scott. I don’t read many women authors and probably wouldn’t have picked this up without your suggestion.

Hey all: Great thoughts on this first section. I’m interested to hear more about everyone’s thoughts on the textual and linguistic play going on here. Clearly, the narrator’s thoughts on making literature more like an impressionist canvass come into play, but on a first glance this also reminded me a little of modernists (Ezra Pound, in particular), who included other languages in their compositions, even though they (much less their readers) didn’t know what the words said.

Also, yes, the work on perspective is interesting. I see it in the way the text is continually broken up (all these perspective jamming together), as well as in this sort of pomo effect, where the narrator is trying to fit 3 or 4 consciousnesses into her narration in a sort of attempt to break down the either/or relationship.

And, yes, agree with the remark made about rhythm. Even though the sentences are often ungrammatical and lacking punctuation, I can feel a real nice cadence to them.

Many thanks to Scott for this introduction to “The Last Samurai.” With, as usual, all the necessary, and fascinating technicality involved in reading.

I would like to confine my participation in this discussion to the following themes (I hope this won’t come off as thematic analysis, but if it does, tant pis): 1) the question of care, 2) the question of the cult status of this novel, and the possibility of taking cult status seriously as cult. 3) The choice of the seven samurai as substitute for the absent father. This is by far the most provocative, funny, and challenging move in the entire novel. 4) The problematics of desire. The difference between desire short-circuited by television, cinema, video games, etc. (what Adorno referred to as the culture industries) and the long circuit of desire that takes time, effort, and a bit of luck to realise itself. I owe to the work of Bernard Stiegler this concept of the long circuit of desire, and I owe to Helen DeWitt the most convincing and moving exemplification of such a circuit, in tragic and comic modes, that I have ever come across. So, there’s much “pain sur la planche” (bread on the plank, word for word translation). There ought to be a few contributions in French to this discussion, and I hope the weight of Helen DeWitt’s prose will preclude anyone complaining that they don’t understand French!

One reason I love this book is that it isn’t merely a container in which DeWitt dumps the large amounts of information she includes. There’s thematic purpose in her layering and craft in its execution, including using the sorts of linguistic play Scott references. The result is controlled, more symphonic than cacophonous, even as the book develops ideas on randomness and chance. Scott uses the word “cadence” and that’s perfect, because I also see in DeWitt a much tighter control of language at the level of sentence and word than in some pomo novelists.

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.

This is only to express the hope that “Elise” remain among the participants of this reading group.

“Thematic purpose in her layering and craft in its execution.”

“More symphonic than cacophonous even as the book develops ideas on randomness and chance.”

Of course this is place devoted to a novel and a novelist. But once in a while, it’s possible too to say how much we admire other reader’s formulations. Reading “Elise” is already, so soon, a hunch that the cult status of this novel is largely, perfectly deserved, but still depends on formulations of its readers, who feel the weight of something entirely severed from their efforts and travails. In other words, there’s no sweat in being a member of a cult like this one.

We’re already at the end of a section, and I can only regret not having had enough conviction to comment on the importance of Homer in the overture of this “symphony.” Sibylla imagines, for little more than an instant, that putting Homer between her and her son will give her a breather. She’s wrong: Homer will bring home to her how fast she was back then. She wasn’t expecting things to coalesce so quickly. This has nothing to do with being oneself a genius, or having a genius to deal with as offspring. This is but the normal speed at which relations between parents and children ought to play out, were it not for the calming influence of the culture industries.

The use of the Seven Samurai as replacement male role models creates some intriguing problems. It is a one-sided relationship. The boy can only see the men. He cannot communicate to them or contact them. He can’t involve himself with them. The men are unaware of the boy and will never know him. Also, they speak a language foreign to the boy, making this substitute family foreign, their words unfamiliar (family/familiar). The boy’s genius allows him to try to study Japanese and break through that foreign barrier. Also it is a way for him to get involved with his foreign “uncles.” One more obstacle: The movie ends. The men have two hundred and seven minutes to impart their life lessons to the child and that’s it. All the boy can do is rewind and watch it again.

Many thanks to David for his objections to proposing 17 cinematic role models for Ludo! I agree that it would be better to have a real father around, but, as the song has it, a good man is hard to find!

There was a time when people trusted cinema to educate and uplift its audiences. Roberto Rossellini wrote constantly on this theme, without the slightest tinge of irony or resigned acceptance of the folly of such schemes. This must seem like ancient history to you, as it does to me. But Sibylla enables us to hark back. That’s good.

I don’t think Sibylla has chosen role models for her son, so much as she has said: better to show him who my elective choices would be if I had not been so unfortunate! Your mother sees Mifune acting his role and says: now that’s a man for me! And she seems to think that such a strong bond (the one linking her to this personnage and actor) has a chance to influence her son. She’s letting him see how her libido functions. I think she’s right to do so. There are so many parents who put on acts, politcally correct and proper ones, instead of standing by the singularity of their desire.

There is much that is wrong with Sibylla, but at least she knows enough about her enjoyment to wager on its being strong enough, and authentic enough, to push her son over the hump of all of the ordinary traps waiting for him on his life’s way.

Tom, I’m not objecting! I wasn’t criticizing the mother’s choices nor the limits of film. I was commenting on the writer’s choice and what those choices bring to the text. The foreign and familiar. Bridges those gaps. Genius and its limits.

On translations.

The first chapter (page 15 of the Vintage edition) has this question as a masthead! “Do Samurai Speak Penguin Japanese?” Now, here’s how Pierre Guglielmina translates into French: “Les Samouraïs parlent-ils petit jaune?”

This may be minor but maybe major! A crux even! The French translator is working with the French translation of “pigeon English.” It is “petit-nègre.” (little nigger lingo) A colonialist term if there ever was one. So “Penguin” would be the similarly colonialist “petit-jaune.” little yellow lingo)

Two commments here. 1) When Ludo finally makes it to a school, and even before then, when he’s on the Circle Line with his mother, there is a baby tongue used to communicate with him. Or, rather, one that dumbs everyone down. Just as pigion English is used to make things easier for everyone in dealings with the inscrutable Chinese. This is not simply a problem of translation, if by that we mean something secondary. 2)When Ludo is first introduced to the Seven Samurai film, his mother comments on “Mifune’s harsh way of talking that the microphones had trouble picking up.” Then she introduces the possibility of Penguin Japanese. “I’d say that it’s very charming the way the translators have tranlated the Japanese into Penguin. — What’s Penguin? It’s what English translators translate into.” (page 30)
I think this is English for Penguin editions, rather than “petit-jaune.” Penguin: something way too elegant and policed for the violence of Mifune’s speech, studded with slang and bursting with an energy that doesn’t quite make it into the translation. (Is that a romantic conception of translation? I think it is. I think this needs more thought, and better phrases to get it across)
I’ve always suspected that many French tranlations of Japanese novels have been in fact translations from American or English originals. This is the case for the French translation of “Mushashi.” And for Shusaku Endo’s “Samurai.” The latter has a a small note on the credits page saying that the editor is under contract to translate from the English! This is the world of Penguin translation!
As always with Helen DeWitt, the question of translation and publication is the site of a struggle which is usually decided in favor of the powers in place. (–Let’s make bamboo spears. Let’s kill all the bandits! –You can’t. –That’s impossible.) I know of no other author as quick to pick up how much is lost, not only in translation, but in the myriad decisions of format and editing. A few paragraphs later, Sibylla dreams of an ideal book. Light years away from Penguins. With openings onto the very material infinity of foreign languages. That said, Guglielmina’s translation is excellent.

The cover of the trade paper edition, by the way, is stupid, silly and disappointing compared to the original hardback cover.

The use of the Seven Samurai as replacement male role models creates some intriguing problems. It is a one-sided relationship. The boy can only see the men. He cannot communicate to them or contact them. He can’t involve himself with them.

Isn’t this almost a parallel to Sibylla’s relationship to languages? Her relationship with non-English languages is mostly as a reader of books, not as someone who writes or speaks – she has that same one-sided relationship to the languages she loves.

Tom, thanks for this fascinating tidbit about the French translation of “Penguin Japanese”. Like the translator, I had been imagining this phrase as a parallel to Pidgin. You raise another interesting possibility in the idea that it means “language as translated for Penguin editions”. But if DeWitt had any input into the translation, is the use of “petit jaune” a confirmation that she intended the first meaning?

Due to comically underpowered reading glasses and a certain unfamiliarity with the language of discourse I have been reading “pomo” as “porno” and had thus been diverted into a what proved, for me at least, to be a blind alley of thematic analysis. But, by chance of improved lighting conditions, and some nifty lateral thinking allowing me to identify “pomo” as postmodern, I have recovered to the point where I can ask these questions.

1) Will this book be a good example of a narrator gradually betraying him/herself as something other than she/he first leads us to believe? In other words, a disintegration.

We have been with Sibylla some 100 odd pages and I find her a fairly plausible character, maybe a little odd. Is it reasonable to come up with mouth-to-mouth combat as the only way of silencing/escaping a tedious date? Perhaps more common than I think. Is it reasonable to escape the damp cold of a London flat by jumping the Circle line with a five year old: maybe so, but with 30lbs of reading material and an oversized soft-toy gorilla, I’m not so sure. I fear that Sibylla is soon to betray herself as a complete whack job. Her increasingly strident “discussions” on the tube are making me nervous for her. Would others agree?

2) Is everyone in agreement that this is a very funny book? Ted earlier quoted the “…something of the something….” passage, which I also found hilarious. There have been others too, what have been other readers favorite moments? Helen deWitt herself seems to have set the bar fairly high with her reference to the Carling Black label ads (thank you Lisa for posting those). The spoof on the Levi ad had a super punchline. Will Last Samuarai find its place in the canon of comic epics?


Geoff, maybe you’ll be reassured that the problem you encountered is common enough that it has been given a name: keming. My friend and I have a recurring joke about “yarns” and “yams”.

I am completely with you that after the arguments in the Tube, I’m no longer thinking of Sibylla as a basically together person who is prone to overthinking and social awkwardness, and now I’m considering that she might be unstable. What do you think of the arguments that Ludo reports in his first diary section? On pages 122 and 124, Sibylla gives examples of men about to be put to death, etc. I felt like as the reader, I was meant to understand something Ludo couldn’t and recognize the context in which Sibylla was giving these examples, but I’m at a loss.

And yes, absolutely a very funny book. I love the complexity of the humor. When I’ve been reading with someone else in the room, I generally have no chance of explaining to them what I’m laughing over.

Lisa, flin unk to the keming discussion, a sobering gumpse into the world of the professional typographer and a timely reminder of how much (in this case our textual integrity) we owe to so few ……….. and please don’t mention it again, my decision is anal.

Re: Ludo’s reports of the Circle Line arguments I am none the wiser as to context. I did take them as more evidence of the familial obsession with chance, a roulette wheel in Monte Carlo or t vs t+1whatever. I also thought it was meant to show off Sibylla’s fresh, scientifically precise thinking as compared with the sadly commonplace sentiments of her fellow travellers. I am though beginning to suspect that Sibylla herself can be a bit of a bore, eg her buttonholing behaviour at the meet-Liberace (a.k.a not that Liberace) party, these gruesome yet oft repeated examples of death in extreme circumstances. Yes, repetition may be a major theme of the book, but I’m with Ludo lets get off the damn Circle Line and back to the lush narrative pastures of the Julliard auditions or the Chad adventure or the…

I followed the link to DeWitt’s explanation of her troubles with getting the grammar right with her publisher. I laughed a bit because this is what happens when a compelling singular vision of something complete with its particular quirks runs straight into Corporate Policy. The Corporation has its Style Guide that its pool of copywriters know backwards and forwards. And then along comes this new and different entity (The Last Samurai) which does not fit the Style Guide, the Style Guide that has been used for a Very Long Time and came about through many Editorial Meetings complete with Assigned Action Items and Well-intentioned Compromises that were thought to encompass every possible book the publisher would ever put out…It’s a recipe for miscommunication, bruised egos, hurt feelings, and a mangled product. This happens all the time in Corporate America.

DeWitt’s unfortunate experience serves as a reminder that literature is art, but publishing is a business.

It feels like a long time ago, but it was a beginning, and beginnings have lasting power! I’d like to come back to something I either missed or overlooked due to this or that: to Par d’Amico’s post of September 22nd, where he links to Helen DeWitt’s post on the semi-colon and Cormac McCarthy, and to Rich who apparently is the only person to have followed that indication back to its source. (Rich’s post is dated October 10th. So he seems to be, like me, a believer in the generative power of beginnings!)

Pat refers in his post to a comment by Scott on a sentence that is found on page 71. Scott wirtes that “there are definitely words and punctuation marks missing in that sentence … [but or nevertheless] the whole thing hangs together cognitively.” This is what sent Pat over to DeWitt’s blog.

And here now is Rich melancholy take on what he found there: “this is what happens when a compelling singular vision of something complete with its particular quirks runs straight into Corporate Policy. The Corporation has its Style Guide that its pool of copywriters know backwards and forwards. And then along comes this new and different entity which does not fit the Style Guide that has been used for a Very Long Time and came about many Editorial Meetings complete with Assigned Action Items and Well-intentioned Compromises that were thought to encompass every possible book the publisher would ever put out. It’s a recipe for miscommunication, bruised egos, hurt feelings, and a mangled product. This happens all the time in Corportate America.”

The purpose of this post is first of all to express my admiration for the use of capitols in Rich’s post. It’s funny beyond words. And of course it’s true. Especially w/r/to the “mangled product. Both the American and the English editions are models of incoherence, because they have obviously been through something like an editorial battle of little big horn. And with, as Rich says, only “Well-intentioned Compromises” that solve nothing but do give us a case on which to reflect if not act. It doesn’t sound like Rich is anxious to act; it sounds, however, like he knows what he’s talking about when he speaks of bruised egos and hurt feelings.

I would suggest a series of posts on this question of ‘particular quirks ” which I prefer to call cases of singularity. I would like to get up a petition for a re-edition of The Last Samurai scrupulously respectful of Ms. DeWitt’s strictures and stylistic decisions. There are places in the novel where it looks as though some of them have been respected. But throughout the book, there is only incoherence and other sure signs of a knock-down drag out battle.

I feel like defending the work of the copyeditior, espcially Ms. Dunn over at “Love, Your Copyeditor.” I find that Rich rides a little rough-shod over the necessity of style guides and manuels. This is, in part, the domain of grammatization, which names those moments when consistency and universalization of norms wins out over cacophony and individual difference. The battle is not to be staged in terms of opposition, nor compromission, but something like composition. Perhaps Helen DeWitt is not “into” something like that. Perhaps she’s a warrior at rest between battles. I’m sure, on the other hand, that she would look kindly on a pitched battle like the one portrayed in The Seven Samurai, on the issue of the sick result of this particular publication. The three voices are never as loud and clear as in the case of this future cause célèbre: “1) Let’s make bamboo spears! Let’s kill all the bandits. 2) You can’t. 3) That’s impossible.”

Times are so bad, so critical, so promising, that it ought to be possible to explose the false opposition between art and business, by saying that if your business model does not originate in art, then it won’t be workable.

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