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.


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I wonder what others here think about Sibylla’s job. It seems so mind-numbing particularly for someone of her intelligence. Moreover, it reminds me of war-time field intelligence filing (not that I have any experience). Just copying down whatever comes across one’s desk and putting it into an outrageously huge pile that serves no purpose other than to physically grow. Is this her alternative for suicide?

@ DAVID C

I wonder if you’re someone who follows the World Series. The ratings are down drastically, for reasons I cannot understand, except perhaps because these two teams are not as well known as the Yankees and the Phillies. I predicted on a family blog that Colby Lewis, at age 31, would do a good job against the Giants. He spent time in Japan with his family, playing for a team from Hiroshima. Baseball players don’t write long posts like me, but one senses from his loconic answers that the experience was soul-forming.

Do you realise to what incredible extent your question dynamites the entire novel? This question is not born of anger, but of surprise. Imagining Sib setting out to find a more satisfying job is to begin writing an altogether different novel. You may say: why not, and I’d agree. Except that I am sure that this one deserves to stand, and to be read on its own terms.

I’d love to meet up with you in Paris. If that could happen, I’d put a copy of The Last Samurai in my satchel, and take you to the public garden around the Rodin museum. It’s a wonderful place for people who suffer from the heat, neat a place to rest their weary bones, and for some, to meditate on the achievements of Auguste Rodin. And of course I’d start reading to you. I’d read the passages where Sib, way back when, talks about Rilke being Rodin’s secretary. I think that, to keep reading this novel, you have to feel at that point some kind of empathy with Sib who obviously feels that Rilke’s position as secretary was quite enviable. And that he would do just about anything to remain in proximity with this “genius” of modern sculpture. Of course he would moonlight on his own work, especially on the notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. (There may be chronological problems imagining Rilke working on the notebooks while “serving” Rodin. That’s secondary to the fact that a samurai is someone who serves.)

So that’s what I think of Sib’s job. She takes it because she’s taken up in the Samurai work ethic. It’s not the Protestant one. It’s a scheme to save her skin, and bring her son to the point where he’ll be able to parry blows all by himself. It’s something temporary, fleeting, not at all what she might have preferred, but this is brass tacks or destiny! Here too I think the reader needs a political muscle of imagination to conceive of something other than the standard leveling process of today’s educational institutions in order to keep clicking with Sibylla. Most of us belong to the category of the two farmer’s voices who respond to Rikichi with expressions of ghastly disbelief and confessions of allegiance to impossibility: there is nothing to be done.

From the very beginning of this reading group, I’m the silly man who believes that Sibylla is to be trusted. That her intuition was spot on, and her devotion intermittent. Her chances of success at matter of statistics. But to live and work next to Rodin, who could possibly imagine something luckier or better or more solid than that?

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