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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?

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On the gender issue, I think the author was very clear on the matter: “It is truly something and something which the something with the something of this something has something and something, so something also this something might something at first something.”

(The above reply is from someone else, not from the “Tom” I know. If this continues, I’ll have to sign in again and renounce this “name.”)

What is Helen DeWitt doing right? First of all, she’s showing how kids can ruin your mental life, constantly interrupting it and placing ever greater demands on your time. Especially when there’s no one to share the burden (or, if you prefer, the joy.)

There are many things to ponder in Daniel Mendelsohn’s review, “Boy Wonder.” (Available on He writes that Sibylla “can’t find her way out of her poverty, her depression, her madness …” I wish he wouldn’t have included madness in the list of what’s lacking in her makeup. The most striking sentence in the review is when he compares her to the terrified farmers at the beginning of Kurosawa’s film. Especially Rikichi, staring out at the spectators.

What does Helen DeWitt get right? The portrait of a mother who like the village needs help, but who, unlike the three farmers who are skeptical of any help from any quarter, is also ready to put her life and convictions on the line, as if she was sane and rational and the people gawking at her were mad. Dewitt gets this right. And compared to this accomplishment, anything she might get wrong becomes secondary. Sibylla is one of the two unforgettable villages in the novel, pressed upon if they are to survive, and in dire need of help and a bit of luck.

I’ve decided to stick around here, around the gender issue (“DeWitt as woman” — a rather likeable way of putting it) until I can put to rest the incredible paranoia I feel at having been vetriloquized. I like the question in this segment: “what does the author get right?” I feel at a loss to even begin to apprehend the second one: “something other women writers don’t get right.” Something I believe the author has got right concerns indifference and jealousy. Both Sibylla and Kenzo show indifference and jealousy concerning their immediate surroundings: Sibylla is often resentful about the invasions of her private space by her son. She get’s angry at him for this. Has to leave sometimes. But manages more often than not a loving kind of indifference to her territory and her concerns, in favor of those of her son. I think DeWitt gets this right. Motherly love is anything but natural, or God-given. It’s a force field of opposing drives: can be violent, can be calm, and indifference can here be sublime. Kenzo is totally indifferent to his physical well-being: at the precise moment when he is being beaten to death, his only concern in with the well-being of his hands! This the author has got right. This is monstrously hand-centered (not self-centered, but hand-centered) because the man’s hands are his soul, as Aristotle taught us. This too, especially in the following passage when the journalists gawk in disbelief at his strange answers to his questions and struggle to center the interview on reader-friendly topics such as the scandal of what happened to him in Chad, as he points to his own private concerns with music and the next Messian concert he will go to. This the author has got right. Gloriously, scandously right. Not at all a question of selfishness, but one of concentration, as in the spiritual exercises the priests always strove to impose upon their samurai followers.

Whoever or whatever it was (spyware?) it was who stole my name and my voice has a sense of humor. Something is something, and that’s something. To be continued, and that’s a promise.

I’m almost comfortable with the silly reply bearing my name. Why? Because I’ve found it in “The Last Samurai.” “I remembered Roemer and the something in the something with the something …”

I’d like to respond to the next thread about extra-textual references that might be brought to bear on our reading. True to form, Scott proposes a huge excursion outside the book, then, a few hours later, says: “But I’m not one of those people who insist that you need to go beyond the text — I’m sure there’s more than enough here for you to go on without ever bringing in a single extra-textual reference.” I am in total agreement with these totally contradictory sentences.

So, from outside the book, or rather, inside a fold between outside and inside, I read the question: “are you planning on watching ‘The Seven Samurai?” Well, to be frank, yes I am. Not only for my personal pleasure, or to deepen my culture of the world’s culture, but also and above all because I don’t have much choice in the matter. This seems to be something imposed by the novel, something imposed by the CULT status of this novel. Someone who belongs to a cult is someone who doesn’t always have a will of his own, and who is very comfortable in this lack, exept perhaps when that cult is the cult of reason (the party of reason, as throughout the Enlightenment period). The author, the author qua woman, makes the preposterous suggestion that the cult of reason is equivalent in the end to the way of the warrior. (Does one have to be a woman to be such a provacateur?) However free one may feel in a cult atmosphere, there are things imposed. Obligatory passages, in all the senses of the term. Suchd as watching “The Seven Samurai” and paying attention to the subtitles to see if this is penguin English or a noble effort at true translation. (This is a domain which requires, often but not always, the intervention of a kind of katana: the sword that decides what is good and what is mediocre) The task of the translator was never as daunting, or more interesting, challenging, exciting and excitable, than in the cazse of the dialogue in “The Seven Samurai.” So yes, sensei, I shall be watching it soon, because I’ve been watching you for years now, and, I dare say (another trace of paranoia) you may have recently begun to watch me!

Of course, once you’re outside this book, you realise how much of your outside is inside it. (Slightly unpleasant, this, especially for mothers and sons. Less for fathers, who come out, in the end, shining like in a spaghetti western). And how much more of outside you’ll haver to take inside if, that you, you desire to do justice and sing the praises of this book, as one does one involved in a cult. Of course you can congratulate yourself on the initiative of spending a few moments of your precious time watching “The Seven Samurai.” It’s worth your while, as one says, on the outside of everyone’s inside, much more skeptical than the person out there being encouraging. What I would say today is that in addition you rea&ly out to watch “Sugata Sanshiro” as well. It’s a very important thread in the novel. And by the way, as long as we remain on the cusp between outside and inside, there is the cultic obligation to read Donald Richie on Akira’s films, and to come to some kind of resolution concerning the majority report on this author on Google: that he is somehow passé and over the hump, and one would be well-adivised to consult more up-to-the minute specialists on Akira Kurosawa.

I won’t be around for much longer, but never in my life have I had an experience like this one: you don’t read, you’re not really reading, unless you’re writing. You don’t need a publisher for this: all you need is a little rational coherence and a little moral gumption. If you read Helen Dewitt and you’re not writing about it, it’s that you’re not reading. You’re asleep. That’s when the samurai says: wake up!

Much of the fiction I read and write is focused on family relationships, so one reason this novel appeals to me is that it’s an honest take on parenting. (Other reasons include: OMG, Greek lesson!) The circumstances of Sibylla’s life are sort of unusual, and her kid is extraordinary, but details aside, she’s dealing with a universal concern for parents, perhaps especially single parents: “Am I doing the right thing for my child?”

I imagine this basic topic is a subject of many books by female authors that are marketed at female readers. Though I am female and like to read novels about families, I don’t tend to read f the books that get sold as “women’s fiction”. Still, I know enough about the genre to see that THE LAST SAMURAI is not like those books.

The postmodern techniques have a lot to do with the difference, of course. The amount of space devoted to subjects other than the parent-child relationship also separates this novel from a standard domestic drama. But looking past those elements, is there something else that DeWitt is doing differently (I’m not going to say “right”)?

I’m not convinced there’s more to it than that. If this story were told in a conventional manner and the explorations of language, music, etc were reduced to background texture, it wouldn’t be a remarkable novel, but it would still be a compelling, emotional, and sometimes funny story about a strong-willed, eccentric mother who has doubts about whether she’s doing the right thing for her strong-willed, genius son. The unconventionality of the characters and situation might set that theoretical novel apart from the rest of the genre, but I think it would still end up marketed as women’s fiction. I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from that.

First of all, it’s wonderful for me to respond to something else, someone else, than a spyware double of myself! No doubt Lisa Eckstein was homing in on the gender question, but let it be said that I’m happy to feel once again that I’m among the living!

The most problematic aspect of the novel, w/r/t (with respect to) the associations Lisa Eckstein presents, from both her reading and her authorship, is the almost total disappearance of Sibylla in the second half of the novel. Something tells me that this too will be read as true to a certain kind of motherhood that is not remiss to see the offspring off and running in directions both familiar and strange.

From my perfectly non-economic and non-authoritarian point of view, the “money” quote in Lisa Eckstein’s too brief post is the following: “The amount of space to devoted to subjects other than the parent-child relationship also separates this novel from the standard domestic drama.”

Is that true? Is that the case? I am gung-ho for Lisa Eckstein’s position that we have here an unusual and longed-for example of a parent-child relationship outside the ken of the genre. (I don’t think I would be striving to exfoliate the “cult” status of this novel were this not the case.) My only concern is that there might not be any “outside” to the parent-child relationship. That might make me a potential reader of the “standard domestic drama.” Whatever the final status assigned to me, I’ll just say that what makes this novel click is the extent to which the son follows, not so much the way of Ulysses, but rather the way of the mother. And that “all the space devoted to subjects other than the parent-child relationship” ultimately concerns the imprint of the parent-child relationship on everything that child experiences. This is not narrow Freudism, but wide as all outdoors Greek tragedy. I love this book.

tom, glad to give you something new to respond to! I hope more people will join in for this interesting discussion.

I agree that we should be “striving to exfoliate the ‘cult’ status of this novel” and helping it find a wider audience. I can’t believe I’d never heard of the book before the fall read announcement. It’s a book that I would have expected to have recommended to me by friends — if any of them had ever heard of it.

I’m thinking more about the book’s obscurity, and how it relates to the author’s sex, after reading this Slate article about gender bias in the literary world. Whatever it means to say, “This doesn’t seem like a book written by a woman,” I’ll argue that more people would have heard of it had it been written by a man.

On “Ptolemaic Alexandria” and the structure of desire!

Amazon has this huge work available in Oxford Univeristy Press reprint edition for only 212 Euros! A superb work of scholarship hat no home should be without!

There’s a campaign going on right now to reinstate the historical Liberace in his rightful place at the pinnacle of American music and entertainment. Every night, we are told, he have it his best, played his heart out, and never since has there been such a consumate entertainer! A suberb work of a lifetime that no home went without where I come from. (Illinois)

The one-night stand with “Liberace” is a bad memory for Sib. He talks too much. And his medleys are spineless. Yet it’s hard for me, a perfectly formed product of the American culture industries, not to feel some sympathy for him (and more as we go along). This happens to us all the time (feeling sympathy and perhaps even identification despite the final judgment we feel we should make). I admire Sib for her behavior the morning after. The description, almost the ekphrasis, seems like the most accurate character sketch we’ll ever get of someone who will soon disappear from the pages of the novel. She wants to do the right thing. She doesn’t want to say something false or untrue. She doesn’t want to pursue the relationship. She feels soiled by it all. Then she remembers the Rosetta Stone discussion! It was a monologue but that’s secondary.

We have read what she thought as she gazed down on Val, still asleep. “How cruel that we must wake up each time to answer to the same name, revive the same memories, take up the same habits and stupidities that we shouldered the day before and lay down to sleep. I did not want to watch him wake to go on as he had begun.” I can’t come up with any other sentence that gives us a better portrait of the structure of this woman’s desire. There is something missing in Val-Liberace, and it is from this place, this locus, that the sympathy we feel for him arises. Even for Sib, I think. He is truly, as Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in his review, a son of Penia, or lack or default. Sib sees this momentary union as cruel, but not yet as ill-fated as it will soon appear to the reader and to herself. She knows he won’t change. Fate and character go hand in hand. In this view, in this set and solid view of things, the intercourse should never had occured. I’m sure there are readers who will chastise Sib for her less than discriminating taste. But as in Plato and in the teachings of those who would train the Samurai, something is born of this unlucky unfortunate encounter. Sib is so rsourceful (for once she’s on the Poros side of the ledger) that she can foster an idea that will remain with her until she disappears in the wake of her son. It’s the idea of the Rosetta stone, of something like universal translation for everyone. The reader is enclosed, imprisoned in sad straits, for she cannot help but see how senseless this project is, given the total lack of curiosity of Liberace, and feels something like pity that so many hours be spent in vain. But the sad reader imprisonment is exploded by the author. Something is born of the intercourse,and it’s not only Ludo. Ludo is a catastrope, as we learn from tracing the Kangi characters for a child. Eros is born, and once again, not in the form of the kid, but in the form of a great project, a revamped and perfectly workable scheme of universal communication. Of the sort that resulted in the foundation of the Alexandrian Library during the reign of Ptolemy. Two librairies at this point in this diabolally astute novel: Ptolemy’s, and Liberace’s, composed mainly of his own works, translated into all the languages of the world. None of which he can read. Sib works out a first draft of her project for her library, while Val sleeps off the effects of his.

The most astounding thing the reader learns is how important these two halves of the world, these two librairies actually are in the novel. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Sib is an elite product of the best education England has to offer, and that it has been a bitter disappointment for her. She’s probably something of a genius herself. But she is constantly in contact with the other half of the world, with the othr library, and no amount of complaining or criticizing or dissing will lessen the effect of this contact on the flow of the story. The Circle Line is an efficient way of showing us how hopeless and depressing this conact can be. Perhaps, however, the contact is like thermodynamics: perhaps the laws governing their pasts and futures have little if anything to do with what we feel about them, or how they appear to us. Maybe this is a message in a bottle, in one of the bottles that didn’t fall off the wall.

So here’s my tidbit contribution for this morning, dedicated to Lisa. We will never know how the culture industry monkey Liberace ended up with a copy of Ptolemaic Alexandria in his library. This is such an insignificant tidbit that the fact that it lies beyond the spoiler line is itself insignifant. But I do hope you’ll be waiting for it now. Like in David Foster Wallace’s expression (inself a quote from Yeats): good prose feels liek the click of a well-made jewelry box. Ptolemaic Alexandria clicks like it never could have had it remained confined in the Bodleian Library.

It’s probably like all those copies of Lacan’s Writings, or Foucault’s Les Mots et les Choses, or Infinite Jest. Simply a question of status, or being seen with the right book. Perhaps this volume was purchases because Liberace had heard about it at a cocktail party. Or perhaps because someone had mentioned that there is a poem in it about Cassandra, whose prophecies are difficult to decipher either because of typos or on account of her own sorry mental state! We’ll never know. And we know is that this book of foreign lore is a link and a node in the lives of Poros, Penia and Eros. Yes, I thihk the author got this right. Liberace knew where Sib’s Rosetta Stone farewell belonged: in a part of a library that was, or would end up, his. That’s where he placed the note. Probably saying to himself: one of these days I’ll get around to learning Greed so I can read this. And understand everything I missed out on. (another possible translation for Penia. I’m sure a lot of people are wonderning about the links to the penis, and to penis envy. the beat goes on, in both worlds, both libraries.)

I’d like to pick up where David and I left off (it was something of a severed thread): on the subject of the pedagogical and emotional investment in repeated home projections of The Seven Samurai. In truth, I still shake my head in disbelief at the absence of surprise or interest in this move made in the novel. I can think of no other example in world literature of a video entering a household as a supplement to a missing parent. This is a totally original way to make a novel start to click. And of course there are many ways to stop the clicking by moving outside the novel. But the solution remains, so singular and “positive” in the mind of Sibylla.

(Full disclosure, probably not needed at this late date. I’m a crank. That is, someone “overly enthusiastic about a particular subject or activity.” In other words, someone likely to engage in cultic practices like reading.)

I thought I knew that Sib wanted a MIRV to increase her and her son’s chances of weathering the storm of this obviously crucial lack in family structure: no daddy. But Sib is cool on the subject. She would have us believe that the idea occured to her as she was flipping through a lady’s magazine. The idea seems more flippant than urgent. I can’t remember and can’t find any other place in the novel where she seems distraught over being a single parent. She has read present problems and issues with the practical problems and challenges of husbanding her time, but never says or feels that the graft of a husband-father might help in any way.

That’s why I broke the thread with David, suggesting between the lines that Sib might be immune to the consideratins and questions he had as to the viability of her solution. It was cold outside the novel where this discussion was to warm up. I wanted to come back in. I realise that I’m offereing now a sketch of Sib in thick black and white German expressionist brush strokes, suitable for someone who kicks ass like she does. I would nevertheless be grateful if someone could soften the modeling a bit.

Why The Seven Samurai? And why is Kurosawa’s first film, Sugata Sanshiro, so important? At least as important as the Odyssey! Why these films? I submit phrases to mask my ignorance of any interesting answer. I suppose the films spectated, over and over again, are perfect fits for Sib because everything she wants and desires and believes and despairs of ever seeing off-screen comes full circle each time these movies come to mind or re-enger the eye and heart of this spectator. She can’t imagine anything more perfect than Mifune, or the descriptions of Sugato Sanshiro by Richie. Nothing closer to what she has come to think about the good life, the beautiful soul, the right way to live. I wonder if there’s anyone out there who could stop diagnosis and prognosis long enough to take issue with this, which is not exactly psychological, but rather ethical and epochal, to talk the way I used to. The key to the rape of Sibylla is not along the edge of the limits of genius, but in the choice of a few films to supposedly give her a breather from her demanding space and time gobbling son Ludo. The SUV. There used to be an advertisement on TV for Gillette razor blades: Gillette, la perfection au masculin! The Seven Samurai is, at the very least, la perfection, 1st and 3rd person singular. I can’t make the move at this moint to switch to the question of the author’s desire, because I got a handful dealing with Sib’s desire! We’re staring at the screen must like Rikichi is staring out at us. With burning eyes. At such a crucial moment as this one, neither Sib nor I nor anyone else would tolerate any distraction from any quarter, although they keep coming along, regular as clockword or trains on the Circle Line!

I’ll leave this inchoate thing as it is. I hope David will read this and feel a demand on his schedule coming from these regions. I can’t sign off without a citation from the novel that recaps the perfect fit existing between The Seven Samurai and us (I sprung that “us” on you at the last minute. Does it meet with your approval, or does it seem forced?)

“Mifune is making strange faces and noises now replicated in miniature by my side. Kurosawa is right, he can turn on a dime and watching quicksilver Mifune stern Shimura and ardent Kimura I suddenly realise that everything is going to be all right. …”

We see so far away, with this, from Elvis and his “it’s all right mama”!

I’m still, at this late date, with so many other things going on, thanks largely to Scott in this morning’s post on cultural literacy and another Kurosawa film to see, wondering about the gender question.

Before noting a few things, I’d like to point out how many similarities there are between reading The Last Samurai and reading the information on this blog site. These are both studies in fragmentation, and the most interesting parts in both are the struggles narrated as news and recent publications, to deal with this fragmentation. (The most interesting posts of the past few weeks have been on modernism. But they take weeks to read, failing some kind of genius faculty of assimilation.) I am as bedazzled by the presence of mind required to keep this blog up to date as I am by Ludo’s ease at mastering foreign languages. I wonder too if the analogy goes as far as some sort of post-modern quest for a father figure. That’s enough on that for the moment!

I imagine Helen DeWitt to be a 53 year-old woman. (I think I read that somewhere, that she was born in 1957.) And I wonder, given the “theme” of childcare, or, as one particularly undistinguished critic calls “hothousing,” why no one has asked the question of the autobiographical input behind or quite up front in this novel. I think we’re all rather intimidated by Helen DeWitt, and rightly so, justifiably so. She can be scathing and dismissive if she’s decided you’re stupid, pretentious, or given to medleys. Nevertheless, I would like to know if motherhood is a fictional construct for her, or something she has constructed out of lived experience.

I’d like to know, but I probably won’t. No more so than Kyuzo who decides to come back and fight with Kambei. We’ll never know why he changes his mind. At the end of the line, it doesn’t make much difference for “us.” For the reader, it doesn’t change the problems, challenges, and pleasure he faces reading this novel. It changes nothing in the fact that reader and author are held in suspension just outside the novel, not behind a closed door but something like a porous partition allowing glimpses, excursions, and sudden invastions of everyone’s private space. After a little thought on this (I was going to say: much thought, but I’d like to keep this straight without too many chasers), I think both Sib and Ludo are surrogates for the author. This is why I must take issue with the position formulated by Scott that gender matters. (Turn that position into an issue) Gender, and motherhood, genius and its default, exist outside the novel, but pre-eminently as figures and fragments of past time not to be lost or forgotten. Not only hers, or theirs, but ours. That’s why we go fishing to find out how old she is. In order to see if we have imbibed the same references, the same songs, the same politcal impasses along the way to “now.” (The most fictional of constructs) There’s something classical here (this is a surprise to to no one, but it makes talking about the experience difficult. It’s easier to be postmodern than to be wedged between moderns and classics, like this author.)

“A tranquillizing spirit presses now On my corporeal frame, so wide appears The vacancy between me and those days, Which yet have such self-presence in my mind That sometimes when I think of them I seem Two consciousnesses — conscious of myself, And of some other being.” (1805 Prelude, W. Wordsworth, part two)

This can be as cliché-sounding as you want. It can be he basis of a Liberace-like seduction line on Saturday night at a cocktail party: “I feel there are two people struggling in you …” But it can also turn out to be a strategy on the part of an author at any moment in history to come to terms with the inadequacy of any present moment.

I hope this isn’t too obscure. I think Scott is right to open up the discussion with the question of gender. But gender somehow has to end up split. As you’re going down the line, from chapter one to chapter seven, in any book by any author, man, woman or automatic text generator, you come to the end of the line and confront the split between your gender and the other. I think this happens in section two of The Last Samurai. It’s a dramatic, poignant moment, when the wind isn’t blowing too hard, and when Sib says: “Now we are six.” It would be a mistake to believe she’s still in The Seven Samurai. She has just encountered the unspoken lot of her life: she’s hitched to Ludo like salt and peper. He’s six and so she is! And, as the title of the chapter suggests, (as well as it’s being chapter 7) it is now the end of the line. School is beginning, and the separation between parent and child as well. It’s our responsibility to enumerate (like they do) all of the things that start to come undone here, as threats and as promises, in tragedy and in farce. In my hands, this sounds like a bunch of psychological boilerplate, but in the hands of an author, it’s one of the most moving 3 pages in any book I’ve ever read. I think it deserves an interlinear commentary.


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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