Helen DeWitt


| extract | reviews
Time Magazine 2001 | New York Review of Books | Books Of The Times | Time Magazine 2000 | New Yorker

New York Review of Books, Volume 48, Number 14 · September 20, 2001

Boy Wonder

By Daniel Mendelsohn

The Last Samurai
by Helen DeWitt
Talk Miramax/Hyperion, 544 pp., $14.95 (paper)

1. A third of the way into Helen DeWitt's remarkable first novel, a book that is populated with geniuses of various sorts, there's an extended description of the aesthetic philosophy of a young Japanese pianist named Kenzo Yamamoto, a reclusive former child prodigy whose concert career has not flourished—possibly because at a typical evening at Wigmore Hall he might play Chopin's Op. 10 No. 1 Ballade in D minor again and again for seven and a half hours, each time accompanied by a different noise ("a bell or an electric drill or once even a bagpipe"). By this point in The Last Samurai— which is about one genius in particular, a boy named Ludo Newman, and his mad mother, who may also be a genius, and his search for a father— the reader won't bat an eye, having been exposed to extended descriptions of all kinds of esoterica: turn-of-the-century Homeric textual criticism, say, or number theory, or Japanese syllabaries, or Alexandrian literary criticism, or Schoenberg's Harmonielehre, or interpretative approaches to Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, which gives the novel its title and scenes of which are quoted verbatim over and over again throughout.
But the ten dense pages devoted to the fictitious Yamamoto's theories about musical performance have the virtue of containing what amounts to a key to reading DeWitt's prodigious book:
Yamamoto began to talk about the idea of a fragment, he said for instance when you were working on a piece you might take a section in one direction, let's say you might keep scaling it down and down until it was barely there & then that barely there section would sometimes be enchantingly beautiful but you would realise when you came to relate it to the next section that you could only get from that to the next section by means of something crass and stupid, some stupid violent crescendo that wasn't right or even an abrupt transition that wasn't right or it might be that you could get from one to the other but still you wanted the next part to be hard & bright and you didn't want something quite so bare before. Well everyone knew there were unfinished pieces Schubert's unfinished symphony the Mozart Requiem Mahler's Tenth Moses and Aaron & what made them unfinished was the stupid fact that the composer had not put an end to them, but if you worked on a section & got an enchantingly beautiful version that could not be used what you had in effect was a fragment, a thing that was not part of the finished work. Once you saw that you saw that you could potentially have dozens of fragments that could not be part of the finished work, and what you saw was that it was perceiving these fragments as fragments that made it possible to have a real conception of what wholeness might be in a work— and once you saw this you naturally wanted an audience to see it too because otherwise.
Appropriately for a book whose heroine and author are both lapsed classicists—the American-born DeWitt studied classics and philosophy at Oxford and stayed in England after giving up the academic life—The Last Samurai is structured in a way that suggests the archaic Greek literary device called "ring composition." As the main narrative progresses, and the boy genius Ludo seeks, meets, and tests seven potential father figures in succession, many of the characters and incidents we encounter become the subjects of their own convoluted and highly detailed narratives; these stories-within-stories are, as often as not, considerably more textured than Ludo's quest, to which they inevitably circle back.
And yet if Ludo's ongoing search for a father provides the novel with its Herodotean momentum and apparent wholeness, 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.
Much of the considerable fascination of DeWitt's novel lies, in fact, in the way in which it explores the tension between what Plato in the Symposium—a work whose characters in search of their "other halves," and whose episodic, ascending narrative trajectory are recalled here—personifies as an odd couple named Poros and Penia, "Resource" and "Lack." (Plato imagines them as a father and mother, respectively.) Indeed, whatever its reverence for Japanese language and culture and its debt to Seven Samurai, the question that DeWitt ultimately raises here is not one about the nature of genius, but one posed famously by the Symposium, about the nature and efficacy of human love. How, in other words, do we use our available resources to assemble the rich and tantalizing fragments before us into a "meaningful wholeness"? And just what is the glue that holds them—and us—together? Those questions, and their implications for how we think about art and narrative, and what constitutes a good life, resonate throughout DeWitt's book, although it is not until the very end, after Ludo has given up his search, that an answer is provided.
Because it is the story of a boy prodigy, The Last Samurai has been discussed as an exploration of the nature of genius, but its real concern is how we use, or fail to use, our innate resources—what we know, who we are—to help us get what we need, what we happen to lack. (This preoccupation with what happens at the intersection of character and chance is itself a deeply Greek-tragic one.) The novel falls into two slightly uneven chunks, the first narrated by Sibylla, the second by Ludo. The part about Sibylla, the mother, could well be entitled "Lack." It is the richer and more virtuosic part of the book; the mother is a more complex and persuasive character than the son is, and her thoughts seem very much her own, whereas the Ludo material comes off as ventriloquized and approximate. (There's a strong sense that DeWitt emptied herself into the portrayal of the mother, in all her eccentric glory, and had comparatively little left for the son.)
In its dense and often poignant portrayal of Sibylla and her family, this first part suggests how helpless intellect can be before chance or Fate—a very Sophoclean theme indeed. (As is, of course, a brilliant youth's quest for his parents.) In a brief prologue, Sibylla narrates the events that resulted in her own birth: the arbitrary cruelty that caused her father, the brilliant child of a sadistic Methodist minister, to miss out on a Harvard education and to end up at a third-rate seminary instead; the chance meeting in a roadside pool hall that led the young man both to his future career as the owner of a string of motels (he places copies of The Origin of Species rather than the Bible in the bedside tables) and to his future wife, a beautiful Jewish musical prodigy who set out to study voice but, because "one thing led to another," ended up first as a piano student rather than as a singer, and finally as a housewife rather than as a concert artist. Sibylla's father, her mother, and Sibylla herself: helpless playthings of the indifferent and sometimes cruel forces of chance and whim, they can't seem to make a meaningful way for themselves.
But most of the novel's first part recounts, from Sibylla's point of view, the concatenation of equally haphazard events that resulted in Ludo's existence: her girlhood wretchedness with her bitter father and mentally unstable mother ("it was odd not to be playing Chopin's Prelude No. 24 in D minor for the 219th time"), her whimsical decision to attend Oxford ("surely Oxford, you reason, would not hold non-membership of the Donny Osmond Fan Club against you"), her wretched years as a classics graduate student during which it made less and less sense to be slogging through forgotten and "patently, blatantly...insane" philological treatises when she could be reading Musil, or Rilke, or Zweig (there is a brilliantly funny riff about third-rate German scholarship here); the series of "coincidences" that led her to stay in England after abandoning her studies; her one-night stand, after a book party, with a slick, commercially successful writer, the author of well-written but morally vacuous works that earn him the epithet "Liberace" in her disdainful eyes.
Were it not for these events, Sibylla keeps telling us, "the world would be short a genius." But then, genius itself is the product of pure and inexplicable chance:
For who was Mozart? Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) was an Austrian composer of genius, taught music by his father Leopold from the age of five, and displayed in the courts of Europe playing the harpsichord blindfold and performing other tricks. He composed string quartets, symphonies, piano sonatas, a concerto for the glass organ and several operas including Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute. His sister Nannerl received identical training and was not a musical genius. I have heard it argued, and by a clever man too, that this proves that women are not capable of musical genius.
It is worth noting that "Ludo" may be thought of as a play on the Latin ludus, "play"; the boy's name is meant to remind us yet again of the way in which chance plays with our destinies, whatever our innate talents may be. There is no greater reminder of this in the book than the case of Sibylla herself, the child of two brilliant parents, who is—or so we are meant to believe—no genius, whereas Ludo, the product of a brilliant parent and one deeply mediocre one, is. Whatever the factors that produced them, Sibylla's brilliance, and her son's genius, have not brought her happiness; young as he is, Ludo himself recognizes this with laconic poignancy. "Things make her unhappy," he tells one of his prospective father figures late in the book. If they do, the reference to the arrogance of that "clever man"—the first of a series of faint but persistent feminist blips on DeWitt's narrative screen— suggests that the reason why has something to do with the relative status of men and women.
Sibylla's and Ludo's origins and early family life, the dizzyingly refractive esoteri digressions, the mother's struggle to get by in impecunious circumstances (she doe low-paying word-processing at home): all are presented in a style that is, literally fragmented —so fragmented, at first, that DeWitt may lose some readers, since it isn' necessarily clear on first reading how the scraps of thoughts in Sibylla's mind or th voices that keep bombarding her are meant to come together into that meaningfu wholeness. (I know more than one person who found the beginning of The Last Samurai intriguing but gave up soon after.) A typical passage from the first two hundred pages or so of DeWitt's book looks something like this:
Pietro, a sculptor. Rudolf Wittkower (German art historian, refugee from the Nazis [where to begin?], author of Art & Architecture in Italy 1600–1750) compares him to Michelangelo ([1475–1564]),
painter, poet, sculptor of genius...) in his capacity for superhuman
oktokaitriakontasyllabic enneakaitriakontasyllabic
How to assemble such narrative fragments? In this section, Sibylla is trying to sort out what it means to be a genius —this is the same passage in which she ponders Wolfgang and Nannerl Mozart —and how, in turn, she might convey all this to Ludo; while Ludo, to whom she has just explained the concept of a table of syllables, and who is still a toddler, starts loudly listing the Greek-derived names for words consisting of various numbers of syllables. But all this is merely a digression, one of many, within a larger, framing narrative about how Sibylla came to stay in England; it's so easy to get engrossed in Sibylla's reflections on men of genius, or distracted by Ludo's persistent, prodigious buzz, that by the time you get to the end of this section and come to the words "Emma offered me a work permit & a job. I said: Done," you've forgotten where you were in the story. I suspect that part of DeWitt's splintered style in this first part is meant to convey how it feels to have a mind filled with beautiful glinting fragments that you don't know how to organize, as Sibylla does not. But it's also true that it vividly conveys, with more texture and immediacy and bleak humor than any other recent novel, how it feels to be a working person trying to contend with small children around the house. Sibylla's struggle to retain her train of thought is, of course, also the reader's struggle; DeWitt forces not only her characters but her readers to deal with fragments, to forge a whole.
The point of the demanding first part of The Last Samurai is that forging a whole is something that Sibylla herself is unable to do. A potential criticism of DeWitt's style is that it lacks texture, consisting as it does of lists and enumerations of thoughts and insights; particularly in the first two hundred pages, there are times when you feel less as if you're reading a novel than sitting next to a brilliant crank at a departmental social event. Sibylla, always suspicious of art in which surface prettiness substitutes for content, approvingly cites Glenn Gould's "contempt for what you could call the surface of a piece...the place where you would see showmanship"; and yet it must be said that DeWitt herself occasionally indulges in virtuosic displays of showmanship for its own sake. (Then again, they're so entertaining that you can't really object.)
But if Sibylla's delivery is, for all the intellectually rarefied subject matter, curiously flat and sometimes a bit too adorable—it's as if Glenn Gould were being channeled by Bridget Jones—the two-dimensionality, the lack of psychological texture or the sense of a coherent subject behind the brilliant word-spinning do successfully convey the extent of Sibylla's dilemma. "I should be typing Advanced Angling as they want it back by the end of the week," she sighs as she and Ludo watch Seven Samurai for the umpteenth time, "but it seems important to preserve my sanity." That sentence suggests, if anything, how close to losing her sanity the young woman is.
As DeWitt knows, the literal meaning of poros, "resource," in classi-cal Greek is "way" or "path": the Bosporus, for instance—"cow-path" —takes its name from the route taken by the mythical Io, a girl transformed into a heifer, from Europe into Asia. For all her intellectual gifts, Ludo's mother can't find a way out of her poverty, her depression, her madness: she too has wandered from continent to continent, made helpless and passive by her aching awareness of the world around her and, even more, of her inability to change it. Like the terrified farmers at the beginning of Kurosawa's film, Sibylla has all the pieces—she certainly knows what the problems are. And indeed, much of the pleasure of sampling the inside of Sibylla's mind in this first portion of the novel comes from encountering her acute and often very funny insights into the inauthenticity of popular culture or the banality of elementary school education or the obtuseness of well-intentioned people in general. (The scenes in which subway riders react to Ludo's reading of Homer in Greek are hilarious.)
But she can't construct anything out of her insights, can't do anything with her sensitivities, except suffer. The surest sign of her helplessness—her "lack"—is that this extraordinarily gifted linguist and deeply intuitive critic of everything from epic poetry to contemporary movies has been reduced to a mindless and, indeed, animal-centered life: to earn the pittance on which she and her child live, she types into a computer the contents of magazines with names like British Ostrichkeeper, Pig Fancier's Monthly, Weaseller's Companion. DeWitt makes meaningful (and witty) use of these titles in order to help situate her characters, in a particularly Greek way, in the order of things. If Sibylla is a more intriguing character than her son is, it's because she, unlike him but like so many classical heroes—Achilles, Ajax —is a difficult amalgam of the highest and the lowest, the divine and the animal. Which is to say that she's thoroughly human.
Compared to his mother, Ludo is a cipher. This is inevitable; the mind of a (merely) brilliant person is easier to inhabit than is the mind of a bona-fide genius. A serious flaw in this novel is that there's no ostensible difference between Sibylla's narrative voice or her habits of thought—and those of her son, who narrates, for the most part, the second half of the book: most of the dazzling riffs about art and literature and language and math that you get come from her, in fact, and she seems to know as least as much as the little boy does. (This part could be entitled "Resource.") For all the geniuses and prodigies strutting through its pages—each of the seven men whom Ludo approaches is thought, however inexactly, to be a genius at something or other—the question of what, precisely, makes a genius a genius is never fully answered here.
Unless of course the difference between brilliance and genius is that the latter will somehow find a way out—will make use of its resources to get around whatever obstacles chance places in its path. There is a moment in her narration when Sibylla, who has taken to riding the London Underground in circles with Ludo when their apartment becomes too cold, gets into an argument with a well-intentioned but aesthetically insensitive woman about the meaning of Seven Samurai. The woman starts to opine that the movie is about an "elite band" of warriors, at which point Sibylla heatedly interrupts:
I said politely Essentially the film is about the importance of rational thought. We should draw our conclusions from the evidence available rather than from hearsay and try not to be influenced by our preconceptions. We should strive to see what we can see for ourselves rather than what we would like to see.
This is precisely what Ludo does in the second part, as he sets out quite methodically first to identify his father and then, once he has that disappointing knowledge (shades of Oedipus here), to seek out other men who, he reasons, might as well be his father. If the orderliness and method in Ludo's search possess less glamour than Sibylla's manic narrative does, and seem unsatisfying—we prefer our geniuses to be mad, after all—you wonder whether this is DeWitt's point. Genius produces, gets results; brilliance entertains.
If Sibylla's narrative, a fragile wholeness constructed of fragments, is a record of failed search for selfhood, Ludo's narrative is the record of a successful search fo completion, and proceeds straightforwardly. In addition to his biological father, th boy interviews six older men in whom talent and a capacity to act are united. There i Hugh Carey, a philologist turned world adventurer; George Sorabji, a Nobel-winnin Indian astrophysicist; a painter called Watkins whose aesthetic idiosyncrasies an hunger for a kind of absolute purity in art are as pronounced as those of Yamamoto Mustafa Szegeti, a worldly half-Hungarian, half-Egyptian diplomat; a daredevi Samaritan called Red Devlin who travels the world using his remarkable charm an charisma to help people in need; and, finally, Yamamoto himself
The progress from candidate to candidate is swift—impatient at times. (Again, the feeling that the author had spent herself on the first part.) This is not to say that the second part is without its considerable attractions. There are lovely symmetries that run throughout this half, binding the stories together and giving Ludo's portion of the novel its shape and coherence. Each of the men in these stories has a dangerous adventure in a savage and uncivilized land from which he rescues a child; the only one who failed to do so in the past gets a second chance in the present. He will be the one to rescue Ludo and Sibylla—a satisfying touch. Most of them, moreover, have run into Sibylla at some point in the past; and each has had a dallliance in his past that could have produced Ludo. (The theme of chance, again.)
And each story contains elements that resonate, some quite beautifully, with themes that have cropped up earlier in the novel. The tale of Hugh Carey best gives a sense of how dense those resonances can be. Carey is a linguistic genius and classical philologist who, like Sibylla, grew "weary of philology" and left Oxbridge; unlike Sibylla, he moves purposefully into the world, traveling to Asia in search of a mysterious tribe he's heard about, a group of nomads who "refused to let anyone who was not of the tribe know its language and any member of the tribe who repeated a word in the presence of a foreigner was punished by death." After a series of self-consciously Odyssean adventures, Carey eventually finds the tribe, the peculiarities of whose language suggest that he may have ended up, at least culturally speaking, not too far from where he began: the men only speak in the indicative and imperative, as if everything they uttered was fact, whereas the women speak only in the optative and subjunctive moods— "she would commit herself only to saying that it might be so."
Given what we've seen of Sibylla's life, what we've heard of that "clever man" and his opinions about Nannerl Mozart, and indeed the sometimes (intentionally?) blurred distinction between Sibylla's and Ludo's intellectual status, this appears to be a bitter joke on DeWitt's part: you don't have to travel all that far from London to find a culture in which men appropriate fact and leave hopeful supposition to women. (A further joke: the tribe's language, Carey realizes, "was in fact Indo-European, but Indo-European filtered through a Chinese system of pitch-accents to the point where it sounded like nothing he knew." But of course, he—and Sibylla, and Ludo— do already know an Indo-European language that used pitch, rather than stress, accents: classical Greek.) At this point it occurs to you to wonder whether DeWitt's point is that the only difference between brilliance and genius is that brilliant men are allowed to call themselves geniuses.
All except one of Ludo's seven samurai fail his tests: one man is vain, another violent, and so on; another, like Sibylla, is too overwhelmed by the information he acquires and kills himself with sleeping pills as Ludo watches—a remarkable scene. Afterward, in the novel's penultimate section, Ludo returns home to his mother, and attempts to confront her with the obvious question: If she's so miserable, why not return home to the States? But then, practical courses of action are not what interest Sibylla, who by this time is wedded to her suffering. "For someone who believes in the importance of rational argument Sib avoids the issue 9 times out of 10," an exasperated Ludo complains. She is a mad genius, and he a sane one.
The Last Samurai ends on a note of grace, when Lack and Resource finally achieve a perfect harmony. Having long given up his search, Ludo encounters quite by chance the seventh man, the "samurai" who will save the "village" that consists of the mother and her son. This closing scene is filled with complicated and deeply satisfying structural grace notes that elegantly call to mind one last time the novel's overriding themes. The six "failed" candidates are men whom Ludo has sought out; the seventh is one whom he encounters by accident, while wandering the streets of London. In Seven Samurai, the "seventh" samurai, Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), is an imposter —a farmer's son who attaches himself to the band of six and ultimately proves himself worthy of the name "samurai"; in The Last Samurai, the seventh man whom Ludo approaches is, in at least one sense, the only authentic samurai of them all. (He's Japanese, and immediately understands Ludo's references to the Kurosawa film.)
What is most striking, though, is that the climactic encounter between the two takes the form of a hardheaded negotiation—a dialogue of sorts in which each party has something that the other wants, and each uses his considerable wiles to obtain what he needs. (Which is to say that the novel ends with a satisfying balance of Resource and Lack.) As it happens, the object of the negotiation is a heart—a heart-shaped silk pillow that Watkins, the painter, has adorned with blood, and given to Ludo as a gift. The heart, now worth £10,000, could finance a new recording by the last samurai made on his own exacting terms, Ludo suggests—if the last samurai will rescue Ludo and Sibylla.
The result of the negotiation will be the creation of a family: Sibylla, Ludo, and seventh man; mother, child, and father. It is here that you're made aware of the one thing that has never been explicitly referred to thus far, among so many references to so many things—something perhaps better than genius, something that will save both Sibylla and Ludo, giving each his missing part. And just what is it, this byproduct of the union of what we have and what we desire, the thing that keeps the fragments in manageable, harmonious suspension? One hint is that silken pillow. But there is another clue, one likely to be better known to those who study Greek literature than to those who study Japanese. Or is it a cross-cultural notion, the one we find in Plato's Symposium: that the child of Resource and Lack is Love?