Helen DeWitt


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

BOOKS OF THE TIMES; December 11, 2000

Mother and Son on an Intellectual Quest


By Helen DeWitt 530 pages.
Talk Miramax Books. $24.95.

Sibylla Newman, a single mother whose 6-year-old son has had no formal education, decides one day to bring the boy to school. The teacher, Miss Thompson, cordially advises the boy to try out some building blocks in the classroom. But the boy wants to talk about his worries that he may not be up to the level of his prospective classmates. ''Have they read Isocrates' Ad Demonicum?'' he wants to know. ''What about the Cyropaedia?'' Miss Thompson says she has never heard of these books, but that her 6-year-old students need not worry about the curriculum, because people have different abilities and interests, and so they read different things. The boy replies, ''Well, I have only read the Iliad and the Odyssey in Greek and De Amicitia and Metamorphoses 1-8 in Latin and Moses and the Bullrushes and Joseph and his Manycolored Coat and Jonah and I Samuel in Hebrew and Kalilah wa Dimnah and 31 Arabian Nights in Arabic and just Yaortu la Tortue and Babar and Tintin in French and I have only just started Japanese.'' To place this list on a more teacher-friendly level, the third book from the last would appear to be the French version of ''Yertl the Turtle.'' Miss Thompson points out that children develop at different rates, that what matters is what someone can do with what he knows and that ''one of the most important parts of school is just learning to work as a member of a group.'' The boy, serious rather than arrogant, proceeds to engage her in a debate about John Stuart Mill and then finds her guilty of fallacious reasoning. It is at this point in the conversation that Sibylla returns from having spoken with the head of the school and announces the good news that her son will be able to be enrolled. ''But it looks as though he won't be in your class.'' '' 'What a shame,' '' Miss Thompson ''regretted,'' writes Helen DeWitt, herself any schoolroom pedant's worst nightmare. In an exhilaratingly literate and playful first novel punctuated by divine feats of intellectual gamesmanship, Ms. DeWitt joins Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith and Michael Chabon in going to the head of this year's class of flamboyantly ambitious novelists whose adventurousness spins out on an epic scale. And like their books -- ''A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,'' ''White Teeth'' and ''The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,'' respectively -- her ''Last Samurai'' is a sprawling, aggressively showy book with flashes of genius to keep it soaring. It is possible to recognize the hubris here without, like Ms. DeWitt's characters, being able to read that word in Greek or elaborately analyze its derivation. But it's also possible to be utterly delighted by this author's high-risk undertaking and her fresh, electrifying talent. ''The Last Samurai'' seemingly centers on the bond between Sibylla and her son, whom she meant to call Hasdrubal or Rabindranath or Fabius Cunctator before deciding that Steve or David might be an easier name for a boy to bear. But it's an exuberantly clever book that can in no way be mistaken for a standard mother-son story. As a linguist and a classicist, among her apparently countless other interests and avocations, Ms. DeWitt uses Kurosawa's ''Seven Samurai'' as a means of giving her book a mythic dimension. Because the boy, who wound up being called Ludo, does not know the identity of his father, and because Sibylla refuses to tell him, their obsessive habit of watching and discussing Kurosawa's male-bonding masterpiece becomes central to their lives. It gives the 11-year-old Ludo a model for how to undertake the search in London for father figures, even as it turns Ms. DeWitt's book into a display of what the film scholar Donald Richie has called Kurosawa's predominant theme: ''the education of the hero.'' What this elaborate premise may obscure is that ''The Last Samurai,'' in its coolly cerebral way, is so much fun. Anything is possible on Ms. DeWitt's pages, from eye-chart-like typographical escapades to streams of numbers being toyed with by Ludo to learning how the subtitles of ''Seven Samurai'' sanitize its real dialogue. (''What a wonderful language, said Sib, ''they seem to have toned it down quite a bit for the subtitles. I knew 'Japanese Street Slang' was a bargain at $:6.88.'') Along the way, the reader will also learn the Icelandic word for seal meat and the precise way (''heptakaiogdoekontapodal'') to indicate an 87-legged spider, which is a concept Ludo comes up with after he sketches an 88-legged one and imagines that it got into a fight and lost a leg. Ms. DeWitt, an American who seems to have written this book as if her life depended on it and poured vast reserves of inquiring intelligence into the process, saves her most fanciful efforts for presenting potential candidates for the role of Ludo's father. She spins enchantingly surreal stories about the overrated artist, the Nobel laureate, the foreign correspondent and the bogus consul (''When asked why he had impersonated a member of the Belgian diplomatic corps he had replied: Well, someone had to'') on the short list of candidates whom Ludo sequentially discovers. But even as the son looks for a masculine ideal, the question of paternity is settled early on, as Sibylla describes her meeting with a writer whose work is so awful that she feels the need to shield Ludo from it. She went to bed with him mostly to make him stop talking and says his writing is ''like the Percy Faith Orchestra playing 'Satisfaction.' '' One day, Sibylla introduces Ludo to some sentimental, really bad writing and really bad art, then announces: ''You will not be ready to know your father until you can see what's wrong with these things.'' ''When will that be?'' the boy asks. ''I don't know,'' replies his mother. ''Millions of people have gone to the grave admiring them.'' Ms. DeWitt herself, on the other hand, warrants admiration for impeccably good reason.