Helen DeWitt


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




A prodigy searches for a father in Helen DeWitt’s first novel.


Genius went out, as a subject for novels, with the Romantics, and the problems of the very intelligent are not felt to be urgent in a populist age like ours. We are more anxious about what will happen to the uneducated and unqualified who will be superannuated by machines and become disaffected. So Helen DeWitt is taking risks in writing a fat novel about a highly educated single mother of a boy who may well be a young Mozart or an Einstein—or may, as she recognizes, be heading for the kind of nervous collapse produced by the hothouse education of John Stuart Mill. “The Last Samurai” (Talk Miramax; $24.95) is in fact a triumph—a genuinely new story, a genuinely new form, which has more to offer on every reading but is gripping from the beginning of the first. Sibylla is the daughter of brilliant American failures. Her father, a convinced Darwinian atheist, went to a bad theological college to please his minister father, missed a Harvard scholarship, was an expert gambler, and ended up running motels. Her mother was a brilliant mad musician whose immigrant Jewish father made all his brilliant mad musical children into accountants on the ground that only genius guaranteed success in music. Sibylla herself is an accomplished linguist, who believes that the American novel should be written in all languages, not just English; she gave up Oxford classics after spending fifty hours on a boring German text known to forty-nine other people in the world, and now earns a pittance in London by typing fish-breeding and pet-keeping magazines. Ludo, her son, was conceived during a one-night stand with a slick and successful travel writer whom she calls Liberace, as a comment on his style. He had a vulgar passion for Lord Leighton and bad art criticism. She went to bed with him because it was more bearable than the conversation. She is not a patient woman. Ludo picks up grammars—and math and physics and logic—from the age of three with terrifying intensity and ease, most convincingly dramatized. Sibylla teaches him—he makes her teach him—ancient Greek, Arabic, Icelandic, and Japanese. They watch Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” over and over. They travel around the Circle Line with a pushchair full of books and dictionaries. They do this to keep warm, as they cannot afford to heat the house. Ludo marks verb forms in the Odyssey with different-colored markers. Passersby make various crass remarks, about which Sibylla—not a patient woman—is waspish. Ludo learns and learns. He picks up street Japanese and is quicker at understanding the samurai than his mother. School is a comic and terrible failure. At this point, Ludo takes over the narrative from his mother. He develops from a precocious eight-year-old into a wise eleven-year-old. He desires to have a father, to know who his father is. Being a resourceful child, he finds out, and visits. He is dreadfully disappointed. Sibylla has written that she hopes with the samurai to have given him seventeen fathers—eight characters, eight actors, and Kurosawa. Kudo has secretly read her manuscript. He tells himself that a “good samurai will parry the blow” and sets out to invent or acquire a father, or trick one into acknowledging him. He visits seven—including a Nobel laureate, a great classicist, an investigative journalist, an artist, and a Japanese pianist whose ideas of perfection of performance and technique sit as hopelessly in the real world as Sibylla’s. All these fathers have stories, all gripping, all rapidly and lightly told, several including relationships with small boys from other cultures who are damaged, protected, and threatened. The ambition of this novel is large, and every reading reveals more subtleties. It is a novel about heredity and environment. Ludo (whose name has to do with play, with chance, with the aleatory) is clearly the genetic descendant of his gambling, musical, grammar-obsessed maternal family. He is equally clearly not the spiritual child of Liberace—except that he shows a surprising cunning and resourcefulness. The form of this novel both embodies and studies the tug between determinism and chance. Ludo’s maternal heredity is his fate, in a Darwinian sense. His genes determine his nature. His birth is the product of crude chance, or luck, bad or good. Necessary order and contingency coexist. There are patterns—math, grammars, and music—and there is the recurrent theme of gambling, the luck of the dice or of the cards, which is also a mathematical form, but one of hazard. The seven samurai are variations on a theme, and so are the chosen fathers—each with overlapping stories, each with alternative connections to Sibylla and her preoccupations, nature, and predicament. She and one of the best of the fathers are suicidal. Ludo is determined to save her if it can be decently done. He has learned from her to believe that suicide is a course of action we have a right to, usually. “The last Samurai” is also about heroism—the Japanese warriors, the Greek heroes, Malory’s perfect knights, and the heroes of the sagas. The new novel, exploring new representations of cause and effect, fate and choice, shifts interest from the Self, the character, to the story, the exemplary life. It also, characteristically, deploys the interlocking of many stories in a web, which makes chance begin to look like necessity. Is Ludo making his own fate or fulfilling it? I noticed on the second reading the beautiful symmetry of the fatherless boy reading the Odyssey going round and round the Circle line—the periplum, as Pound kept saying of the circle of the Mediterranean around which Odysseus journeyed in search of his wife and child. Pound is much to the point here, for Helen DeWitt’s novel is, like “The Cantos,” a peculiarly American bricolage of all cultures. It is not at all a politically correct multicultural object, nor is it the kind of pared-down international novel, like those of the early Ishiguro, that achieves its accessibility to all cultures by eschewing detail that refers densely to any particular one. It is a multilingual, multistoried, myriad-minded novel—a novel of the Internet age, where everyone has access to all grammars, all dictionaries, all information, where math and physics and philosophy and fairy tales hum across the same screen. I have a Japanese friend who describes “The Seven Samurai” as a Japanese Western (the ambiguity in the word “Western” is intentional), with faint disapproval. But Sibylla—like Helen DeWitt—wants to live in a world where Finnish mixes with Greek, and English is informed by Chinese. Kurosawa’s film is Japanese, and it is a kind of Western. “The Last Samurai” reminds me of another first novel I admired recently—David Mitchell’s “Ghostwritten,” which is also set in the whole world, also concerns both art and science, and is also constructed around coincidence, chance, and storytelling. The curious thing in both cases is that, though it is the ideas that drive the novels and, after the ideas, the elaborately constructed plot, the characters are more human, more simply important to the reader, than in many finely constructed, primarily psychological studies. They have the life and presence of characters in epics and tales. “The Last Samurai” is funny and tragic and intriguing and over the top and perfectly controlled. But it is also— in an ordinary and undeniable way—very moving. The voice of the child crying for more information, wrecking Sibylla’s work, rest, and thought process, is familiar to every mother, whatever the child is demanding. The love between the mother and son is clear, and complicated, and accurately felt. It is exciting for the future of the novel that a writer can do all the basic things readers need—from “Peter Pan” to the Odyssey, from “Bleak House” to “The Crying of Lot 49”—and do something new with the form of the tale itself.