My friend and I have created this running joke about a blockbuster movie in which the hero — a slothful young man with a mysteriously absent father — spends every day at a Starbucks, dutifully banging out a few sentences of his unfinished novel. One day the barista spells his name wrong on a cup, but it’s actually a cryptic message, and soon a wall in the bathroom is sliding open to reveal a hidden passageway. Our hero descends beneath the Starbucks into a bustling, technologically sophisticated control room where, for centuries, a secret cabal of the greatest writers on Earth has been using its literary chops to save humanity from all sorts of apocalyptic threats. Of course the hero’s father belonged to this cabal, and of course there’s an alien tyrant determined to invade Earth and muck up its entire public library system or whatever, and of course our hero wipes the muffin crumbs off his t-shirt and ends up saving us all from annihilation — but most importantly he learns a lot about the craft of writing.
In a way, that story has already been done. Have you read The Secret History by Donna Tartt? It’s about gifted college students who become so passionately intellectual that they have no choice but to start killing each other, and it captivated me when I first read it. Or maybe you read Special Topics in Calamity Physics, in which a painfully brilliant student solves an elaborate murder mystery using her exceptional skills in the humanities? Or The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, which bravely explores how tragic and meaningful life can be when you’re a terribly erudite chimp? Or the warehouse of knowledge porn known as Wittgenstein’s Mistress?
And then we have The Last Samurai by Helen Dewitt. I’ll tell you right now that I love this book, but I feel helpless to love it, and I wonder if loving it makes me a bad person.
This is what happens in The Last Samurai. Sibylla, a devastatingly smart and preternaturally rational young woman from America, goes to a party in London and meets a famous writer whose style she abhors, comparing it to Liberace’s. Disappointingly, she sleeps with him. (“I was still drunk, and I was still trying to think of things I could do without being unpardonably rude. Well, I thought, I could sleep with him without being rude.”) She ends up raising a child, Ludo, who can memorize The Iliad and teach himself foreign languages at age five. Ludo would be the crowning achievement of any comfortably situated Park Slope mom, but Sibylla, who struggles to pay the bills by transcribing old issues of magazines, can barely feed Ludo’s appetite for knowledge. She often resorts to playing an old tape of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, hoping it will provide Ludo with some admirable male role models. Ludo begs to know his father’s identity. Sibylla won’t tell him.
After his 11th birthday, Ludo finds a clue that leads him — secretly, without Sibylla’s help — to “Liberace.” But when he sees that Liberace is a hack, and that telling him the truth won’t do any good, Ludo keeps the big revelation about his parentage to himself. “If we fought with real swords I would kill him,” he thinks, quoting one of his favorite lines from Seven Samurai. Instead, Ludo takes off on other journeys throughout London, searching for surrogate father figures — a brilliant linguist who traveled the world, a charismatic physicist with a popular TV show, a reclusive millionaire painter. When Ludo finds them, he lies and says he’s their son. “A good samurai will parry the blow.” Hilariously, most of them believe it — it seems that “great men” have a tendency to sleep around. As the father figures try to explain themselves and dish out advice to their not-quite son, Ludo gains a variety of perspectives on how he might conduct his own life.
What worries me about The Last Samurai is how exceptional Sibylla and Ludo are, and how quickly I find myself identifying with them.
Sibylla’s work as an underpaid transcriber sounds backbreaking. She sits at a typewriter in a small London flat (which is so poorly heated that in winter she and Ludo ride the tube to stay warm) and labors for 36 hours at a stretch to preserve garbage publications like Advanced Angling, British Home Decorator and The Poodle Breeder for posterity. Meanwhile she has to ignore the emotional development of her absolute prodigy of a son because she’s too busy earning money to keep them alive. But when I read this, I’m happy! Because I feel like I’ve been there. Haven’t we all — especially those of us with a passion for language and typing — felt like a wage slave at some point, like an unheralded maestro, and doesn’t that memory lodge itself in our identities and become a part of who we are? So I read this heartbreaking passage about a single mother suffering in her cold London flat and I feel a vicarious joy, as if Helen DeWitt “gets” me.
And when Ludo takes his magnificent brain to public school for the first time, and discovers the exquisite agony of being misunderstood by a world of simpletons, I feel like Helen DeWitt “gets” me.
And when The Last Samurai jokes about the nobility of linguistics and the dreariness of Oxford University Press, then I really feel like Helen DeWitt “gets” me, because I used to be the linguistics editor at Oxford University Press.
The jacket copy for the new edition of The Last Samurai makes a big fuss about how, when the book was originally released in 2000, the publisher declared it was “destined to become a cult classic.” To which Garth Risk Hallberg replied, “Why not just, ‘destined to become a classic?’” By releasing this new edition, New Directions seems to be signaling that we’re ready to erase the word “cult” from the book’s reputation.
But I’m not so sure. I feel helpless to love The Last Samurai because it “gets” me. But how many other people can say that? How many linguistics editors are there at Oxford University Press? How many people, when they read about a devastatingly smart and coldly rational white woman who tells her tragically brilliant son that she would have committed suicide by now if not for the fact that she feels obligated to raise him, will smile and quietly rejoice because this is exactly the type of misfit they fancy themselves to be? Who is foolish enough to admit that they fantasize about being oppressed by their own superior intellect?
I think there’s something shameful about loving The Last Samurai. The novel gratifies the individual egos of a very specific type of reader. And isn’t that what a cult classic is — a book that people love, but only for themselves?
“A good samurai will parry the blow.”
What’s so damning about knowledge porn is that it’s often written with the same basic level of intelligence as any other work of mainstream literary fiction. Which ruins the whole premise! Here is a paragraph from Special Topics in Calamity Physics:
Dad picked up women the way certain wool pants can’t help but pick up lint. For years, I had a nickname for them, though I feel a little guilty using it now: June Bugs (see “Figeater Beetle,” Ordinary Insects, Vol. 24).
So we have a lamestream analogy about pants gathering lint, followed by a completely invented bit of “scholarship” that leads the reader nowhere but is meant to indicate that the narrator is actually brilliant. This is not what a smart person sounds like. You can’t footnote a cliché and call it genius. (Remind me to yell at you about the magician-heist movie Now You See Me and its ridiculously named sequel, Now You See Me 2, which commit the same infuriating error on a massive Hollywood scale.)
Fortunately for us, The Last Samurai is better than that. It’s a rare work of knowledge porn that actually conveys knowledge. Flip through the book and the first thing you’ll notice is Greek writing, or Japanese writing, or impossibly long strings of numbers. As Ludo studies, DeWitt folds his material into the text, and a patient reader will learn that, in Japanese, JIN is an exogenous Chinese lexeme, while hito is an indigenous Japanese lexeme; that in E.V. Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey (yes, it’s a real thing), Odysseus calls his companions “lads;” and that in the sum of any sequence n + (n+1) + (n+2) + (n+3) etc. is simply half of the sum of the sequence added to itself backwards. DeWitt doesn’t just tell us her characters are smart; she builds the truth of that assertion into the book, and she makes us smarter for reading it.
As a stylist, too, DeWitt stands above most peddlers of knowledge porn. Both Sibylla and Ludo, as narrators, pour forth in a primly accurate voice that often gives way to sardonic or slapstick humor. Sibylla marvels at the cheesiness of a western movie that rips off Seven Samuai: “Not ONE but SEVEN tall men in tights — it’s simply MAGNIFICENT.” Unsure of what to say in the note she leaves for Liberace after sleeping with him, she writes several pages analyzing the The Iliad in the original Greek, and then realizes, “I still did not have something on the page that could be concluded with an airy Ciao.” At one point Ludo mentions that Sibylla dressed him up like a hunchback so they could sneak into an age-restricted screening of The Crying Game. It’s a frequently delightful book, zany in the same way that Nell Zink is zany, as we watch the narrator’s extraordinary intelligence run out from under her and trip against the common things in life.
During the five pages when Ludo confronts his father Liberace, I underlined everything they said because DeWitt’s use of dialogue — with innovative elisions and subtle shifts in POV — is masterful. Structurally the novel grows up and out, just like Ludo, grasping at new relationships and open-ended questions even as the story is ending.
So if The Last Samurai belongs to a genre of books that perpetuate a seductive fantasy about the nature of intelligence, then it’s the best example of that genre I’ve ever seen.
And let me tell you another thing I love about The Last Samurai. It blurs the line between biological kinship and intellectual mentorship in a way that feels strangely mature and matter-of-fact.
From Sibylla’s perspective, raising Ludo seems an awful lot like a horror movie. She gives birth to this accidental child whose rapid intellectual development suddenly takes priority over her own (just like her being born ruined her mother’s goal of developing as a musician). But the child prodigy is basically a sociopath until he grows up, and in the meantime she is still responsible for feeding him, cleaning him, and providing him with the raw materials that his life’s work — whatever it may be — will be built upon. This is the horror that all mothers experience, just ratcheted up a notch because this particular child is smarter than Isaac Newton and Noam Chomsky combined. And that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is how easily Sibylla might fail, how easily Ludo could become a monster, how easily she might fall into despair and lash out at her son: “A chittering Alien bursts from the breast to devour your child before your eyes.”
When your child is not just smart, but freakishly smart — as Ludo putzes around like a child, Sibylla refers to him drily as “The Phenomenon” — you have a moral and social imperative to raise him well. Throughout the novel, Sibylla suffers from boredom and heartache and poverty and suicidal thoughts, but she never stops trying to raise Ludo responsibly. She forces Ludo to read a film critic’s take on a lesser Kurosawa film about a judo champion, hoping to teach him that there is no terminal state of contentment at the end of the hero’s journey; that “a hero who actually becomes is tantamount to a villain.” As Ludo’s fiendishly pedestrian schoolteacher puts it, Ludo “has got to understand that there is more to life than how much you know.”
The dramatic tension at the heart of The Last Samurai is this question of whether Ludo will ever learn that there is more to life than knowledge porn. And whether we will, too.