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How Mark Twain Invented the Wild West

1. Huck Out West
The “Wild West” is ultimately a mythological creation, one filled with recognizable motifs: cowboys, 10-gallon hats, revolvers, horses, lassos, cacti, saloons, vast landscapes, and so on. It was the American answer to the European world of medieval chivalry, providing a stage for the stories of many great novelists and filmmakers of the past 150 years. To most people, the Wild West is synonymous with action and adventure, which is why a reimagining of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) set in the Wild West offered so much potential.

Robert Coover picks up where Mark Twain left off, telling of Huck’s experience immersed in the merciless American frontier. Coover’s Huck is certainly consistent with Twain’s: an enterprising, thoughtful youth whose good nature can leave him exposed to manipulation and danger. The author also takes naturally to the dialect of Huckleberry Finn, evoking the slack-jawed voices of the Midwest.

Ultimately, Huck Out West bores more than it entertains. There is no brilliant, overarching plotline; Coover’s narrative merely rambles along, following Huck’s aimless wanderings through America. The scenes of action, physical suffering, and gun-violence are so frequent that they quickly lose their force. In contrast, the best Western films and novels savor the drawn-out tension before an act of violence (think of the sensational five-minute showdown at the end of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly).

Coover populates his Western landscape with a rather lacklustre cast of characters. He inherits the brilliant Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but most of the surrounding individuals, save a few exceptions, feel like reflections of one another. They are stereotypical Wild West nomads, roaming the land with a penchant for violence.

Coover has moments of brilliance. His metaphors are sometimes wonderfully imaginative, like when Huck tells us that his “yallerness” (yellowness) had “begun to fade like fence paint in the sun.” There is no doubt that Coover completely understands and appreciates the dusty, expansive atmosphere of the Old West, but his intense focus on the atmosphere comes at the expense of a good plot.

Furthermore, although not many people notice or acknowledge it, there is already a piece of the Wild West in Twain’s writing.

2. Mark Twain’s Modern Cowboy
Revisiting Huckleberry Finn before reading Coover’s sequel, it became clear that the modern cowboy played by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood was born in the pages of Mark Twain. He deserves recognition in the timeline of the Wild West’s genesis, which places heavy emphasis on writers such as Zane Grey and Owen Wister and not enough on Twain.

It is commonly held that Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) was the first novel to establish the common features of popular culture’s cowboy. It offers us the gunslinging Lassiter as its hero, an expert shooter and horse rider clad in black. Lassiter’s blend of mysteriousness and masculinity, novel then but clichéd now, laid down the foundations for Hollywood’s cowboy hero. Lassiter actually helps to herd cattle, something John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, in fact, do very little of in their Western films. Riders of the Purple Sage is not a good novel, full of saccharine sentimentality and predictable heroic successes, but it is an important historical point in the Wild West’s development.

Novels about the American frontier previous to Grey’s bestseller lacked the Lassiter figure, the cowboy hero who commits violence with swagger and style. James Fenimore Cooper’s the Leatherstocking Tales series, which includes The Last of the Mohicans (1826), was certainly the first popular fiction to romanticize the frontier, but it lacked the kind of hero that Wayne and Eastwood would come to popularize. On the contrary, Cooper’s hero, Hawkeye, is a white man ultimately aspiring to be a Native American — the indigenous figure that would become the Wild West’s most popular villain.

Enter Twain. His claim to having created the first modern cowboy is borne out of only a short scene that occurs on the periphery of Finn’s story — a nugget of gold nestled in the middle of the book.

It is an altercation between a drunkard named Boggs and Colonel Sherburn. Remember it? I didn’t either. The scene reads like one from a 1950s Hollywood Western, the ones you find on television during working hours on weekdays. It is bursting with features that would become typical Wild West motifs. For instance, it begins with Boggs riding up to Sherburn’s property and demanding that he show himself:
Come out here, Sherburn! Come out and meet the man you’ve swindled
The confrontational language immediately suggests one thing: showdown. The two men meet one another before an audience of nervous townsfolk, another fixture of most Westerns. Eastwood’s proficiency with a pistol would be far less thrilling were it not for the gasps and guffaws of numerous spectators. Sherburn gives Boggs an ultimatum, demanding that he stop with his abuse before 1 p.m. or there’ll be hell to pay.

Think of that: Twain was only one hour away from predicting the “High Noon” ultimatum. The Wild West’s obsession with meetings at midday would have to come after Twain’s time. Sherburn talks to Boggs “mighty calm and slow,” preempting the steely coolness so essential to Hollywood’s cowboys.

Boggs fails to meet the terms of Sherburn’s ultimatum, and his murder is extremely histrionic. Sherburn emerges at 1 p.m. and “sings” out Boggs’s name, and the drunkard dies mid-plea: “O Lord, don’t shoot!” Twain exposes a predilection for sound effects, too, imbuing his prototype for the Wild West with a cinematic quality that is astonishingly prescient.
Bang! Goes the first shot…bang! goes the second one
Huckleberry Finn’s evident thrill in narrating this experience is clearly in fact Twain’s. Boggs dies “clawing at the air’” and then hits the ground “with his arms spread out.” His body writhes with that melodramatic gesturing typical of most of Wayne’s anonymous victims. Twain has Sherburn conclude his gunplay with a Hollywood swagger, glamorizing the violence and fashioning the modern Wild West cowboy. When Sherburn turns around “on his heels’”and walks away, it brought to mind Steve McQueen coolly swiveling around in The Magnificent Seven.

The conclusion of the scene is Twain at his most visionary. He recognises that the Wild West is an invention; a product of stories told again and again, until almost all fact is lost and only myth remains. Huckleberry Finn witnesses the first stage in this process of repeated retellings. The townsfolk are instantly captivated by what they have seen, and one man feels compelled to reenact it. Twain sees the theatrical potential in the genre he helped to create.
The man stood up straight and stiff where Sherburn had stood…and sung out ‘Boggs!’, and then fetched his cane down slow to a level, and says ‘Bang!’, staggered backwards, says ‘Bang!’ again, and fell down flat on his back…the people that had seen the thing said he done it perfect.
Twain also predicts Hollywood’s penchant for retelling its own stories. The relatively recent Western films 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and True Grit (2010) were both remakes of earlier films, which were in turn adaptations of novels. Of course in September we had The Magnificent Seven, a reimagining of the 1950s blockbuster that was in fact based on the Japanese film Seven Samurai.

The Boggs-Sherburn scene is little longer than a couple of pages, but it precedes Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage by 28 years. Sherburn, in fact, is the first Lassiter. Twain’s novel sold tremendously well; his influence upon the development of the Wild West, even through this short scene, should not be understated. He not only wrote one of the “Great American Novels,” but also provided a building block for one of the great American industries.

It seems likely that Coover saw the germ of the Wild West in Twain’s original, but he allows it to grow until it looms too large over his continuation of Huck’s story. This iconoclastic experiment comes at a cost.

What I Learned on My Debut Book Tour From the Books I Read Along the Way

In her collection of essays and talks The Wave in the Mind, Ursula K. Le Guin wonders why we have book tours at all. “It wasn’t until the seventies, I think, that publishers realized they could sell more books by sending their author to two hundred cities in eight days to sign them,” she told a Women in Language conference in 1998. “So now here in Berkeley you have Black Oak and Cody’s, and we in Portland have Powell’s and the Looking Glass, and Seattle has Elliot Bay Books running two readings a day every day of the week and people come.”

I packed The Wave in the Mind into my luggage as I set out from Britain for North America. Not least because I’d be visiting Portland, Ore., Le Guin’s home city; and not only because 35 percent minimum of my carry-on is reading material; but as an unknown British writer, I needed to holdfast to Le Guin’s promise for my 12-events-in-seven-cities first book tour: people come!

I hoped my other reading would be as encouraging: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, and, on the recommendation of a friend, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. I’d pick up others along the way. All would be serendipitous. I’m going to learn from them not only how to handle a book tour better, but how to be better, fully stop.

Lantern Books, Brooklyn, N.Y.
“This is how I want to spend my life,” writes Gilbert in Big Magic, “collaborating to the best of my ability with forces of inspiration that I can neither see, nor prove, nor command, nor understand.”

This was how I wanted to spend my life, too—as a published author. I’d come to Brooklyn for the launch of my debut, The Pig in Thin Air. The event marked a psychological “end” to writing the book; despite having done publicity events in the U.K., New York provided closure on the book’s making. Lesson one, perhaps: writing a book is a desperately personal thing, and only you know when it’s “finished.” I needed a public introduction for that. I needed that moment to be recognized.

Pig is my first published book. I’ve always written: journalism, non-fiction, short stories, flash fiction, and I teach writing too. I have a mob of novels complaining bitterly of unfinished business from their various stashes. Pig came after a 2014 tour of North America working with organizations and individuals changing our species’ relationship to nonhuman animals. I approached Lantern Books with an idea based on this trip: a carnivore-to-vegan literary memoir, and a study of how we come closer to the animals we eat. The publisher was keen. I wrote the book in six months. Another nine of rewriting, copy editing, and proofing later, and Pig was published.

Then the hard work began. If you’re Thomas Merton, it’s okay if your books “stand outside all processes of production, marketing, consumption, and destruction.” For the rest of us, there are sales to make. A publisher to please. It means months of emails, organizing events. It means the people at Powell’s and Elliot Bay saying, “We’ve got Murakami that night…what did you say your name was?” It means more time on social media than is good for any writer, in an attempt to secure an audience.

I’ve got an audience in Brooklyn. Readers, artists, wine buyers, magazine editors. My introduction is conducted by my publisher. I calm my nerves (will I read well?; answer clearly?) by recalling Big Magic’s closing exhortation: “we did not come all this great distance, and make all this great effort, only to miss the party at the last moment.”

On the face of it, you couldn’t get two more different books, or writers, than myself and Gilbert; Pig, and Big Magic. But in other ways I couldn’t have chosen (okay, it was a recommendation) a better book as company. Before Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert was a writer without fame or fortune. She had three well-received books, and still worked full-time elsewhere. But like Gilbert, “my intention was to spend my entire life in communion with writing” and that meant finding a way to be the professional writer; maybe even making money from it. Because I was not making any money from this tour. Lesson two: in Gilbert’s words, “I became my own patron” to make this tour happen. Even mid-list authors at big publishing houses are expected to organize, and usually pay for, their promotion and travel. And that’s okay.

Lesson three: opening nights will always be nerve-wracking. But that’s okay too. The evening is full of goodwill and good sales and good food and fireflies and my new shoes start to break in; and, yeah, I’ve finally achieved something I’ve dreamt of for 35 years. I count myself lucky; a little bit of big magic has found its way to my door.

Various Locations, Including a Chicken Slaughterhouse, Toronto
The last two chapters of Pig tell the story of my involvement with the Save Movement, a group advocating for the end of the exploitation of nonhuman animals, which holds regular vigils to bear witness to the vast numbers of animals killed every day. Pig is one of the first published accounts of this movement, and it’s important for me to return and support their work; okay, as well as sell my books.

On the flight from New York I read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. As a vegan writer, there are few representations of veganism or vegetarianism in literature; I want to study them, to see how we come across. Pig is a vegan memoir; in my fictional writing, also, I experiment with vegan characters to explore difference, especially around toxic masculinities (the macho need for meat). The Vegetarian was—or should have been—the ideal book to read before hosting a potluck, reading to a crowd outside a slaughterhouse, and giving a talk to activists at the University of Toronto.

But The Vegetarian is a disappointing book (Jon Yargo and I will have to disagree on this one). The emotions are “vague” and “almost.” The female protagonist is passive; we hear her voice only through italicized fragments or the eyes of of other people. As Kate Tempest says, “there’s a temptation to create passive female characters. It’s a narrative trap set up by the male standard that you’ve got to fight. I don’t know why I fell into it. I don’t even know any passive women!” It’s easy to see what Kang has tried to do by exploring the ways in which male culture objectifies women—but do you do that by again objectifying a woman?

But The Vegetarian was the right book to read for Toronto. It made me observe more closely the active (not passive) and present (not withdrawn) women who lead the advocacy movement in the city. The vigils are organized and run mainly by women. There are men participating, but the Save movement is led and shaped by proactive, intelligent, and compassionate women. So across my three events, I prioritize reading the sections that speak to the ways in which feminist ethical thought has shaped my work. That feels the right thing to do for this white, British, middle-class man with a book in his hand.

I need a new book for travelling. My host Lorena, who runs healing circles for those who attend the vigils, tells me about a second-hand store 10 minutes walk away: Circus Books & Music. Within half an hour I’ve got four new titles, including The Beluga Café by Pacific Northwest writer Jim Nollman, a book that will come in handy later.

The FARM Animal Rights Conference, Los Angeles
Four days in a hotel. I’m here to “work the room” and promote Pig to hundreds of animal-loving attendees as well as help out on the Lantern Books table, and do my first official signing. Conferences can be good places to sell your book if the theme is aligned. But four days? That’s a lot of “working the room” for a writer who prefers early nights.

By Day Three and the awards dinner it’s all a bit much. I’ve done my “meet the writer” signing. I need time out. I get caught reading a novel at the bar while the other 1,700 delegates are, mostly, attending the gala. At least the novel is Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, the most well-known fiction to explore our relationship with the animals we eat. The only “appropriate way and indeed the only way in which to absorb [the novel],” says Costello, “is in silence and in solitude.” It’s too cramped in the gala; too many people; and too much weird singing. For an introvert writer, a book tour is a many-peopled challenge. And the conferences at which our books might sell are one long, tiring, smiling engagement.

A Hollywood music producer comes over and starts chatting. This is the type of contact I should be cultivating, says my promotional brain; she produced the sound for the new advocacy film Unity. She’s attractive, too. “Does the mind by nature prefer sensation to ideas; the tangible to the abstract?” asks Coetzee of Elizabeth Costello’s son as he lies in bed with a woman he’s just met at…okay, a conference (albeit one at which his mother, not he, is the invited writer). Well, tonight the mind prefers the ideas, the abstract. I need quietude; to read.

As soon as I say this, the music producer admits she’s overwhelmed by all the people too. She squats down—I don’t ask her to sit—and we talk about the need for creative solitude. I didn’t expect there to be much on this tour—but this little? Another lesson: you cannot, as Le Guin says, be both a writer and a person on the book tour. “People line up to ‘meet the writer,’ not realizing this is impossible,” she continues. “Nobody can be a writer during a book tour […] All their admirers can meet is the person—who has a lot in common with, but is not, the writer. Maybe duller, maybe older, maybe meaner.” Right then, probably all three.

Writers live with this contradiction. We read in solitude, and we write in solitude. But in between, we need to make connections, and it can be a trial, a judgement. We do it as person or writer (or both); and yet who this I, this you, this writer/person is, is anybody’s guess. Perhaps, as Le Guin says, the book tour “recovers for us the social act.” It brings us out into the world again. It might feel like the gates of hell, but it is also a doorway to other people.

Phinney Books, Greenwood, Seattle, Wash.
The dreaded fear on every tour is, of course, that no one will turn up. Well, not no one. That would be okay; you slink off with only the bookseller’s disdainful smile and a few hours saved (nothing more welcome than a cancelled social engagement). But if two people and a dog turn up, you have to sit through the embarrassment and shame that they know that you know that hardly anyone came out for you. And that despite your author-status, in this town, on this night, you’re still a nobody. That smarts.

Apparently there’s an anthology about book reading failures. I cannot find it, and perhaps the included writers have thought better and sought injunctions to have it censored. Or maybe it’s that, as Gilbert says in Big Magic, failure is not what it seems to be. According to the acclaimed Anne Enright, “failure is what writers do.”

Tell that to a writer waiting for a crowd to arrive on a warm, sunny evening in Seattle. Warm and sunny means people don’t want to come inside. Great.

I go onto social media to seek advice from fellow writers. The best is from ethicist Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat. “Don’t judge by numbers. Give those two people (and the dog) everything that you’d give a larger crowd. Then you know you haven’t let them down. Or yourself.”

And so that’s what I do. Seattle is my smallest event. But there are some people, including a friend, and including a woman from the mid-sized non-profit Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine, who happens to be in town. She buys a book, and is generous in her praise of the talk. And yet that isn’t the magic. About halfway through, two young girls (and a dog! called Fenway) slip in at the back. When the questions begin, one of the girls shares her story: she was diagnosed as diabetic, and was on her way to losing her sight and having a foot amputated. But she adopted a vegan diet, recovered her sight and saved her foot. She’s still diabetic, but her health is massively improved.

I understand that—while it is no panacea or cure-all—vegan food practices are healthier for humans, and the only way to feed a planet of nine billion. Others in the audience give the girl incredulous looks. But the woman from PCRM corroborates her story with direct reference to medical research.

Then I understand: this event isn’t for me. I didn’t organize it to sell books. I organized it so this young woman could have her story validated by the woman from PCRM, who she would never have met otherwise. And I learn this lesson well: you don’t write the book for yourself. Once it’s published, it’s not yours. It’s theirs.

Before I leave, I ask Tom the bookseller (and author of A Reader’s Book of Days, essential desktop material for all writers) what he’d recommend. He puts in my hands The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt.

“It’s an old book, but reissued,” he says. “It’s my favorite right now.”

“Okay, then I’ll take it,” I say, equally unequivocally.

I’m full of relief the evening is over, eager to settle up and have a drink at a bar. So eager in fact that I trade the sale of three Pigs for which Tom has taken the money, for The Last Samurai. This is a learning in itself: that getting out of the bookstore with your profit can be an escape act—not because of the bookseller, but because of a) the relief of selling any at all; and b) what else do you do with cash in a bookstore?

So I leave two bucks down, and four copies of Pig heavier, taking back some advances I’d sent ahead. I start reading The Last Samurai that night. It’s a sublimely written tale of the life of Ludovic, a child genius, and his mother Sybilla, that explores the limits of genius (or knowledge porn, as Brian Hurley puts it) through Ludo’s search for his father, told through his prodigious learning—dozens of languages, engineering, history, literature, film. All this is sieved through their mother-and-son obsession with Akira Kurosawa’s film Seven Samurai

It’s only now that I wonder if my fear of the low turnout and the, well, actual low turnout, was on Tom’s mind as he recommended The Last Samurai. In the last pages, when Ludo’s narrative arc has come to its end, he meets another genius, a pianist his mother once took him to see in concert. This pianist cannot play concerts any longer because of his unconventional and noncommercial approach. Their discussion turns to what art is worth making and how to put it into the world.  That is, even if there are only five people in the world who will buy the pianist’s CD (my book) but they are the type of person who will buy his CD (my book) and get off their train (path in life) to work for a sculptor in Paris (challenge themselves and do something amazing)…does he (me) need 10,000 people to buy his CD (my book)? Does he (I) need 1,000 people at his concert (my reading)?

Or just the five people (and dog!) that matter? Discuss.

Village Books, Bellingham, Wash.
Or, let’s talk about fathers. Jim Nollman’s The Beluga Café is an enjoyable book. Considering it was published in 2002, it was weird how often it turned up on shelves during my tour. Perhaps the most magical element is that, for an adventure with “art, music and whales in the far North” the artist-adventurers never actually see any whales. There’s a hint of this when Nollman quotes Rainer Maria Rilke: “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.” But it’s a good book for touring the Pacific Northwest. It’s a story of the clash of cultures between Western colonial whites and the Inuit. It would be a lifesaver during the reading at Village Books.

I’d fallen on a successful pattern for book readings of less than 20 people. I’d introduce how I wrote Pig, then read for 10 to 15 minutes and open it up to the audience to hear their stories, before reading another section. I ask Clarissa, a local vegan who’d given me support on Twitter in generating interest for the event, to share her story. Then I open it up to the wider audience; a man in his ’60s puts up his hand.

“So, you, as a vejjan [sic]” he says to me, “what do you think about the Native Americans hunting whales?”

I’d wanted the moment to be a sharing of stories, not Q&A, and whales hadn’t featured; but okay, I’d read Nollman so I was prepared. No, I’m not another white British colonialist telling the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest they can’t hunt whale. But for myself, as for Jim Nollman and his companions, I just don’t believe people can “own” whales.

It settles him. The conversation continues, I read another section, and then there’s the Q&A. The troublemaker raises his hand.

I often read from the first half of Pig, a memoir of growing up as a meat eater, and the family consternation at my attempts to go vegetarian. So I talk about growing up, and explain how my father is/was an alcoholic, and in 2008 went on a bender and went missing—and remains missing. I read this bit, admitting that it’s also for affect. I want to move people with my writing; and this bit moves people.

I never guessed anyone would actually ask me about it.

“So can you explain the relevance of your missing father to this book?”

Later, a friend says she wanted to hug me (and slug the guy). But wasn’t this why I’d written the book? To answer that question: not for him, but for myself?

I say that toxic masculinity is a major global problem; the perverse need for men to dominate others, to own or consume their flesh, is wrecking our world. And maybe having a father whom I rebelled against at such an early age, who left my mother when I was two, providing my sister and I with a childhood shaped more by women who cared and less by men who drank, made me feel this way. Staring down the crises we face—climate change, deforestation, water pollution, our common health problems, gender inequality, the suffering of other species—calls for care and interdependence, not more toxic machismo.

Another guy in the crowd thanks me for what I’ve said, and shares his own story. After the reading is over, the troublemaker comes up.

“You know, I rescue those little black and red ladybugs from my car windscreen and put them into the grass,” he says. “So maybe I’m a little bit vejjan too.”

Hey, maybe. Isn’t that a start?

Silently I thank Jim Nollman and his sober failure in the Arctic, a failure that, as a writer and artist, he suffered, but was able to blend into a humble story of adventure and commitment. “Few professionals make their livings describing internal demons,” writes Nollman. “These professionals have decided that the internal story must be excised from their documentaries and non-fiction accounts, best left to novelists and feature-film writers to invent. What is it? Sissy? Too difficult? Too personal? Or is it just deemed uninteresting?”

Too difficult? Too personal? I don’t know. What I do know is I’m glad I wrote that part about my father. I’m glad I read it out. And I’m glad I was asked that question.

Portland, Ore., Vancouver, B.C., the End
There are two more stops on the tour—Portland and Vancouver, B.C., and five more lunches and readings and dinners and signings, including a talk in a church to 150 people, which emphasizes the lessons I’ve learnt. Not least of these is that having locals on the ground organizing and supporting makes the event go swimmingly. So what practical things have I learnt for the next tour?

two people and a dog is okay, too—and sometimes, better
invitation is better than confrontation
rely on social media only so far
don’t think that you’ll get downtime in between events
being professional counts; those sore shoes, trimmed nails, suit jacket all go towards the impression you leave on the individuals who turn up

I may have laid down on the floor of an Airbnb apartment and cried that I did not want to get up and travel for another six hours to do it all again. But I did get up. I did do it all again. And what I earned from doing that will not be taken away easily.

What did I earn? Freedom. Freedom from the fear that your work doesn’t count. It counts. Even if it’s for the five people who buy your book, but those five people, as Ludo says, cross the bridge, take a train, and go to work for a famous sculptor (or some similarly beautiful thing) because they read your book (or listened to your CD).

“The most ancient, most urgent function of words,” writes Le Guin, is “to form for us ‘mental representations of things not actually present,’ so that we can form a judgment of what world we live in and where we might be going in it, what we can celebrate, what we must fear.”

We create books or write essays and invest in the infrastructure around that writing; we put it into people’s hands and ask them to read, or listen. This is an auxiliary but no less essential part of the writer’s craft. It is a hard slog; there is little downtime in the downtime. But the joy of meeting people and having them hear your words; the emails and reviews that emerge from the ether; the connections made between people who ‘get’ the same mental representation that you do… All this means that maybe you’ve given them something to think about, and that changes them.

And remember this: you will never have a first book tour again.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Knowledge Porn: On Helen DeWitt’s ‘The Last Samurai’

1.
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.

2.
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.

3.
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?

4.

“A good samurai will parry the blow.”

5.
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.

6.
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.

Surprise Me!

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