The publishing industry is famously one of the most transparently corrupt and cronyist industries in the United States, regularly giving large advances to authors who lack the ability to plot a novel, to create characters recognizable as persons, or to write more than two consecutive sentences of passable English prose. Entrenched racist and sexist standards consistently demand that women and people of color aim at what publishers call “authenticity” and what people who have given it 10 seconds’ thought call “a set of racist and misogynist constraints on the acceptable range of experiences for women and people of color.” On top of this, the relentless pursuit of profit in a shrinking print market breeds an aesthetic conservatism that makes the entire industry institutionally hostile to formally experimental novels in which typography and the visual relation of words to other words play a role. (One of my favorite children’s novels, Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, is about a boy reading a book, and it originally printed the boy’s narrative and the book’s narrative in two different colors of type. This edition is now quite difficult to find, and so I am forced to hang on to the copy that I checked out from my middle school library and forgot to return.) The combination of these factors presents a seemingly insurmountable difficulty for women or minority authors who want to publish difficult, formally challenging work.
It’s a small miracle, then, that Helen DeWitt’s 2000 novel The Last Samurai was ever published at all, and its publication by a very small press was doubly tragic, because in 2003 an unrelated film of the same name starring Tom Cruise buried this remarkable book in search engine results. I think that it’s probably the best Anglophone novel of the 21st century so far (though I have not read all of them), and I am not alone. What I continue to find so beautiful about The Last Samurai is that despite its obvious formal modernism—among other things, the novel does not use quotation marks, forcing attentive reading to distinguish between narrative and dialogue, and in one memorable scene the flow of thought and narrative is disrupted on the page by the increasing volume and text size of a child’s exuberant attempts to count to 100 in ancient Greek—the novel invites its readers to learn how to read it, to acquaint themselves with just enough of what the narrators talk about that the boundaries of what readers could know or might know begin to stretch further out toward the horizon.
The idea of intellectual potential, of what might be but isn’t—or what might have been but never was—lies close to the novel’s heart. The first narrator is Sibylla, an American woman who faked her way into Oxford for her undergraduate studies and stayed on for a doctorate in classical philology. She is the daughter of two brilliant but stunted people: her father had earned a full scholarship to Harvard, but his minister father convinced him to give the seminary a chance, and his total disinterest in classes at the third-rate seminary that admitted him resulted in mediocre grades and the forfeiture of his Harvard scholarship. Her mother, meanwhile, was a brilliant violinist whose perfectionist father would not allow her to study to become a professional musician, simply because she would not be the best in the world. Sibylla’s successfully conning her way into Oxford is, then, a kind of vengeance on the supposedly meritocratic system in which both her parents were, by any measure, “qualified” to advance but failed, for ludicrous reasons entirely outside their control. Sibylla, too, was failed in the end by the system, having dropped out of her doctoral studies from boredom and taken a job in London digitizing the text of old print magazine articles.
There is a problem here, which is that Sibylla is plainly brilliant, and not in an “impress people at cocktail parties” superficial way, but possessed of an intellellect that cuts straight to the core of problems with almost frightening ease and precision. Reading her narration gives the sense of seeing into the mind of someone who has thought far longer and more deeply than the reader about any number of questions, and the novel could very easily become the story of a singular genius unjustly denied her due by society. But Sibylla herself is far too perceptive to expect justice from an arbitrary world, and she observes this in her first job as a secretary for a small publishing house:
It had an English dictionary that had first come out in 1812 and had been through nine or ten editions and sold well, and a range of technical dictionaries for native speakers of various other languages that sold moderately well, and a superb dictionary of literary Bengali which was full of illustrative material and had no rival and hardly sold at all. It had a two-volume history of sugar, and a three-volume survey of London doorknockers (supplement in preparation), and various other books which gradually built up a following by word of mouth. I did not want to be a secretary & I did not want to get into publishing, but I did not want to go back to the States.
There is no logic to this, just as there is no logic to Sibylla’s quite dire poverty. Nor is there an easy rationale behind her getting pregnant after a one-night stand with “a man who’d learned to write before he’d learned to think, a man who threw out logical fallacies like tacks behind a getaway car, and he always always always got away.” But pregnant she is, and a mother she becomes, and shortly thereafter with the business of raising and educating a child she must contend.
It is primarily through the boy Ludo’s education that the novel’s vision for human creative capacity unfolds itself. Sibylla is not a normal woman and does not take anything like a normal approach to teaching her son. For one thing, she still needs to work, and so her strategy is in part one of desperation: she allows his intellectual curiosity unlimited scope and does her best to satisfy it, reasoning that if he’s curious about the ancient Greek books on her shelves, the task of actually learning Greek will keep him sufficiently occupied that she’ll be able to work and keep their rent paid. Beginning by teaching him (and the reader) the alphabet and finding words for him to color in, we soon find Ludo on the cusp of his sixth birthday about to finish the last book of the Odyssey in addition to literary selections in Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew, eager to finish them all so that Sibylla will teach him Japanese.
The Japanese is quite important, because Sibylla and Ludo spend much of their free time at home rewatching a video cassette tape of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, one of the masterpieces of modern Japanese cinema. For Sibylla it represents a great artist at the peak of his craft, making full use of the available tools of that craft; it also, in her imagination, more than compensates for her having to raise Ludo by herself, since instead of a single male role model he now has 17 (the seven samurai, the peasant boy, the actors who play each of them, and Kurosawa himself). Throughout both Sibylla’s and Ludo’s narration, the same film scenes replay themselves, narrated in the same words, asking the reader to consider how the same fragments of art can strike us differently in different contexts. They also confront us with an artist pushing up against the limits of narrative, inviting us to see what might be possible beyond those limits.
And what tremendous possibilities they are, for Sibylla imagines a development of literature that would raise it to the same technical levels as painting or music, in a passage that goads the imagination like a horsefly:
…it is closer to the truth that a painter would think of the surface he wanted in a painting and the kind of light and the lines and the relations of colours and be attracted to painting objects that could be represented in a painting with those properties. In the same way a composer does not for the most part think that he would like to imitate this or that sound—he thinks that he wants the texture of a piano with a violin, or a piano with a cello, or four stringed instruments or six, or a symphony orchestra; he thinks of relations of notes.
This was all commonplace and banal to a painter or musician, and yet the languages of the world seemed like little heaps of blue and red and yellow powder which had never been used—but if a book just used them so that the English spoke English & the Italians Italian that would be as stupid as saying use yellow for the sun because the sun is yellow…Perhaps a writer would think of the monosyllables and lack of grammatical inflection in Chinese, and of how this would sound lovely next to lovely long Finnish words all double letters and long vowels in 14 cases or lovely Hungarian all prefixes suffixes, & having first thought of this would then think of some story about Hungarians or Finns or Chinese.
It’s a frankly astonishing vision, and what makes it all the more astonishing is that in DeWitt’s hands it seems genuinely possible. After her novel has taught its readers to read ancient Greek, words that were once opaque become merely another aesthetic choice that she makes, and we begin to see glimpses of the literature that might be, that we might ourselves enjoy if only we had time to learn to read it.
Because that, really is what we all need: the time to learn and an attentive teacher. When the initial formal difficulty of the novel has taught us to read it, we can see this diamond pillar of conviction holding up DeWitt’s entire picture of the world. Ludo’s breathtaking achievements are the culmination of a long family history of being failed by the system: Sibylla, with her sure knowledge of what thwarted potential is like, is determined not to stymie her son’s. But where does his potential come from? What makes him special? His father is an ass and a charlatan, so despite Sibylla’s fearsome intelligence, there’s no reason to think Ludo will be particularly brilliant on genetic grounds. The great unknown here is why, and the novel refuses to give us an answer. Instead, it shows us a family of people whose curiosity and potential were stymied, until finally one of them is not, culminating in a scene in which Ludo, all of 10 years old, begins to understand the spoken Japanese in The Seven Samurai, correcting the overly formal and conservative subtitles for his mother and thereby adding an entire new dimension to Sibylla’s experience of a film she knows by heart.
As Ludo grows, the reader is treated to snippets of his diary, until, at age 11, he takes over the narrative. His main concern is the identity of his father, and once he learns that the man is worthless, he begins the search for a new one; he does this because he wants someone in his life whom he can openly admire. Sibylla is not such a person, because she refuses to let herself be seen as such. Her work, done to provide for herself and Ludo, is alienating and mind-numbing, and Ludo’s growing independence causes her to treat him more and more as a small and somewhat naïve equal; this in turn exacerbates Sibylla’s already profound depression. She has not suddenly become a sentimental mother, but the task of raising Ludo did certainly keep her from boredom, and his increased ability to amuse and educate himself leave her with little to do during the day except work and try to amuse herself with her miniscule financial resources. Her discussions of suicide become more frequent.
One of the most persistent and disturbing questions that The Last Samurai asks is what makes life worth living. It offers up the answer early on, in various guises: this is a novel that believes fervently in the power and worth of art. Sibylla is utterly transported by a pianist’s highly experimental concert, and when she is bored of the Circle Line, she regularly takes Ludo to one of the many free museums in London. The city’s free provision of art again raises the question of access: who really has access to all of this? The art is there for viewing, but the education that would let people, if they wished, appreciate it more deeply is expensive and restricted to supposed “elites,” and the paradox of Sibylla and Ludo’s highly educated economic precarity exposes this absurdity. But the kind of art that Sibylla loves most—cerebral, allusive, elevating detail and texture above narrative—remains mostly inaccessible to her in the sense that it is unpopular and therefore a person cannot make a living with it: she cannot enjoy it because the people who would make it are compelled to do something else instead.
This is a very different version of accessibility than we are used to discussing, but Sibylla’s suicidal ideation makes it clear that, for DeWitt, the question of people’s access to art and artists’ access to a living are both intimately tied up with basic economic justice and survival. The problem facing Sibylla is that she is not free to seek out the kind of art and intellectual life that will make her happy; the problem facing the pianist whose concert she saw is that he is not free to give the world the kind of art that he thinks he ought to give. Both have unfulfilled needs, and both are hampered by the need to devote most of their days just to surviving. In dramatizing this, The Last Samurai recasts the question of the “accessibility” of “difficult” art into a question of time and money. DeWitt has written a formally strange and difficult novel that takes the time to teach us how to read it, and that makes us believe that we ourselves, had we the time, could learn to enjoy literature and art that we now think, perhaps wrongly, is beyond our reach. I did not think that it was possible for me to want to read Arnold Schönberg’s Theory of Harmony, but I know for a fact that I am not the only reader whom Helen DeWitt has persuaded that this famously difficult work of music theory, a book that outlines the principles of 12-tone composition, one of the most cerebral and anti-populist movements in the history of Western music, might nonetheless be a satisfying and even joyful book to read, if I take the time to read it properly.
What The Last Samurai believes in most of all is the astonishing untapped potential of every person. In this light, it is among the most thoroughly democratic novels any of us will ever read, because it does not distinguish between its two protagonists’ extraordinary intelligence and their extraordinary circumstances. In its pages readers learn to distinguish enough Greek and Hebrew and Japanese that we come to believe in the possibility that we might know these languages and many more in their entirety; we listen to a description of a nine-hour concert and think how wonderful it would be if we had the time to give our attention to such a thing; we see Sibylla outline a new horizon for literary art and believe, while we read, that with time and teaching we too could come to love such art and long for it the way she does. “When you play a piece of music,” the great pianist of the nine-hour concert says at one point, “there are so many different ways you could play it. You keep asking yourself what if. You try this and you say but what if and you try that. When you buy a CD you get one answer to the question. You never get the what if.” DeWitt poses the question in a radical way: what if our society were organized so that people could both produce and enjoy whatever they wanted? What if we prioritized the idea that people should be able to do and experience the things that bring them joy? What if the resources to satisfy a child’s endless curiosity were available to every child (and indeed to every parent of a child)? We do not live in such a world, but after reading Helen DeWitt’s masterpiece of a novel, I am convinced that it is the world that ought to be, and the one we ought not to rest from building.