Straight No Chaser: Helen Dewitt
The Last Samurai by Helen Dewitt, is an unusual and eccentric novel that breaks most of the rules of conventional literary fiction. It is also a work of genius. I have not loved a novel so much in a long time. Let me go further and say, I’m obsessed with Helen Dewitt! I want to tell you about this book so that you will read it, because it must be read to be believed. But also because I want you to get to know Helen Dewitt. She gives me faith that is possible to write an intelligent, original novel in the 21st century and even get it published. Well, maybe.
The Last Samurai is out of print. Her most recent novel, Lightning Rods, is still in print. Likely it will stay that way because it is published by New Directions. I assume New Directions still has a soul. I suppose the amazing thing is that The Last Samurai ever got published by a big house at all.
Dewitt’s prose is somewhat experimental in feel and tone but she is scrupulously traditional in odd ways. But let me back up here: The Last Samurai tells the story of Sibylla, a brilliant young woman living in London and her child Ludo. Sibylla comes from a family of child geniuses who, for one reason and another, don’t go to school. They are odd ball autodidacts who make their living building motels. Sibylla is in London. After a one night stand with a successful, and mediocre, travel writer she becomes pregnant. Inspired by Yo Yo Ma’s father’s belief that you can teach several new things to a child each day, and John Stuart Mill’s learning Greek and Latin at the age of three, she begins to teach Ludo the basics of Greek at 3 years old. He quickly learns Greek; they go onto Hebrew, Arabic, Latin and when they start watching The Seven Samurai, Japanese. Sibylla does not believe children should be treated differently from adults. This becomes a problem as her brilliant son ages and starts to search for his father, whose identity she has concealed. It becomes a game between them, and he pursues first men he thinks might be his father and then men he wishes were his father.Each of them were child geniuses. Each of them teaches Ludo something he needs to know about life, but none fulfills the role of the missing father.
It is also, beautifully, about the relationship between a single mother and her son. Despite the intellectual fireworks, we see them struggle to survive poorly paid boring work. They ride the tube and hang around museums to keep warm in the winter. She struggles to raise a child in such a way that will honor her beliefs and convictions and also not create a monster. There are no other important adults in their lives. We get Sibylla, Ludo and the cast of The Seven Samurai. The code of the Samurai becomes their moral code. And moral development, the growth of her son from a passionate reader of syllabaries to an empathetic boy with some understanding of the violence of the world and human need, human obligations to be smart and do good, is something Sibylla, and Dewitt, care about. Seeing it through the lens of the intense single mother/son relationship is vitally new. In life I have seen this relationship up close. It is about being, and staying free. And to do so almost requires that there not be a father. And yet, a boy needs a father, even if a mother doesn’t need a husband. These are traditonal concerns of the novel. The child born out of wedlock.
So the novel is actually an old fashioned search for the father, and a novel of the education of the hero. Dewitt takes both tasks seriously. There is considerable humor but no irony in the incredible intellectual journey taken by all of the characters, and underlying this, the emotional development of a boy. Dewitt is passionate, obsessive about knowledge. Her style is plain for the most part, and suggests, with its repetitions and alienated view of humans, Gertrude Stein. Yet there are long lyrical stretches. Dewitt it seems could write in any style she likes. Her point of view is that of the Martian pondering humans from afar. Injustice and stupidity make her angry. There are moments when the book feels like it is written by two people with Asperger’s. At one point, when arguing over aesthetics with Ludo, she says, “There is an obvious difference between someone who works within the technical limitations of his time which are beyond his control and someone who accepts without thinking limitations which are entirely within his own power to set aside.”
This is it, isn’t it?
Go to Dewitt’s website and read her interviews. She is impatient, brilliant. The saga of her publication history is depressing. In an interview she writes, of her response to editorial comments about The Last Samurai manuscript: “My ex was the most brilliant student his tutor at Oxford had ever had; we had both done a special subject in Aristophanes; he had introduced me not only to Mel Brooks but to the whole tradition of British satire (Blackadder; Yes, Minister; Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective). To go from this kind of intellectual engagement to unsolicited advice from persons of no demonstrable competence was profoundly humiliating; at the risk of spoilers, it felt like being fucked from behind through a hole in the wall.”
PERSONS OF NO DEMONSTRABLE COMPETENCE
I can’t wait to read Lightning Rods, a satire about business.