On Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai

Helen DeWitt’s widely-acclaimed first novel, The Last Samurai, has recently joined the many important works which have received renewed attention thanks to a re-issue by New Directions. Originally published in 2000, this essential novel from the Berlin-based writer, literary critic and thinker presents a coming-of-age story that relies on a familiar narrative framework: that of a hero’s quest. However, the formal ingenuity with which DeWitt describes the moral, intellectual and psychological formation of its young protagonist is such that the work defies any reductive or generic classification. In fact, The Last Samurai is perhaps best described as nonconformist: DeWitt embraces intertextuality and non-standard formatting to an awesome degree, and the result is both singular and singularly articulate. As the author suggests in her Afterword to the 2016 edition, this is a text that is interested in exposing “the unknown capabilities of the reader.”

The Last Samurai tracks the evolution and early childhood education of Ludo, a young boy living in London with his voraciously-literate and socially-isolated mother—an arc that spans from the moment of the boy’s conception to his attainment of a precocious emotional and intellectual maturity at the age of eleven. Ludo’s accelerated development is the result of his highly unorthodox upbringing at the hands of his mother, Sibylla: a cynical, underemployed, and chronically under-stimulated American expatriate, whose major regret in life is that her ability to realize her full potential may have been precluded by circumstances beyond her control: notably, her access (or lack thereof) to a rigorous and early intellectual formation. Taking cues from the educational models that produced such notables as philosopher John Stuart Mill and the cello prodigy Yo Yo Ma, Sibylla endeavors to present her son with the challenges and opportunities which she was denied—and which, in her view, institutions of early childhood education lack either the imagination or the ambition to provide: a sentiment which it’s safe to say reflects DeWitt’s own. As she writes of her protagonist in the Afterword: “We don’t know whether he was a genius or not—only that he is an an oddity in a society with very low expectations.”

While Sibylla encourages Ludo’s interest in everything from ancient Greek literature and Japanese martial arts to fluid dynamics, there is one subject of inquiry that remains off-limits: the identity of his father. It is here that a crack emerges in Sibylla’s pedagogical experiment, or philosophy of mothering, as it were; she cannot protect Ludo while also promoting his autonomy. Where she reaches an ideological stalemate, her son’s quest begins. His search for a father—or suitable proxy—constitutes the bulk of the novel’s plot. In refracting the manifold failings and fallacies of humanity through the lens of this hyper-logical, highly analytical narrator, the novel puts a new and engaging frame around age-old questions, such as how we understand success, heroism, talent and happiness; and how we define a meaningful existence.

What makes this Bildungsroman so remarkable, from a formal perspective, is its shifting center. As the novel progresses, Ludo grows in self-awareness and—despite his mother’s attempts to distract him—becomes further invested in his monomythic quest. This transformation is reinforced by the novel’s form itself. We begin with a genealogical inventory from Sibylla’s perspective, reaching back three generations. As the novel moves forward, it gradually shifts away from Sibylla’s point-of-view. Within the first third of the novel, Ludo’s voice emerges and begins to alternate with Sibylla’s. We are able to see this voice evolve, stylistically, syntactically, and emotionally—from the simple journal entry that begins: “My name is Ludo. I am 5 years and 267 days old,” to the more stylized and self-reflexive passages in the novel’s latter half. There is tangible evidence of Ludo’s growing awareness, and even moments where his intelligence appears to surpass his mother’s. By the end of the novel, Ludo’s voice has entirely supplanted hers—punctuating the reading experience with a sensation of loss, or amputation, which likely mirrors the formation of a sudden affective chasm between mother and son.

The extent to which we are able to observe Ludo’s psychological and intellectual development is largely a factor of the novel’s wildly heterogeneous discourse—which comprises Japanese logograms, mathematical equations, Icelandic, advertising rhetoric, transliterated subtitles, secondhand legends, and glosses of various other language sources which enter into and merge with Sibylla’s and Ludo’s perception. As with character dialogue throughout the novel, this language is undifferentiated from the surrounding text, suggesting the profound way in which these characters interact with and imbibe these created works—most notably, Kurosawa’s epic film, Seven Samurai, from which the novel derives its title and Ludo derives inspiration for his quest. Expansive digressions on language, film, science, and myth create a dense, polyvocal linguistic backdrop against which the characters’ limited social experience stands in stark relief. This allows DeWitt to invoke pathos through the simple repetition of various cathected words or phrases, such as “Sesame Street... was about the right level” or “A good samurai will parry the blow.” In short, DeWitt uses language not to paint, but rather to sculpt, employing a range of typographical methods—from capitalization and italics, to fragmentation and indentation—in order to foreground aspects of communication we ordinarily overlook in prose, such as: tone, parallelism and subordination, and even volume. And this is perhaps the most significant lesson DeWitt endeavors to teach us with her ingenious novel-cum-pedagogical disquisition: we have not, as yet, fully fathomed the semiotic potential of the medium.
Emily Alex is an editor with Noemi Press and the prose editor of Puerto del Sol. She teaches creative writing and composition at New Mexico State University, where she is an MFA candidate in fiction. Her writing has been published in The Offing, and is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly and The Collagist.