The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt

This book ought to be more popular than it is, despite the fact that it’s already pretty popular. But it is a long novel, about a precocious boy who learns ancient Greek, Japanese, Arabic, and another seventeen languages before he is ten, who learns advanced maths and physics, who can list the insects it would be safe to eat in a survival situation, and the plot is structured around the 1954 Japanese film Seven Samurai. So we might say it’s got a bit of a marmite effect, right from the off.

But the whole problem with literary fiction right now is that it is so samey. God alive there are days when I think that if I pick up another novel about a family with a secret or a smooth charming impersonal prose voice I will quit reading fiction altogether. DeWitt is different. As someone once said of E.M. Forster, when you read her you feel like you learn something.

Here are some of the many reasons you will love this book:

editors thought it was too dense, too difficult; there were too many quotations, too much Greek, Japanese, Old Norse . . . It was clear that it would be easier to publish a book in a single voice, with a linear narrative, with no quotations, no Greek, no Japanese . . . More importantly, worryingly, it was clear that the people I talked to would be incapable of seeing a book like Samurai into print. For the book to be properly produced I would need to be in a very strong position—probably with three or four published books behind me. One editor did eventually offer £7500, but she was so vague, so woolly-minded . . .

As you can tell, this is nothing like any other novel you have read. DeWitt is not like any other author you have read. One of her main interests is to work out how to incorporate data visualisation into fiction. I don’t think I’ve found any idea about fiction so exciting since I discovered fiction exists.

Inevitably, then, this book has a lot to say about knowledge, education, and learning. Some politicians think we educate children very well, despite our emphasis on a standardised curriculum, narrow subject categories, an exam system designed to prove nothing much beyond your capacity to take an exam, and no room for many (self-reported) people to discover the ways in which they are smart until long after they leave.

Reading this book enlivens all the arguments on why schooling needs to be radically fragmented. (And now that the internet has met the lockdown, it’s hopefully coming.) Someone like Ludo can find no place in a modern school. With the internet he’d be unstoppable, but the poor boy was written just a few years too early for that. He reminds me on Tyler Cowen more than J.S.Mill, someone who would have spend the first part of their life working with books, who would then be able to flourish in the world of blogs. Perhaps he is really much more like Helen DeWitt.

The temptation is to think that the mother character, a single woman in her late thirties who left an academic career and ended up raising a precocious son while working a mundane job, is Helen DeWitt. Substitute the son for her novel (or her hundred unfinished novels) and that is pretty much exactly what happened to her. She even shares a love of movies with this character.

James Wood makes a compelling case, however, that the mother and the son are not as clearly distinct as they might seem. As he asks, ‘Who is the true genius, mother or son? Who is the thwarted genius?’ Think of them as more like the two sides of one personality, an Ego and a Superego. The mother, Sibylla, is locked into the choices she has made: we become adults with whatever resources, inner and outer, that we have accumulated and the slog is different from there on in. She’s simply doing the intellectual equivalent for Ludo of giving him a better start than her.

Ludo then is the expression of what his mother would become were she not hampered by work and her previous education and her mental state and the need to feed the boy and everything else. One lesson of this is clear. We ought to provide radically different types of education, as varied as the types of restaurant we provide, to suit different people and their needs and abilities. So much, so obvious.

But there’s a second lesson. Sibylla and Ludo watch Seven Samurai hundreds and hundreds of times. She loves the film and thinks of it as a way to provide surrogate father figures to Ludo. Eventually he goes out and takes a quest round London looking for his father, reenacting and reconstituting the film as he goes. The real difference between Sibylla and Ludo is that she absorbs knowledge whereas he uses it.

I could, as DeWitt says, go endlessly on. She understands that fiction has a problem. This is no longer a qualitative world. Fiction is not up-to-date, not current, in the way it thinks about things and models actions. It’s not empirical enough. Most of the philosophy you find in fiction is at least a century old. There’s nothing that fiction has learnt from economics or probability. It is becoming hopelessly unidimensional. (Which novelists actually are in favour of wealth?)

Academic study of literature is so actively political it has lost sight of the role of mimesis. DeWitt is changing that. She says, ‘Chance often plays a big part in fiction, but it is generally not chance as this is mathematically understood, which tends to be counter-intuitive.’ Sally Rooney is the big name who wrote a book using the internet language and tropes, but literature as a whole is behind. DeWitt realised that there was all sorts of possibility left in the novel as a young academic:

In her fourth year, she won a prestigious classics prize, the Ireland. A fellowship and lectureship followed. But the crucial event in her time there was her encounter — and subsequent relationship — with David Levene, now a professor of classics at NYU. Their marriage ended after seven years, but he remains her best reader. “Meeting David is what made me a writer,” DeWitt said. “David had this entirely different sensibility. He loves grand, mythic works of art. His favorite composer is Wagner. Among tragedians, he likes Aeschylus, whereas I’m a Euripides person. He introduced me to Sergio Leone and Kurosawa and Mel Brooks. The coexistence of these radically different aesthetic possibilities made me see ways that I could be a writer, things that I could do. He introduced me to bridge, to poker, to statistics, things that to other people might seem completely unrelated.” (Statistics and games of chance are crucial elements in some of DeWitt’s works-in-progress.) “Previously I just thought, What’s the point in writing a novel? Everything’s been done. But now I saw, No, there are so many things that have never been done! All these possibilities! This is so great!

And yet, outside of The Last Samurai, the biggest disruption fiction has faced in recent decades is the move towards auto-fiction, from writers like Rachel Cusk and Karl Knausgård. Faced with the rationality of an increasingly objective world, fiction is evolving into a branch of memoir, the most subjective form available. Perhaps the trouble is that, as Sibylla says, ’99 out of 100 adults spare themselves the trouble of rational thought 99% of the time’, and in an increasingly empirical world there is a need (and an audience) for fiction to represent the escapist counter-Enlightenment.

In that case, until Helen DeWitt solves the problem of representing risk and chance in novels using data visualization we will just have to keep re-reading The Last Samurai, the way Sibylla, with no way of working her talents in the world, kept re-watching Seven Samurai.

Read The Last Samurai now. (US link).

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