S.P.’s Book Pick for July: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

The state of contemporary fiction seems to be, to me, a buckshot scatter across genre and style: we live in an age where there is no “proper” way to write or even read a text, and no singularly dominant school or method.

The way to read a text is an important thing to consider, for every novel, no matter how straightforward, instructs the reader how to approach it.  Such is most certainly the case with Helen DeWitt’s first published novel, The Last Samurai, and more.  This is a novel that not only seeks to entertain, but also to educate the reader.  It is a novel of ideas, particularly the wonderful, bone-shatteringly beautiful ideas that exist in this world and are available to every single one of us who wants to explore them: languages, music, literature, mathematics, film.

The crux here, though, is that the novel conveys a truly compelling story.  And I am honest when I mean compelling: I completed its 530 pages in a single sitting (and memorized the Greek alphabet, available on page 49 of my edition).  The Last Samurai initially tells the story of Sibylla, a mother who may just be losing her mind—or perhaps is just too brilliant to be alive—trying to raise a child prodigy alone.  The story then shifts to her son Ludo’s attempts to try and discover who his father is and, subsequently, someone who can fulfill that role in his life (or, at least, his conception of what that role should be).  To say that the book is based upon Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai would be…well, let’s just say the movie, probably one of the greatest ever made, plays an important role in this book: Ludo goes on to learn the stories of and meet with seven fascinating men who may or may not fulfill his desires—desires which morph and transform as the story progresses.

The Last Samurai is written as a series of journal entries and letters addressed to posterity, so don’t expect a wholly linear plot or quotation marks, for that matter.  This novel is funny without being slapstick, sad without being maudlin, and truly beautiful in as many ways I can think, from the simply typography and layout of the page to the content and style of the prose itself. 

The New York Times reviewed it here: LINK

You can read Helen DeWitt’s blog here: LINK