The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt. New Directions. 484 pp. $18.95
I can’t remember when I’ve had such mixed feelings about a novel. There is an assumption behind this book that people with higher IQ’s, or people who have more knowledge, are superior individuals, who don’t have to deal with the rest of us. There is even an assumption that they’re happier people, because they have their intellectual pleasures (or their smug sense of superiority) while the rest of us have the banal everyday world as it is. I found the way the book kept switching narrative lines in an early chapter to be terribly annoying, to the point that I almost stopped reading (I went back to the Amazon reviews, hoping they’d convince me to continue. They did). I found the book’s central premise to be so disturbing that I nearly quit halfway through. There were times I wanted to throw it across the room.
Yet the second half, where it suddenly branches out from being an incestuous intellectual coupling between a mother and a child and becomes that child’s search for a male role model, is absolutely brilliant. Helen DeWitt shows herself to be an author of remarkable imaginative power. The whole feeling is different. Why didn’t she do this earlier? Why didn’t she start the book here? I’m tempted to paraphrase H. L. Mencken in his review of An American Tragedy. Get a social worker to read the first half of this novel. But don’t miss the second.
The first half is about a single mother raising a child in working class London. Sibylla is a polymath who knows umpteen languages, literature, science, music, philosophy, pretty much all of human thought and culture, but hasn’t been able to find a job that pays diddly squat. By the middle of the book she has some weird job typing the content of magazines onto the Internet (at least I think that’s what she’s doing; don’t quote me). In any case she spends hours every day typing, leaving her son Ludo to fend for himself. That isn’t a problem, because she’s made him as much of a polymath as she. Here is the young man at the age of five, talking to a nosy person on the subway.
“I know French and Greek and Arabic and Hebrew and Latin and I’m going to start Japanese when I finish this book and the Odyssey. . . .
“I had to read 8 books of the Metamorphoses and 30 stories in the Thousand & One Nights and I Samuel and the Book of Jonah and learn the cantellation and do 10 chapters of Algebra Made Easy and now I just have to finish this book and one book of the Odyssey.”
Does anyone else find this five year old annoying?
There’s the whole question of whether I believe all this crap, which is a major one. The mother and the author cite J.S. Mill as an example, but everybody cites J.S. Mill. Give me another example. Then there’s the question of what I think of it all. Is it really a good idea to make your child into an intellectual snob at the age of five? This child never, in the course of a 448 page book—at the end of which he is eleven years old—has anything to do with someone his own age. He spends all his time hanging out with his mother. And there’s the fact that she steadfastly refuses to tell the boy who his father is or anything much about him, referring to him at one point as Ludo’s “sperm donor.” Do I detect a little snobbery about people who haven’t attained the grand intellectual heights that this mother and child have?
I might point out to this woman that she apparently thought enough of this man to sleep with him.
On the one hand, this is a book about a single mother whose financial situation is so dire that they spend the winters riding on the subway all day so they can stay warm (that’s why so many subway writers question this little tyke about what he’s reading. Turns out to be the Odyssey in Greek). I feel for her. On the other hand, she’s making her son into the same kind of misfit and monster that she is. Depriving him of all contact with children his age (he’d just make them feel like shit because they don’t speak five languages) and of any male influence in his life. She’s creating a genius, but what she’s doing verges on child abuse.
When I took a grad course about exceptional children, we studied the example of a woman in Kentucky who had created a family of geniuses. She did that by giving her children stimulation from a very early age, building mobiles above their cribs and paying rapt attention to them their whole lives. This was an illustration of the fact that the most important single factor in developing intelligence is the attention somebody pays to you when you’re tiny. It’s crucial.
But it’s also true that, though her children were all stars of various kinds—professors, scientists, musicians, I don’t actually remember—they were not happy people. We found, in fact, that of all the exceptionalities, being a genius was the least correlated with happiness. People of very limited intelligence were more likely to be happy than the brilliant ones.
Maybe that’s because, up there at the top of Mt. Genius, there’s nobody much to talk to. Except your mother. And what eleven year old boy wants to talk to his mother all the time?
One of the weird facts about this woman—perhaps her saving grace—is that she is obsessed with the movie The Seven Samurai and watches it constantly when she isn’t typing, partly because she’s working on her Japanese, partly because she considers it a great work of art. Her son—who at the age of eleven is longing for male influence—watches this film and notices that the head man keeps interviewing men to find worthy samurai. So he, once he has figured out a way to find his real father (he’s seen an envelope his mother has created to be opened upon her death), goes out and finds that man to let him know of their relationship. And then, because he’s not satisfied with his real father, he goes to interview other notable men, looking for a true samurai.
I found the interview with the real father to be heartbreaking. Sibylla had already told Ludo that he was a travel writer—naturally at the age of eleven this kid has read every travel book known to man—and once he discovers who the guy is, he’s a little disappointed, because he’s not a brilliant or vastly successful writer, and because he doesn’t have the same lofty intellectual standards that Ludo and his mother have. That isn’t the point, kid. This man is your father. This is your chance to learn to accept human beings who are a little below the genius level. It’s your chance to join humanity.
But when Ludo goes off in search of a true father, a spiritual father—that’s a journey all young men must make, even when they know their biological father—the characters he meets are wonderful, and absolutely fascinating. Helen DeWitt taps into her imagination, and suddenly, instead of hearing how brilliant her protagonist is, we see what a brilliant novelist she can be, as she creates one marvelous character after another. The half of the novel where Ludo is looking for a father is a sheer joy, one of the most enjoyable things I’ve read in months. I’m not sure I quite believe that this maladjusted eleven-year-old could have done all these things, but I suspended my disbelief long enough to enjoy it.
Helen DeWitt is—okay, we get it, lady—an intellectually brilliant human being, and of course there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s evidence that the character Sibylla genuinely enjoys many of her intellectual endeavors (not just The Seven Samurai) and finds a fair amount of joy in an intellectual life. But she also seems cut off from humanity, from anything that isn’t in the realm of art and culture. And I might suggest that, in addition to the artifacts of culture, it’s nice to connect now and then with a few human beings. Other than your son.
 Incidentally, though, Ms. DeWitt, I found a grammar error on p. 123, an incorrect verb form (unless I’m reading the sentence all wrong, which is always possible for a mere mortal. The sentence is kind of a mess, by the way). Can you find it?
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