March 29, 2023

Closing Women’s History Month with Helen DeWitt’s “The Last Samurai”

By Stuart Mitchner

…when we read a book, it is as if we were with a person.

—W.H. Auden

You could say that I met Helen DeWitt, the person, in the prologue to her novel The Last Samurai (New Directions 2016), having read the introduction to the first edition (Miramax/Talk Books 2000), which is included in the reprint. After being alerted to it by a friend, my wife introduced me to The Last Samurai, which I’d have read even without her recommendation had I seen a September 2022 interview with Helen DeWitt on There she recalls watching her ex-husband argue with a fellow academic at Oxford about Sergio Leone, whose films For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly became a passion for me at a time when most “serious” film people were dismissing the director as a maker of Spaghetti Westerns. After going to a video store and renting “all these Leone films,” DeWitt, who before that had “hated any Clint Eastwood movie” or “any movies where people got beaten up or killed,” suddenly had a revelation — “that moment where something I’d started out hating suddenly had me saying, ‘Oh, my God, this is absolutely amazing.’ ” Which is what my wife and I said to each other after our first experience of Leone. The ex-husband, Professor David Levene, introduced DeWitt “to all these different things — Leone, Kurosawa, bridge and poker …. Suddenly all of this was amazingly interesting.”

Readers of The Last Samurai will appreciate the connection to Akira Kurosawa, whose film Seven Samurai not only inspired Leone’s Man With No Name westerns, but is as central to DeWitt’s novel as the Odyssey is to James Joyce’s Ulysses. Besides providing a skeleton key to the book, Kurosawa’s film becomes a life text with a profound impact on Sibylla, the single mother who narrates the first 180 pages of the novel, and her polymath young son Ludo, who takes over the bulk of the narration later.

Yamamoto’s “What If”

Ludo’s eventual quest for a samurai worthy father leads him to a controversial concert pianist named Kenzo Yamamoto. “When you play a piece of music,” the pianist tells him, “there are so many different ways you could play it. You keep asking yourself what if. You try this and you say but what if and you try that. When you buy a CD you get one answer to the question. You never get the what if.”

By the time readers arrive at this moment four pages from the end of a 482-page-long text, they’re attuned to myriad variations on the “what if” theme because Ludo never stops asking questions and never stops trying to find a father.

In Bed with “Liberace”

The what-if variations impact Sibylla’s one-night stand with the travel writer she calls “Liberace,” Ludo’s natural father. “No sooner were Liberace and I in his bed without our clothes than I realized how stupid I had been. At this distance I can naturally not remember every little detail, but if there is one musical form that I hate more than any other, it is the medley.” One minute it’s as if the band “is playing an over orchestrated version of The Impossible Dream; all of a sudden, mid-verse, for no reason, there’s a stomach-turning swerve into another key and you’re in the middle of Over the Rainbow, swerve, Climb Every Mountain, swerve, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, swerve, swerve, swerve. Well then, you have only to imagine Liberace, … now here, now there, no sooner here than there, no sooner there than here again, starting something only to stop and start something else instead, and you will have a pretty accurate picture of the Drunken Medley.”

What-if in Action

Yamamoto demonstrated what-if in action with a seven-and-a-half-hour performance of the same Brahms Ballade (Op. 10: No. 1 in D minor), accompanied by various bells, drums, an electric drill, a bagpipe, and other devices, at a London concert attended by Sibylla and Ludo. When Yamamoto finished at 6 a.m. by playing the three remaining Ballades in quick succession, each one complete, only 25 people remained in the audience, including Sibylla, who was in tears. For her, the message of the last three pieces played complete was that there was finally “only one chance at life” and “once gone it is gone for good” and “you must seize the moment before it goes.”

Meanwhile, Ludo had left the hall along with his copy of The Call of the Wild, and she hadn’t noticed. After bowing to what was left of the audience, Yamamoto said, “I think the trains will be running by now. I hope you get home safely.”

Not to worry. In DeWitt’s London, the Circle Line is always running and six-year-old boys find their way home.

Brimming to Overflowing
In the November 2011 Los Angeles Review of Books, a decade after the first edition of The Last Samurai, DeWitt is still crediting her husband of six years for introducing her to Kurosawa and Leone (not to mention Mel Brooks and Dennis Potter), and to “the power of imaginary Americas,” as well as making her “see ways that I could be a writer, things that I could do …. things that to other people might seem completely unrelated.”

The Last Samurai is brimming to overflowing with things that might seem deceptively if not completely unrelated. And as convenient as it may be to match the author with the single mother, the most dramatic evidence of the distance between the author and the character is that DeWitt is not a single mother. As she recently told Christian Lorentzen in Vulture, she has never spent much time around children. “I did some babysitting when I was 16, which is a very effective form of contraception.”

Shaking Things Up
DeWitt takes the novel form, shakes it up, and turns it inside out, defying conventions of punctuation, capitalization, common sense, good behavior, and content, as Laurence Sterne did centuries ago in Tristram Shandy. At the same time she gives Sibylla a super group of accomplices, including J.S. Mill, Schoenberg, Yo Yo Ma, Glenn Gould, and Toshiro Mifune. And you never know when a passage of Greek, ancient Norse, Japanese, some translated, some not, is coming.

For instance, as “Liberace” lies sleeping after their one-night stand, Sibylla realizes it “would be rude to leave without a word.” Deciding the best course is to focus on their conversation about the Rosetta Stone, she tries to frame the debate in such a way that he will never want to see her again. Taking a piece of paper from his desk, she sits down at 3 a.m. and writes a passage from the Iliad 17 (Zeus pities the horses of Achilles mourning the death of Patroclus) side by side with a nine-line English translation, which she breaks off at 3:15 to proceed without further ado to “a noncommittal Ciao.”

Making Up America
In the LARB interview, DeWitt says, “If you’re an American, born in America,” as she was in 1957 in a suburb of Washington D.C., “you don’t really understand America: this is something our forefathers made up in their heads, a place millions of people continue to make up in their heads.”

An element of the “making up” is the establishing of traditions like Women’s History Month, with which Helen DeWitt and her fictional single mother make a good fit. Women worthy of celebration turn up every month, every day. Princeton University Press got the year off to a historic start by publishing Marion Turner’s The Wife of Bath: A Biography. Looking back to January, I began the year with Barbara Stanwyck and Ginger Rogers; then Alys Lesley (the female Evis); then Bob Dylan’s old friend Chloe, who wore a Japanese kimono over a red flannel shirt, and the New York call girl who inspired the song “Dark Eyes”; then Cormac McCarthy’s captivating math genius Alicia Western, followed by the rediscovery of Carson McCullers and a new book by Keats’s Princeton soulmate Susan Wolfson, not to mention mystery guests like Lizzie Shipp, whose name turned up on the flyleaf of a book of poetry from the mid-19th century.


The W.H. Auden quote is from one of Auden’s earliest essays, as cited by Arthur Kirsch in the fall 2023 issue of Raritan Review (“Person to Person: The Genius of W.H. Auden’s Criticism”). Edited by Jackson Lears and launched at Rutgers University by Richard Poirier (The Performing Self), Raritan celebrates its 40th anniversary this year and is still going strong, with two Princetonians, Paul Muldoon and Edward Tenner, featured in the latest number.