By Stuart Mitchner
…when we read a book, it is as if we were with a person.
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 exberliner.com. 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. more