“The Last Samurai,” Unread

“In a world where the imagined purpose of the novel is to entertain—not to teach or spark further inquiry—The Last Samurai dissents.”

My new book, The Last Samurai Reread should probably be called The Last Samurai Unread. After all, Helen DeWitt’s debut novel, The Last Samurai, which was published more than twenty years ago, has yet to be read for the first time by many readers, including many literary critics. When I mentioned I was writing about the novel, I found myself forced to explain, on more than one occasion, that the book has nothing to do with the 2003 Tom Cruise film of the same name. No actual samurai appear in DeWitt’s novel. Mostly set in London in the 1980s and 1990s, but global in the geographic and linguistic range of its imagination, the novel follows the story of a brilliant and eccentric former classics scholar, Sibylla Newman, an American, who lives in poverty and tries to raise her son, Ludo, by herself. She refuses to introduce the boy to his father, a vapid and thoughtless travel writer with whom she had a one-night stand, and she refuses to return to her family in the United States. The boy is brilliant. He reads Homer in the original at age nine and learns advanced mathematics by reading Schaum’s Outline Series on Laplace transforms and Fourier analysis. Only one Japanese character appears in the book, an avant-garde pianist. The main samurai mentioned are characters in Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1954 film Seven Samurai.

Sibylla regards the film as a masterpiece and watches it again and again on a VHS tape. One day, she reads a newspaper article that suggests that “in the absence of a benevolent male, the single mother faces an uphill battle in raising her son. It is essential that she provide the boy with male role models—neighbours, or uncles, or friends of the family, to share their interests and hobbies.”1 And she decides, “Well, if L needs a role model let him watch Seven Samurai & he will have 8.” Eight role models: the film’s six samurai, one man who poses as a samurai, and one brave farmer who recruits them. The choice of Seven Samurai seems at first arbitrary and half serious, an attempt by Sibylla to rationalize not introducing Ludo to his father. Yet with each viewing, each attempt to explain the choice of Kurosawa, the conceit takes on greater weight. The film becomes a rich metaphorical resource for Sibylla and for Ludo—and for the novel.

Sibylla introduces her son to the film and, at his insistence, teaches him Japanese. When Ludo does meet his biological father, he’s terribly disappointed in the man. “I can’t say I’m his son, because it’s true,” he concludes. Inspired by the example of Seven Samurai, he sets out on a quest to find a replacement father, testing each candidate in the same way that the aging ronin Kambei tests candidate samurai in Kurosawa’s film. A line from the film, “A good samurai will parry the blow,” becomes a mantra for Ludo and provides titles for six chapters in the fifth part of the novel. Ludo believes that a true father, like a true samurai, will parry his figurative blows. Unfortunately, each candidate Ludo encounters fails—he becomes a type, a routine, a cliché of masculinity—and so Ludo’s quest begins anew, looping back to the start.

The boy’s quest is, in a sense, quixotic, doomed to fail in advance, yet in his determined refusal to settle for a bad father we can see the core dialectic of The Last Samurai. One must, the book suggests, face reality honestly but never submit to that reality. We must judge what exists, what is given, what we unthinkingly take as natural or necessary or conventional by the most stringent standards of analysis—not by the standard of what exists but by the standard of what might become possible in a better, more rational world. When we marry our wildest desires to the highest standards, we thereby test our reality.

A good reality will parry the blow.

The Last Samurai was well received when it was published in 2000, but it has not found a widespread readership. After its publisher, Talk Miramax Books, was dissolved in 2005, the book went out of print. Few scholars have written about it. Nonetheless, the novel has gathered a small but influential coterie of advocates. Those who’ve read The Last Samurai have tended to love it, to obsess over it, to shove it into the hands of friends and acquaintances. After a brief time out of print, the book was republished by New Directions in 2016 and has subsequently been hailed by New York magazine as the best book of the twenty-first century.

I first read the book in 2007, thinking I might want to include it in a project I was writing about novelists who were trying to move beyond postmodernism. DeWitt was associated with authors such as David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, and she has suggested that her book belongs alongside these generational peers.2 I initially wanted to pair The Last Samurai with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) and to discuss the role that the figure of the “knowing child” plays in twenty-first-century fiction.

But as Rich Beck notes, DeWitt’s novel may seem to belong to the “Precocious Child” genre, but it also ruthlessly “obviates it,” as if The Last Samurai were “written, point by point, to reject everything the Precocious Child novel would come to stand for.”3 Reading the novel in the closing days of 2007, I found the book’s Precocious Child less gripping than its Precarious Mother. The Last Samurai found a way to speak to the feeling of living at a time when economic crisis was laying waste to many lives. The Last Samurai was, of course, not about the 2007–2008 financial crisis. But it is about the kind of world where a crisis like that could happen, where it had happened in different forms, and where it was likely to happen again, unfolding along predictably irrational lines.

Academics certainly didn’t have it any worse than others who face the perils of the labor market. But as DeWitt’s novel shows, there’s a specific experience of the market scholars face. When many of my friends and I started grad school, many assumed or were assured that finding a good—or any—academic job wouldn’t pose too much of a problem. Yet even before the financial crisis, there was a dawning sense that these assumptions were mistaken, that many of us would fail to find employment in the profession we had been training to join, that the profession to which we had become attached was not what we thought it was.

And then came the crisis, and the medieval institution of the university encountered the woodchipper of austerity budgets and financialization, which shredded the thoughtless security of many who hoped to pursue an intellectual vocation. The crisis destroyed brilliant academic careers before they could begin, shunting the smartest scholars of a generation into writing occasional essays, often for no pay, on web-based “little magazines,” publishing groundbreaking monographs while unemployed or underemployed. Many would agree with Lauren Berlant that they lived within a situation of “cruel optimism,” a situation that plants booby traps within one’s very conception of the good life.4 “Cruel optimism” seemed an apt name for the paradoxical attachments many of us held fast to, even as the world seemed to crumble around us. It’s a good name, too, for the double binds that burden the characters in The Last Samurai.

I made my way through the crisis and managed to find employment in the academy. I didn’t write about DeWitt for my first academic book, but I kept track of the author, reading everything I could get my hands on. I wrote a review of Lightning Rods for the Los Angeles Review of Books and interviewed DeWitt for that publication. I reviewed her short-story collection Some Trick for Public Books. When I pitched my book, I did so because I wanted to convince more readers and critics to read and write about The Last Samurai. I want to lay part of the groundwork for the future study of the novel, to describe its central themes and think about some of the important questions the book raises. Doing so, I hope, will not only teach us something new about DeWitt’s book but also help us better understand fiction in an era of escalating income inequality, corporate conglomeration, and precarity.5 I wanted to offer an original interpretation of The Last Samurai but also to understand how the book came into the world, to write a biography of the book. The story of the book, I suspected, might also indirectly be the story of our time.

My approach is inspired by the example of literary critics and sociologists such as Amy Hungerford, Clayton Childress, Matthew Kirschenbaum, William Deresiewicz, Paulo Lemos Horta, and Álvaro Santana-Acuña.6 These scholars assume, as Hungerford puts it, that our literary life is embodied in “efforts to make literature and make a living, efforts that in the cutthroat world of international capitalism must come and go as quickly as streaming headlines.”7 They show why critics should attend to the ground-level reality of literary institutions, including publishers, agents, etc., as well as to how artists find a way to survive another day and make more art. As Merve Emre has suggested, scholars of contemporary literature who share this assumption might use a range of methods not normally associated with literary criticism—such as oral history, questionnaires, and ethnography—to interrogate the relationship between the contingent factors that bring literature into the world and the literature itself. That is, literary scholars might look to sociology not for its conclusions but for its methods.8

“Cruel optimism” is a good name for the double binds that burden the characters in “The Last Samurai.”

I spoke to many people who contributed to the story of The Last Samurai. I conducted interviews with DeWitt; DeWitt’s former husband, David Levene; her editor at Talk Miramax Books, Jonathan Burnham; the production manager who worked with DeWitt at Talk Miramax, Kristin Powers; and her friends Tim Schmidt and Maude Chilton. The resulting book develops an interpretation of The Last Samurai while giving a chronicle of its composition and publication history. I argue that these two seemingly disparate perspectives—one intrinsic, the other extrinsic—are connected in a significant way for the novel. To be sure, many novelists struggle to finish books and find publishers, but fewer turn that struggle into the subject of their art. The Last Samurai does, connecting its struggle to find an audience to the larger question of how one might pursue a nonalienated intellectual life under economic and social conditions of perpetual economic crisis. Ludo’s quixotic quest for a better father metaphorically replicates DeWitt’s quest, also perhaps quixotic, for a good publisher. Both quests produce situations of cruel optimism. Both test the limits of existing habits, norms, standards, and practices in pursuit of a better life.

In The Last Samurai, DeWitt engages in an allegorical and metafictional sort of life writing, though not in the manner of autofiction, a genre that has lately become popular. The “life” she chronicles isn’t her own life but the life of her book. In a sense, DeWitt asks us to personify her novel. She invites us to see Sibylla’s effort to raise Ludo as an allegory for DeWitt’s own efforts to write her novel. But the allegory is uneasy, almost contradictory. Raising Ludo is, after all, what prevents Sibylla from completing her intellectual labors and finding fulfillment. Yet Ludo’s successful completion of his quest is also what marks DeWitt’s own success as a novelist. The boy is both an obstacle to Sibylla’s flourishing and its final realization.

In personifying her book in this way, DeWitt opens many avenues for reading the novel. DeWitt arguably has a feminist point to make. She foregrounds the devaluation of unpaid reproductive labor—the labor of child rearing and pedagogy—analogizing these activities to the stultifying work Sibylla must do to make ends meet. The stunted men in Sibylla’s life and broken educational institutions that support their careless dominance foist the burden of raising Ludo onto her. Broken institutions also fill her days with endless busywork, interrupting thought, “kill[ing] the mind” that might write a book like The Last Samurai.9 At the same time, DeWitt challenges the historic association of intellectual labor and genres such as encyclopedic fiction with masculinity. That is, while Sibylla might discover she has the responsibility for raising Ludo, this doesn’t mean she’s particularly well suited to the task or that raising a child represents anything other than a dissipation of her potential. I offer a more detailed account of how DeWitt personifies her novel, but what I want to underscore is that The Last Samurai’s metafictional commentary is also a form of social, political, and institutional critique.

The Last Samurai dreams of a world in which nonalienated intellectual production is possible for all people. It also hopes for the possibility of a nonalienated reception. That is, The Last Samurai seeks to discover (or make) an ideal reader who would be improved through her encounter with the novel, despite social pressures and institutions that cordon off the novel from other zones of life. In a world where the imagined purpose of the novel is to entertain or furnish meanings—not to teach or spark further inquiry—The Last Samurai dissents, imagining itself to have a pedagogical function. It tries to illustrate what it would mean for a novel to have the power to inspire readers to, for example, realize they can easily learn Greek or Japanese. It asks readers to see in Ludo’s brilliance a figure for their own intellectual and aesthetic potential.

The Last Samurai Reread moves (more or less) chronologically through the story of the book’s composition, publication, and reception, tying moments of this story to moments in the novel. The first chapter discusses the origin of the novel as a wish-fulfillment fantasy—the fantasy that one could choose one’s own father—and the way the novel navigates this fantasy. Chapter 2 considers DeWitt’s intellectual history. It discusses her academic dissertation on propriety as a standard of evaluation in ancient Greek and Roman literary criticism, relating her analysis of this ancient standard to her vision of the future of the novel. The third chapter discusses DeWitt’s experience with her publisher, Talk Miramax Books, which was founded by Harvey and Bob Weinstein. This chapter elaborates the claim that The Last Samurai represents the double bind of authors in an age of corporate conglomeration. Chapter 4 investigates the much-discussed fight DeWitt had with her copyeditor. It uses this fight as an occasion to understand why the novel’s nonstandard usage and typography was so important to DeWitt’s vision for the book and her investment in statistics, probability, and information design. The final chapter discusses the aftermath of the novel’s publication for DeWitt and asks what her ultimate relation to her time is. What does DeWitt’s experience teach us about the status of the novel at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first? What kinds of novels can be published within established literary institutions, and what does the story of The Last Samurai reveal about alternative ways of thinking about untapped possibilities of literary art? I conclude with a brief discussion of DeWitt’s second novel, Lightning Rods, and reflect on what this book’s representation of capitalism might tell us about The Last Samurai. All told, each chapter highlights how DeWitt’s great novel opens out onto economic, social, and political questions of ultimate importance.


 Excerpted from The Last Samurai Reread Copyright (c) 2022 Lee Konstantinou. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved. icon

  1. Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai (New York: New Directions, 2016), 26. All subsequent references are cited parenthetically. Page numbers correspond to the New Directions edition.
  2. Christian Lorentzen, “Publishing Can Break Your Heart,” Vulture, July 11, 2016, https://www.vulture.com/2016/07/helen-dewitt-last-samurai-new-edition.html.
  3. Rich Beck, “The Not-Nice Novel,” Emily Books (blog), April 20, 2012, https:// emilybooks.tumblr.com/post/21445306458/the-not-nice-novel.
  4. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).
  5. If you haven’t read the novel, stop what you’re doing and go read it right now. Don’t worry—this book will still be here when you finish. Even though the novel is over five hundred pages long, it’s a surprisingly fast read. If you’re still here and still haven’t read the novel, well, okay … you’re more than welcome to keep reading. I’ve tried to make this book accessible even to those who haven’t yet read the novel.
  6. Amy Hungerford, Making Literature Now (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016). Clayton Childress, Under the Cover: The Creation, Production, and Reception of a Novel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019). Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016). William Deresiewicz, The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech (New York: Holt, 2020). Paulo Lemos Horta, Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017); Álvaro Santana-Acuña, Ascent to Glory: How “One Hundred Years of Solitude” Was Written and Became a Global Classic (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020). I was also inspired by the journalistic example of Keith Gessen, Vanity Fair’s How a Book Is Born: The Making of “The Art of Fielding” (New York: Vanity Fair, 2011), which recounts the making of Chad Harbach’s novel The Art of Fielding (2011).
  7. Hungerford, Making Literature Now, 17.
  8. Merve Emre, “Post-Disciplinary Reading and Literary Sociology,” Modern- ism/modernity Print Plus 3, cycle 4 (February 1, 2019), https://modernism modernity.org/forums/posts/post-disciplinary-reading-and-literary-sociology.
  9. M. H. Miller, “Novels from the Edge: For Helen DeWitt, the Publishing World Is a High-Stakes Game,” Observer, December 21, 2011, https://observer.com/2011/12/novels-from-the-edge-helen-dewitt-12202011/.
Featured image: Abstract samurai sword by Machiel Hulster / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)