EPS Review #58 - The Last Samurai

by Helen DeWitt, Vintage 2000

Here is a book with many of my favorite things: Greek, Latin, precocity, Japanese, edible bugs, and survival/travel literature. I have two sources of guilt over reading a book like this. One is the voice of Vladimir Nabokov, whose Lectures on Literature, delivered at Wellesley, I am "reading" at a glacial pace:

"A reader treasures a book mainly because it evokes a country, landscape, a mode of living which he nostalgically recalls as part of his own past. Or, and this is the worst thing a reader can do, he identifies himself with a character in the book. This lowly variety is not the kind of imagination I would like readers to use. So what is the authentic instrument to be used by the reader? It is impersonal imagination and artistic delight."

The other issue is what the lunkhead low-raters at Amazon protest: Ms DeWitt is just showing off.

Well, at first I too wondered why I should read about this precocious boy and his single mother. I have met my share of very smart people, and Ludo seemed too perfect, and too grown-up, to be true. But when I laughed out loud at the tabulation the mother, Sibylla, put together of people's responses on the Circle line to a boy of four reading Homer in the original, I knew I could just enjoy the humor of it, and the in-your-face high-standards (or elitism if you prefer). [They are travelling the circle line because they are too poor to heat their London apartment].

	Amazing:						7
	Far too young:						10
	Only pretending to read it:				6
	Excellent idea as etymology so helpful for spelling:	19
	Excellent idea as inflected languages so helpful for computer programming: 8
	Excellent idea as classics indispensable for understanding of English literature: 7
	Excellent idea as Greek so helpful for reading New Testament, camel through the eye of a needle for example mistranslation of very similar word for rope: 3
	Terrible idea as study of classical languages embedded in educational system productive of divisive society: 5
	Terrible idea as overemphasis on study of dead languages directly responsible for neglect of sciences and industrial decline and uncompetitiveness of Britain: 10
	Stupid idea as he should be playing football:		1
	Stupid idea as he should be studying Hebrew & learning about Jewish heritage: 1
	Marvellous idea as spelling and grammar not taught in schools: 24
	Marvellous idea as Homer so marvellous in Greek:	0
	Marvellous idea as Greek such a marvellous language:	0

I don't think the responses (even imagined) would be quite the same back in the USA. Also, I once read an entire book, The Value of the Classics (sorry, Vladimir).

Anyway, Ludo grows up (or gets older anyway) and goes in search of his father. Sibylla has kept his father's identity secret, because he was a fatuous minor author with whom she had a one-night stand. Instead, she repeatedly shows The Seven Samurai in the original, figuring that it offers seven better father figures (this is how Ludo starts to pick up Japanese). The second half of the book consists of seven trial father figures (including the real one) that Ludo tests in analogy with the scene where Katsushiro tests prospective samurai by whacking them with a stick. (Hey, check out this handy guide). Some of these stories are very interesting (survival/travel, remember). I was reminded of Roald Dahl's My Uncle Oswald. The last samurai passes the test, and we realise that Ludo is thinking not only of himself (though I do feel I may have missed something about the ending).

I had not seen the Kurosawa movie before this, but now I have watched it twice on DVD, and like it, though I wouldn't make it a life study. Much is also made of Fraser's Ptolemaic Alexandria, but web references make it sound like a slog. Also recommended is the music of Alkan. My piano teacher was amazed when I mentioned this name, as he has made a special study of this composer, who kept a big grey parrot, and was killed when he reached for the Torah (must be on a shelf higher than your head), and pulled down the whole bookcase by mistake.

Read this book if any of this sounds appealing.

David wrote: Sounds like a great read. Is it fat? Bring along your dogear and I'll have company on the long road home to Sapporo. Sorry you've missed the Seven Samurai for so many years: I've always especially enjoyed the irony of a Western projected back into the japanese past and the marvelous lyric scene where he is chasing her in the woods and the camera takes a timeout to lovingly pan the trees, a seasonal sensibility so Japanese.

Tom wrote: Ah, guilt, by favorite bugbear. Literary criticism is horseshit, and the great authors are the stupidest critics of all. Reading's sole purpose is to provide a balm for the soul; you should guiltlessly read whatever makes you happy.