The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

I recently spent a week working very intensely away from home, 8am to 7pm working days, with a half-hour break for lunch and all that time spend holed up in a room reading boring files. Reading anything else, not surprisingly, was almost impossible and I found myself reading something which became just words on a page to me, nothing going in, no attachment, no interest, like reading the dictionary but less interesting than that. I was already thinking about setting it aside when one morning I woke with a head fogged with fever and the words “Schwan Stabilo” circling in a technicolour loop in my mind. It is perhaps not the best idea to pay such close attention to aural hallucinations at the onset of what would be yet another bad cold, but their repetitive and insistent nature had me in their grip and it’s fair to say I wasn’t in the best condition for making rational, well-reasoned choices and this, in brief, is the story of how I ended up discarding my existing book and reading The Last Samurai again. Well, it was about time for a re-read anyway.

Given that I’ve read The Last Samurai an actual gazillion times before, it’s perhaps not too surprising that I’ve both reviewed it and written about it before and I’d like to say there’s not a great deal more for me to say about it, but that wouldn’t be true. It’s a complex book, a clever book and a very entertaining book and in any one review it has been possible to touch on only a part of it so I could quite easily reintroduce you to the story…

Which is about a woman, Sybilla, and her son, Ludo or David or Stephen, and the realisation that in the absence of a male role model in his young life he could easily turn into one of those Argentinian soldiers with sufficient lack of empathy that, if ordered, would happily throw a dissident from a moving aeroplane, a concern which troubles Sybilla so greatly that she sets out to give him not one but eight male role models, an approach Ludo or David or Stephen follows in the search of his own father….

Or it’s themes…

Which are many and complex and include language, art, language, genius, music, following your dream or not, young people trapped in economic subjugation to the persons into whose keeping they just happen to have fallen, adventure, exploration, the magic of words (in case saying language twice wasn’t sufficient), miracles of obstinacy, letting blue = blue, the merits of the Circle Line, aerodynamics, Liberace (no, not the), parenthood, suicide and that masterpiece of modern cinema Kurosawa Akira’s Seven Samurai….

Or the marvellous way in which it is written….

Being both funny, droll, extraordinarily intelligent (which, by the reading, confers intelligence upon the reader), at times weird and frustrating and often very disjointed but bear with it, it has an interesting thread which flows through it and it is all worth it in the end

Or the things you will learn by reading it…

Such as the plethora of names for multi-syllabaric words, the mathematics of Gauss, the atom, how to write Odysseus in Greek, Mr. Ma’s system of learning, the hiragana, the plot of Seven Samurai, how to give the other side a fair chance, the Kutta-Joukowski principle of aerodynamics, algebra, why never to read Roemer’s Aristarchs Athetesen in der Homerkritik, that there are people who believe death a fate worse than boredom, lots of classical music that is beautiful and well worth listening to, the brilliance of Carling Black Label Adverts and the absolute necessity of Idaho Fried Chicken

Or I could tell you…

That it is quite possibly my most favourite book ever, which is quite a recommendation because I do not have favourites nor believe in having favourites in anything

That it is never dull, that it never grows old, and every reading, even if you finish and go straight around again, is as fresh as the last

That it is a masterpiece of modern literature

Or I could just let you read it for yourself. Oh go on.

About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
This entry was posted in comfort books, personal reflection, re-read. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

  1. roughghosts says:

    I have a review copy of this from last year’s re-release. I must give it a try. What about Lightning Rods? Have you read that? I know it’s a later book but some people have said it is better to read it first, others don’t like it at all. I got a copy on sale, so I was wondering what you think.

    • bookbii says:

      I loved Lightning Rods, it’s a simpler book than The Last Samurai but probably more polarising. I think it’s a love it or hate it book, but if you love language, and you can swallow the premise of the story (which is ridiculous, but ultimately it’s all about the twisted logic of sales-speak) then it’s a great book, clever and amusing. I prefer The Last Samurai, and I don’t think you lose anything by reading that first (though possibly it might take the shine of Lightning Rods, which is the lesser book in my opinion). I’d love to hear what you think if you do read it.

  2. JacquiWine says:

    It’s interesting to read your comments about the polarising nature of Lightning Rods. while I could admire the satire from a distance, I didn’t warm to the book as a whole. The Last Samurai sounds rather different, less controversial perhaps?

    • bookbii says:

      The Last Samurai is definitely a different book to Lightning Rods, it’s much more wide-ranging in theme and less of a contraversial proposition, though you might say it is equally implausible in its own way. It’s a difficult book to define. It’s desperately intelligent, a little disjointed and eclectic, but also brilliant and funny. I have read it so many times, and it is never dull (though I admit to skipping some of the Greek and the polysyllabic references!).

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