Seven Ways to Hand-sell a Lost Modern Masterpiece
Why Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai is a Bookseller's Book
If there is such a thing as a writer’s writer, and a poet’s poet, then Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai is a bookseller’s book. Originally published by the ill-fated Miramax Books in 2000, DeWitt’s epic debut novel fell out of print and into myth. It is the bookseller’s lament that, despite dazzling reviews and a reverential, almost cult-like following, copies have been unavailable for years. You can’t hand-sell myth.
In The Last Samurai, Sibylla, an American-at-Oxford turned loose on London, finds herself trapped as a single mother after a misguided one-night stand. High-minded principles of child-rearing work disastrously well. J. S. Mill (taught Greek at three) and Yo Yo Ma (Bach at two) claimed the methods would work with any child; when these succeed with the boy Ludo, he causes havoc at school and is home again in a month. Lacking male role models for a fatherless boy, Sibylla turns to endless replays of Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai.
This month, New Directions will publish a new edition of The Last Samurai returning it to its rightful place on bookstore shelves across North America. We honor its resurrection, by asking seven great independent booksellers why everyone should read The Last Samurai.
Phinney Books, Seattle
For the first two years I owned a bookstore I hand-sold The Last Samurai even though I had no copies to sell. “Her first book,” I would say wistfully to customers when I pulled Helen DeWitt’s second book, Lightning Rods, down from the shelf to recommend, “was this incredible book from about 15 years ago that’s gone out of print.” I think Lightning Rods is pretty incredible too, but I didn’t pull it off the shelf for everyone: not every customer is going to appreciate a filthily explicit, thoroughly deadpan satire of workplace sexual harassment and its purported cure.
But now that The Last Samurai is finally back in print and I can pull it off the shelf too (although I won’t have to, since I expect to have it stacked on our front table for the foreseeable future), I am going to be tempted to recommend it to everyone. It’s true that if you flip through the book before reading it you might see some Greek and some Japanese and you won’t see any quotation marks and you might even notice that one chapter is titled “999997 = 999993000020999965000034999979000006999999,” but for those who might think the book is not for them I plan to insist (to the extent that I’m capable of insisting about anything) that they just forget what they saw and turn to page three and start reading, where they and you will see right away that you are in the hands of a confident and inventive and funny storyteller. The Greek and the Japanese and the no quotation marks and the equations are all crucial to the story, so there’s not really any avoiding them eventually, but it is a story, and such a good one. It might even want to make you want to teach yourself Greek and Japanese. It will almost certainly make you want to watch The Seven Samurai.
In some books full of brilliance and seemingly impossibly brilliant people, there can be a hollow show-offiness to the facts and theories that are cited or invented for the story, but for me there’s not a page in The Last Samurai that feels that way. The brilliance—the burden of it, the excitement of it, the hungry necessity and the self-destructive impatience of it—is the story: its poignancy, its thrilling possibility. I hadn’t read The Last Samurai since it first came out and was a little worried—but not too worried—about what I’d think when I read it again 15 years later, but I finished it this second time with a wonderful and terrible feeling of fullness, that someone had conceived of a book so perfectly made, so immense, and so alive to the imperfection and promise of the world.
Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn
Sometimes I miss things the first time around. It’s nobody’s fault; it just happens. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a second chance a little further down the road and wonder what I could’ve possibly been reading that was so good it made me skip over something as stone-cold ambitious as Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai.
New Directions’ reissue breathes new life into DeWitt’s criminally overlooked debut novel, a resounding deep-cut of contemporary literature. When I initially picked it up, I flipped through it casually and took note of its numerous swaths of Japanese, Greek alphabet, and references to untranslated German texts—noted its long, seemingly run-on paragraphs in some sections and its terse, almost dramatic line breaks in others. This chunky, vaguely post-modern book about a child genius seemed to somehow dare me to engage with it.
To my surprise, I found DeWitt’s book instantly and compulsively readable. Her story of Sibylla’s deliberate raising of a child genius, and Ludo’s subsequent quest to find his father reads with all the intellect and icy charm of Margot Tenenbaum writing a bildungsroman homage to Akira Kurosawa. I mean that in a good way.
It’s a book consumed by language and intelligence—both their possibilities and hindrances. Sibylla and Ludo’s minds are almost claustrophobic in their focus on language, and their reverence for The Seven Samurai. While DeWitt makes it obvious that both Sibylla and Ludo are smarter than you, she never compromises her story for a mere demonstration of her characters’ intelligence—never relegates it to the realm of virtue or uses it to eclipse their actual human problems.
Endlessly inventive and entertaining, it’s about time for The Last Samurai to get its due. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself wondering not whether it’s a book worthy of you, but whether you’re worthy of it.
Green Apple / Books on the Park, San Francisco
You know that movie The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise as Captain Algren, a retired US military officer haunted by personal demons (and given to drink) who’s hired by the Emperor of Japan to modernize his country’s army? Algren goes to Japan and is captured and imprisoned by samurai after his contingent of inadequately trained soldiers, who are nothing more than wide-eyed peasants, is routed in their first battle. During his imprisonment Algren experiences all the Hollywood cliche you can cram into two hours: he gets sober; comes to grips with his past; falls in love; learns to admire the ethical code of the samurai; and earns the respect of his captors during battle against his former boss, the Emperor, who in the end realizes through Algren (who, let’s not forget, is a white man from the good old US of A), that the blade of modernity is double-edged. It’s an awful movie.
Fortunately, Helen Dewitt’s novel has nothing in common with the movie other than a title, though you’d be forgiven for confusing the two: The Last Samurai was published by Bob and Harvey Weinstein’s (!) Miramax Books, a subsidiary of Disney (!!), a year or two before the film was released, and I remember at the time selling it to people too lazy to read the jacket copy who thought it was the inspiration for the movie. If I hadn’t been working at a bookstore on a boardwalk at the Jersey Shore at the time, I may have felt guilty about this duplicity, but as it was, any chance to sell a novel as spectacular as Helen Dewitt’s debut was a good one, even if, as the book went out-of-print a few years later, my dishonesty was not enough.
And though now, a dozen years later, I hopefully won’t have to resort to playing the used car salesman to get this book into readers’ hands, let it be known that I am capable of it if necessary.
Brazos Bookstore, Texas
There are debuts and then there are DEBUTS. DeWitt’s modern classic is like a colossal hand-guide to raising a genius son as a single mother but turned into fearless literature. And that is selling it way too short. The Last Samurai focuses on Sibylla and her son Ludo. A single American mother, alone in England, Sibylla uses the Kurosawa classic, The Seven Samurai, to provide Ludo with the male role models she feels he’s lacking. Both are geniuses, by the way, and the book is interspersed with snippets of math, Greek, music and the sciences. But not only is the book a stylistic feat, not only is it moving and profound, it’s highly readable and bursting with joy. Some books contain worlds inside of them, voices from the past, from philosophers to mathematicians to historians, that inform the voice of the novel. The Last Samurai is awash with these voices and they not only enrich the story, they float throughout the book like mysterious and exuberant guides who discuss number theory one moment to Chopin’s ballades the next and onward to any and all forms of esoterica. In Ludo’s search for his father (yes, there are seven candidates) we witness both the joys and the pitfalls of being highly intelligent and highly precocious. This is a novel that grapples with fatherhood and its absence. It grapples with family and disappointment and even madness. It grapples with intellectual curiosity and what it means, not to attain enlightenment, but to search for it. The Last Samurai is packed with stylistic verve while still being immensely readable and very, very funny. Did I mention that it’s unforgettable?
Third Place Books, Washington
I would love to crown with honor those singular teachers who enabled and inspired and made us catch our breath at glimpses of unguessed possibilities. But what wouldn’t I give to have back the 95 percent of my K through 12 years that was an utter waste of time.
I don’t always think such egregious thoughts; when I do, I’ve probably been re-reading Helen DeWitt’s Last Samurai, which is back in print after how many sad long years?
There is a child prodigy in it. Ludo, the prodigy, is being raised by a single mother, herself gifted but an academic dropout and in conventional terms an underachiever. When he’s not reading an ancient Greek or Old Norse or Arabic text, or working out some higher mathematical conundrum, or refreshing his knowledge of aerodynamics, he is usually to be found watching Kurosawa’s Shichinin no Samurai, for Sibylla, his mother, in view of the fact that her son is fatherless, brotherless, and uncleless, finds the seven eponymous samurai to be commendable male role models.
Ludo wants to know who his father is. His quest for a father (you have to imagine an eleven year old with an intimate knowledge of London’s Circle Line and a backpack full of peanut butter sandwiches, a Ribena, the Brennu-njalssaga, and a book on edible insects) leads him out of the sanctuary against human stupidity Sibylla has conjured around him and into a larger world of human acquaintance. He’s going to grow up. He’s going to become human.
The Last Samurai gets at giftedness and intelligence in ways I haven’t seen elsewhere and, even when it strains credibility, is a wonderful dual portrait of a boy with prodigious capacities and a mother trying to do justice to him and his talents. Every time I poke my nose into this book I end up wanting to rearrange my life.
Posman Books, New York City
I’ve been not selling this book to people for over 15 years. Every time, I came across a secondhand copy of Last Samurai during that period, I bought it. I’ve given this book to everyone from my godmother to teenagers. In total, 30 or 40 copies. I tend to go on and on about The Last Samurai but it’s just this simple: Helen DeWitt has written an absolute masterpiece, the greatest novel by anybody still above ground; and it’s back in print.
Community Bookstore, Brooklyn
Because I thought this would be a good time to find out what I had missed, or Several Statements for Use in Handselling The Last Samurai as Quoted from The Last Samurai.
Because sometimes a book can be called from the dust and the dark to produce a book which can be bought in shops.
Because it is truly something and something which the something with the something of this something has something and something, so something also this something might something at first something.
Because you can’t show someone how to think in an hour.
Because a good samurai will parry the blow.
Because I would like to strike a style to amaze.
Because I wish there was a language with a dual trial quadral quincal sextal septal octal nonal and decal.
Because not every genius is a prodigy and not every prodigy is a genius and at five it is too soon to tell.
Because there are people who think death a fate worse than boredom.
Because it seemed very quaint that in England books were in English and in France they were in French.
Because I would see languages with shades of each other.
Because the Rosetta Stone. I think we need more.
Because what if there was a person who never listened to anything anybody ever said.
Because if we fought with real swords I would kill him.
Because it’s only the merest CHANCE that we happen to know the facts of the matter.
Because in a less barbarous society children would not be in absolute economic subjection to the irrational beings into whose keeping fate has consigned them.
Because a chittering alien bursts from the breast to devour your child before your eyes.
Because you have to pay attention the whole time to see whether something seems to be true or is just what somebody says is true.
Because if I am to leave no other record I would like it to be a marvel.
Because I’ll teach you to play Straight No Chaser.
Featured image courtesy Stephen Sparks.