Book Group: Helen DeWitt's "The Last Samurai" - Discussion Thread

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Hello :-)

It's a four week schedule starting today with subsequent sections starting on consecutive Sundays.

The sections are as follows:

US Edition

week 1: 1-98
week 2: 99-189 [from chapter titled 'i. We never get off at Sloane Square for Nebraska fried chicken']
Week 3: 191-358 [from Donald richie quote, chapter starts '20 march 1993']
Week 4: 358-end [from "i decided not to apply to Oxford to read Classics at the age of 11"]

UK Edition

Week 1: 1-91
Week 2: 92-177
Week 3: 177-327
Week 4: 327- end

This seems a good schedule because we have some light weeks to start off with which will make it possible for anyone who wants to join in a little later to catch up with the rest of us.

Enjoy and start the discussion!

jed_, Sunday, 5 September 2010 14:08 (eight years ago) Permalink

Are we discussing at the beginning if the week as though we've completed the section, or are we just assuming that we all will had completed the section by the beginning of the next week and discussing as we go?

The SBurbs (Alex in Montreal), Sunday, 5 September 2010 16:18 (eight years ago) Permalink

i think we just discuss as we read, i'm not sure actually. can't really work it out myself :/

jed_, Sunday, 5 September 2010 16:27 (eight years ago) Permalink

Reckon post as you read is the best way. If you haven't read it, it might be worth avoiding the thread to avoid spoiler plot/theme/style developments, and then you can join in as and when you feel like it? (never done anything like this before, so just guessing how it might go here)

GamalielRatsey, Sunday, 5 September 2010 17:50 (eight years ago) Permalink

sounds about right to me. i can't imagine there will be many spoilers in this really. not in the first two weeks anyway.

jed_, Sunday, 5 September 2010 18:44 (eight years ago) Permalink

That must be the way to do it - the most enthusiastic readers will be pushing up against the reasonably leisurely timescale quite soon, and we need to let them start venting lest they race away without us and we get no discussion at all.

Ismael Klata, Sunday, 5 September 2010 18:45 (eight years ago) Permalink

ok, so:

Prologue

How Sibylla’s father met her mother, and how he went to a second-rate theological school (thus blowing his previous admission to Harvard) at his Methodist minister father’s behest to ‘give the other side a chance’.

Her father was an atheist and her mother was a pianist who wasn’t allowed to be a musician by her exacting Viennese father.

i —Let’s make bamboo spears! Let’s kill all the bandits!
—You can’t.
—That’s impossible.

[Summary of The Seven Samurai]

1 Do Samurai Speak Penguin Japanese?

The narrator, Sibylla, is writing the story of how she came to leave academia at the age of 23, take a data-entry job, and give birth to a son, L (Ludo, Ludoviticus), whose already evident genius seems to be her reason for writing for posterity.

While she re-types old magazine articles L learns words on flash cards, reads books while asking his mother to explain words he doesn’t know, and re-watches The Seven Samurai, which his mother hopes will supply him with a father figure, while he reads the subtitles. He is anxious to learn the syllabaries for Japanese and to learn Greek; his mother makes a deal with him to read a number of other books, including the Odyssey (in English), before she will start.

On a day in 1986 that Sibylla is nudged into going to a party as a favor to someone at her work (a publisher), she buys Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony and reads it rapturously, then talks everyone’s ear off at the party about it. Eventually the famous writer everyone had expected shows up, Liberace (no not the), and eventually Sibylla and Liberace make it back to his place and despite her contempt for him she eventually moves in on him and sleeps with him to shut him up. (She has never, as of the time of writing, told him about Ludo.)

Interlude

Sibylla continues the story of her family: how her mother stood up to her grandfather and went to the Julliard to demand an audition, somewhat embarrassed herself but impressed the auditor enough to be given advice for how to practice until she was ready for a real audition, and then returned home to practice an annoying exercise for months until she eventually took up practicing in Sibylla’s father’s motel (the property he had bought under advice from the man he beat at pool in the prologue).

j., Monday, 6 September 2010 08:06 (eight years ago) Permalink

i'm not sure what i think about sibylla. she's an extremely well-observed character—i feel like i've met plenty of people (in and around academia!) like her before, and now surely read blogs by sibyllas with that same kind of combination of fascination with intellectual minutiae; wild swings in interest and attention; contempt for others (check the charge of people making 'logical fallacies', always a slightly suspect sign); and conception of the purity of her love for what populates her intellectual world.

besides translation, the proper use and development of talent is obviously a theme. it's been a long time since i've seen 'the seven samurai', so apart from the bits on it in the story i don't know, but it does seem as if apart from the expressed purpose of giving L. some male role models (ha), there's some connection between the talents of the figures in the story (sibylla's father and mother, her, L, others) and the way the samurai act about fighting and their swordsmanship. it would seem that sibylla sort of fancies herself as more noble or purely devoted to… whatever, to language or translation or marvelous things, because she chose to leave oxford and not 'contribute to human knowledge'. but in terms of the story it's not clear what that means for her own talent. it might have been developed further or used to some benefit before she had L, but the story suggests that she was just doing office work and amusing herself in her spare time. after she has L, and scraping out a living as a freelance data-entrant (after being downsized out of the secretary's job at the publisher?), it seems unlikely that she's putting much into developing or using her talent, EXCEPT in raising her little genius. obviously a lot of that comes from him, but because of her family history with talented people's wasted talents, we might suspect that she sees this as her opportunity to make what she can of hers.

she seems like a little bit of a pseud.

j., Monday, 6 September 2010 08:24 (eight years ago) Permalink

"after she has L, and scraping out a living as a freelance data-entrant (after being downsized out of the secretary's job at the publisher?"

i assumed this was a single-mother issue ... ?

thomp, Monday, 6 September 2010 15:04 (eight years ago) Permalink

(also ludo is reading the odyssey in greek, surely? he's asking about words and copying them onto index cards. also reading bits of the bible in hebrew.)

i started this properly this morning and got to the end of the first chunk without really wanting to stop, but had to go to work and do some other things. it's pretty good! compulsive! better than the last three things i read!

but also it's kind of, i don't know ... if it manages to be any larger than it already is i'll be surprised. (action of the novel so far = a woman watches a movie with her kid)

how seriously do we take sibylla's notion about how language in books ought to work? i mean - is that the plan of the novel we're reading, or is that novel a gesture towards it, or is it a passing idea which merely demonstrates some similarity with the novel we happen to be reading?

thomp, Monday, 6 September 2010 15:08 (eight years ago) Permalink

also i do not like the names - characters called sibyl and ludo make the part of my brain that knows what these words mean clam up defensively and refuse to actually deal with that sort of thing and whatever relevance it might hold

thomp, Monday, 6 September 2010 15:08 (eight years ago) Permalink

just finished the prologue, some initial observations:

struck me as interesting the way the narrator's grandfather is referenced: - in fact the first sentence makes it quite explicit, right? "my father's father," not "my grandfather." and in the first few pages the agency of the grandfather is seemingly removed - 'something' speaks through him, 'the beautiful voice' - what is the point of the metonymy? is it meant to emphasize the influence the grandfather has over the father - that he sees his father as some kind of divinity, perhaps, until the grandfather's advice strands him at the theological college with no future. at that point in the narrative, he reverts back to being a grandfather.

also find the repetition of the first few pages interesting - almost like a retelling of the three little pigs - and the progression from head -> dean -> deputy dean. and the parallelism between the narrator's father's story and buddy's. also the irony that his biggest influence during theological school is a would-be rabbi from the synagogue.

grandma: smells and textures :: 180 (dayo), Monday, 6 September 2010 15:44 (eight years ago) Permalink

also, can't help but spitball at the significance of the seven samurai review inserted before the first chapter - number crunching & some slight stretching generates a tenuous link between those who have given up their dreams (buddy & his 2 sisters/1 brother) and those who haven't (the narrator's father, mother, and presumably herself) - similar to the three samurai left after the attack - and gives the title of the book more...foreshadowing power.

well, I suppose I should read more before I spout off through the ass. quick read so far, think the 140-ish page a week schedule is actually quite quite doable.

grandma: smells and textures :: 180 (dayo), Monday, 6 September 2010 15:51 (eight years ago) Permalink

i'll be starting the thread for smartasses who have already finished it by the end of the week, probably

thomp, Monday, 6 September 2010 15:57 (eight years ago) Permalink

thom, i'm not sure about her job because i didn't notice any mention of the switch. her job with the publisher was as a secretary, but then she says they'd received word that they'd been acquired and everyone's jobs were safe, which they assumed meant most people would be let go. i assumed she was working for someone else now. but needing a different job because of L makes sense.

i sort of think that all the names are sibylla's doing, including hers and ludo's—look at how habitually she turns other people into translations of renowned people (liberace, lord leighton). so if they Mean Something they mean it mainly through the lens of her character.

i've guessed that to the extent that we're supposed to take her ideas about language seriously, she herself doesn't think they're all that choate, or that the book she's writing demonstrates the kind of thing she was imagining during the party. it seems as if maybe she could think ludo is the one who will be able to write a book fulfilling her vision.

according to the plan ludo must have been reading the odyssey in translation but he gets done with his assignment so fast, or else he breaks down sibylla's resistance to teaching him any greek before he's actually at that point, that it seems like soon he must be reading it in greek.

(speaking of which, the only greek i have comes from reading epictetus with a teacher a couple summers ago. but since i learned 'and' = 'kai', i could make out its appearance in the numeric prefixes when ludo was running through the '-syllabic' sequence, that was pretty cool.)

j., Monday, 6 September 2010 17:31 (eight years ago) Permalink

dayo, doesn't sibylla's mother sort of trail off from practicing? or would you count her opposition to her father as the main thing?

j., Monday, 6 September 2010 17:33 (eight years ago) Permalink

ah damn I didn't look at ILX again after ledge worked out his reading at 120 pgs a week. And this i what i have read today. But I'll read up to 198pp on Sunday.

A few bits and bobs:

- I thought her job was data entry because its about 7 quid an hour right? Secretaries get a much better rate. lol.

- Terrific posts so far: the development of talent as a theme is very well put. V striking how the narrator talks of Mozart's sister who got the exact same education but got nowhere with her music as 'proof' that women were no good at it. The scenes of L reading/learning on public transport remind me of a time when I was observing a father, on a Sunday, reading to his child about human biology, but the child was getting quite upset and not in the mood and making a scene on the train. V bizarre thing I would forget until a time like this!

- But in terms of using Seven Samurai as nurturing device I thought it was not only about providing a male model but also a model of how a group interact and work together on a goal, of providing a model of wider social interaction. L does not seem to have friends, and spends all his time with mother. (what his age? Love this...thought it quite er, Proustian how I couldn't work out whether he was 3 or 6 or a nearly fully formed adult until he would dialogue and it would be all choppy bits of 'I read THIS (a), then THIS (b), then THIS (c), etc. and again the scenes of the child and mother reading, talking, arguing all went back to The Way by Swann's)

- Great bits of high/low cult: Liberace (no not the...yeah right!) and Schoenberg inhabiting the same world (she thought of Schoenberg as a genius, but she slept with Liberace!).

- The audition scene was wonderful.

- A couple more things but as those might be 20 pages ahead I'll stop and start again next week.

- to the add to the way its written: the shifts from normal punctuation to no punctuation. Must go back for a 2nd look.

xyzzzz__, Monday, 6 September 2010 18:39 (eight years ago) Permalink

Not sure if Sibylla gets into this yet, but so far as I can tell this

model of how a group interact and work together on a goal

is a big part of it. Part of the concern about a lack of strong role models for Sibylla is that without a rigid code of honour or structure for L's intellect to be contained by or guided by, he could end up an amoral genius - there's a bit about throwing people out of planes in Argentina or something? Need to find time to scan over this section again. The importance of moral and aesthetic distinction is big for Sibylla, and how meaning is ascribed to actions. (There are people who think contraception is immoral because the object of copulation is procreation.) (And also, the importance of social niceties, re: how she ends up sleeping with Liberace.)

Beauty for its own sake, genius for its own sake, etc. etc. is embarrassing or gauche or whatever - "his fault was not a lack of skill: it is the faultlessness of his skill which makes the paintings embarrassing to watch). Ugh rain on my computer, more thoughts later.

The SBurbs (Alex in Montreal), Monday, 6 September 2010 18:51 (eight years ago) Permalink

Starting the section properly from the beginning. This is more interesting than constitutional law anyhow.

The SBurbs (Alex in Montreal), Monday, 6 September 2010 18:54 (eight years ago) Permalink

Also, keep an eye on that hypothetical game that Sibylla's father plays - the idea of chance and fate and whether your options are ever truly closed is something that weighs on Sibylla heavily over the course of the novel.

The SBurbs (Alex in Montreal), Monday, 6 September 2010 18:59 (eight years ago) Permalink

I feel strangely inarticulate about a book I've spent so much time thinking about.

If I had not read Roemer, not dropped out, never have met Liberace, and the world would be short a -

This plays out the way her father's hotel scheme does. Ludo in some senses is the redemptive opportunity for S's supposedly squandered brilliance. Tied in some ways to her desire to (if unable to fulfill her genius due to the institutionalized structures of knowledge creation) midwife brilliance..."Rilke was the secretary of Rodin", etc.

The SBurbs (Alex in Montreal), Monday, 6 September 2010 19:08 (eight years ago) Permalink

xyzzzz, i don't know if you caught this, but when sibylla's talking about mozart's sister she's mentioning someone's theory, which she shoots down in a way that parallels her take on the homer scholar.

the form of the prose is interesting, when it's part of sibylla's story in the process of its being written out, it seems writerly, but then when it's broken apart by her conversations with ludo, everything seems as if it's all on the same plane and we're just switching back and forth between fixed contexts. particularly in the way the writing is suspended mid-sentence and then resumed. it seems there's something very phenomenologically apt about that—fits the way book people interact with books-and-the-world.

a bit of the no-punctuation seems to my eye to be a very british suppression of commas during short lists, but it's amplified by a bit of roughness in the contours of the sentences when sibylla is at her most imaginative / rapturous about some idea.

i would like to understand better what to make of the party scene and subsequent conception scene. i think it goes well beyond social niceties. sibylla finds it all too easy to just put up a front (far more than a front), given how highly she rates her own rationality and faults the stupidity of others. ('bandits' she can't kill?)

j., Monday, 6 September 2010 19:13 (eight years ago) Permalink

Riding on the Circle Line is anoter fairly obvious metaphor, I suppose, but an apt one. Day follows day, and they go round and round, Iterations and repetition are key, perhaps. The Seven Samurai is watched again and again, S's mother plays Chopin's Revolutionary Étude for the 63rd time. Kambei and Katsushiro's repeated test with the stick and the door will crop up more than once.

The SBurbs (Alex in Montreal), Monday, 6 September 2010 19:19 (eight years ago) Permalink

Yeah, j, it is more than social niceties. That sort of ambivalence about "what is done" or "what is expected" vs "what is rational" or "what Sibylla believes" is something central o her outlook? I feel like the certainty of her aesthetic and moral beliefs make it easy to live in her headspace early in the book. It wasn't until the second time I read it that it struck me how flawed and damaged a character she is - I'm still not sure if she's presented to us as someone to admire or not.

The SBurbs (Alex in Montreal), Monday, 6 September 2010 19:24 (eight years ago) Permalink

Love love love the touch of her father putting the Origin of Species in every drawer of his motels.

The SBurbs (Alex in Montreal), Monday, 6 September 2010 19:25 (eight years ago) Permalink

sibylla herself exhibits some of the repetitiveness that we see much more clearly in ludo since he's an enthusiastic genius right at the stage of his learning where most of it is rote—like when she's describing beautiful languages and expresses her affection for them by listing out the grammatical cases, as if she were in a school exercise. we're not given much evidence of it in her back-story up to oxford, but that kind of formal assiduousness about the basic facts surely was a core part of her education (self-imposed or otherwise), which should mean that her abandonment of research at oxford was in serious tension with some of her most important convictions.

alex, one nice thing about the mother story is that her practice is shown after the audition to have been completely pointless or harmful—barely enough to get her foot in the door. and the teacher responds by giving her: a different and even less satisfying form of repetitive practice.

j., Monday, 6 September 2010 19:36 (eight years ago) Permalink

Yes! And she keeps it up well into Sibylla's teenage years.

(Seriously I can't wait until we get to the back half of the book, because if y'all have already cottoned on to this stuff there are a HEAP of dysfunctional geniuses to dig your teeth into once we get there. The book is basically a perpetual search for someone not permanently crippled by their brain.)

The SBurbs (Alex in Montreal), Monday, 6 September 2010 19:41 (eight years ago) Permalink

My favourite line in the book is "There are people who think death a fate worse than boredom." and this is also pretty central to Sibylla, imo. Her abandonment of research at Oxford is in part grounded in a disdain that she's expected to hew to pointless structures that limit her personal exploration.

Also, the "something looked through my grandfather's eyes" is a structure used on both sides of the family. "It's only fair to give the other side a chance" and ""Being an accountant, it's not the end of the world." are the same thing. Compromising oneself or taking the easy way out intellectually are pretty much the only cardinal sins in Sibylla's world. That "something" might be the same thing as the "Alien" that taunts Sibylla with her insecurities about motherhood. "It's only fair to give the other side a chance" it says - this time referring to Liberace and letting Ludo meet him, If L is a samurai, what is he being trained for? Is he being trained to meet Liberace? To make his way in the world?

(Also, her grandfather the engineering professor is another example of the tension between bureaucracy/institutions and true knowledge. Totally forgot about him. DeWitt actually wrote a piece for the Yale review of books that expounds her thoughts on this further - http://helendewitt.com/dewitt/ybr.html)

The SBurbs (Alex in Montreal), Monday, 6 September 2010 19:56 (eight years ago) Permalink

I read the 91 pages in one go - quite unusual for me, and I could've kept going so it definitely passes the readability test. Helped possibly by there being lots of skimmable/skippable passages - nothing on earth is going to get me interested in things greek I'm afraid.

The argentine throwing-people-from-helicopters bit really jarred with me, like it was half-a-sentence thrown in a propos of nothing, just to be provocative, and I was quite annoyed. Then it reappeared a page further on and I thought 'ah, there was a point after all', but of course it hasn't been touched on since and I can't remember what on earth I thought the point might have been. It doesn't strike me as a particularly rational episode, though at least it isn't the holocaust - I do hope the book isn't heading there.

Ismael Klata, Monday, 6 September 2010 21:45 (eight years ago) Permalink

i haven't read the discussion yet but i'm not far from this week's end point. the fact that i'm annoyed by certain aspects of it but enjoying it very much overall bodes well for some interesting discussion. i don't think i've read anything like it before though - it's quite a unique book!

jed_, Monday, 6 September 2010 21:51 (eight years ago) Permalink

Enjoying a lot, & I prob will end up racing ahead - want to finish before I go away next Tuesday - if you do start a 'smart-arse early finishers' thread, Thomp, I'll be in.

Not sure what I've got to add at this point. It's very good on what the world does to talent and capacity in its various forms - what massive potential becomes when circumstance steps in; horror of making choices in a world of fluid & unlimited possibility; complementary problem of that becoming amorphous dilettantism. That 'what is all this - the prodigy's education, Sibylla's own accumulation of languages - for?' question is the killer. (I Samuel is in there. He knew what to do - God told him.) Most general form - how do people end up what they and where they are?

S knocks the Julliard guy's exercises for her mother, in favour of 'thought' (is too much thought a problem here? (see JS Mill needing Wordsworth to open him up from child prodigy dryness iirc)). How admirable is her distaste for the hard boring work - the exercises, scholarly slog of reading German monographs etc?

In terms of style, manages the breaks and jumps of the Sibylla passages faultlessly, but am almost more impressed by the drive & momentum of the two family narratives - super readable.

portrait of velleity (woof), Monday, 6 September 2010 22:42 (eight years ago) Permalink

i'm curious about sibylla's attitude toward diligence, so i thought i'd go through the books she mentions to see if they have any particular bearing on her character, or if they show some sort of pattern of omission. (that question comes up anyway because of how heterodox her reading is, and because of her character and the story and such, but i was struck by seeing mention of the philosopher michael dummett's book of collected essays, 'truth and other enigmas', and then just at the beginning of the next section we have yet to read, the philosopher alberto coffa's 'the semantic tradition from kant to carnap', a history covering much-neglected material that belongs to the prehistory of the analytic philosophy that runs from frege through russell and wittgenstein to carnap—neither of which is anything less than scrupulously diligent. there's also the interesting biographical bit connected with dummett, whose book frege: philosophy of language came with a preface apologizing for the delay in completing the book because dummett took time off to engage in anti-racist political activity.)

the first thing i went looking for was an electronic copy of sibylla's fateful aristarchs athetesen in der homerkritik. i couldn't find it but this contemporaneous review is hilarious in comparison with the way sibylla rejects what she barely makes out of the german. (i would like to see a later take on the same scholarly issue, because sibylla aside those things have their ways of being utterly reversed by diligent, sober, competent, reasonable etc. etc. decades later.)

what she says about roemer is pretty telling vis a vis the distribution of talent, anxieties and resentments over genius and such:

'Now it is patently, blatantly obvious that this is insane. If you are going to shuffle all the names around so that one person is always the genius, this means that you have decided not to believe your source whenever it says someone else said something good or the genius said something bad—but the source is your only reason for thinking the genius was a genius in the first place. Anyone who had stopped to think for two seconds would have seen the problem, but Roemer had managed to write an entire scholarly treatise without thinking for two seconds.'

one of her main beefs here: 'one person is always the genius'.

j., Tuesday, 7 September 2010 01:56 (eight years ago) Permalink

some bits and pieces:

sidis the child prodigy.

lord leighton's greek girls playing at ball and syracusan bride.

ukiyo-e prints by utamaro.

the rosetta stone, which sibylla says she believes was 'originally a rather pompous thing to erect' that was nevertheless a gift to posterity (to which she happens to be writing her story). i had never read the inscription before. it sounds very… administrative.

j., Tuesday, 7 September 2010 02:28 (eight years ago) Permalink

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hOKcdZJJFU

chopin's revolutionary etude - note questions of technique, worldly significance.

j., Tuesday, 7 September 2010 02:30 (eight years ago) Permalink

Beauty for its own sake, genius for its own sake, etc. etc. is embarrassing or gauche or whatever - "his fault was not a lack of skill: it is the faultlessness of his skill which makes the paintings embarrassing to watch)

Don't see this so much as 'beauty for its own sake' as the dominance of technique - all surface, no feeling. Exquisite prose littered with logical fallacies. This could tie in with her mother's ultimately unsuccessful practicing regime, all technique (loose wrists!), no 'thought'. But that's getting into notions of creativity, which is not the direction the book seems to be going in.

Spotted a nice pun - 'ought implies cant' - although it's somewhat thrown away, dismissed as something that Liberace believes.

ledge, Tuesday, 7 September 2010 09:04 (eight years ago) Permalink

Today I'm marvelling at how self-obsessed the narrator is. Except for the parents, who are basically proxy narrators in their sections, we get barely a description of what any character looks like or does, other than what they say and (occasionally) what their voices sound like. Roemer is as real to me as Ludo. The exceptions are the quite minor characters who act as agents of change - Buddy, the Juillard tutor, the pool-playing guy. Liberace to an extent, but I feel only because she can't avoid doing so as cause for her own reactions. It's a bit odd.

Ismael Klata, Tuesday, 7 September 2010 12:36 (eight years ago) Permalink

Is that self-obsession? It's more like an unhealthy reliance on pure thought - she's thinking and arguing and picking holes in what people say - all verbal/cerebral. Is she not a bit disconnected from herself? Like surely you're meant to be a bit 'o rly' at her account of how and why she sleeps with Liberace.

portrait of velleity (woof), Tuesday, 7 September 2010 12:45 (eight years ago) Permalink

That's probably a better way of putting it, yes. Ideally you'd want your kid to be a greater physical presence to you than a wailing voice who occasionally needs to be dumped upstairs.

Ismael Klata, Tuesday, 7 September 2010 12:49 (eight years ago) Permalink

well he's more than a wailing voice, he's a questioning, information devouring, knowledge vampire, who might well leave little time/effort left for a proper mother/son relationship.

ledge, Tuesday, 7 September 2010 13:07 (eight years ago) Permalink

"knowledge vampire"

is the best thing to come out of this thread so far.

The SBurbs (Alex in Montreal), Tuesday, 7 September 2010 13:08 (eight years ago) Permalink

just got to page 50 - so far I'm struck by how...quantitative the writing has been. it picks up on S's father's calculation of odds and runs with it - right, breaking down everything into accountable numbers and categories - from the description of the japanese language, to teaching L how to calculate sums, to the very precise portioning of her day - all of it is very calculative.

I feel that there's a subtle critique of the Age of Enlightenment and all that it brought - blind adherence to Reason, already sent up in the description of the German book that S reads at Oxford which makes her abandon her studies. perhaps she's saying that it's all a mask - rationality used to justify irrational human desires? that perhaps the pursuit of Reason is akin to picking a scab - something you can't help but do but you know will lead you to more pain in the future.

and of course I can't help but notice that L is getting a very, very classical education in learning Hebrew, Greek, reading the Odyssey.

and as touched upon upthread, the transmission of knowledge, how much of it springs a priori and how much of its helped along by the teacher - it does seem S has a lot of trouble keeping the reins on L, L is certainly outpacing her so far. a contrast to the relationship between S's father and grandfather, the dictums handed out...almost without reason...from a higher authority, backed only by the seniority of the source.

interesting to see how the samurai/Japanese part plays out - the obvious prediction is that the Eastern tradition will be set up as a counterpoint to the Western tradition of Enlightenment and Rationality, hope DeWitt will spin something more rational out of this.

grandma: smells and textures :: 180 (dayo), Tuesday, 7 September 2010 14:30 (eight years ago) Permalink

err, the very last rational should be 'interesting'

grandma: smells and textures :: 180 (dayo), Tuesday, 7 September 2010 14:31 (eight years ago) Permalink

oh, and S's occupation - a typist who transcribes articles and such - immediately brings to mind flaubert's bouvard et pecuchet, the two most famous copy clerks in the history of literature. the transmission of knowledge - whether it is received calmly and without complaint or introspection, or received critically and with an untrusting eye - is obviously a big theme here.

grandma: smells and textures :: 180 (dayo), Tuesday, 7 September 2010 14:34 (eight years ago) Permalink

Ok, I'm going to post my thoughts before reading the thread first, and then have a look through. I suppose the first thing to say is that it's very enjoyable. I'd read the first couple of chapters when I got and whizzed through them.

The first chapter reminded me a lot of Peter de Vries - the compressed humour describing an intelligent assimilation into the American middle-classes, plus of course the strong element that religion (and love) plays the process. The epigrammatic wit is also similar - 'a clever man so rarely needs to think'.

One of the things, I think, makes the structural games of the following chapters so enjoyable is that they're predicated not on aesthetic whim (not that there's anything wrong with that) but on the distractions of a child, the necessity for work, the boringness of work, all things that are kin to all of us I'd imagine (well, not necessarily the child bit - but boredom, distractions, necessity etc).

Her voice has that catholic approach to knowledge which I associate with some American writers, Douglas Hofstadter in Godel, Escher, Bach for intance. The high and the low is inseperable.

The general tone is also totally unpompous, which makes it an utter pleasure to read. Elements like fate and chance, which are often dealt with maundering seriousness are dealt with deftly and playfully. And, hey, I learnt stuff too. Great.

Ok, now I'm going to read through the thread, see what's what.

GamalielRatsey, Wednesday, 8 September 2010 08:09 (eight years ago) Permalink

the compressed humour describing an intelligent assimilation into the American middle-classes

This in itself was too compressed. What I meant to say was perhaps 'compressed humour describing a relucant, but nevertheless articulate assimilation into the... not middle I don't think... clerical? business classes?

I felt the seduction scene was deliberately arch, and it's amusing the way she's 'bored' into sleeping with him.

GamalielRatsey, Wednesday, 8 September 2010 08:46 (eight years ago) Permalink

when she's describing beautiful languages and expresses her affection for them by listing out the grammatical cases

yo ppl do this

this is proving a great book to pester my girlfriend about.

'what is this word' 'ganglion' 'how does gamma alpha gamma gamma make gang' 'two gammas together make an ng' 'oh'

'what even is a ganglion in greek anyway' 'go away'

-

an utter pleasure to read

i totally concur with this, i am going to get into work late because i decided to find time to finish part two today. i am enjoying this more than any of the other ten books i am currently reading and it is not even close.

-

does anyone want to hazard a guess who liberace and lord leighton are figures for?

thomp, Wednesday, 8 September 2010 10:13 (eight years ago) Permalink

i'm curious about sibylla's attitude toward diligence, so i thought i'd go through the books she mentions to see if they have any particular bearing on her character, or if they show some sort of pattern of omission. (...)

doesn't she also mention reading and rereading leave it to psmith?

thomp, Wednesday, 8 September 2010 10:15 (eight years ago) Permalink

Yeah, got the impression that was her comfort book. (again, one of the iterations - says she reads it something like 23 times, like the Revolutionary Etude and the Chopin's Prelude 23.)

GamalielRatsey, Wednesday, 8 September 2010 10:37 (eight years ago) Permalink

when she's describing beautiful languages and expresses her affection for them by listing out the grammatical cases

yo ppl do this

i'm well aware! just saying, it marks her as a certain kind of person. (also, she's a linguist/classicist.)

re comfort books, notice that she also derives comfort from gesenius' hebrew grammar. to the point, apparently, that it helps stave off suicidal thoughts (better than anything you could get from a 'help line'). i'm not sure how to take the detail she focuses on—'excepting the phoenician' or somewhat. gives the impression of a kind of aestheticized attitude toward the things rather than the scholarly/scientific one it seems to aim at.

j., Wednesday, 8 September 2010 15:03 (eight years ago) Permalink

Is "Penguin English" a real term? Did the character mean "pidgin"?

Mosquepanik at Ground Zero (abanana), Wednesday, 8 September 2010 17:57 (eight years ago) Permalink

trying think of a more bravura, high-art, firework-laden passage of writing I've read recently; drawing a blank

and to think there's probably more to come

imago, Monday, 3 December 2018 21:21 (six months ago) Permalink

Maybe I should just give up on all the books I’ve been starting lately and just read this again.

JoeStork, Monday, 3 December 2018 21:35 (six months ago) Permalink

most amusingly, that chapter is based on a fictional Sunday Times interview that in reality would have had to span half the paper and been the best thing any print journal has ever contained

helen just has higher standards for everyone I guess

imago, Monday, 3 December 2018 21:38 (six months ago) Permalink

That’s pretty much it yeah

I have measured out my life in coffee shop loyalty cards (silby), Monday, 3 December 2018 21:52 (six months ago) Permalink

She doesn't lack for astonishing bravura setpieces does she?

While the HC/RD bit (which I haven't even finished yet) is obviously some sort of literary pinnacle, I do feel I should observe that the best bit of Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, which came out only a few years before, was also a long and dazzlingly fabulistic reported narrative about a couple of scholars (astronomers rather than philologists) involving impromptu flying devices in China and some complex and ambiguous moral lesson. I know I shouldn't compare everything to Pynchon but

imago, Monday, 10 December 2018 20:51 (six months ago) Permalink

Also of COURSE I should have anticipated L's banter with S once he turned 11. Delightful :D

imago, Monday, 10 December 2018 20:52 (six months ago) Permalink

ah man this gets intense

final chapter is perfect, cheers-to-the-rafters stuff. i cried a bit

imago, Wednesday, 12 December 2018 23:10 (six months ago) Permalink

when Tom Cruise presents the Emperor with Katsumoto's sword? ;_;

( ͡☉ ͜ʖ ͡☉) (jim in vancouver), Wednesday, 12 December 2018 23:17 (six months ago) Permalink

holy fuck the yamamoto chapter

― imago, Monday, December 3, 2018 6:40 AM (two weeks ago) Bookmark Flag Post Permalink

otm

almost halfway through, pretty sure this is the best book i've ever read that's not the magic mountain

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Tuesday, 18 December 2018 15:53 (six months ago) Permalink

part of it is that it kind of feels like a great work of criticism on top of being a novel, so of course i'm extremely taken with it

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Tuesday, 18 December 2018 15:55 (six months ago) Permalink

I should reread sometime next year, especially if a certain career move comes through.

I have measured out my life in coffee shop loyalty cards (silby), Tuesday, 18 December 2018 16:26 (six months ago) Permalink

happy to hear you're enjoying the book, Brad :)

flopson, Tuesday, 18 December 2018 21:26 (six months ago) Permalink

a certain career move

Samurai?

jmm, Tuesday, 18 December 2018 21:28 (six months ago) Permalink

maybe!

I have measured out my life in coffee shop loyalty cards (silby), Tuesday, 18 December 2018 21:29 (six months ago) Permalink

i think i would have had more success in turning people onto this if she hadn't named it The Last Samurai

flopson, Tuesday, 18 December 2018 21:29 (six months ago) Permalink

she didn't, she named it "The Seven Samurai"

I have measured out my life in coffee shop loyalty cards (silby), Tuesday, 18 December 2018 22:02 (six months ago) Permalink

should have named it Tetrakaidecapod tbah

imago, Tuesday, 18 December 2018 22:05 (six months ago) Permalink

me: you should read this book The Last Samurai
them: lol like the Tom Cruise movie
me: no it's this really cool book about a child prodigy and his mo-
them: yeah yeah sure i'll check it out *never reads it*

flopson, Tuesday, 18 December 2018 22:11 (six months ago) Permalink

of all the child prodigies born in london in early 1987, ludo is probably my favourite. he didn't end up wasting his life chatting shit about indie on the internet. at least, so we hope

actually of course he didn't, he wasn't coddled and then ruined by private school

imago, Tuesday, 18 December 2018 22:18 (six months ago) Permalink

imago :( it's ok, Ludo's fictional and anyway the default trajectory for a gifted kid is to grow up into an average adult.

that said even if you aren't a child prodigy I think one of the things I took away from reading this is that it's always possible to just sit down and do something hard that you want to do, even if nobody gives a shit. Like, not for nothing did you upload your novel to createspace. The challenge is finding the time when you have to survive under capitalism but you can still make gestures at the ineffable yknow

I have measured out my life in coffee shop loyalty cards (silby), Tuesday, 18 December 2018 22:27 (six months ago) Permalink

:)

the novel definitely gave me strength more than it made me wonder what could have been!

imago, Tuesday, 18 December 2018 22:28 (six months ago) Permalink

This is a bit of a basic bitch question about this book, BUT, I loved the introduction (10 pages or so) then immediately struggled with the first chapter and the new narrator, and gave up. Does it stay that full-on for the whole book?

Chuck_Tatum, Tuesday, 18 December 2018 22:34 (six months ago) Permalink

nearly every other chapter is a dramatic shift in tone/style but it never returns to the style of the prologue

flopson, Tuesday, 18 December 2018 22:57 (six months ago) Permalink

had maybe 1 or 2 stylistic misgivings over the first ~70 pages but they all resolve with extreme suddenness and the rest of the book is nothing short of gripping

imago, Tuesday, 18 December 2018 23:17 (six months ago) Permalink

silby otm

one of the great things about this book is that it makes "genius" a completely unintimidating inconvenient mundane thing like everything else in life

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:13 (five months ago) Permalink

This is a bit of a basic bitch question about this book, BUT, I loved the introduction (10 pages or so) then immediately struggled with the first chapter and the new narrator, and gave up. Does it stay that full-on for the whole book?

― Chuck_Tatum, Tuesday, December 18, 2018 3:34 PM (four hours ago) Bookmark Flag Post Permalink

sibylla's narrating the prologue, so i don't understand your question

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:14 (five months ago) Permalink

nearly every other chapter is a dramatic shift in tone/style but it never returns to the style of the prologue

― flopson, Tuesday, December 18, 2018 3:57 PM (four hours ago) Bookmark Flag Post Permalink

i also disagree with this, sibylla's whole thing with liberace is as much of a yarn as the prologue

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:15 (five months ago) Permalink

agree to disagree. i got like, mythical vibes from the prologue

flopson, Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:26 (five months ago) Permalink

don't know what a yarn means, but there are many parts of the book i would describe as 'yarns' yet not similar

flopson, Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:27 (five months ago) Permalink

i guess i don’t get it when the vibe of the prologue continues in the first chapter when sybilla picks up the thread with her father and her mother, it’s basically the same style

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:42 (five months ago) Permalink

i am really good at spelling sibylla wrong on the first try every time

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:43 (five months ago) Permalink

i don’t necessarily even know what i mean but a yarn but i guess i mean when whenever this novel really slides into a mostly unbroken story. yamamoto part has that fuckin incredible power too

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:45 (five months ago) Permalink

this just in: i unconsciously stole “yarn” from the time blurb on the back cover

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:46 (five months ago) Permalink

maybe the thing is that with this book i feel like i am encountering a brain not a series of styles

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:54 (five months ago) Permalink

haha i remember that from the back cover now you mention it!

flopson, Wednesday, 19 December 2018 04:08 (five months ago) Permalink

i guess i don’t get it when the vibe of the prologue continues in the first chapter when sybilla picks up the thread with her father and her mother, it’s basically the same style

― jolene club remix (BradNelson), Tuesday, December 18, 2018 10:42 PM (forty-four minutes ago) Bookmark Flag Post Permalink

oh i think i meant this whole part

flopson, Wednesday, 19 December 2018 04:27 (five months ago) Permalink

Ah, the first chapter felt so different and more difficult to me tha the prologue, that I assumed they were different narrators.

But I’ve just rebought it so it’s now my Christmas holiday read.

Chuck_Tatum, Wednesday, 19 December 2018 10:19 (five months ago) Permalink

ludo isn't like me anyway, he's like our dearly departed nakhchivan

imago, Wednesday, 19 December 2018 20:24 (five months ago) Permalink

i'm in the 11yo ludo narration rn. been thinking about recommending this book to my mom bc she's a former teacher who was v frustrated with the educational system but also i think she'd just like ludo a lot ("here mom enjoy this 500 page experimental novel some of which is in japanese and greek")

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Thursday, 20 December 2018 14:58 (five months ago) Permalink

also i cannot overstate how much of a blast this book is. it's so fun! i never want to stop reading it

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Thursday, 20 December 2018 15:08 (five months ago) Permalink

also i studied japanese for five years (but: almost a decade ago at this point) and lol at how much it is *not* helping me with the japanese sections, mostly bc ludo and sibylla immediately attack it from the angle of kanji-memorization and grammar, which is the complete inverse of how it was taught to me

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Thursday, 20 December 2018 15:10 (five months ago) Permalink

but i think that's part of the point (also it's not like the sections are hard or aren't ever thoroughly translated), what with sibylla trying to develop this linear approach to mastery and ludo skipping straight to learning the characters for "turtle" and "gloom"

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Thursday, 20 December 2018 15:19 (five months ago) Permalink

Blah, y'all are making me want to read this again.

I read it 6 or 7 years ago, but I'm not sure I got it. Or I didn't entirely pick up on the 'anti-elitist' aspect (Christian Lorentz in that Vulture canon piece):

Is this boy, Ludo, a genius? Sibylla, his mother, is of two minds about it. She recognizes that she’s done something out of the ordinary by teaching the kid The Iliad so young, following the example of J.S. Mill, who did Greek at age 3. She knows he’s a “Boy Wonder” and she encourages him in every way to follow his omnivorous instincts. But she also believes that the problem with everybody else — literally everybody else — is that they haven’t been properly taught and have gone out of their way, most of the time, to avoid difficult things, like thinking. Otherwise we’d be living in a world of Ludos.

So a novel that appears on the surface to be elitist — concerned as it is with great works of art, scientific achievement, and excellence generally — is actually profoundly anti-elitist at its core. DeWitt’s novel is infused with the belief that any human mind is capable of feats we tend to associate with genius. But the novel’s characters, especially Sibylla, are aware that youthful talent can be thwarted at any turn.

jmm, Thursday, 20 December 2018 15:21 (five months ago) Permalink

while reading the book i felt its position on the education system and the ethics of raising a child in this way was somewhat ambiguous (the school Ludo attends is clearly not right for him, but Sibyll's interactions with the staff are also pretty erratic) but then in the epilogue HdW strongly advocates for reforming the education system to breed and nurture child prodigies. i felt that was a bit intrusive of her

flopson, Thursday, 20 December 2018 20:49 (five months ago) Permalink

I never got the idea that Helen DeWitt was advocating any particular approach to childhood education. It felt to me she was purely playing with ideas to see what sort of characters might attempt them, and what sort of a story might evolve out of those characters and ideas. The whole book felt like an exercise in intense mental playfulness, made manifest by projecting it into a story.

A is for (Aimless), Thursday, 20 December 2018 21:04 (five months ago) Permalink

i agree that that is true of the book itself. but in the epilogue there's a weird call-to-arms. my copy is in a box in my mom's basement so i can't check it out now

flopson, Thursday, 20 December 2018 21:22 (five months ago) Permalink

the red devlin section really hurt my feelings

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Saturday, 29 December 2018 20:34 (five months ago) Permalink

but then in the epilogue HdW strongly advocates for reforming the education system to breed and nurture child prodigies. i felt that was a bit intrusive of her

― flopson, Thursday, December 20, 2018 1:49 PM (one week ago) Bookmark Flag Post Permalink

imo sibylla wrote the afterward and signed it “helen dewitt”

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Saturday, 29 December 2018 20:48 (five months ago) Permalink

also the afterword isn’t really part of the text and is just curious about the possibilities of a world where kids were allowed to explore and master whatever interests them

i think there’s elitist/anti-elitist themes floating throughout the book but i find it weird that lorentz singled them out when attempting to summarize this book, bc it’s far more about... idk, roughly a thousand other things. art and intelligence and mastery and the profound isolation and suicidal gloom that lurks around them. devlin is written off early by sibylla as a shitty writer but he got so close to his subject, mastered his one skill so thoroughly that he was the only person who could do it, and then he could no longer bring himself to do it

jolene club remix (BradNelson), Saturday, 29 December 2018 21:42 (five months ago) Permalink

imo sibylla wrote the afterward and signed it “helen dewitt”

― jolene club remix (BradNelson), Saturday, December 29, 2018 3:48 PM (one hour ago) Bookmark Flag Post Permalink

otm

flopson, Saturday, 29 December 2018 22:12 (five months ago) Permalink


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