A panel of critics tells us what belongs on a list of the 100 most important books of the 2000s … so far.
The Best Book of the Century (for Now)
By Christian Lorentzen
The Last Samurai, by Helen DeWitt (September 20, 2000)
Ask a set of writers and critics to select books for a new canon, and it shouldn’t come as a shock that the one most of them name is a novel about the nature of genius. It is also, more precisely, a novel about universal human potential.
Like many epics, Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai charts the education of its hero and proceeds by means of a quest narrative. A boy undertakes rigorous training and goes in search of his father. What makes it a story of our time is that the boy lives in an insufficiently heated London flat with a single mother. What makes it singular is that his training begins at age 4, when he starts to learn ancient Greek, before quickly moving on to Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Japanese, Finnish, etc. That’s not to mention his acquisition of mathematics, physics, art history, music, and an eccentric taste for tales of world exploration.
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. She knows it happened to her parents — a teenage-whiz father who was accepted to Harvard but made to go to seminary by his Christian father; and a musical prodigy mother who never went back to Juilliard for a second audition — and to herself. Whatever the world had in store for Sibylla changed forever the night Ludo was conceived.