It’s a long time since I’ve begun to read a book with such expectation and hope as in reading The Last Samurai but I am greatly impressed with its brilliance, originality and construction. I’ve read comparisons between the writing of David Foster Wallace and Helen DeWitt but it seems to me that they do a great disservice to DeWitt, whose subtle allusion contrasts the excessively redundant exposition of Infinite Jest. DeWitt’s story is open-ended, often playful but dexterously peels layer after layer of cultural realities to question and subvert the meaning of education. A new edition of The Last Samurai is published by New Directions. The book deserves a wider audience for its uncommon, unsettling story.
I also read Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things, a collection of his essays previously written and published. As always with such compilations, the quality is mixed, the most commendable being those on the subject of photography. Cole’s intellectual and visual sensibilities are acute and he draws together photography and politics to show how our world is shaped by images and their unreliability. In writing of photography’s slippery relationship with reality, Cole echoes Sontag’s description of photography as making works that are “no generic exception to the usual shady commerce between art and truth.”
I’ve been engrossed with Eva. K. Barbarossa’s Adelphi Project and the intriguing list of titles accumulated in the Biblioteca Adelphi, so I finally made time for Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher, both elegant and insightful and further fuel for an imagination already fired by the Biblioteca series, birthed by Roberto Bazlen and now managed by Calasso. The greatest pleasure of Calasso’s essay compilation is his consideration of some of his favourite publishers—Giulio Einaudi, Luciano Foà, Roger Straus, Peter Suhrkamp, and Vladimir Dimitrijević. What Calasso also gave me in this collection is this extraordinary Bazlen quote: ‘The world now is a world of death – formerly one was born alive and gradually one would die. Nowadays one is born dead – and some manage to come gradually to life.”
This summer I’ve been rereading Michael Hofmann’s poems, slowly and somewhat obsessively. Hofmann is a passionate reader of boundless curiosity, whose reading accumulates impressions that are woven into his rich and sensual autobiographical poems. It is nerve-wracking revisiting a poet nostalgic from youth but the work remains fresh and full of magic, and I’ll be continuing my journey back through Hofmann’s languorous waltz with language.
When I read Cole’s Open City I thought he excelled when describing art and visual stimulai. I think I might enjoy some of those essays.
The best essays are very, very good. There are no stinkers, some are a little slight is all.
I bought that first edition of The Last Samurai at Borders in Hammersmith – no longer with us – and after the second reading travelled the entire loop of the Circle Line – no longer possible – and still hold it in high esteem, despite (because of?) its flaws. Although surely cheaper to heat a flat for a day than buy a travelcard?
Thank you for the update on your summer reading. My most recent pleasure has been Richard Powers’ Orfeo.
Although it’s been some time since I read Powers, i remember his early books very fondly. Orfeo is on the shelf awaiting its turn. Everything is flawed,no less DeWitt’s two novels but most have little acuity to balance the scales.
I discovered De Witt in one of those meandering, tangential journeys on the net that I usually think are a waste of time, but not when I learn about a book like The Last Samurai.She has an extraordinary intellect, not just in terms of what she knows [ all those languages!] but in the fierce independence of her thinking. I’ve just finished her other novel Lightning Rods which is a marvellously sustained satire of American business language and values.
I read Lightning Rods a few years ago, also an extraordinary journey.
I’ve heard so much about the DeWitt but am still feeling much too cautious to get involved. =)
Currently reading Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World (highly recommend), Bolano’s Savage Detectives (finally), and T.J. Clark’s art criticism. Will finish out the year with the massive volume of Montaigne essays I’ve always meant to read. Maybe next year we’ll do Joseph and his Brothers, Anthony. Thank you for keeping us up to date with your reading list!
I’ve yet to read Montaigne cover to cover, though I know I’d enjoy reading him that way. I dip in from time to time. Savage Detectives is the only Bolano I’ve read; I loved the book to bits, but I’ve yet to be tempted to read Bolano any further (I have several awaiting my interest.) I keep peering into and poking the Herrera but something resists; I’m not convinced it’s for me. I’ve read both DeWitts but Last Samurai is the better book by far. It is brilliant, but not for everyone. I’d love to read Mann’s Joseph with you next year.
Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai has the honour of being the first book I ordered online. I was intrigued ever since another reader I respect named it as her favourite book. The fact that you also enjoyed it cinched the decision for me.
I am very much looking forward to it, and can’t remember the last time I was so excited!
Please let me know what you make of it. I can’t quite put the book down. After finishing, I decided to read it again, taking time to follow up the allusions and references.
I’ve begun reading it. I can’t put it down! I think I’m going to follow your example and read through it once before watching “the Seven Samurais” and looking up the other references.
At least I can follow the Odyssey references because I also read that as a child. : ) (In Serbian.)
DeWitt, like Schmidt or Quignard, is so much richer if one follows all the trails.