The Perils of Genius

No, not my own.

As promised, some thoughts about Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, from the cover of which one would be hard-pressed to tell that the novel is set in late twentieth-century London.

The novel revolves around Ludo, a prodigious genius cultivated by his brilliant, eccentric single mother, Sybilla. Ludo’s insatiable appetite for knowledge leads him to acquire every new language and new subject that he comes across. He learns to read at 2. He reads the Odyssey at 4 — oh, yes, in Greek. He absorbs information on Lagrangian mechanics, number theory, and aerodynamics with seemingly little effort. But the one piece of information he most wants — the identity of his father — is the one that eludes him.

Most commentators on the novel have concentrated upon Ludo’s quest for a suitable father figure, and indeed, the novel seems to foster such a focus, as Sybilla, whose voice begins the novel, gradually recedes into the text’s background (frustratingly, for one reviewer, who dismisses the novel as evidence of a first-timer’s over-ambition). Ludo’s search draws upon the film referenced by the novel’s title, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, as he constructs a series of tests for each of the potential father-figures he approaches. As both film and novel remind us, however, “a good samurai will parry the blow,” and thus a worthy figure for Ludo’s attentions will foil his schemes.

The title’s focus on the last samurai, however, suggests that the quest is not as simple as “a young boy’s search for a father” might make it seem. While each of the men Ludo tests (not counting his actual, biological father, who is of mediocre intellect and even lesser talent) can offer him the kind of intellectual support that can be extended from one genius to another, each has also been irretrievably damaged by his own genius, becoming filled with anger, or ambition, or despair, or madness. In Ludo’s encounter with the last potential samurai, the purpose of this quest for a father resolves into something unexpected: not a search for a male role-model who can lead him into new fields of knowledge and adventure, but rather a search for someone who has faced the perils of genius and found a way to survive. Someone who can give not Ludo but Sibylla the wherewithal to go on.

The novel seems to me, then, in its final chapters, not to relegate Sibylla to the fading background, but rather to investigate precisely, if in a way that can never be wholly satisfied, the nature of her fading, and what can be done to save her. One of the perils of genius, in a world of marketing copy and quickie reviews, is its very evanescence, its etherealness, its tendency to evade the grasping hand like smoke. Like any good samurai, however, the last one can parry the blow.

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