Mozart was a child prodigy. Taught music by his father Leopold at the age of five, he entertained the high courts of Europe with his exceptional ability to play the piano and the harpsichord blindfolded. His sister Nannerl received the same training, but did not show such prodigious musical skill. Mozart went on to compose some of the world’s greatest symphonies, string quartets, and operas. These achievements turned him from a prodigy into a genius and secured his name forever against posterity. As for Nannerl, if she is known at all, it is surely only as Mozart’s sister.
So what makes one sibling a genius and not the other? Is it simply that one is endowed from birth with extraordinary talent? And why does every prodigy not a genius make?
This is the conundrum facing Sibylla, mother of the child prodigy Ludo, in Helen Dewitt’s exhilarating first novel.
Originally published in 2000, The Last Samurai is now being reissued from New Directions. The novel is itself evidence of genius. Just shy of 500 pages, it is sure to scare off some readers with a shattered, fragmented form and esoteric passages of Japanese syllabaries, German phrases, and Homeric critique. Dewitt’s writing is digressive, daring, and all its own. Some parts are more convincing than others, but every excursion is vividly animated and greatly affecting.
Take the prologue to the novel, a masterful piece of mythmaking, told by Sibylla. It is a Sophoclean tragedy about the travails of unfulfilled potential, handed down through the generations. Sibylla casts light on a tragic flaw: every member of her family once showed prodigious talent, but by some unlucky turn of fate each was derailed. Sibylla’s father, who “skipped grades the way other boys skip class,” was accepted to Harvard at age fifteen, but ended up at a third-rate theological college, accidentally won 500 dollars, and decided to open a motel. Her Uncle Buddy wanted to be an Opera Singer but became an accountant. Her aunt Barbara wanted to be a violinist but ended up a secretary. Her mother wanted to be a singer but, when “one thing led to another,” became a housewife.
Sibylla’s miserable girlhood and insatiable hunger for knowledge lead her to London to study classics at Oxford. Ludo is the result of a one-night stand between Sibylla and the prolific and popular travel writer that Sibylla refers to as Liberace. It’s a terrible mistake. Sibylla compares Liberace’s lovemaking to a “drunken medley” and abhors him for being a mediocre writer. When Ludo asks about the identity of his father, she refuses to reveal it.
In her attempt to provide the fatherless boy with male role models, she encourages Ludo to watch Kurosawa’s masterpiece The Seven Samurai. Following the themes of the film, Ludo goes out into the world to test seven potential father figures.
The novel is divided into two main sections, the first narrated by Sibylla and the second by Ludo. Sibylla’s section is gloriously written, filled with witty aperçus, terrible human truths, and chilling descriptions of the confinements of motherhood. A lapsed suicide looms. With Ludo in tow, Sibylla is stranded, caught between her high-minded ambitions—“I would like to strike a style to amaze”—and her mundane necessities. She constantly closes herself off from Ludo. In one of the most memorable sequences in the book, she writes about an experiment done on baby monkeys who were given surrogate mothers that were programmed to treat them badly. “One had an embedded wire frame that sprang out and threw the baby to the floor—another ejected sharp brass spikes on command.” She compares herself to these monsters of “spikes and wire.”
Dewitt’s fiction is lethal, limitless, and economical. She has more fun on the page than most. The Last Samurai is filled with eccentric flourishes: hieroglyphs, excerpts from Icelandic sagas, and long mathematical number equations from Ludo’s diary about his first weeks in school. The boy is light-years ahead of his other classmates and will only do algebraic problems that do not fit on the screen of a calculator. In his spare time, he studies Japanese, Greek, Hebrew, Latin and Arabic. The only thing he is missing is a father.
The second half of the novel is structured like a detective story, as Ludo searches for a “benevolent male”. Each of these stories is heavily laden with the symbolism of a quest, and each bears inventive and mysterious symmetries to the others. All the males that Ludo seeks are adventurers, travelers, and uncanny enablers. They have an ability to do and act, which is what Sibylla lacks. During one of his last encounters—with the diplomat Layla Szigeti, who tells him about his luck in providing Guatemalan peasants with British passports and saving them from grisly death— Ludo says, “I would have liked to hear him talk this way about anything, as if you could be impervious to sorrow just by being a man.” Of Sibylla, he says “What’s the use of being so miserable… better to be wild and daring and gamble everything we have.” It’s a diabolical statement, if you consider the fact that all the successful geniuses that populate these pages are men: Cezanne, Rilke, Isaac Newton, Glen Gould.
So why Mozart and not Nannerl? Considering this might, as Sibylla points out, prompt “the unlikely theory that any man could be a Mozart with similar training.” Any man, we may infer, but not any woman. This could not be further from the Truth. In fact, The Last Samurai is not about the mysteries of genius, male or female, but rather a return to an old ancient Greek lesson about fate and chance. The book’s deep concern is with what we make of opportunity when it presents itself, and the devastating truth that some of us will never recognize that moment. As Sibylla’s father used to say, “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these, it might have been.”