Boy Wonder

The Last Samurai

by Helen DeWitt
Talk Miramax/Hyperion, 544 pp., $14.95 (paper)

A third of the way into Helen DeWitt’s remarkable first novel, a book that is populated with geniuses of various sorts, there’s an extended description of the aesthetic philosophy of a young Japanese pianist named Kenzo Yamamoto, a reclusive former child prodigy whose concert career has not flourished—possibly because at a typical evening at Wigmore Hall he might play Chopin’s Op. 10 No. 1 Ballade in D minor again and again for seven and a half hours, each time accompanied by a different noise (“a bell or an electric drill or once even a bagpipe”). By this point in The Last Samurai—which is about one genius in particular, a boy named Ludo Newman, and his mad mother, who may also be a genius, and his search for a father—the reader won’t bat an eye, having been exposed to extended descriptions of all kinds of esoterica: turn-of-the-century Homeric textual criticism, say, or number theory, or Japanese syllabaries, or Alexandrian literary criticism, or Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre, or interpretative approaches to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, which gives the novel its title and scenes of which are quoted verbatim over and over again throughout.

But the ten dense pages devoted to the fictitious Yamamoto’s theories about musical performance have the virtue of containing what amounts to a key to reading DeWitt’s prodigious book:

Yamamoto began to talk about the idea of a fragment, he said for instance when you were working on a piece you might take a section in one direction, let’s say you might keep scaling it down and down until it was barely there & then that barely there section would sometimes be enchantingly beautiful but you would realise when you came to relate it to the next section that you could only get from that to the next section by means of something crass and stupid, some stupid violent crescendo that wasn’t right or even an abrupt transition that wasn’t right or it might be that you could get from one to the other but still you wanted the next part to be hard & bright and you didn’t want something quite so bare before. Well everyone knew there were unfinished pieces Schubert’s unfinished symphony the Mozart Requiem Mahler’s Tenth Moses and Aaron & what made them unfinished was the stupid fact that the composer had not put an end to them, but if you worked on a section & got an enchantingly beautiful version that could not be used what you had in effect was a fragment, a thing that was not part of the finished work. Once you saw that you saw that you could potentially have dozens of fragments that could not be part of the finished work, and what you saw was that it was perceiving these fragments as fragments that made it possible to have a real conception of what wholeness might be in a work—and once you saw this you naturally wanted …

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