‘Shall we never again talk together in laconic?’ Joseph Addison once wrote to Jonathan Swift, by way of inviting him to dinner the next time he happened to be in London. It’s the kind of invitation that might well appeal to Helen DeWitt, an ardent admirer of 18th-century wits and philosophers, and a classicist whose erudition undoubtedly extends to a familiarity with the defining features of Spartan rhetoric (Laconia is the region of the south-eastern Peloponnese which includes the city of Sparta). The laconic must be terse. It is understatement weaponised: a rejoinder that cuts grandiloquence off at the knees as much by what it doesn’t say as by what it does. Plutarch found in the terseness of Spartan diplomacy plenty of ammunition for his own campaign against garrulity. When King Philip II of Macedon sought to intimidate the Spartan leadership by declaring that ‘If I invade Laconia, I shall turn you out,’ their reply was a simple ‘If’. The laconic riposte is a pivot or judo throw that makes use of an opponent’s superior weight and strength in order to tip them off-balance. As Addison and Swift talk together, their delight in understatement pivots gently against a culture transfixed by the exertions of #oversharing. DeWitt has been talking in laconic for quite a while now, though you wouldn’t always know it. She can certainly do terse. The first and by no means least complimentary thing to say about her new novella is that as a work of fiction it is vanishingly slight.
DeWitt’s first novel, The Last Samurai (2000), may at first sight seem to offer little scope for the exercise of the laconic. It falls squarely into the category of high-end doorstopper – the ‘encyclopedic’ novel – which includes such celebrated behemoths as David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) and Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997). Although mustering a meagre 482 pages to their 1079 and 827, The Last Samurai is vauntingly expansive in both form and ambition. As a subgenre, the encyclopedic novel develops stories that necessitate the retrieval and patient exposition of data derived from research in a wide variety of fields. It plots the production of knowledge. The aim is to educate the reader in the pleasures, difficulties, frustrations and not inconsiderable risks of being fully informed. Published to critical acclaim, The Last Samurai sold more than 100,000 copies in English, and was widely translated. Then the publisher went bust, and the book out of print. Republication by New Directions in 2016 and by Vintage in 2018 has since added a new readership to its original cult following. Lee Konstantinou’s astute and sympathetic ‘rereading’ confirms this incremental canonisation.
The Last Samurai has two protagonists: Sibylla Newman, fiercely intelligent, combative, but prone to suicidal depression; and her precocious son, Ludo, whom she home-schools while typing up obscure magazine articles for a digital archive at £6.25 an hour. The book begins as a first-person – ‘I would like to strike a style to amaze’ – Bildungsroman: the looping, digressive story of Sibylla’s peripatetic upbringing in an America characterised simply as ‘Motelland’, her arrival in London in the late 1980s via graduate study at Oxford, Ludo’s conception and birth, and his rapid-fire acquisition at a very early age of Greek, Hebrew, Arabic etc, as well as some pretty advanced mathematics, and a good deal else besides. As a writer, Sibylla aims high, eager to emulate in literature the achievements of an avant-garde pianist called Kenzo Yamamoto whose concerts so far exceed their advertised programme that audiences regularly miss the last train home. Her ferociously high standards have led her to withhold from Ludo the identity of his father, a self-important philistine she once slept with out of politeness and never set eyes on again. She decides that repeated viewings of her favourite film, Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, will provide him with appropriate ‘role models’, and a strong incentive to learn Japanese. This is hardcore encyclopedism. ‘What makes the novel singular,’ Konstantinou remarks, ‘is its idiosyncratic dedication to showcasing the world’s knowledge.’ He proves a reliable guide to the ways in which its many experiments with form aim not only to represent but to foster the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. He’s able to explain, for example, why DeWitt should have gone to such lengths to ensure that all the numbers in the text have been typeset as numerals. DeWitt is an information evangelist – Sibylla Newman 2.0 – who now campaigns by blogpost and tweet as well as in print.
But what’s ultimately most compelling about The Last Samurai is its nascent anti-evangelism. This is an encyclopedic novel that contrives to catch its own steroid-enhanced pursuit of ‘the world’s knowledge’ significantly off-balance, and so imagine a very different future for its hero and heroine. Konstantinou, so instructive on the scope and methods of that pursuit, rather underestimates the faith DeWitt is prepared to put in the gentle art of understatement. There’s an early clue in Sibylla’s decision to continue home-schooling Ludo provided he attends judo classes, where he will meet other children his age in ‘a structured and moral environment’ – a proposition to which he agrees enthusiastically: ‘I said, “I think it solves everything.”’ Ludo’s voice has already asserted itself, first as petulant interruptions, then as entries in a journal. It will soon take over the narrative.
Having found out shortly after his eleventh birthday who his biological father is, and summarily disowned him, he decides to shortlist some alternative candidates for the role on the basis of their achievements, and to interview each of them individually. He has learned from The Seven Samurai that, however drunk or otherwise incapacitated, a good samurai will always ‘parry the blow’ (a good samurai is a kind of Spartan). How will the candidates respond when confronted with the news that they have a son whose existence they were previously unaware of? Badly, is the answer. Roughly speaking, the more evangelical the candidate has hitherto been in his pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, the worse he is likely to behave (George Sorabji, a Nobel Prize-winning astronomer and host of a wildly successful TV programme called Mathematics the Universal Language, resorts to physical violence).
The only one Ludo wouldn’t mind having as a father is a personable and unfailingly generous journalist called Red Devlin. ‘He wasn’t much of a writer,’ Ludo concludes. ‘His talent was for making outrageous demands which people found impossible to refuse.’ In DeWitt’s universe, not being much of a writer is the sort of assessment that sends you straight to hell. Devlin, however, has honed his talent for persistence into a limited but highly effective rhetoric consisting of the phrases ‘Oh go on’ and ‘Sure you can’, which he repeats over and over again until obstructive officialdom is sufficiently unsettled to yield. Devlin knows little about anything. He just gets things done. Unfortunately, that includes a successful suicide attempt. Ludo inherits his denim jacket, and with it a rather different attitude to life.
It isn’t the candidates who have failed, Ludo now realises, but the test itself. He doesn’t need a surrogate father. He needs someone who – unlike most of them, unlike Sibylla – speaks the same language as him: or, even better, someone who speaks the same language as him in a variety of languages, including, for example, Japanese. One day he takes the Circle Line to Baker Street and turns at random up a street leading off the Marylebone Road. ‘Halfway up the street I heard the sound of a piano.’ The pianist plays variations on the 25 variations that constitute Charles-Valentin Alkan’s Le Festin d’Ésope, a notoriously difficult work. Ludo, who has of course listened to all the available recordings of Le Festin d’Ésope, knows that this is something new. The pianist can only be Yamamoto. He deploys Devlin’s irresistible ‘Oh go on’ to talk his way past the woman who answers the door. Before long, he and Yamamoto are re-enacting a scene from The Seven Samurai (or at least as much of it as the latter can recall).
Here, at last, is someone who talks the same language as Ludo, in Japanese. He doesn’t want to bond with Yamamoto, let alone be a son to him. He wants to persuade him to agree to record a limited-edition CD of Sibylla’s favourite piece of music – Brahms’s Ballade Op. 10 No. 2 in D major – which he himself will fund by selling a work of art one of the false fathers has given him. If he can show that it’s possible to get a good thing done expeditiously – an agenda-setting performance, for example – then she may in turn be persuaded to stop worrying obsessively about his future and make something of her own. On the book’s final page, Ludo seals the deal:
I could teach you judo.
I don’t know.
I could teach you piquet.
I could teach you Lagrangians.
I did not know what to say.
Make this CD and I’ll teach you to play Straight No Chaser.
Sibylla’s (and the novel’s) dream of a prodigious education ends, if not in tears, then in terseness. The shine has evidently come off the fruit of some of Ludo’s more abstruse researches (the Lagrangian function is the quantity that characterises the state of a physical system). But familiarity with Thelonious Monk’s ‘Straight, No Chaser’ will do nicely. The jazz historian Mark Gridley notes Monk’s characteristic ability to produce ‘very original results’ from ‘simple compositional devices’. ‘Straight, No Chaser’, for example, employs ‘one idea played again and again, each time in a different part of the measure’. I suspect that DeWitt likes the idea of a proposition tested to its limit without the introduction of distracting embellishments.
Ludo and Yamamoto talk together in laconic as amiably as Addison and Swift might once have done. The product of their conversation is an agreement rather than an embrace. The ‘Done’, typographically afloat, recapitulates one or two other notably transactional moments, including Ludo’s agreement to accompany Sibylla to a Yamamoto concert so long as she agrees to buy him an ice cream. It pivots directly against the novel’s own evangelism. But it may also indicate, by allusion to the most celebrated of all experimental encyclopedic novels about a son’s selection of a father, that the form is capable of accommodating an outcome neither utopian nor tragic. ‘Done’ is Leopold Bloom’s word in Ulysses: its insistent references to bodily function – farting in ‘Sirens’, ejaculation in ‘Nausicaa’ – are a riposte by understatement to the melodrama of Blazes Boylan’s seduction of Molly:
Was that just when he, she?
O, he did. Into her. She did. Done.
Mr Bloom with careful hand recomposed his wet shirt.
Unlike Ulysses, The Last Samurai contracts sharply at its conclusion, rather than threatening to expand to infinity.
Ludo’s channelling of Red Devlin confirms DeWitt’s abiding interest in the practicalities of communication. As Konstantinou rightly emphasises, she’s always been eager to explore the further reaches not just of well-established fields such as linguistics and classical scholarship, but of the digital-age specialism of ‘information theory’: the science of the organisation and retrieval of data. One of the clearest statements of that interest comes in an article she published in Artforum in November 2015 listing her ‘Top Ten’ recent cultural attractions. There’s special praise for the 2014 City Lights reissue of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, a ‘time machine’ to a different New York, in which ‘insouciance’ was ‘the name of the game’ (sounds like the kind of conversation she wouldn’t have minded joining). More revealing still, however, is the reaffirmation of her long-standing regard for the ‘beautiful, intransigent books’ published by the statistician and political scientist Edward Tufte. ‘Clutter and confusion are failures of design, not attributes of information,’ Tufte writes in Envisioning Information (1990). His book is both beautiful and intransigent in its reproduction and analysis of a wide range of superlative renderings of complex visual data. But it’s also consistently pragmatic in its emphasis on design strategy and technique. It seeks above all to define the ‘visual principles that tell us how to put the right mark in the right place’.
Data is of no use unless it can be communicated. The origin of contemporary theories of information lies in Claude Shannon’s seminal ‘A Mathematical Theory of Communication’, first published in the Bell System Technical Journal in 1948. Shannon’s focus was on the signal-to-noise ratio that determines whether or not a particular message will get through. The message’s ‘semantic aspects’ were irrelevant, he thought, to the ‘engineering problem’ presented by the establishment and maintenance of a channel of communication. The engineering problem at issue has of course been around for a very long time. A solution often found to work in contexts which don’t make it easy to establish and maintain a channel of communication – battlefields, for instance – is terseness. Xenophon records in his Hellenica a dispatch sent by the second-in-command of the Spartan fleet after the disastrous sea battle of Cyzicus that roughly translates as ‘ships sunk, admiral dead, survivors starving, no idea what to do next’. Similarly, Red Devlin’s trademark ‘Oh go on’ and ‘Sure you can’ are utterances incorporating minimal semantic content, the main purpose of which is to establish and maintain a channel of communication someone else would very much prefer to close. DeWitt is the sort of writer to whom engineering – the right mark in the right place, getting the message through – matters as much as exposition.
As Konstantinou observes, Ludo’s search for a better father in the latter stages of The Last Samurai takes the form of a Kurosawa-inflected ‘linear, fable-like quest’. The sequence of episodes has the feel of a tale designed to convey a lesson. But this is no ordinary fable. DeWitt has said that she began with a ‘completely preposterous idea’ – that a boy might choose his father – and ‘tried to work out its implications’. A preposterous idea is one which positions that which should come after (posterus) in advance of that which should come before (prae-). DeWitt’s deft elaboration of the idea that a boy might choose his father endows it for a while with an imaginative autonomy exceeding any didactic intention. We want to see how long she can keep all this up. Not for ever, as it turns out. DeWitt wrote the second part of The Last Samurai first. She then novelised her preposterous idea by supplying through the story of Ludo’s conception and upbringing a reason for him to reject his actual father and set off in search of an upgrade. There is a lesson, of the sort a novel can teach; that is, one arising out of the demands of emotional intimacy. Ludo has learned to love his mother enough to save her from her own worst impulses. The Last Samurai is a novel, not a fable.
Its successor , Lightning Rods (2011), takes an even more ‘preposterous’ idea as a starting point, and shows little interest in the inner lives of its characters. The service provided by the titular employment agency combines female temping with fully anonymised female sex work in such a way as to enhance the productivity of high-performing heterosexual male employees. DeWitt may perhaps be riffing on an archaic use of the term ‘preposterous’ to refer to an animal which, having its parts reversed in position (e.g. eyes in the back of the head), goes tail first. In this case, a specially designed ‘transporter’ inserts the duty sex worker through a hole in the wall between the men’s and women’s toilets, tail first. The device’s inventor solemnly maintains to potential clients ‘that the ventro-dorsal position, or mounting from behind, was the preferred method of entry among virtually every primate known to man; and that we ignore nature at our peril’. For Lightning Rods is less novel than fable, or mock-fable. The deadpan narrative voice, unflappable to the bitter end, perfectly captures the imperviousness of all concerned to the absurdity of the almost plausible tasks they perform. The model for the book, DeWitt has said, was Mel Brooks’s The Producers, via Aristophanes; but she’s happy to acknowledge an affinity with Swift’s A Modest Proposal.
In August 1736, a couple of months after his 48th birthday, Alexander Pope wondered to Swift whether ‘increase of years’ might not make people ‘more talkative but less writative’. His own policy, he went on, was to address only ‘those few I am forced to correspond with, either out of necessity, or love: And I grow Laconic even beyond Laconicisme; for sometimes I return only Yes, or No, to questionary or petitionary Epistles half a yard long.’ DeWitt doesn’t appear to be becoming any less writative. Her increase of years has, however, coincided with a revival of interest in shorter forms of fiction: a recent collection, Some Trick (2018), includes stories written from the 1980s onwards. The new novella – 69 pages, many of them largely blank – is something else again. A novella’s slightness, unlike that of a short story, carries the risk of expectations not met, for its closest relationship, clearly, is to the novel. A single main action, minimal backstory, little prospect of a redemptive resolution: all this pivots by way of judo throw against the novel’s overinvestment as a genre in the creation of potentially complete fictional ‘worlds’.
The English Understand Wool offers a variation on The Last Samurai’s preposterous idea. Instead of a son choosing a father, it boasts a daughter whose mother neither gave birth to nor adopted her, but has in all probability done as good a job of raising her as could reasonably be expected under some distinctly unusual circumstances (for this, too, is a mock-fable). Marguerite, the protagonist and narrator, has been brought up by super-rich expatriate parents (French mother, English father) who are domiciled in Marrakesh, but embark on an annual six-week summer tour of European capitals during which Daddy attends to business while she and Maman occupy themselves with high culture and haute couture. Marguerite is the beneficiary of a home-schooling as rigorous as that inflicted on Ludo, but with a very different emphasis: tennis, bridge to a high standard, four hours of piano practice a day.
This is an education in the principled pursuit of ‘bon ton’ by means of unflinching snobbery. You must be ready to travel to the Outer Hebrides in order to secure from a weaver whose acquaintance you have taken immense care to cultivate the bolt of tweed from which a London tailor – because only the English understand wool – will manufacture a garment of the appropriate durability and elegance. Marguerite’s home-schooling proves far more robust than Ludo’s when required to demonstrate its worth. For Maman, alas, turns out to be a fraudster who has connived in her kidnapping, after the sudden deaths of her real parents, and in the embezzlement of the hundred million dollars they had left in trust for her. Maman and Daddy abscond, leaving Marguerite to repair her shattered fortunes by telling her story in her own words (it’s quite clear that ‘any “biopic” would inevitably be in mauvais ton’).
Marguerite hires an agent, and, on hearing that he has sold the North American rights for an advance of $2.2 million, travels to New York. At the agent’s insistence, she flies economy class and puts up at an excessively modest little B&B in Brooklyn: after all, it’s her victimhood that’s marketable, not her chic. The novella’s main action unfolds in New York, as Marguerite embarks on a bestselling misery memoir in consultation with her editor, Bethany. But there’s a snag. The memoir’s painstaking descriptions of the purchase of bolts of Hebridean tweed do not meet with the approval of Bethany, who would very much prefer a greater emphasis on the feelings natural to a 17-year-old ‘traumatised’ by abandonment. What about Maman? ‘She seems to have been quite cold, how did you feel about that? Were you hurt?’ Bethany, of course, just doesn’t get it. Understatement had been both the topic and the method of Maman’s gently insistent home-schooling of Marguerite. For years, they talked together in laconic. Terseness is their weapon.
Unhappy with the memoir’s lack of trauma, Bethany feels obliged to draw Marguerite’s attention to the terms of the contract. Threats are made. Marguerite, however, has in reserve a judo throw that will catch the industry professionals (agent, editor, lawyers) who have colluded to exploit her inexperience disastrously off-balance. She, meanwhile, continues to take advantage of her education in bon ton: ‘dressing with éclat and playing bridge with flair and playing the piano when a party was off to a dull start’. The piece she plays at the party that’s off to a dull start? ‘Straight, No Chaser’, of course. It’s not giving too much away to say that the final twist in this artful tale involves the use of language not to convey meaning, but to establish and maintain a channel of communication. The English Understand Wool is DeWitt’s most Spartan utterance to date.
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