When Will Helen DeWitt Be Recognized As One of the Great American Novelists?

DeWitt at home, in June. Photo: Zora Sicher
Can Break
Your Heart
A flood of bad luck has kept Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai out of print. Will a new edition finally cement her place as one of the great American novelists?
Photograph by Zora Sicher
DeWitt at home, in June.

When I arrived at her cottage in Newfane, Vermont, Helen DeWitt was at work in a spacious room on the first floor. On the table in front of her was a page of notes in longhand, an overturned mass-market paperback of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, and an ashtray full of Marlboro 100’s butts. On the wall was a photograph of her grandfather, Marine Corps General Ralph DeWitt, in uniform, his chest decorated. DeWitt was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, rumpled work pants, and an old pair of running shoes. There was a daybed in the corner and a cast-iron stove a few feet from the table. “This stove is from 1918 and it’s still working,” she said. “And if you’re a writer, back in the day of Hemingway, you actually could have a typewriter that would see you through your career. It might not last a hundred years, but it would see you through your career, and if laptops had that kind of longevity, look, I would not be broke.” 

This was the first of many counterfactuals DeWitt put to me over the course of three days. Many, many writers are chronically broke. Many have a long list of grievances with the publishing industry. Many will tell you about the circumstances that would have allowed them to enjoy the success of Ernest Hemingway or David Foster Wallace. Many have had multiple brushes with suicide, but there’s only one who wrote The Last Samurai and Lightning Rods, two of the finest novels published this century, and she’d recently spilled a glass of iced tea on her MacBook.

The Last Samurai was a sensation even before it appeared. The toast of the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1999, with rights sold to more than a dozen countries, the novel came out in 2000 to wide acclaim, sold in excess of 100,000 copies in English, and was nominated for several prizes. But for DeWitt, this was the beginning of a long phase of turmoil that still hasn’t abated. The book’s success was marred by an epic battle with a copy editor involving large amounts of Wite-Out; typesetting nightmares having to do with the book’s use of foreign scripts; what she describes as “an accounting error” that resulted in her owing the publisher $75,000 when she thought the publisher owed her $80,000; the agonies of obtaining permissions for the many outside works quoted in the novel, including Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai — which was the title of The Last Samurai until it was deemed legally impossible. Her second novel, Lightning Rods, finished in July 1999, was then stuck in limbo after her publisher, Talk Miramax, folded. When it did finally appear, from New Directions in 2011, it garnered a legion of devoted readers too young to have read The Last Samurai before it went out of print. (The best and funniest satire of capitalism I’ve ever read, Lightning Rods concerns a firm that provides corporations with undercover prostitutes for their male employees in order to relieve them of urges that might cause them to commit sexual harassment.)

New Directions has just put out a new edition of The Last Samurai, and DeWitt is coming to New York at the end of July for the rituals of its revival: a collaborative performance with classical composer Timo Andres at National Sawdust in Williamsburg; a film screening and discussion of The Seven Samurai at Metrograph; a book party at Community Bookstore in Park Slope. It will be a busy week for a writer who likes nothing better than to be left alone with her work.

DeWitt’s laptop would now boot up, but the Z key wasn’t working and there’s a Z in her password. So the next day we drove over the New Hampshire border, past the all-night fireworks dealers, to Keene, where she wanted to visit a strip-mall outfit called Diversified Computers, run by tinkerers who had kindly helped her with a hard-drive problem a few years back. Of course, all of DeWitt’s many works in progress are backed up. These include about a dozen novels and dozens more stories that could be novels, some dating back decades. She’s joked that Opus 101 was the first title of The Last Samurai.

You could describe The Last Samurai as the story of a mother’s love for her brilliant young son, or you could describe it as a scathing indictment of the Western system of education and a meditation on heroism and suicide — or, as Socrates might put it, what makes a life worth living. (The former interpretation is popular, the latter more useful.) It is told by a woman named Sibylla, who relays the story of her family and the ways her parents’ lives and her own veered off track from promising beginnings. But she is constantly interrupted by the presence and the obnoxious voice — intruding on the page, often in large type — of her son, Ludo. He’s the product of a one-night stand with a travel writer she refers to as Liberace, for the slick facility of his thoughtless prose. She never told him about her pregnancy and never tells the boy who he is.

Sibylla raises Ludo according to John Stuart Mill’s account of his own education: She teaches him Greek at the age of 4, then other languages, until he’s teaching himself Japanese at the age of 5. (He’s way past algebra, too, and soon doing solid-state physics.) To provide him with male role models, she plays The Seven Samurai over and over for years. It’s worth mentioning that the pair are impoverished, living in a former squat, and Sibylla makes a meager living typing up obscure British magazines for a nascent digital archive. Halfway through the novel, Ludo, now age 11, takes over the narrative. He figures out who his father is, meets him, and to say he’s disappointed would be putting the matter lightly. When his mother knows he knows, he asks her: “Did you ever think of having an abortion?”

I did, said Sib, but it was very late and I had to have counseling, they counseled adoption & I said Yes but how could I be sure your adoptive parents would teach you how to leave life if you did not care for it & they said What and I said — well you know I said what any rational person would say and we had an unprofitable discussion & she said

Oh look! Hugh Carey is back in England.

 A lot is happening in these lines. There’s the question of what Sibylla means by “leave life” — the sort of withdrawal from institutions that she and Ludo have already committed or something more final, and what would either of those things mean as forms of motherly love? — and with the introduction of Hugh Carey, an adventurous Oxford-trained linguist, the novel turns toward its final stage and Ludo will seek a father of his own choosing (Carey is the first of six candidates) in a quest structure lifted from The Seven Samurai.

The Last Samurai isn’t autobiographical in any conventional sense. DeWitt is childless and as an adult has never spent much time around children. “I did some babysitting when I was 16,” she told me, “which is a very effective form of contraception.” But the book’s genesis and its themes have roots in DeWitt’s itinerant childhood, her largely accidental education, and her relationship with her father. The DeWitts are a military family, and her father, John, attended the Naval Academy and then joined the Marines, turning down ROTC scholarships to Princeton and Brown. “I think that’s what turned him into an alcoholic,” she said. “He kept going over the wall in Annapolis to the Sportsman’s Bar.” DeWitt was born in Maryland in 1957. Her father joined the Foreign Service and was periodically enrolled in graduate school at the University of Florida, and the family lived between Gainesville and points south: Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador. DeWitt, her mother, and her sister were treated as baggage.

DeWitt had her first sense of real academic or literary possibility after arriving at Smith College in 1975, and even that was a letdown. “The good thing about it was that I started ancient Greek,” she said. “But I had a very ahistorical take on the world. I imagined that the women’s colleges would still have the intellectual focus and dedication that they had when they were founded. That was what I wanted: to go someplace where everybody was focused on the life of the mind, and nobody cared about social life. I was completely naïve.” It didn’t help that the students in the residence she was assigned to had the nickname “Jordan Jocks.” “It was classist, it was racist, it was homophobic,” she said. “I’m not saying that all of Smith was like this, but our residence — it was loathsome.”

Ancient Greek was an exciting discovery until she realized that she was in the wrong place to be serious about it. “Classics was a minority subject, very twee, like in Donna Tartt’s Secret History, and many of the students treated it as a kind of joke. I thought that if I majored in classics here, I’d always be an amateur. So I took a leave of absence and started reading independently, reading Pound and Eliot and Proust in French, and I thought, Now I’m engaging in the life of the mind, but I’m also working as a chambermaid in Provincetown.” DeWitt employs the phrase life of the mind without irony, with reverence really, but from her books, you can imagine she could build an entire dystopia around it.

“While I was away,” she said, “I thought, All right, now I know what the life of the mind is about, so I can go back and make this work. And I went back and I just felt sick. So I ended up attempting suicide with an aspirin overdose. In the days of the internet, nobody would be that stupid, but in those days, it was harder to get an idea of what an effective method would be. I just thought I would pass out if I took too much, but aspirin doesn’t work that way, so I just threw it up, and I felt so defeated. Then I thought, Well, what could I do that would make it a good thing that I didn’t die? The answer was applying to Oxford. I said to myself, with my sketchy grounding in classics, I know this is going to fail, but you have to try first.

This is what I came to think of as the first of DeWitt’s Socrates moments, the first time when, surrounded by the philistine citizens of Athens, she had the impulse to eat hemlock rather than settle for a crap life. Two decades later, she incorporated the episode into The Last Samurai. Ludo knows that his mother once attempted suicide with paracetamol, as the English call Tylenol, and he tells one of his potential fathers: “You should never try to kill yourself with paracetamol. It’s a horrible way to die. People think you just pass out, but actually you don’t lose consciousness, you think nothing’s happened but then a day later your organs shut down. It destroys the liver. Sometimes people change their minds, but it’s too late.”

Knows a dozen languages and cuts her own wood. Photo: Zora Sicher

At the core of The Last Samurai is the notion that most people don’t meet their potential because the culture teaches them to assume there are things they just can’t do. The central example is Ludo reading Homer in the original Greek. “The Greek alphabet looks more daunting than it really is,” DeWitt said. “I could get anybody reading the Greek script in an hour. I thought that this could be something that I could reveal in the book. People might read the novel and think, Gosh, if somebody had introduced this to me I could have done it. And so now I can have a grievance against our education system, just like the author of this book.”

When I first asked DeWitt about her time at Oxford, she was cheerful and even a bit nostalgic recalling her initial expectations. “I thought everybody at Oxford would be like Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes, all of them. So obviously the idea that I could go there was ludicrous. I just didn’t think it through, because clearly if Britain could fill the ranks of Oxford and Cambridge year after year with the likes of Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes, Britain would rule the world.”

In her fourth year, she won a prestigious classics prize, the Ireland. A fellowship and lectureship followed. But the crucial event in her time there was her encounter — and subsequent relationship — with David Levene, now a professor of classics at NYU. Their marriage ended after seven years, but he remains her best reader. “Meeting David is what made me a writer,” DeWitt said. “David had this entirely different sensibility. He loves grand, mythic works of art. His favorite composer is Wagner. Among tragedians, he likes Aeschylus, whereas I’m a Euripides person. He introduced me to Sergio Leone and Kurosawa and Mel Brooks. The coexistence of these radically different aesthetic possibilities made me see ways that I could be a writer, things that I could do. He introduced me to bridge, to poker, to statistics, things that to other people might seem completely unrelated.” (Statistics and games of chance are crucial elements in some of DeWitt’s works-in-progress.) “Previously I just thought, What’s the point in writing a novel? Everything’s been done. But now I saw, No, there are so many things that have never been done! All these possibilities! This is so great!

When DeWitt talks about her artistic breakthroughs, she has a way of quickly turning to her travails with the publishing industry. “Of course, at that point I had never talked to an agent, so I had never had the kind of conversation where you have some hotshot agent saying, ‘No publisher will allow that.’ ” DeWitt had earlier compared publishing to the pharmaceutical industry: The way drug companies suppress negative trial results in her view is similar to the way agents’ and editors’ failed deals are never reported, nor the way they stifle literary talent in the cradle. “There could be all these people out there having these ideas and being told, ‘No, no, no, no.’ ”

But the more we talked the more I sensed that DeWitt’s greatest heartbreak had come from the place that had first changed her life: Oxford. After a decade as a student and lecturer with no end to her distinctions and a thesis completed on the concept of propriety in ancient criticism, she had hoped Oxford would give her the sort of freedom that had allowed historians like Ronald Syme to write an epic work like The Roman Revolution. But Oxford had changed: Thatcherization, credentialization, Americanization, i.e., the pursuit of narrow specialties in the name of job-seeking. She realized she wasn’t interested in writing about writers writing about writers writing about Euripides. She wanted to be Euripides.

She left Oxford and spent the next few years writing while taking odd jobs: working on the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, as a copytaker at The Telegraph, and as a night-shift legal secretary. In June 1995, she quit that job to finish what was then a 300-page single-spaced manuscript of a novel based on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. She had only £3,000 in the bank, and her notion was to write until the money ran out. One night, she spoke on the phone to her father. “When you were at rock bottom,” she told me, “he had a way of making things worse. He started getting angry, and then he just started screaming at me. ‘What, you’re not hopeful? You’re not going to be all right?’ My attitude had been, you persevere even if you’re not hopeful and maybe you’ll get somewhere. But now my father’s angry at me. This is the genesis of The Last Samurai. ‘If I had picked a father, I wouldn’t have picked somebody like you.’ ” The quest gave the book its structure, and she saw her way to finishing it.

At Oxford, in 1990. Photo: Courtesy of the subject

The day we went to Keene, the office of Diversified Computers was shuttered. This was too bad because the tinkerers had been cheap and friendly, unlike the “rapacious” tech shop she could reach on bicycle. That night over dinner we discussed some of her other recent troubles. For some time, she had been stalked by a man living in the cottage next door. (This was the subject of an essay she wrote for the London Review of Books, and I worked on it as an editor.) She seemed less traumatized by the months-long saga than regretful that it interrupted her work, and whatever interrupts her work only makes her more broke, which makes it still harder to work. She is making minimum payments on five credit cards and has debts in the low five figures. Her mortgage payments on the Newfane house, which she bought from her uncle with help from her mother, are now $165 a month. DeWitt would rather be living in London, where she wrote The Last Samurai, or Berlin, where she spent most of the last decade and is subletting her apartment. In the spring, she donated $130 to the Bernie Sanders campaign. As he gained momentum, she tried to make another donation, but her credit card was refused.

All writers complain about editors and agents, but with DeWitt it can seem close to mania, not unlike Sibylla and her views on the education system. So it was at dinner that night. She used the word morons a lot, spoke of TPWs (“typical publishing wankers”), and said she has a long blacklist and a short whitelist of editors and agents in New York and London. (She told me I am in a gray zone between the lists.) She mentioned the Wylie Agency, which represented her for a few months between 2000 and 2001. “Those people,” she said, “they are so lucky they never tried to get a job in corporate law, because they’d be out on the street in a week.” DeWitt is the rare chronically impecunious writer who speaks in praise of bankers and Wall Street lawyers. She thinks the publishing industry would improve if it took lessons from Michael Lewis’s Moneyball and imposed a system like sabermetrics on authors. It occurred to me that a singular masterpiece like The Last Samurai, an angry book full of foreign scripts, numbers, prickly characters, and quotations of obscure works, might not slot easily into such a system.

But in some ways DeWitt has the bullshit of the publishing world nailed. “I don’t know,” she said, “how to deal with a world where there’s this language of infatuation that people use. ‘Well, I didn’t fall in love with the book.’ Or: ‘I fell in love with the book!’ ‘Infatuated!’ ‘Besotted!’ ‘Obsessed!’ I’m not sure that that has ever been my attitude toward any text. Throwing around this language is really a way of denying the mechanics of attachment. You hear this all the time: If they don’t fall in love with it the first time, that’s it. Well, that’s a psychological issue. Look, I sometimes think I have Asperger’s syndrome. I’m really bad at people’s emotional investment in things.” She compared editors who don’t respond to rational arguments about a book to Thrasymachus, Callicles, and Gorgias — sophists who sulk whenever Socrates frustrates their conventional arguments.

DeWitt’s entanglement with the publishing industry has resulted in two more Socrates moments for her. Once, after a book deal that she negotiated herself fell apart, she took a sedative and put a plastic bag over her head, but she couldn’t fall asleep. She sent an email to a lawyer asking that she ignore the previous email about disposing of her corpse. She went to Niagara Falls, but by the time she got there Reuters had reported her disappearance and a policeman picked her up on the street and took her to a hospital. Six years later, after the agent Bill Clegg failed to sell Lightning Rods to about a dozen publishers and resigned as her agent, she sent him a suicide email and set out to throw herself off a cliff near Brighton. She halted the plan after her ex-husband wrote saying he was expecting his first child with his second wife.

DeWitt has a keen interest in David Foster Wallace. The two writers have some important things in common: a rigorous academic background, an aesthetic of fracture, suicide as subject matter. She believes that if all had gone as smoothly as it could have with the publication of The Last Samurai, it would have been in the cohort of Infinite Jest. I took this to mean that she would have been considered a rival to Wallace and Jonathan Franzen for the unofficial title of Greatest American Novelist of Her Generation. Instead she sees herself as a writer who hasn’t yet fully emerged. “Plato did not have an editor,” she said. “Plenty of writers that we admire struggled along somehow without the help of Michael Pietsch,” referring to the editor of Infinite Jest. But it seemed to me that for all she had against the publishing world, DeWitt was still looking for a savior to rescue her — not unlike Ludo looking for a father. She disagreed: All she needed was a competent partner to put her books out without screwing them up and to pay her an advance she could survive on. (She had nice things to say about New Directions, but its advances are small.)

There is something else that has all along kept DeWitt going in the face of academic disappointments, publishing fiascoes, and overextended credit cards. DeWitt knows, in descending order of proficiency, Latin, ancient Greek, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Arabic, Hebrew, and Japanese. Throughout her adult life she has taken refuge in these languages, and they were central to The Last Samurai. “The self is a set of linguistic patterns,” she said. “Reading and speaking in another language is like stepping into an alternate history of yourself where all the bad connotations are gone.”

*This article appears in the July 11, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.