The Last Samurai Reread
by Lee Konstantinou
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Pub Date 22 Nov 2022 | Archive Date 01 Mar 2023
Considered by some to be the greatest novel of the twenty-first century, Helen DeWitt’s brilliant The Last Samurai tells the story of Sibylla, an Oxford-educated single mother raising a possible child prodigy, Ludo. Disappointed when he meets his biological father, the boy decides that he can do better. Inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, he embarks on a quixotic, moving quest to find a suitable father. The novel’s cult-classic status did not come easy: it underwent a notoriously tortuous publication process and briefly went out of print.
Lee Konstantinou combines a riveting reading of The Last Samurai with a behind-the-scenes look at DeWitt’s fraught experiences with corporate publishing. He shows how interpreting the ambition and richness of DeWitt’s work in light of her struggles with literary institutions provides a potent social critique. The novel helps us think about our capacity for learning and creativity, revealing the constraints that capitalism and material deprivation impose on intellectual flourishing. Drawing on interviews with DeWitt and other key figures, Konstantinou explores the book’s composition and its history with Talk Miramax Books, the publishing arm of Bob and Harvey Weinstein’s media empire. He argues that The Last Samurai allegorizes its troubled relationship with the institutions and middlemen that ferried it into the world. What’s ultimately at stake in Ludo’s quest is not only who might make a good father but also how we might fulfill our potential in a world that often seems cruelly designed to thwart that very possibility.
About the author: Lee Konstantinou is associate professor of English at the University of Maryland. His books include the novel Pop Apocalypse (2009) and the literary history Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction (2016).
"Finally! I have been waiting for years for someone to give The Last Samurai, the most inventive and delightful novel of the twenty-first century, the critical attention it deserves. Lee Konstantinou has done it, and he has done it with amazing insight, clarity, and humor. His book will remain close at hand every time I reread and teach The Last Samurai."
—Merve Emre, University of Oxford and contributing writer at the New Yorker
"The Last Samurai Reread is a fascinating study of a novel whose remarkable origin story Lee Konstantinou brilliantly approaches as a story of our time. From his inspired decision to regard the book’s center of interest as less its Precocious Child than its Precarious Mother, to the way in which this ramifies outward into a meditation on aesthetic education in a late-capitalist era of crumbling infrastructure and increasing income inequality, Konstantinou’s compelling reading of DeWitt’s novel does something that the latter does explicitly: revive our imagination of a world in which nonalienated intellectual production might be a possibility for everyone."
—Sianne Ngai, author of Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form
"Konstantinou brings an entirely fresh perspective to this challenging novel. His rereading of The Last Samurai draws powerful insights from sociological field theory while tempering the rigidities of that model with dazzling displays of interpretive finesse and a book historian’s nose for the quirky particulars of the case—the vivid, surprising details that may be found at the heart of every great literary-production story."
—James English, University of Pennsylvania
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Average rating from 3 members
The Last Samurai Reread is Lee Konstantinou's entry into Columbia University Press' Rereadings series where authors and academics revisit post-1970 novels and write about them through a present day lens. I originally chose to read The Last Samurai Reread because I remember reading Helen DeWitt's landmark novel and enjoying it while also knowing that I wasn't fully understanding it. Knowing Lee Konstantinou's work as an academic focused on postmodern literature, I felt that he would be an excellent teacher to lead me back to DeWitt.
The Last Samurai Reread does exactly what you would want it to do. After reading it I want nothing more than to find my old copy of The Last Samurai and devour it. Particularly enjoyable are Konstantinou's investigations into DeWitt's struggles writing and publishing her novel and how that impacts the novel itself as well as where DeWitt's lived experiences diverge from Sibylla's and Ludo's in the novel. Konstantinou is able to write about some difficult and often heady concepts -- postmodernism is not often an easy period in literature to grasp -- in a readable way. Since graduating from college I have often missed deeper, academic discussions of literature and The Last Samurai Reread scratched that itch for me. It also encouraged me to seek out other titles from this series to hopefully discover (or rediscover) more great literature.
The Last Samurai Reread, by Lee Konstantinou, is the third book I've read in the Rereadings series and like the others it offers new (at least for me) perspectives on reading The Last Samurai.
There is one major difference for me with this volume and the other two in the series that I've read. I had read the novels discussed (Vineland and A Visit from the Goon Squad) in the other books multiple times while I have only read The Last Samurai once. If you are like me in this respect, then I think this book will be a wonderful read and will likely make you want to both reread (imagine that!) The Last Samurai as well as (re)visit Helen DeWitt's other work.
I don't yet know to what extent I am in agreement with some of Konstantinou's connections (within the work, between the work and DeWitt, or as a larger statement about society or the writing/publishing life) but I certainly find the case he makes compelling. Since I don't currently have a copy of DeWitt's book I am probably not going to be rereading it for several months, but I will have some of my notes from reading this book handy.
I would highly recommend this to anyone who has read The Last Samurai, no matter what your opinion of it is. This book sheds light on some things and makes connections you might not have considered. I don't recommend this to those who haven't read it, but I can't imagine too many people who haven't read it would pick up a book about rereading it. If you are by nature someone who rereads books on occasion, this is ideal for you.
Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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