This is the best book ever written.
OK, OK, I’m not thirteen any more, and besides if the protagonists of the book ever heard me say such a thing they’d give me a look it doesn’t bear thinking about. So I’ll be grown-up and simply say it’s a book that could have been composed with me in mind, and perhaps the book I most wish I had written. Now, DeWitt can write as gripping a piece of plot as (say) William Goldman (whose Magic I literally could not put down when I opened it idly in a bookstore while waiting for a bus; I had to read the whole thing before leaving the store, since I couldn’t afford to buy it), and she (cleverly) demonstrates this in the Prologue to the book, to ensnare the prospective reader. But that’s not why I’m head over heels in love with this book (though it is certainly a recommendation). Here, let me show you. The first chapter (“Do Samurai Speak Penguin Japanese?”) begins:
There are 60 million people in Britain. There are 200 million in America. (Can that be right?) How many millions of English-speakers other nations might add to the total I cannot even guess. I would be willing to bet, though, that in all those hundreds of millions not more than 50, at the outside, have read A. Roemer, Aristarchs Athetesen in der Homerkritik (Leipzig, 1912), a work untranslated from its native German and destined to remain so till the end of time.
I joined the tiny band in 1985. I was 23.
The first sentence of this little-known work runs as follows:
Es ist wirklich Brach- und Neufeld, welches der Verfasser mit der Bearbeitung dieses Themas betreten und durchpflügt hat, so sonderbar auch diese Behauptung im ersten Augenblick klingen mag.
I had taught myself German out of Teach Yourself German, and I recognised several words in this sentence at once:
It is truly something and something which the something with the something of this something has something and something, so something also this something might something at first something.
I deciphered the rest of the sentence by looking up the words Brachfeld, Neufeld, Verfasser, Bearbeitung, Themas, betreten, durchpflügt, sonderbar, Behauptung, Augenblick and klingen in Langenscheidt’s German-English dictionary.
Now, I can completely understand a prospective reader’s closing the book with a shudder at this point, thinking “How did this thing get published?” For that matter, I’m not sure how it did get published; I’m just grateful. But my own thoughts on reading the passage were: is there such a book? (I don’t know, but there was an A. Roemer, who edited Aristotle’s Ars rhetorica in 1898); would Athetesen be “atheteses” in English? (the answer is yes, pronounced ath-e-TEE-seez, and the singular is athetesis); what does Brachfeld mean? (‘fallow field’); yes, that’s just what it’s like trying to read a real text in a language you’ve barely begun studying! And I turned the pages with increasing fervor.
I mentioned in an earlier entry that it’s about “a kid who learns Greek at four and Hebrew, Arabic, and Japanese at five, grows up with The Seven Samurai as a source of role models, and carries around a copy of Njal’s Saga,” and all that’s true, but it only scratches the surface. The text has Greek and Japanese (both transliterated and in the original), a detailed excursus on the “waw consecutive” in Hebrew, a grammatical analysis of Iliad 17.441-449 (used for a most improbable purpose), a passage with a great deal of Inuit (AtaneK George silatudlartuinalungilaK angijomiglo suliaKarpaklune…), a detailed analysis of some Japanese dialogue from The Seven Samurai, and the sentence “He was a linguist, and therefore he had pushed the bounds of obstinacy well beyond anything that is conceivable to other men.” Plus a mystery and a couple of good tales of derring-do. I could go on, but by now you’re either running off to read the book or running for the hills. I’ll add only that I was so immersed in the book that when jonmc saw me in the subway the other day he had to literally tap on the book to get my attention, and yesterday I was reading it on the last (Queens) segment of the three-mile hike home from a suddenly powerless Midtown (took me almost two hours to get home to my relieved wife and a much-needed shower)—it kept me entirely incognizant of my aching feet. Thank you, Helen DeWitt.
Incidentally, in the course of researching this entry I came across this Beginning Philology site; while focused on Chinese, it has useful general material.
Addendum. A commenter at Avva’s post on the book links to this interesting page at Dagbladet, where DeWitt responds to readers’ questions. I’m glad to say, by the way, that I’ve inspired Anatoly (proprietor of Avva) to read the book; that makes three, along with Eudaemonist (see comments below) and Chris. Ms. DeWitt, I want a kickback… or at least an autograph.
Further addendum. I should add that, although for obvious reasons I’ve emphasized the linguistic aspect, the book in no way depends on knowing all those languages for its effect; almost everything is translated, certainly everything that might be important. Think of the Greek words and Japanese characters as a garnish on the dish, there for visual impact and not necessarily to be eaten (though it’s really quite tasty). I do want to emphasize, though, that her English sentences are constructed very carefully; if you read them at a normal pace, listening (so to speak) as you go, you will hear them with the proper emphasis and will follow the train of thought, but if you try to speed-read you may miss something. She respects her readers, an increasingly rare trait. But I promise you’ll enjoy the book even if your only language is English. (I shudder to think of what versions in other languages will look like if the translators don’t take their time and do it right.)
By the way, if you google “the last samurai” the first umpteen hits are for some forthcoming Tom Cruise movie. I expect this means that if a movie ever gets made from the DeWitt book they’ll have to change the name; I just hope they don’t come up with something stupid. But surely anyone with the daring and intelligence to want to film it in the first place wouldn’t disfigure it with a stupid title. Surely? Don’t call me Shirley!
One last thing (for now): at one point the novel gets into bathyspheres and we are introduced to William Beebe (1877 – 1962), who went down in one in 1934 and wrote what is apparently a fine book about the experience, Half Mile Down. I googled him and turned up a detailed biographical page that is well worth your while; the guy led an amazing life. He was married to two women, but my Webster’s Biographical Dictionary mentions only the second, the author Elswyth Thane, whom he married when he was fifty and she twenty-seven (they did not live together, and it might be interesting to read her book about the marriage, Reluctant Farmer). It does not mention his first marriage to Mary Blair Rice, even though it has a substantial entry for her (under her later married name of Blair Niles)—doubtless because they had a bitter divorce in 1913 that was public and scandalous (the New York Times headline read “Naturalist Was Cruel”), and Webster’s thought it best to sweep the whole unpleasant business under the carpet. Those were more decorous times.
Elsewhere in Blogovia: Kathleen Fitzpatrick at Planned Obsolescence has an interesting take on the book.
And: Isabella Massardo at Taccuino di traduzione followed my advice, bought the book, and fell in love with it. The same could happen to you!