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The Last Samurai (novel)

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The Last Samurai
First edition
AuthorHelen DeWitt
PublisherTalk Miramax Books (2000)

Chatto & Windus (2000)

New Directions (2016)
Publication date
September 2000
Publication placeUnited States
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages530 pp
813/.6 21
LC ClassPS3554.E92945 S48 2000

The Last Samurai (2000) is the first novel by American writer Helen DeWitt. It follows a single mother and her young son, a child prodigy, who embarks on a quest to find his father. Despite selling well and garnering critical acclaim on publication, it was out of print for almost a decade; when reissued in 2016, it received renewed praise and accolades.



The Last Samurai is about the relationship between a single mother, Sibylla, and her son, Ludo, who live together in a small flat in London where Sibylla, an American expatriate, works as a freelance typist. From a young age Ludo proves to be gifted: he starts reading at two, reading Homer in the original Greek at three, and goes on to Hebrew, Japanese, Old Norse, Inuit, and advanced mathematics. As a substitute for a male influence in his upbringing, Sibylla plays him Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, which he comes to know by heart.

The next portion of the novel describes Ludo at age eleven, with no formal schooling and the only social interaction he has coming from his participation in a judo class in which his mother has enrolled him. After meeting his biological father, whom he deems undeserving due to his lack of genuine intellect, he devotes his time to the pursuit of various potential fathers. Ludo interacts with several adult male geniuses, testing each to see if they would make a good candidate to be his father.

Critical reception and legacy


The Last Samurai received enthusiastic reviews when originally published in 2000, and sold over 100,000 copies. However, the book then fell out of print for over a decade.[1]

DeWitt had found the publication process to be a struggle: there were typesetting problems arising from her use of foreign text, an "accounting error" that led to her owing a publisher $75,000 when she thought they owed her $80,000, and a struggle with obtaining the rights for the book's original title, The Seventh Samurai (a reference to the Akira Kurosawa film featured in the book), forcing her to change the title only to see it be used for a Hollywood film starring Tom Cruise.[2][1]

In a review in The New Yorker from 2000, A.S. Byatt said of the novel, "A triumph - a genuinely new story, and genuinely new form."[3] Myla Goldberg, writing in The New York Times the same year, said, "Though the book worships too long at the altar of the intellect, her intelligence provides sparkle as well as promise."[4]

In June 2016, New Directions reissued the novel.[5][6] Retrospective reviews hailed it as a neglected modern classic. Anne Meadows, writing in Granta, ranked it as the best book of 2000.[7]

A 2018 article in New York named The Last Samurai as the novel of the century. In the piece Christian Lorentzen wrote, "The Last Samurai is, in a few ways, an instruction manual. It contains an ethics of living and learning, but it also attempts to tell its readers how to learn and to show them that they can learn things that they might have thought beyond their grasp."[8]

The Guardian called it a "bizarre, bold, brilliant book."[9] The Millions had similar sentiments: "So if The Last Samurai belongs to a genre of books that perpetuate a seductive fantasy about the nature of intelligence, then it’s the best example of that genre I’ve ever seen."[10]

Awards and nominations


The novel was shortlisted for the 2002 International Dublin Literary Award and the Los Angeles Times’ 2001 Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and was longlisted for the 2001 Orange Prize for Fiction.[11][12][13]


  1. ^ a b "Helen DeWitt, America's Great Unlucky Novelist". www.vulture.com. Retrieved 2019-08-06.
  2. ^ The Library Journal: Chiefly Devoted to Library Economy and Bibliography. R.R. Bowker Company. 2000.
  3. ^ Byatt, A. S. (2000-10-23). "The Kurosawa Kid". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2019-08-06.
  4. ^ "Paternity Suitor". The New York Times. Retrieved 2019-08-06.
  5. ^ "The Last Samurai". www.ndbooks.com. 2016-05-31. Retrieved 2019-08-06.
  6. ^ Maciak, Phillip (2016-06-08). "Helen DeWitt's Remarkable The Last Samurai Returns, and Is More Relevant Than Ever". Slate Magazine. Retrieved 2019-08-06.
  7. ^ "Best Book of 2000: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt". Granta Magazine. 2016-12-28. Retrieved 2019-08-06.
  8. ^ "Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai Is the Best Book of the Century (For Now)". www.vulture.com. Retrieved 2019-08-06.
  9. ^ Rhodes, Emily (2018-04-13). "The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt review – a boy's search for his father". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2019-08-06.
  10. ^ "Knowledge Porn: On Helen DeWitt's 'The Last Samurai'". The Millions. 2016-06-13. Retrieved 2019-08-06.
  11. ^ 2002 Shortlist, International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award, 2002, archived from the original on 2014-07-29
  12. ^ "Festival of Books", Los Angeles Times, 2001, archived from the original on 6 February 2009
  13. ^ "Orange Prize for Fiction". 2001. Archived from the original on 20 November 2019.