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Helen DeWitt’s Philological Fictions

By L. GibsonSeptember 16, 2016

Helen DeWitt’s Philological Fictions
THERE ARE, for Helen DeWitt, no monolingual readers, only latent polyglots. Her fiction insists with evangelical fervor that, given sufficient narrative incentive, those exposed to a single tongue can awaken to a state of philological grace. “One should choose a language the way one chooses a dog or a musical instrument,” the narrator of her story “Entourage” opines. In other words, one’s languages — plural — should not be solely imposed by nation, culture, or school curriculum, but chosen according to one’s own aural, visual, or grammatical inclination. We ought, ideally, to be drawn to them by personal caprice, as we are to love affairs or to the paths of desire walkers carve across open country.

DeWitt’s masterful debut, The Last Samurai — first published in 2000, long out of print, and recently reissued in paperback by New Directions — gives us a glimpse of the new breed of novel these ardently multilingual readers and writers might produce. Sibylla, the elder of the novel’s polyglot protagonists, fantasizes:

Perhaps a writer would think of the monosyllables and lack of grammatical inflection in Chinese, and of how this would sound next to lovely long Finnish words all double letters & long vowels in 14 cases or lovely Hungarian all prefixes suffixes, & having first thought of that would then think of some story about Hungarians or Finns with Chinese.

Her epiphany beggars description in purely literary terms, calling up analogies to music and painting. “The languages of the world seemed like little heaps of blue and red and yellow powder which had never been used,” she exalts, “& in my mind I would hear languages related like a circle of fifths.”

Sibylla’s insight informs the deeply philological tenets of parenting with which she raises her son, the ludicrously gifted Ludo, who has already mastered a number of languages in early childhood. He is the product of Sibylla’s tryst with a well-known travel writer, whose identity his mother masks by referring to him as “Liberace,” an homage to the sloppy sincerity of his work. DeWitt’s novel, eager to marry theory to practice, endorses the pedagogical principles on which Sibylla relies by inserting language-learning materials for Greek, Japanese, and Old Norse throughout its text. For the ideal DeWitt reader, these tables, translations, and grammatical notes should serve as both incentive and evidence that even apparently intimidating languages can be self-taught, given sufficient narrative bait.

Sibylla typifies that rare fanatic: a zealot on reason’s behalf. Her magpie intellect and blinkered attachment to idées fixes inject the novel’s domestic scenes with an idiosyncratic, off-kilter erudition. After reading a news item about the importance of male role models for the sons of single mothers, she begins screening Akira Kurosawa’s film Seven Samurai to supply Ludo with masculine exemplars. “Only one of the characters is a perfectionist in the practice of his art,” she reasons, “but all 8 actors & the director […] show this terrible perfectionism making a total of 17 male role models (not including the extras).” A pair of unorthodox parenting authorities, Mr. Ma (father of the cellist Yo-Yo) and Mr. Mill (father of the utilitarian philosopher J. S.) hover over the household, caviling at the discrepancies between her childrearing methods and their own. Though Mr. Mill “wrote an entire history of India in the intervals of providing lexical assistance to little John,” Sibylla ripostes, he also benefited from “all the advantages of a wife, servants & a fire in the room.”

As Wunderkinder and their eccentric guardians go, Ludo and Sibylla remain remarkably sufferable, due in part to the tight grip DeWitt maintains on her protagonists’ purse strings. Twee treatments of prodigies often gambol along, accompanied by the musical whimsies of an Alexandre Desplat score. Sibylla, for her part, trudges to a poorly paid data entry position, typing and tagging the text of obscure hobbyist magazines. A Wes Anderson matriarch might fan a few issues of Crewelwork Digest to complete a tabletop tableau; she would not manually enter its contents for £5.50 an hour.

Moreover, the tension between Sibylla’s minimum-wage job and her “Homerolexic infant” meaningfully inflects Samurai’s form. Ludo’s early appearances in the novel constitute discontinuous interruptions, both to his mother’s workday and to the linear path along which her narrative might otherwise proceed. Since “I can type at night when he goes to bed, but we can’t have the fire on 20 hours a day,” mother and son spend a series of daylong rides on London’s Circle Line. These rides draw them into radically repetitive arguments with their fellow passengers, rendered riotously funny by the alternating perspectives of the novel’s paired narrators. “The lady said she thought it was rather different and Sibylla said she thought it was exactly the same,” Ludo recounts on one occasion, “and the lady said there was no need to shout.”

DeWitt never waivers in her pitch-perfect fidelity to the conversational forms of parenting — among them the wheedle, the lecture, the scold. She renders her mother-son dyad with a realism that pinches sufficient salt into their affectionate, rather than cloying, bond. Fretting lest Ludo “pick up my bad habit of putting the names in the Western order out of laziness,” she scrupulously refers to the star of Seven Samurai as Mifune Toshiro. When striking a bargain with her obstinate son, she counters, “finish the Odyssey and I’ll teach you the hiragana, yes?” One could pose The Last Samurai as a brainier, bigger-hearted relative of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, in which the mother of a school shooter offers an epistolary apologia for her parenting. Sibylla lacks the sub-zero sangfroid of Eva Khatchadourian, Shriver’s heroine, but both novels hold maternal pieties under the bracing, interrogative scrutiny of a stylist’s gaze.

“I would like to strike a style to amaze,” Sibylla owns, and indeed Samurai clears the ground for a tourney of expressive modes. Pestered by Ludo for his father’s particulars, she presents her son with three faulty artworks and a fairy-tale ultimatum. “You will not be ready to know your father,” she decrees, “until you can see what’s wrong with these things.” The “things” in question — a Liberace cassette tape, a postcard of Lord Leighton’s Greek Girls Playing at Ball, a magazine piece by the “painterly American writer” Ludo’s father admires — take on a talismanic significance within the novel. They constitute tokens of an aesthetic failure that, for Sibylla, amounts to moral taint. As if addressing an antsy novitiate, she clarifies the terms of her challenge: “Even when you see what’s wrong you won’t really be ready […] Perhaps it would be all right when you have learnt to pity them, or if there is some state of grace beyond pity when you have reached that state.” In Liberace’s “buttery arpeggios” and Lord Leighton’s “marvelous perplexities of drapery,” in the “gorgeous train of sentences” that flounce behind the American author’s pen, Sibylla scents uncalled bluffs. “Here was a man,” she seethes, referring to Ludo’s father, “who’d learned to write before he could think, a man who threw out logical fallacies like tacks behind a getaway car, and he always always always got away.”

DeWitt’s insistence on style in its incisive sense — razor-stropped similes, distinctions shaved mandoline-fine — suggests an affinity with the fiction of Lydia Davis, whose spare, austere short stories and fastidious translations from the French attend to sentencecraft with nearly neurosurgical precision. “I’ve gotten very alert not just to mixed metaphor but to any writing mistake,” Davis told The New Yorker in 2014. Objecting to an unnamed author’s description of “a paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles,” Davis formulates her disapproval in distinctly DeWittian terms: “You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.” Like DeWitt’s protagonist, Davis casts herself as sheriff to the slapdash stylist’s desperado, ticking off the figurative offenses with which he would otherwise stand to “get away.” DeWitt’s own exuberances — pell-mell punctuation, nonlinear narrative leaps, transcriptions of Greek and Japanese — would plash the cool, calm water of a Davis story. Yet each author cocks an ascetic’s eyebrow at the excesses and inexactitudes that win much fiction its acclaim.

During the novel’s second half, Ludo, disillusioned by his biological father’s lack of luster, auditions, and auditions for, a slew of potential replacements. “I wanted to see you because I’m your son,” he announces to each of these men, whose responses range from frank skepticism to choked-up assent. This Kurosawa-spurred quest propels the novel into a paternal variant on the courtship plot, inviting Ludo to correct for the ambivalence of Sibylla’s liaison with “Liberace” by selecting the traits — wealth, fame, intellect, charisma — that will distinguish his next parent.

Ludo’s choices serve less as antidotes or supplements to, than vindications of, his mother’s solo parenting. Sibylla offers Seven Samurai, with its cadre of male role models, as an oblique curative against “whatever it is that makes a man when told to toss a person from a plane do as told.” True to her design, some of Ludo’s prospective fathers produce radical art, but all are members of an ethical avant-garde, whose acts of moral courage employ the daring, experimental methods more often ascribed to aesthetic innovation. They possess an improvisational imagination that sees, in a trunk of outdated British passports, the curtailment of a massacre; in a length of yellow silk, the retrieval of a stranded child; in a bespoke recording of Brahms ballades, the prevention of a suicide.

Push comes often to shove in the ethical pressure-cooker of Ludo’s paternal search. DeWitt pairs deeds of cruelty and compassion in perverse, Magi’s-gift equivalences: a philologist saves the life of an abandoned, formerly enslaved child, restoring the boy to the Central Asian tribe that disowned him, only to father another child with the boy’s mother. He later admits that the half-sibling of the boy he saved will likely be sold into slavery as well. “I had started by picking the wrong kind of father,” Ludo reflects, “but now I knew what to look for I could build up a collection of 20 or so.” Yet, of the six fathers he considers, all except one have — whatever their other, and often significant, transgressions — taken life-or-death risks on behalf of strangers.

These seat-of-pants altruists share a readiness “to cock a snook at the official channels,” as one paternal candidate puts it. They are prepared to defy the bureaucratic systems that commit or condone violence and cruelty, often by exploiting the very mechanisms on which these governments rely. Like Raoul Wallenberg — the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from deportation to death camps by issuing protective passports and offering shelter in consular buildings — they prove willing to forge false credentials, assume identities, manufacture documentation, and prevail upon (or, if necessary, impersonate) embassy officials. After one such successful imposture, a would-be father remarks, “I felt ashamed, really ashamed of all the times I hadn’t claimed to be a partipotentiary of some foreign power or other.”

The Last Samurai posits an implicit correspondence between stylistic banality and what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil,” which takes hold when unthinking obedience overrides moral judgment. Arendt marveled, for example, at how seamlessly civil servants, even those previously unaffiliated with Hitler’s party, were incorporated into the “most radical section of the Nazi hierarchy” after the outbreak of World War II. “No one, as far as I know,” she observed, “protested, or resigned his job.” In Samurai, DeWitt delights in imagining defiant exceptions to Arendt’s rule. “What if,” as Ludo phrases it, “a person was doing something terrible because everybody else did it or anyway some people did it, and then they stopped even though everybody else was doing it and it was dangerous to stop? Wouldn’t that be a dazzling act of goodness?” DeWitt’s novel responds with a series of audacious, devil-may-care affirmatives: yes, yes, it would.

Workplace evils of a very different sort dominate DeWitt’s 2011 novel, Lightning Rods. Its protagonist, Joe, invents a service purporting to rein in sexual harassment by allowing high-performing male employees to have anonymous intercourse with female co-workers through specially designed openings in restroom stalls. Joe christens these women “lightning rods” for their ability to draw, absorb, and neutralize the potential fondlings and leers of a firm’s top earners, whom DeWitt, for ad-absurdum reasons of her own, construes exclusively as heterosexual men. The novel, fortunately, asks us to spend little time in the company of these “drive-oriented individuals,” a pack of Don Draper-esque pitchmen impelled by rampant libido and an equally ravenous appetite for closing deals. A broad, braying farce, the novel employs an idiom as pointedly American as the “pleaseta meetcha” with which one of its salesmen caps social introductions.

Despite its risqué subject matter and satirical tone, Lightning Rods unfolds as a process story, albeit one clad in the leopard-print skirt and PVC leggings of its titular employees. For its central action, the novel takes the incremental implementation of an idea into practical, applied form; for its heroes, those who fine-tune the initiative’s function over time. The novel’s chief source of conflict echoes “the problem with any new service”: “there are a lot of blips and wrinkles that no one could have anticipated.” The sticklers who intuit this include Joe himself, as well as two powerhouse perfectionists adept at spotting and streamlining the flaws in his initial design: Lucille, a savvy negotiator, and Renée, a personal assistant with a pointillist eye for detail.

DeWitt’s heroic optimizers delight in picking nits. Working with Renée, Joe finds, “was like getting the Princess and the Pea to design a mattress.” She and Lucille upend workplace hierarchies with their scruples, making demands on behalf of the female “bifunctional staff” whose needs they expertly predict. Strikingly, each of these three central characters also happens to have mastered a self-taught language: Joe works his way through Beginning Programming for Dummies, Lucille learns stenography, and Renée sees her lightning rod sessions as “the ideal opportunity to read Proust’s masterpiece, A la recherche du temps perdu, in French.” Of DeWitt’s three novels, Lightning Rods engages least directly with language instruction, yet it attests all the more forcefully to her interest in the qualities — doggedness, tolerance of minutiae, a propensity to pursue courses of action without regard to their immediate rewards — that lend themselves to acquiring languages, especially by autodidactic means.

The mental attributes DeWitt associates with language acquisition also inform her distinctive, and widely misconstrued, depictions of high-level intellect. Critics — from A. S. Byatt’s review of The Last Samurai in 2000 to recent pieces celebrating its reissue — often assert that DeWitt’s fiction concerns itself with “genius” or “brilliance.” Rarely, however, do they clarify that in DeWitt’s novels, this quality differs materially from the spontaneous insight with which we usually associate those terms. The habits of mind DeWitt dramatizes do include eureka moments: Joe’s idea to transform his masturbatory fantasy into the real-life prototype of Lightening Rods, for example, occurs to him suddenly, when he is living, winkingly, in Eureka, Florida. Yet these instantaneous ideas constitute only the iceberg-tip of intellect and innovation.

Meaningful intellectual attainment depends, for DeWitt, upon mulish stubbornness. Inured against forms of repetition that would discourage other minds, her geniuses excel at spelling out their pet convictions to incurious listeners. Sibylla invites innumerable passengers on the Circle Line to “take the example of two men about to be burned at the stake,” insisting that, if “A dies at time t of heart failure while B burns to death at time t + n, I think we can all agree that B’s life would be better if it were n minutes shorter.” Any work worth completing — learning (or teaching) a language, publishing a book, convincing another person of a firmly held position — costs the DeWitt protagonist prodigious, unglamorous perseverance. This tenacity separates Joe, Renée, and Lucille from the reward-oriented alpha males to whom their business caters. Their specific, DeWittian genius lies not just in the “talent for thinking up things no one had thought of before” but in their forbearance when “persuading people that something they hadn’t happened to have thought of was indispensable.”

After absorbing Sibylla’s harangues in favor of “pay for schoolchildren, the right to death, homosexual marriage and all the other basic requirements of a culture not irredeemably sunk in barbarism,” readers may find Lightning Rods a flimsy exercise. Characters in this novel possess well-worn grooves of conviction, yet the novel itself does not. It operates askance of contemporary debates about sex work, harassment, and consent, yet its faults lie less in its failure to appear on-trend than in its air of unimpassioned argumentation. Where, admirers of DeWitt might wonder, are her fiery fictional defenses of euthanasia, marriage equality, or the economic emancipation of children?

DeWitt conceives of novels, and their readers, as omnivorous beasts. Her books assert (and often attest) that a work of fiction can encompass many kinds of knowledge — probability theory, scatterplots of data, tables of non-Roman alphabets — without compromising its form. Correspondingly, readers can be induced to swallow these swathes of information by the novel’s narrative gavage. One of DeWitt’s narrators observes that a python “does not recognize a small deer as a challenge,” transforming two discrete organisms into “a python with a deer-shaped bulge,” and, later, “a rather larger python without the bulge.” Novels, and the devotees of fiction who devour them, share a similar ability to ingest, digest, and ultimately incorporate other intellectual content, however ungainly.

If The Last Samurai fosters this conviction, Your Name Here, which DeWitt self-published in 2008, tests it. A work concerned with, and emblematic of, the impediments to publishing experimental fiction, Your Name Here attempts to enclose a collage of narrative modes within its second-person frame. It tells the story of Rachel Zozanian, the reclusive, suicidal author of a cult classic called Lotteryland, the apparent entirety of which appears at intervals throughout the text. DeWitt credits Ilya Gridneff, a roguish jetsetter and sometime tabloid journalist, as her co-author; correspondence between the two, some of it scarcely fictionalized, also appears in the novel, as do a series of cunningly constructed exercises in Arabic transliteration.

Ultimately, these elements fail to emulse. DeWitt’s narrator gives voice to plausible objections to the book, conceding that we may soon find ourselves “trapped in a pastiche of the ultimately unsatisfactory If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.” Readers deterred by the novel’s bagginess and convolution will not be set at ease by its self-awareness. All but plotless — and anxiously so — Your Name Here signals its aspiration toward the critical bona fides of experimental literature by Italo Calvino, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, and others. At the same time, it envies genre fiction its widespread appeal and proportionately massive sales. Citing the 100 million copies sold by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, DeWitt’s eponymous narrator announces her ambition of “doing for Arabic what Tolkien did for the languages of the elves and the dwarves.” Comparing Arabic to the invented languages in a fantasy series, particularly one often criticized for its schematic approach to race, strikes an insensitive note. Nevertheless, DeWitt’s impulse to combat Islamophobia in the Anglophone world by familiarizing more readers with Arabic script, and the exercises she designs for doing so, deserve a wider platform.

These deft puzzles represent the best pedagogical bid of DeWitt’s career. Their tempting, teaser-like format invites readers to sound out words and brief passages of English text that have been transliterated into Arabic script. Furthermore, their presence in the novel articulates a pressing political rationale for DeWitt’s philological fiction. American readers unfamiliar with Arabic, she suggests, might develop a more empathic relationship with people of Middle Eastern citizenship, birth, or descent if exercises like these demystified a script that, in her narrator’s words, “looks like squiggles.” Though it has been almost a decade since DeWitt published Your Name Here, her call to replace this visual stigma with phonetic comprehension remains regrettably timely. Indeed, an election cycle characterized by ferocious anti-Islamic bias and fearmongering has only made the message more urgent, and the moral costs of monolingualism more apparent.

Your Name Here, however, appears perplexed by its own inability to popularize Arabic for a mainstream American audience, as, it insists, Lord of the Rings did for Quenya, or Star Trek for Klingon. Setting aside the faulty assumption that more than a handful of the millions who have read Tolkien’s novels or seen Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of the series have learned the languages they contain, the issue of plotting peskily persists. DeWitt’s novel snubs the formal foundations — narrative cohesion, story arc, consistent world-building — on which Tolkien’s popularity, and The Last Samurai’s cult-like following, both depend. Instead, the book frets over, even as it embodies, the challenges of disguising avant-garde metafiction as a sure-thing best seller.

DeWitt has said that her next novel will incorporate the information design principles of Edward Tufte, an eminent statistician and pioneer in data visualization. Tufte’s books, among them The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, promote lucid, intuitive presentation of quantitative data through clearer charts and graphs. DeWitt’s previous novels suggest that this forthcoming effort will stand or fall by its ability to wed its pedagogical and narrative aims. In the meantime, Samurai returns to shelves, remaining DeWitt's most spirited sortie against the banalities — routine cruelty, rote expression, and complacent monoliteracy — in which too many of us, too often, allow ourselves refuge.


L. Gibson (he/they) is a poet and critic whose publications include Misherit and Freedom Reread.

LARB Contributor

L. Gibson (he/they) is a poet and critic whose publications include Misherit and Freedom Reread.


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