January 25, 2017

The Unsung Letter No.2, from A.N. Devers

Dear Unsung Letter Readers,
I am a newcomer to these parts. I relocated last year from Brooklyn, NY to London, a month-and-a-half before the Brexit vote, for what was meant to be a three-year stay with my husband and two-year-old. Trump was running for President along with a lot of other strange, frighteningly backward, distinctly un-Presidential candidates, and I was joking about our hasty and hard jump across the pond as a pre-emptive expatriation.
Funny thing, my not very funny joke is now not a barely funny joke, but our reality.
I didn’t really have a sense of Brexit until it was a few weeks away when a man handed me an “I’m in” sticker on my street corner, and explained better to me what it was about. But I’m told most of Great Britain didn’t know either.  Of course, I was in. And now, with Trump’s “victory” and the seeming rise of a Russia-guided kakistocracyas journalist Masha Gessen so perfectly described the newborn despot’s infant government, I am, despite my loathing of Brexit, hoping to stay a bit longer than three years, or however long it takes to recognize or trust my birthplace.
But I am already off topic. Forgive me, but my mind is mostly on America today. I meant to simply say, I am new here and therefore ever so welcomed and thankful to be participating in Helen McClory’s smart letter campaign for under-read books. I have one to tell you about, and singing the praises of a book seldom read is one of life’s best freedoms and pleasures.
In my Brooklyn apartment, I tried kept a three-stack supply Dodie Smith’s “I Capture the Castle,” on hand, after I read it after being intrigued by a short essay by Diana Fox in the literary magazine, Tin House, upon its American re-introduction. I had no idea who Smith was despite having written one of my favorite childhood novels, 101 Dalmatians, and Castle, apparently, had been out-of-print for some time. I ordered the reprint to my local bookstore and it came packaged in a sublime cover and sported this rather extraordinary blurb by J. K. Rowling“This book has one of the most charismatic narrators I've ever met.” If I had to estimate how many copies of this book I’d given away, and how many more I sold as a bookseller, I think it would be in at least the low hundreds. There is no better feeling.
Despite its solid cult status, here, and now thankfully it’s rising cult status in America, there is still a lot to say about this book, including that it is arguably one of the most unsung modern novels of the last hundred years, that it still hasn’t been taken seriously as it needs to be because Smith is a woman and its main characters are women, and because it dares to be funny, but it is not the book I want to tell you about, but to demonstrate my desire to participate in a reciprocal across the pond sharing of unsung books, and to say thank you, England, for giving me one of my favorites.

The one I want to tell you about I tried to buy recently and foist upon my first new book-loving acquaintance in the UK. I talked for at least twenty minutes straight about Helen DeWitt’s 2000 debut The Last Samurai, piqued his interest, and then realized I couldn’t lend him my copy. It’s one of the few books I own that are too precious for me to let walk out the door. So for Christmas I thought I would surprise him with it and was surprised to discover it is only available as print-on-demand here. I didn’t have enough time to have it made as a gift, and I wanted a nice copy, and so I’m determined to bring back a dozen or so of the recent New Directions 2016 reissues, who republished it last May and launching a dogged campaign for readers to re-recognize its brilliance.
I am one of the lucky handful who read this book when it debuted in 2000. My brother had given it a rapturous recommendation and I also recall reading A.S. Byatt’s review in The New Yorker, who compared it to David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten.
Why read The Last Samurai? For one, it is far superior to Franzen’s The Corrections, arguably as intellectually demanding as David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and yet, DeWitt was never put on the cover of a magazine for The Last Samurai. She was never offered Oprah’s Book Club, and she never entered into the media’s great push to proclaim the new great American writers, Franzen and Wallace, who notably published their big books around the same time. There wasn’t room on the stage for DeWitt, somehow. She didn’t even enter get a piece of the conversation. I heard later it many times that it was partly her fault that she was difficult. Well.
So, what is this genius book about? It’s about language and translation and a smart but desperately poor, single mom with a son who is a profoundly gifted child. It is a book about genius. It is brilliant and it is work to read in the way that brilliant books should be good and hard. It is humbling. She deserves more than a thimbleful of the success her great male contemporaries received, and so perhaps, Norton, its print-on-demand paperback publisher, might be encouraged to give it another chance on the physical shelves of bookstores. At least, dear reader, I can tell you to have it printed up right now. You have waited patiently enough for the book of your dreams. It’s my favorite novel of the past twenty years and it’s set in London, of all places.

Buy The Last Samurai here.

A.N. Devers work as a writer and freelance journalist has been published in The Guardian, The New Republic, Nylon, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review among other places. She is a contributing editor at A Public Space and Longreads.