The English Understand Wool by Helen DeWitt book review

In a key early scene, the narrator of Helen DeWitt’s new novella sits in a London restaurant with her “Maman,” who is acting “seriously” — perhaps because she’s just received a disturbing phone call, or perhaps because “it’s been her habit at to be serious about the wine order.’ Maman then imparts some lessons, the meaning of which she wishes our narrator, Marguerite, to understand. Among them: “The French understand wine, cheese, bread”; “The Germans understand precision, machines”; and “the Arabs understand honor.” Maman explains that she does not mean that these qualities are “instantiated in every individual of a culture,” but that “it is as if certain qualities thrive in certain social contexts.”

The next day, Maman will disappear and 17-year-old Marguerite must discover that this woman is not her mother but her kidnapper and the thief who stole a fortune that the baby Marguerite should have inherited when her parents died.

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But if you’re stealing $100 million from a baby, why steal the baby? Why raise the child in high style in Marrakesh, Morocco – with respected music teachers, Savile Row tailoring and tuition at the Royal Tennis Academy – and why diligently inculcate in her aristocratic standards of excellence and generosity?

Because we understand that it would be “mauvais ton” to do something else. This roughly translates to ‘bad taste’, although Marguerite insists that no English translation will suffice, just as no other wool can match the wool of the Outer Hebrides tweeds. Avoiding mauvais ton is the principle by which Maman and Marguerite live. Its applications are not only aesthetic but also moral. And it’s put to the test when the abandoned Marguerite – in possession of a sensational story and short of money – signs a book deal. The core plot of the novella is Marguerite’s attempt to stay true to herself while taking on the very maluvais ton cabal of New York agents, lawyers, and editors with whom she now has contractual relationships.

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One of a series of New Directions “picture books” intended to be read in one go, The English Understand Wool is a small gift for DeWitt’s (often enthusiastic) readers and a welcoming introduction to new readers. DeWitt is one of our most brilliant writers, a master of the witty fable, and she shines here with wonderful vocal clarity and a plot that hums like German machinery.

As in DeWitt’s first novel, The Last Samurai, we have a multilingual child growing up under an unusual and demanding code – and a story that asks if that code, if widely embraced, might be better off for all of us. Marguerite’s acute sensitivity leads to violent creative differences with her publisher. One problem is that Marguerite will not witness the betrayal that awaits her. Apparently, this reduces the chances of selling her memoirs. “Maybe there were people who would like to hear about feelings,” explains Marguerite, “but I didn’t think that they were people I would like to get to know.” But she is traumatized, her editor emphasizes; her “maman” stole her money! To which Marguerite replies that she has no complaints because “at 18 months I couldn’t have used that $100 million to be raised by an equal like Maman.”

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Such conflicts between the inevitable particularity of individuals and the inevitable commodifying forces of commerce are another of DeWitt’s specialties. They drive Lightning Rods, their relentless corporate satire, as well as many of the stories in their Some Trick collection. Those familiar with DeWitt’s frustrations with getting books to market may confuse the publishing industry with the primary goal of this novella. But DeWitt’s real concern was never New York publishing, which Marguerite describes as boringly “provincial.” More broadly, market incentives—and people who are committed to them—can undermine decency, truth, art, and craftsmanship.

Unlike the hard-working hackers she encounters in New York, Marguerite sees Maman as a model employer and patron, an ethical snob who uses her (stolen) fortune to underpin nobility on both sides of any exchange. In other words, Maman demands perfection by lavishly overpaying for it. She insists that her servants in Morocco “speak both English and French impeccably”. But she also goes abroad for six weeks each year around Ramadan, as it would be mauvais ton to ask her employees to work during or immediately after these holidays. She buys a showroom in Paris for an inspired Thai seamstress. She offers accomplished musicians a private residency in exchange for only asking that they teach Marguerite one hour a week, provided Marguerite can demonstrate her ability and they “don’t find the lessons unbearable”.

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Of course, such terms of employment sound just as fanciful to most people with jobs as such spending sounds to most people without $100 million. But for young Marguerite, Maman’s way seems the minimum that good taste requires when it pays a huge surplus. She doesn’t see these stark, commodifying forces as inevitable, and she wonders why proverbial “New Yorkers” with their own surplus would perpetuate them.

How will Margarete fare among those of us who have conspired to accept mediocrity? Did the fugitive Maman really leave her? I won’t spoil the final twists of this playfully implausible parable, but I will point out one of its lessons. If perhaps “certain qualities thrive in certain social contexts,” then we see that to live outside the law one must be honest—and obviously one must be something else to live in New York.

Julius Taranto’s debut novel will be published in 2023.

The English understand wool

new directions. 64 pages. $17.95

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