On the shelf
“The English understand wool”
By Helen DeWitt
New Directions: 64 pages, $18
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New Directions is publishing Helen DeWitt’s new novella, The English Understand Wool, as part of a series called Storybook ND, which promises “the pleasure felt as a child, reading a wonderful book cover to cover in one afternoon.” Other authors featured in this series of sophisticated paperbacks include Clarice Lispector, Cesar Aira and László Krasznahorkai, but on these 60 pages alone the experiment would be a success.
The arrival of a new book by DeWitt, even in shorts, is reason enough to celebrate. They are unique, as funny-haha as they are funny-peculiar. And as she demonstrated with her short story collection in 2018: “some trick‘ she’s just as brilliant on smaller screens.
It seems unkind, the playful delights of “The English understand woolBut in brief: Marguerite, a 17-year-old who grew up in Marrakech and was tutored in high culture and haute couture by a wealthy French mother and a distant English father, one day finds herself abandoned in an expensive London hotel. Instead of Maman, a detective comes into her suite with surprising news. She becomes a figure of international interest overnight, and when she’s offered $2.2 million for the rights to a book about her life, she must figure out how to survive in a treacherous world of editors, agents, and lawyers.
“It was pretty clear that any ‘biopic’ would inevitably be in Mauvai’s tone,” Marguerite notes, dismissing the idea of her life as a film with one of her favorite phrases (from French: bad taste; vulgar; bad manners). . “But a book, a text, you can control that.”
At least that’s what she thinks.
DeWitt, who saw the sharp end of publishing, knows otherwise. She’s had a lot to say about the industry – little of it nice – since her first novel, “The Last Samurai‘ (2000), was painfully released to the world. Although celebrated on Frankfurt book fair, its publication was hampered by typesetting problems, accounting errors, and legal frustrations. Desperate, DeWitt attempted suicide twice. And while the finished book was well-reviewed and has attracted an evangelical fan base, it was long out of print and only reprinted in 2016 after a career-crushing hiatus. Only one other novel has come to fruition – the sexual harassment comedy Lightning Rods (2011). “The literary world is very fond of the concept of genius” DeWitt once wrote“but it has no place for a Picasso.”
With that in mind, it’s tempting to read “Wool” as a straight-forward satire centered on a brilliant but eccentric writer confronted by a stuffy publisher. Marguerite’s editor Bethany, confused by her focus on Maman’s ideas about textiles and the family’s Ramadan travel plans, hopes to elicit a more sensational account of her childhood by including editorial suggestions such as: “If you don’t talk about your feelings, there is nothing that will captivate the reader and make them turn the pages.Marguerite, however, sticks to her guns.
In fact, Wool is both a great character study and satire, with Marguerite’s quirks driving both the plot and the comedy. What she sees that Bethany doesn’t see is that there are many paths to the truth. Her version of events, however idiosyncratic, is the only way she can explain herself; telling the story differently would be “in mauvais tone”. The English may understand wool, Maman says, but that doesn’t mean they know what to do with velvet or satin. It’s the same with the life stuff of our heroine: there is a right way to shape it, even if it seems absurd at first.
Marguerite, like many of DeWitt’s characters, operates on her own peculiar logic, and much of the humor comes from being teased to the nth degree. Here she dismisses Bethany’s objections to the bottle of Puligny-Montrachet she – a teenager – ordered at lunch at a Manhattan restaurant:
“If you tell me this is illegal, then we are in the realm of speculation. Maybe they respect someone who respects good wine. Maybe they’re sick of people coming in and ordering the cheapest thing on the list, or ordering whatever they happen to be selling by the jar.” Five more damning eventualities follow before she concludes with cool condescension, “Sure thing is not what you wanted to discuss.”
In this regard, Marguerite is reminiscent of The Last Samurai’s great mother-son tag team, which relentlessly subjects everyday situations to their devastating (if absurd) logical scrutiny. Six-year-old Ludo, trying to convince his mother that he doesn’t have to go to school: “Take two people who are about to end 10 years of horrible boredom at school, A dies at the age of 6 from an argument with him A window and B dies aged 6 + n where n is a number less than 10, I think we can all agree that the extra n years didn’t improve B’s life.” The confident spirit that lives in being trapped in a world he perceives as irrational and demented is perhaps DeWitt’s big theme.
The English Understand Wool is a perfect introduction to the anarchic delights of DeWitt’s fiction. Once again, DeWitt aims at nothing less than expanding the reader’s consciousness with the mindless reasoning of her characters, pointing to a world of untapped possibilities freed from convention. Why go to school if you don’t learn anything? If the law is stupid, disregard it! Do not let the bastards get you down!
DeWitt’s inspired skepticism about the ways of the world is believed to stem from her love of languages, reflected in Marguerite’s insistence on writing in French where only French will suffice. “If you were immersed in other languages”, DeWitt wrote, “The arbitrariness of one’s own language world would become visible – the authority of its conventions would no longer be undisputed.” As with language, so with thinking: Step out of orthodoxy, free the spirit. Because of that insight alone, keeping up with Helen DeWitt remains an essential, invigorating, and incredibly enjoyable way to spend your time.
Arrowsmith lives in New York and writes about books, films and music.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-09-30/the-author-of-a-cult-classic-epic-helen-dewitt-tries-a-novella-on-for-size Review: Helen DeWitt’s novella ‘The English Understand Wool’