The English Understand Wool by Helen DeWitt book review

In a major early scene, the narrator of Helen DeWitt’s new novelist is sitting in a London restaurant with a “maman,” who represents a “grave”—perhaps because she just got an annoying phone call, or maybe because it was her custom to be serious when ordering wine.” Mamann has some lessons that she would like our narrator Marguerite to recognize, among them: “The French understand wine, cheese and bread”; “Germans understand precision, machines”; and “Arabs understand honor.” Mamann explains that she does not mean that these qualities “embodied in each individual” of a culture, rather it means that it is “as if certain qualities flourish in some social relationship.”

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

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But why, when stealing $100 million from a child, one also steals the child? Why raise a child in refined style in Marrakesh, Morocco – with outstanding music instructors, Savile Row tailoring and lessons at the Royal Tennis Academy – and why so meticulously inculcate their aristocratic standards of excellence and generosity?

Because doing otherwise, as we understand, would be “mauvais ton”. This roughly means “bad taste,” though Margaret insists there is no English translation, just as other wool does not amount to wool in tweed in the Otter Hebrides. Avoid Ton Movis It is the principle by which Maman and Margaret live. Its applications are not only aesthetic, but also ethical. And she will be tested when deserted Margaret – with a thriller and in need of money – signs a book deal. The main plot of the novel is Margaret’s attempt to remain true to herself as she confronts a gang of New York clients, lawyers and editors with whom she now has contractual relationships.

Part of a series of “story books” about new trends meant to be read in one sitting, “The English Understand Wool” is a small gift for (often enthusiastic) DeWitt readers and an engaging primer for readers new to it. DeWitt is one of our most creative writers, a master of the clever tale, and she does her trick here with the wonderful privacy of sound and plot that hums like German machines.

As in DeWitt’s first novel, “The Last Samurai,” we have a polyglot child who grew up under unusual and demanding code – and a story that asks if that code, if adopted widely, wouldn’t leave us all better off. Margaret’s distinctive delicacy causes severe creative differences with her publisher. One problem is that Margaret will not testify to the betrayal that she is expected to feel. This appears to degrade her memoir’s sales prospects. “There may have been people who wanted to know feelings, but I didn’t think they were people I wanted to know,” Margaret explains. Her editor insists she was traumatized. Her “Maman” stole her money! Margaret replied that she had no complaints, because “in 18 months I could not use a hundred million dollars to arrange my upbringing by the same maman.”

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Such struggles between the inevitable privacy of individuals and the inevitable forces of merchandising are another specialty of DeWitt. They lead both “Lightning Rods,” its relentless institutional satire, and many of the stories in its “Some Trick” collection. Those familiar with DeWitt’s frustrations in bringing books to market may mistake the publishing industry as the main target of this novel. But DeWitt’s real subject was never publishing in New York, which Margaret considers “regional” as boring. More broadly, they are the ways in which market incentives – and the people to whom it owes credit – can undermine decency, truth, art, and craftsmanship.

Unlike the accomplished hackers she met in New York, Margaret sees Maman as a archetypal business owner and patron, a moral arrogant who uses her (stolen) wealth to ensure nobility on both sides of every exchange. In other words, Maman demands perfection by overpaying for it. She insists that her servants in Morocco “speak both English and French flawlessly”. However, she also travels abroad for about six weeks every year in Ramadan, because it would be fine to ask her salaried employees to work during or immediately after that holiday. She bought a showroom in Paris for an inspiring Thai tailor. She offers the witty musicians a private lodging, and asks in return only that they mentor Margaret for one hour a week, on the condition that Margaret shows her ability and that they “would find instruction improbable”.

Of course, these working conditions seem fanciful to most people with jobs spending such spending to most people who don’t have $100 million. But to young Margaret, Maman’s method seems to be the bare minimum that good taste requires when spending a colossal surplus. She doesn’t see those rude and commoditizing forces entirely inevitable, and she wonders why “New Yorkers” famous for their own surpluses would perpetuate these forces.

How will Margaret’s wages among those of us who conspire to accept mediocrity? Did the fugitive Maman really abandon her? I will not spoil the recent twists of this comically absurd proverb, but I will allude to one of its lessons. If perhaps “certain traits flourish in some social relationship,” then we hold that to live outside the law you must be honest – and that to live in New York you must seem to be something else.

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

English understanding wool

new trends. 64 pages $17.95

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