Book Review: The English Understand Wool – Helen DeWitt


Posted 4 months ago in Book Review

The English Understand Wool

Helen DeWitt

New Directions

“DeWitt twins, indeed, something of the artisan with something of the saboteur, plotting against her critics just beyond the reader’s gaze.”

Helen DeWitt is often lauded for her erudition. Her debut novel The Last Samurai (2000) featured side-by-side translations of Greek, a page of Japanese phonological units, very large and very small font. Frequently referred to as a ‘genius’, DeWitt is really a master of her craft. She has this in common with the weavers, tailors, and musicians worthy of the patronage of Marguerite, the protagonist of her new novella, The English Understand Wool.

Marguerite is a 17-year-old girl raised in Marrakech by a French mother and English father. Her mother (Maman) raises her to avoid, above all else and at all costs, mauvais ton (‘bad taste’). Maman buys wool in the Outer Hebrides but will only have it tailored in London. It is important that Marguerite can ride a horse, play tennis and bridge; crucial that she understand good wine. And having taste is not just a matter of distinguished hobbies – it means allowing the riad’s staff six paid weeks off for Ramadan and providing housing and a sound studio for an Alaskan jazz musician. Good taste is purchasing an atelier in a ‘useful arrondissement’ of Paris for a seamstress with curious gifts in ‘cotton, silk, satin, velvet, brocade’.

The image of a patron of the arts that DeWitt presents here suggests a kind of benign, extravagant feudalism. She has explored the more sinister side of such sponsorship in her 2018 short story ‘Brutto’, but here it is contrasted favourably with the treachery of the market. Marguerite is exposed to the worst of art commerce when her parents are hit by scandal. She is left to fend for herself in New York, where the readiest way out of the ominous shadow of mauvais ton is penning a book about her life. The rights sell for over two million dollars, but her editor – bad shoes, bad taste in restaurants – doesn’t care about the quality of linen in Ireland. She wants Marguerite to write about her ‘feelings’. It quickly becomes clear that the teenager’s agent and publisher have few scruples about how they get their bestseller.

DeWitt is no stranger to the predations of the publishing world. The Last Samurai was delayed for years by agents and editors who doubted its saleability. Her third novel, Your Name Here (co-authored with Ilya Gridneff) was dropped by its would-be publisher because of ‘technical challenges’. In a 2018 essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, DeWitt wrote about the curator: one who supports artists because of their originality, not despite it. She wrote of a ‘hundred-odd unrealized projects immured on my hard drive, projects of which agents had said No Publisher Will Allow.’

DeWitt twins, indeed, something of the artisan with something of the saboteur, plotting against her critics just beyond the reader’s gaze. In passages worthy of the paciest thriller, Marguerite is able to manoeuvre the publisher into becoming her patron. When all is revealed, we may come to examine where our own tastes lie.

Words: Eve Hawksworth

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