New Year, new book, new review. I started 2023 with The English Understand Wool by Helen DeWitt; the first novella I’ve read from New Directions’ newly minted ‘Storybook ND’ series that also features works from the likes of Cesar Aira, Yoko Tawada, Osamu Dazai and so on. I had first read DeWitt’s striking novel The Lightning Rods several years ago (pre-blog) – a brilliant satire of the corporate world centred on a salesman who invents a controversial product, and what also made it interesting was the language, deliberately flat so that it reflected the tone of ‘corporate-speak.’
A novella at just 70 pages, I thought The English Understand Wool was marvellous, as good as everyone said it was; after all it would have been “mauvais ton” not to love it, wouldn’t it?
Our protagonist is Marguerite; a 17-year old young woman raised in Marrakech, her mother (Maman) has French roots, while the father is English. The phrase “mauvais ton” (loosely translated as ‘bad taste’) features regularly in Maman’s parlance who has strong opinions on the subject.
Maman is the doyenne of fine tastes and impeccable manners, qualities she wishes to imbue in her daughter. The English understand wool and Scots tweed, so Maman makes the journey all the way from Marrakech to the Outer Hebrides to buy this tweed and cultivate relationships with the finest weavers. But she travels to Paris to fashion suits because Parisians are the epitome of style while Scots have a “genius for fabricating atrocious garments.” When in Europe, Maman and Marguerite stay in lavish hotel suites with pianos. In Marrakech, as if money is no issue, Maman buys ‘riads’ (traditional Moroccan houses) to house her Moroccan staff. A Parisian Thai seamstress is hired to tailor mother and daughter’s clothes, while a ‘gifted graduate of the Conservatoire’ comes from Paris to impart music lessons to Marguerite. During the holy month of Ramadan, the family settles abroad, the staff is not required to travel with them but is given a full month’s pay.
The French understand wine, cheese, bread.
The Belgians understand chocolate.
The Italians understand coffee and ice cream.
The Germans understand precision, machines. (She in fact kept a Porsche in Paris.)
The Swiss understand discretion.
The Arabs understand honor, which embraces generosity and hospitality.
Clearly, Maman comes across as a conceited woman with superior standards, and she leaves no stone unturned in ensuring that the daughter becomes a connoisseur herself; a way of fine living that Marguerite perfects to the tee because she has known no other.
And then quite out of the blue, a crucial piece of information is revealed carrying massive weight that throws a different light on Marguerite’s current circumstances. She is only 17, but can she navigate these new shattering developments on her own solely relying on the knowledge gained from Maman? And how will she deal with the nosy parkers of the publishing world eager to strike a deal with her?
The English Understand Wool, then, is a wonderfully rendered tale brimming with all the hallmarks of DeWitt’s acerbic, deadpan prose. Right from the very beginning, her sardonic wit is on display whether she is commenting on the ludicrousness of Maman’s exacting ideals or poking fun at the way the publishing industry operates.
In many ways, the novella is a satire on the lengths to which one is willing to go to uphold the tenets of good taste. For instance, when she learns of the truth, Marguerite is beset by “extreme anxiety not to be guilty of mauvais ton.” There’s more…
I was conscious of a slighter anxiety. It would not be possible for quite some time, perhaps years, to go to the Thai seamstress – I would inevitably be followed, and whether or not this led to the apprehension of the fugitives it would certainly cause chagrins. Where was I to find a seamstress?
It’s an interesting novella because it also challenges the reader in how they perceive the situation that has unfolded, particularly, when it comes to family and maybe even trauma. Is Marguerite deeply disturbed by this sudden turn in her circumstances? Does she need to be? Is it necessary that her reactions conform to the dictates of modern society?
“I do not understand this grievance you expect me to feel.”
DeWitt also subtly makes digs at the publishing industry, the murky manner in which it functions, desperate to promote material having sensational value that will sell and connect with an audience, rather than accepting the truth of a version however unconventional. They are like vultures circulating around an alleged prey (in this case, Marguerite), always eager to profit from a distressing situation at whatever cost. But is 17-year old Marguerite naïve or is there more to her than meets the eye?
Just like in The Lightning Rods, DeWitt showcases a unique approach in capturing voice – here, atleast in most chapters, there is a formality and maybe even stuffiness to the prose that is intentional; Marguerite is after all the narrator and her haughty upbringing is accordingly reflected in her storytelling – factual and devoid of emotion.
The novella ends just as it had begun (“The English understand wool”), a very cleverly told tale of dubious morals where appearances can be deceptive; a fresh and highly original story that has only fuelled my appetite for more of Helen DeWitt’s work.
5 thoughts on “The English Understand Wool – Helen DeWitt”
Glad you enjoyed it so much! I’ve heard good things and have it lined up! 😀
All the hype is well deserved I’ll say 🙂 I’ll be very keen to read your thoughts on it.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Excellent review. This is a great read, you’re right about the tone which is very particular. The Last Samurai by DeWitt is just about my favourite book of all time, this story had a distinct feel of one of the characters from that book (Szegeti, specifically) though with its own unique flavour. It’s an odd book, The Last Samurai, but if you enjoy DeWitt you’ll probably like it (I adore it). In fact it’s probably about time I re-read it, feels like the right time of year.
Thank you 🙂 I’m very glad to see your enthusiasm for The Last Samurai, I very much plan to read it. This was a great novella and I loved The Lightning Rods too, she’s such an interesting writer. I looked up her work and realised she also has a short story collection so might have to explore that too.
LikeLiked by 1 person