Helen DeWitt’s book review of The Brits Understand Wool

In a pivotal early scene, the narrator of Helen DeWitt’s new novella sits with her “mum” in a London restaurant as she acts “serious” – perhaps because she’s just picked up To a disturbing call, or maybe because “it’s her habit to be serious when ordering wine.” Mom then imparts some lessons she wants our narrator, Margaret, to realize about its importance. Among them: “The French understand wine, cheese, and bread”; “The Germans understand precision and machinery”; and “The Arabs understand honor”. Maman explained that she’s not saying these qualities are “embodied in everyone” in a culture, but “as if certain qualities thrive in certain social ties.”

The next day, the mum will disappear, leaving 17-year-old Margaret to discover that the woman is not her mother but her kidnapper and thief who stole the baby Margaret was supposed to have when her parents died inherited property.

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But why steal $100 million from a baby and still steal that baby? Why raise a child in high style in Marrakesh, Morocco – with outstanding music teachers, Savile Row tailoring and lessons from the Royal Tennis Academy – and why instill her aristocratic standards of excellence and generosity rigorously?

Because if it didn’t, we understand, it would be “mauvais ton”. Roughly speaking, this means “bad taste”, although Margaret insists that no English translation will work, just as no other wool can match the wool in Outer Hebrides tweed.Avoid Mowayton This is the principle of life for Mom and Margaret. Its application is not only aesthetic, but also moral. When Abandoned Margaret has a sensational story and needs money, it will be put to the test. At the heart of the novella is Margaret’s attempt to stay true to herself as she confronts the Mowet cabal with a contractual relationship between New York agents, lawyers, and editors.

As part of a series of new-direction “storybooks” designed to be read in one go, “The English Learn Wool” is a small gift for DeWitt’s (usually avid) readers, and a fascinating addition to her new readers Primer. One of our brightest writers, DeWitt is a master of witty fables, and she pulls her tricks here with astonishing vocal specificity and a plot that hums like a German machine.

As in DeWitt’s first novel, The Last Samurai, we have a multilingual child raised under an unusual and demanding norm – and a story asks, Wouldn’t it make us all better off if this code were widely adopted. Margaret’s unique sensibility led to a huge creative divide with her publisher. One problem is that Margaret won’t prove the betrayal she should feel. This apparently lowered her memoir’s sales prospects. “Maybe there are people who want to hear about feelings,” Margaret explained, “but I don’t think they’re the people I want to know.” But her editor insisted that she was traumatized. Her “mom” stole her money! To this, Margaret responded that she had no dissatisfaction, because “at 18 months, I can’t use this 100 million US dollars to arrange to grow up like my mother.”

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This conflict between the unavoidable particularity of the individual and the unavoidable commoditizing forces of business is another of DeWitt’s specialties. They’ve propelled both “Lightning Rod” and her relentless corporate satire, as well as the many stories in “Some Tips” in her collection. Those familiar with DeWitt’s frustrations with getting the book to market might mistake the publishing industry for the novella’s primary target. But DeWitt’s real subject was never New York publishing, which Margaret considered tedious “provincial.” More broadly, market incentives—and those who are too grateful for them—undermine decency, truth, art, and craftsmanship.

Unlike the dastardly hackers she encountered in New York, Margaret saw Maman as a model employer and patron, a moral snob who used her (stolen) wealth to secure aristocrats on both sides of every transaction . In other words, moms demand perfection by paying a high price with lavish spending. She insists that her servants in Morocco speak “both English and French perfectly”. However, she travels abroad for six weeks each year around Ramadan, as it is not advisable to ask her salaried employees to work on or immediately after that holiday. She bought a showroom in Paris for an inspired Thai seamstress. She provides private homes for accomplished musicians, and in return they only ask them to coach Margaret for an hour a week, provided that Margaret can demonstrate her abilities and that they “do not find the coaching unbearable” .

Of course, for most people with jobs, such employment conditions sound like the kind of spending that would be for most people without $100 million. But for young Margaret, the mom’s way seemed to be meeting the bare minimum of taste while paying huge surpluses. She doesn’t think those rude, commodified forces are inevitable, and she wonders why the proverbial “New Yorker” has its own surpluses that perpetuate them.

How will Margaret live among those of us who conspire to accept mediocrity? Did the fugitive Maman really abandon her? I won’t spoil the final twist of this funny incredible fable, but I’ll hint at one of its lessons. If perhaps “certain qualities flourish in certain social relationships” then we see that to live outside the law you have to be honest – and to live in New York you obviously have to be something else.

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

Brits understand wool

New Direction. $17.95 for 64 pages

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