The English Understand Wool
(New Directions, 2022)
New Directions has issued Helen Dewitt’s brief new fiction as a stand-alone text, one of their “StorybookND” series, a handsome little package. Once it’s unwrapped, though, out springs a midsummer’s night dream, a turbulent and amoral comedy, disrupting the sleep with its dodges and masks—altogether a delight. The English Understand Wool offers another spin snowball of a narrative, gathering weight as it slaloms the hills of Dewitt’s imagination. That trick gave us most of the brainy, bonkers collection Some Trick, in 2018, also delicious reading, by and large. Still, this new story delivers a deeper thrill, barbed yet sweet.
In another device common to all DeWitt’s fiction, including the novels The Last Samurai (2000) and Lightning Rods (2011), Understand Wool dreams up a protagonist with maniacal fidelity to a mad premise. Her narrator Marguerite deserves to be called a heroine, no less, for her unswerving dedication to the way of life laid out by her “Maman.” Still, it’s this mother, otherwise unnamed, who’s the true maniac. It’s she who raises Marguerite to avoid, above all else, “mauvais ton:” bad taste, in all its forms.
The father shares this ideal, so ingrained that the French term appears without italics, but he’s largely offstage. He’s building a fortune, it would seem, the kind of money necessary for upholding such principles. Thus the family enjoys both a fully-staffed Marrakech “riad,” a garden home, and extended vacations in “places where there are secret lives … Grenada, Venice….” When the daughter needs a winter suit, she and Maman go to Glasgow for the material, then to London; the title, also the first and last line, refers to a tailor on Savile Row. So too, Marguerite doesn’t just have tennis lessons, and riding lessons, but also she’s tutored on piano by professionals, both classical and jazz⎯ though, naturellement, only after she has proven her skills aren’t “intolerable.” Indeed, she takes comfort in sitting down to some Bach or Monk even after, at age seventeen, her whole world goes bouleversé.
The upheaval comes not quite halfway into this “storybook,” both a tingly surprise and another demonstration of Dewitt’s splendid pacing. It turns out that Marguerite’s money isn’t hers, or not exactly, and Maman and the father are likewise counterfeit. The exquisite tailoring, the club memberships, the dinnertime talk of “literature, philosophy, music, art:” this was all a smokescreen, concealing a spectacular con game. Granted, though the two adults now make themselves scarce, they leave the girl comfortably enough; she has the riad, after all. Still, larceny and deception on such a scale draws media attention, and soon the vultures of Big Publishing begin to circle. After a New York agent tells her “seven figures is definitely on the cards,” Marguerite agrees to work with him on a memoir⎯and after that proves herself truly heroic.
In a wicked switcheroo, the teenage out-of-towner turns the smug obliviousness of the Manhattan players against them. At the same time, in her own wily way, she reasserts the values inculcated in her by Maman, since to see “a hotshot publisher or agent” get his comeuppance from Marguerite⎯well, it’s in the very best of taste. Once she’s gamed the system, and her mother has slipped in a final word, Understand Wool wraps up, and if that plot summary seems sketchy, it’s meant to be. The last thing I’d want to do is drop some clanging spoiler into the seamless machinery of so short a narrative.
Instead, I’ll point out a thing or two about the author. Her latest concoction samples only a fraction of her smarts, it’s got none of the mathematical games so central to Some Trick, but its bête noire is another element she’s used before, namely, blindered groupthink. In this case the philistines all work in the book business, and we first come at them oddly, in what seems an aside about translation. Marguerite is multilingual, to be sure, and just as her scheme takes its final turn, she pauses for a brief reflection (a two-page chapter, like a number of others here) on a passage in Stendhal. The lines concern subtleties of expression, and Marguerite can’t abide any of the English translations, and the observative seems irrelevant until we start hearing the mealy-mouthed advice of her New York agent and editor. Their travesty of literature echoes, for instance, the San Francisco editor of “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” in Some Trick, or, in Last Samurai, the clueless teachers who attempt to handle the young genius Ludo. As for Lightning Rods, its entrepreneur protagonist is himself a clod, but as a freewheeling one-man-shop, he reenacts—as parody—yet another drama of the lone sensitive versus the callous herd. Such drama is hardly unique to Dewitt (privet, Vladimir Nabokov), but for her it has special resonance; as reported in the Paris Review and elsewhere, this witty polymath had a terrible time getting both into print—until New Directions showed that one publisher, at least, has its head on straight. That history, especially now that it’s been widely repeated, may have helped set Understand Wool apart as Dewitt’s most humane: her Ur-story at her warmest. Just adjust the tone slightly, and you have the tale of a fallen fairy princess, enlisting the help of a good witch to claim her birthright.