The English understand wool.

Helen DeWitt is one of my favorite authors. That’s what I decided after reading her first novel! Actually I decided it at the halfway point. She may be one of my favorites, but she has never achieved true popularity; she’s too quirky, too much out of the mainstream.

Ten years ago I reviewed her full-length novel, The Last Samurai. This post is about her brilliant, funny, and amazing new novella, The English Understand Wool, which is not just the title of the novella but also its first sentence—and also its last sentence.

After reading the first half or so of the novella, you would be forgiven if you thought that this was yet another story about an overprivileged 17-year-old. But then comes the shocking twist, which of course I’m not going to reveal. That would be mauvais ton. You’ll just have to read it yourself. (It’s only 69 pages, so it won’t take you long—unless, like me, you stop every few paragraphs to think about what you’ve been reading.) You will not only be fully engaged in the story, you’ll also find out why mauvais ton is such a big deal and you will be entertained by the dry satire of the publishing business, a satire that explicitly refers to another (fictional) book about the characters here and implicitly tells us something about DeWitt’s own experience with publishers.

Speaking of mauvais ton, I indirectly learned something from the repeated discussions of mauvais ton and bon ton throughout The English Understand Wool. For years, when Barbara and I used to visit her family in Elmira, NY, we stayed at a hotel that was next to a now-defunct department store that had been widespread not only in the Elmira-Horseheads-Corning area but throughout the northeast: the Bon-Ton. Of course everyone pronounced each syllable to rhyme with Don, Jon, and Ron, yet it was clearly meant to be French. Anyway, even if you know that the denotation of Bon-Ton is “good taste,” you’ll learn what it really means when you read this book. In fact, translation itself is a major theme. Things are often changed when they are translated—or “carried across,” for you Latin scholars out there.

Before I go, I should point out that Helen DeWitt herself has undergone a number of translations. As she says in her bio:

She has a BA (and, indeed, Oxford MA) in Literae Humaniores and a D.Phil. in Greek and Latin Literature. Editors of previous bios have liked the 15-odd languages and the varied work history; conversion to Judaism (1985), UK naturalisation (1999) and late onset lesbianism have been seen as TMI.

Maybe TMI, maybe not. You won’t be able to decide until you read some of what she writes.Then maybe you’ll see why DeWitt remains one of my favorite authors. And maybe you’ll see why the English understand wool.

Or not.

Categories: Books