The English Understand Wool’ by Helen DeWitt’ – A Novella that Avoids Mauvais Ton (bad taste)

 

‘The English Understand Wool’ by Helen DeWitt    (2022) – 65 pages

 

My early background has not permitted me to have much empathy for the upper classes, but occasionally I find myself reading fictions about them.

‘The English Understand Wool’ is written from the point of view of 17 year-old Marguerite who has been brought up in refinement by her Maman. The avoidance of mauvais ton (bad taste) is the guiding standard by which Maman and Marguerite live.

I spent a week at the keyboard. It seem to me that if I continued to work my way through Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier this would be a strong guard against acting in mauvais ton.”

Unfortunately Maman absconds with a fortune that Marguerite was to inherit.

The Paris publishers believe that Marguerite’s first-person account of her plight would make for a sensational true-life book. Her editor wants her to express her feelings about losing her fortune, but Marguerite remains loyal to her Maman.

So perhaps there were people who would like to hear about feelings, but I did not think they were people I would want to know.”

Despite the theft of her fortune, Marguerite remains thankful to her Maman for inculcating her with those aristocratic values.

This novella is written in such a way that one cannot say for sure if it is a broad parody of upper class values or a spirited defense of them.

‘The English Understand Wool’ is one of the novellas in a new New Directions series of novellas called ND Storybook.

Our new series of slim hardcover fiction books—aims to deliver the pleasure one felt as a child reading a marvelous book from cover to cover in an afternoon.”

So far there are six novellas in the series with an intriguing list of authors: César Aira, Osamu Dazai, Helen DeWitt, László Krasznahorkai, Clarice Lispector, Yoko Tawada.

 

Grade:    B

 

9 responses to this post.

  1. Hi Tony! I just read this last week and totally loved it; I thought it was quirky and funny. DeWitt has been on my radar for several years now, ever since her novel The Last Samurai (which, of course, I haven’t yet read).
    I’m sort of planning to review English Understand Wool myself, as part of the Novellas in November event, so I’m saving your review until afterwards. I noticed, however, that you gave it a B, which indicates you weren’t quite as enthused as I!
    I really like the New Directions Storybook series (I have 2 or 3 more) although they ARE pretty expensive!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    • Hi Janakay,
      I really think that New Directions has the right idea of publishing books that can be read in an afternoon or a day or two. If an author is good, they can entertain in 100 pages as well as in 500 pages.
      As for my grades, they are difficult for me to assign, but I feel compelled to assign them anyway. I hope readers don’t take them too seriously.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

  2. Oh this New Directions selection sounds very interesting. I like Aira a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  3. I like the sound of this series. I hope it makes its way to our bookshops.

    Liked by 1 person

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    • Hi Lisa,
      It is not like the 19th century when a trip to Australia required a long ship voyage.

      Like

      Reply

      • Well, no, but our bookshops don’t necessarily import overseas titles. It varies, especially among the indies, but most of them import likely bestsellers and leave the rest of it for us to buy from Amazon or The Book Depository (which is also Amazon). So if we prefer to buy ethically, it’s difficult, and it also means that bricks-and-mortar buyers who haven’t read your enticing review may never come across the book.

        Liked by 2 people

        Reply

        • Australia still has bookshops? Amazing. Lately I’ve been buying my books online from Barnes & Noble which at least isn’t Amazon. There are very few bookshops left in the US.

          Like

          Reply

          • We have lots of bookshops in Melbourne. I have access to four within 15-20 minutes’ drive, and online access to others that I patronise including some in country towns because I like to spread my business around.

            Liked by 1 person

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