No one ever expects an author simply to minuet her way into a book deal and, if lucky — merely “talented” doesn’t usually do the trick — into commercial success. But the publishing jukes and vaults that have earned Helen DeWitt the title of “America’s Great Unlucky Novelist” rather resemble the vertiginous motions of a mazurka on pogo sticks.
Disagreements with her editors led DeWitt to attempt suicide twice. Her first novel, The Last Samurai, remained out of print for eleven years after its publisher went bankrupt. Before DeWitt was able to publish her second novel, Lightning Rod, another ten years lapsed. By that point, her reluctance to acquiesce to the industry’s commercial demands had sunk our Great Unlucky Novelist into penury so severe that she resorted to making requests in her afterwords for personal donations.
In a 2018 essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, DeWitt wrote that a hundred-odd unrealized projects were still confined to the limbo of her hard drive, for no publisher would even look at them. Her unsuccess is a sorry spectacle, equivalent to watching the literary world tripping over itself and tumbling to a place of self-inflicted stagnation. The Last Samurai — nothing to do with the Tom Cruise movie — caused a sensation and earned DeWitt a small cult following. Lightning Rod and the short story collection Some Tricks further confirmed her as a visionary whose neglected delights it would be a scandal to reserve for posterity.
Understandably, DeWitt has plenty of stories to tell about mercenary literary agents, feckless editors and the systematically thwarted ambitions of artists. Her brilliant new novella, The English Understand Wool, is such a saga. Told, like her previous novels, from the point of view of an obsessive personality, this clever little book revolves around the education of seventeen-year-old Marguerite by her French mother on the rules of bon ton. DeWitt has a knack for delivering acutely eccentric ideas with such intense frequency and in a no-nonsense tone that readers become almost persuaded of their unarguable logic.
One must buy wool in Scotland but avoid committing it to the Scots’ genius for “fabricating atrocious garment,” Marguerite’s mother teaches her; instead, the tasteful craftsmanship of a London tailor might be more sensibly relied upon. It is only appropriate for one to know how to play the piano; a conservatoire graduate hailing from Paris might provide tutoring in a riad bought especially for the occasion, though only if finding one’s preparation “tolerable.” One must dress oneself with éclat; white patent-leather shoes are “inexplicable.”
Marguerite’s (never named) mother could be said to be Lily Bart’s spiritual kin. Like Wharton’s heroine’s, her Weltanschauung is shaped by a distaste for philistinism and (though this is never spelled out) a belief that money isn’t there to be multiplied or flaunted, but to crystallize material and spiritual beauty. In a manner charmingly antithetical to the treatment of artists under late capitalism, when employing a Thai seamstress to sew her linen clothes, Marguerite’s mother doesn’t expect her to toil away for a pittance but procures her an atelier in Paris, judging her longing to live in the French capital “inseparable from the genius the young woman had so often revealed.” If enough seamstresses, writers and artists of the world were afforded the right resources, the character seems to be hyperbolically suggesting, who knows how many more Birkin bags, King Lears and Mona Lisas might see the light of day?
Yet Marguerite’s mother is emphatically not an unimpeachable Mother Teresa. One day, she simply vanishes. Marguerite is told that she is an orphan and that those she thought were her parents had actually kidnapped her as an infant and seized the tens of millions of euros that had been left in her trust. In other words, Marguerite is the victim of the heist of the century.
But Marguerite doesn’t think of herself as a victim. This puts her at odds with the publisher who has given her a $1.1 million advance to write her memoir. Instead of the teary portrayal of childhood trauma that is expected of her, Marguerite’s stiff-lipped recital of her mother’s etiquette tenets allows for “nothing to engage the reader and keep them turning the pages,” laments Bethany, the editor responsible for Marguerite’s manuscript.
In an amusing exchange of emails, Bethany, whose name appropriately translates into “house of affliction,” insists that Marguerite’s story should include more “feelings.” Did her father’s perennial absence not make her feel lonely? Was she not even a bit alienated by her mother’s undisguised coldness? Incredulous, Marguerite dismisses Bethany’s nudging as a mark of unpardonable mauvais ton.
In Christian Lorentzen’s 2016 profile of her for Vulture, Helen DeWitt spoke about her own distaste for emotions and mused whether she might have Asperger’s syndrome. What is sure is that her characters largely exhibit repetitive behavioral patterns and a stubborn dependency on rational thinking at all costs.
While DeWitt’s unapologetically cerebral narrative style might leave some readers cold, those looking for a change from today’s overload of self-obsessed confessional poetry will find her refreshing. With the surge of interest in female con artists that has seen shows like Inventing Anna and The Dropout garner attention, The English Understand Wool could not have been released at a more propitious time. Let’s just hope no new unlucky stars cross the course of its author.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s July 2022 World edition.