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‘The English Understand Wool’ is a little gift to Helen DeWitt fans

In a key early scene, the narrator of Helen DeWitt’s new novella sits at a London restaurant with her “Maman,” who is acting “grave” — perhaps because she has just received a perturbing phone call, or perhaps because “it was her habit to be serious when ordering wine.” Maman then imparts some lessons whose significance she wishes our narrator, Marguerite, to recognize. Among them: “The French understand wine, cheese, bread”; “the Germans understand precision, machines”; and “the Arabs understand honor.” Maman explains that she does not mean that these qualities are “instantiated in every individual” of a culture, but rather that “it is as if certain qualities flourish in certain social conjunctions.”

The next day Maman will vanish, leaving 17-year-old Marguerite to discover that this woman is not her mother but rather her kidnapper and the thief who stole a fortune that the infant Marguerite ought to have inherited when her parents died.

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But why, when stealing $100 million from a baby, would one also steal the baby? Why would one raise the child in high style in Marrakesh, Morocco — with distinguished music instructors, Savile Row tailoring and lessons at the Royal Tennis Academy — and why scrupulously inculcate in her aristocratic standards of excellence and generosity?

Because to do otherwise, we understand, would be “mauvais ton.” Roughly that means “bad taste,” though Marguerite insists that no English translation will do, just as no other wool measures up to the wool in the tweeds of the Outer Hebrides. The avoidance of mauvais ton is the principle by which Maman and Marguerite live. Its applications are not just aesthetic but also moral. And it will be tested when the abandoned Marguerite — in possession of a sensational story and in need of money — signs a book deal. The novella’s core plot is Marguerite’s attempt to stay true to herself while up against the very mauvais ton cabal of New York agents, lawyers and editors with whom she now has contractual relationships.

Part of a series of New Directions “storybooks” meant to be read in a single sitting, “The English Understand Wool” is a little gift to DeWitt’s (often ardent) readers and an inviting primer for readers new to her. DeWitt is one of our most ingenious writers, a master of the witty fable, and she pulls off her trick here through marvelous specificity of voice and a plot that hums like German machinery.

As in DeWitt’s first novel, “The Last Samurai,” we have a multilingual child raised under an unusual and demanding code — and a story that asks whether this code, if widely adopted, might not leave us all better off. Marguerite’s distinctive sensibility causes dire creative differences with her publisher. One problem is that Marguerite will not testify to the betrayal that she is expected to feel. This apparently degrades her memoir’s sales prospects. “Perhaps there were people who would like to hear about feelings,” Marguerite explains, “but I did not think they were people I would want to know.” But she has been traumatized, her editor insists; her “Maman” stole her money! To which Marguerite responds that she has no grievance, for “at 18 months I could not have used this one hundred million dollars to arrange to be brought up by the equal of Maman.”

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Such conflicts between the inescapable particularity of individuals and the inevitably commoditizing forces of commerce are another DeWitt specialty. They drive both “Lightning Rods,” her relentless corporate satire, and many stories in her collection “Some Trick.” Those familiar with DeWitt’s frustrations in bringing books to market may mistake the publishing industry for this novella’s main target. But DeWitt’s real subject has never been New York publishing, which Marguerite considers tediously “provincial.” It is more broadly the ways that market incentives — and people too beholden to them — can undermine decency, truth, art and craftsmanship.

In contrast to the meretricious hacks whom she meets in New York, Marguerite sees Maman as a model employer and patron, an ethical snob who uses her (stolen) fortune to underwrite nobility on both sides of every exchange. In other words, Maman demands perfection by lavishly overpaying for it. She insists that her servants in Morocco “speak both English and French flawlessly.” Yet she also goes abroad for six weeks every year around Ramadan, for it would be mauvais ton to ask her salaried staff to work during that holiday or immediately after. She purchases a showroom in Paris for an inspired Thai seamstress. She offers accomplished musicians a private residence, asking in return only that they instruct Marguerite for one hour a week, provided that Marguerite can demonstrate ability and that they “would not find instruction intolerable.”

Of course, such conditions of employment sound as fanciful to most people with jobs as such spending does to most people without $100 million. But to young Marguerite, Maman’s way seems the minimum that good taste requires when disbursing a vast surplus. She does not see those crass, commoditizing forces as quite so inevitable, and she wonders why proverbial “New Yorkers,” with surpluses of their own, would perpetuate them.

How will Marguerite fare among those of us who conspire to accept mediocrity? Has the fugitive Maman really abandoned her? I won’t spoil the final twists of this playfully implausible parable, but I’ll hint at one of its lessons. If perhaps “certain qualities flourish in certain social conjunctions,” then we see that to live outside the law you must be honest — and that to live in New York you must apparently be something else.

No offense taken.

Julius Taranto’s debut novel, “The Moral Offset,” will be published in September 2023.

The English Understand Wool

By Helen DeWitt

New Directions. 64 pp. $17.95

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