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Helen DeWitt

  • By Jesse Barron
  • Issue 6
  • Shelf Life

One advantage of living in a pleasant and inexpensive European capital is that people want to visit you. Another, that there is access to the Internet. Neither paves the road of novel-finishing, and so the American writer Helen DeWitt decided to leave Berlin two years ago, taking with her a toothbrush and laptop. A series of stays in the small towns and writers’ colonies of the American eastern seaboard ended this September in New York, where she now spends afternoons at Artists Space gallery in SoHo, writing at a long white table. The light is plentiful and clean, and she can ride the elevator down to smoke, every so often, on the bubbly cobblestones of Greene Street. There’s even room for her library. Under the banner of The Library Vaccine, Artists Space presents discrete collections of various writers’ books. DeWitt’s just arrived from Germany accompanied by an impressive catalogue: Having your library indexed from Albersmeier to Zweig is what you get when you sublet to Berlin artists “for a couple months,” then vanish for two years. DeWitt says she could go back if she could sell another novel. I ask if that’s what she’s working on. “No,” she says.

DeWitt is one of those formally educated people who somehow have the air of autodidacts—a spirit she lent the main character of The Last Samurai, a prodigy—and the books she keeps are purpose-serving. Alongside the Greek classics, annotated with her penciled definitions (“a two-handled jug”), is a copy of her dissertation, “The Concept of Propriety in Ancient Literary Criticism,” and plays and novels in and out of English. Her primary genre is the instruction manual. Item 822 is Easy Steps in Quran Reading; Item 501 is How to Make a Hollywood Movie for Under $800! (“A comic masterpiece,” DeWitt says). One can cure one’s insomnia, play the bossa-nova piano, and take up colloquial Finnish. A volume on the U.K.’s value-added tax was purchased back when DeWitt falsely believed she had to get her own books through British customs, and spent hours filling out customs forms (“I did not need to be doing this,” she reflects). Item 2213 is Lighting Up: How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking, and Everything Else I Loved in Life Except Sex (“Unsuccessful,” she says). There are some things in the world, like colloquial Finnish, that Helen DeWitt actually wants to know. But many of these other books are valuable for showing how people think they should think, affording access to the underlying codes.

A small table is covered with sex books. 302 techniques avancées pour rendre fou un homme, a Guide du sexe gay. Not displayed but catalogued as item 1434: A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance. Sexual coding and miscoding—concepts of propriety, call it—is an obsession of DeWitt’s, and she wonders whether the rules of attraction could ever be codified with the simplicity and objectivity of the rules of, say, bridge. Her blog, “Sexual Codes of the Europeans,” a few hundred pages when printed out, is further research in the field (“Let us suppose you are in a foreign country,” goes a typical entry. “You know the word for banana. You know no other words for food”).

In DeWitt’s novel Lightning Rods, a man, after plodding and over-literal considerations, “solves” workplace sexual harassment by stationing women in office bathrooms to relieve their male colleagues. It had always seemed like a satire. But maybe, I thought, studying a sheet of graph paper covered with notes about “Social Machines”—such as gyms and restaurants (“machine[s] for getting others’ prepared food into mouths”), maybe the book was DeWitt’s way of taking to illogical extremes her view of the social world as a decipherable system.

I found myself lingering after DeWitt left for a cigarette. Many of us now use libraries—to the extent that we can afford them—to show others how we’d like them to see us. The hotels have always left the spine-selection to designers, but now, in a certain type of chic apartment, you have no idea whether the owner had a hand in choosing this exhibition catalogue or that first edition. The conspiracy to make physical books a status symbol goes all the way to the bottom: “bookshelfies” are an actual thing on Tumblr, and even as esteemed a libertine as John Waters can be found advising prudishly, “If they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em.” In this context, DeWitt’s library is unusual, because it’s deep without being shiny. It is then also a good example of a subsection in the sexual code: Seduction is the art of seeming not to try.