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The Abridged Library of Helen DeWitt

Helen DeWitt's latest book - The English Understand Wool - comes out on September 27. We spoke about her favourite places in Berlin and her endless curiosity.

Helen DeWitt among her books. Photo: Luca Godec

One of English-language literature’s most critically-acclaimed and idiosyncratic novelists, Helen DeWitt has found respite from the mainstream literary world – and freedom to explore her various fascinations – in Berlin. She welcomed us into her Kreuzberg apartment to talk about Sergio Leone, her endless curiosity and the eternal tension between creativity and “the industry”. But first, she wanted to show off her personal library.

Helen DeWitt, you have a lot of books!

I’ve got thousands. Once, I sublet the apartment to a couple of American art students. When I returned, one of them, Mia, had put together this extraordinary document – “The Abridged Library of Helen DeWitt.” It was abridged because I had taken some books with me in my suitcase. When I saw it, I thought, “Wow, this is actually me.” My body – this is not me. But the collection, that’s me.

She listed every single book in the house – even every single copy of John Chris Jones’s the internet and everyone, which I have about 100 of. And when they didn’t know the language that the book was in, like Japanese or Arabic, they scanned the cover. It’s a record of me – going to all these places, being in Budapest thinking: “Look at these Hungarian books, I need to take them home.” Or in Turkey, with Turkish graphic novels. When I talk about myself, I can’t help babbling away. But this document has a kind of eloquence, a mute eloquence.

Berlin is the kind of place where you can go and meet people – where somebody trying to be a writer doesn’t have to feel trapped in the machine.

I always feel bad when I go to an indie bookstore, and there are all these books that want to be loved and want to be taken home. But if you’re here, with my library, all the books are already loved. You don’t have to love them. Nobody’s asking you to buy them or take them away (laughs).

Like visiting some aristocrat’s menagerie as opposed to the pound…

Yes! Exactly. They’re not begging you to take them home. Somebody already took them home. You can just kind of go, “Ooh, that’s interesting,” without any kind of obligation. There was a time early on when Airbnb was really fun – now it’s just depressing. But I’ve never seen them hook up with Goodreads or something, and say okay: here is a tiny little apartment and the person who lives here is a total sci-fi addict and they have 5000 books, and you can just go and immerse yourself in it. Here, you would be living among grammars and textbooks for maybe 20 different languages. And you might not be totally enchanted by Hungarian Grammar: Practical and Easy, but that’s okay, there’s just something really nice about being in that environment.

It sounds like getting to know Helen DeWitt the reader is very important in getting to know Helen DeWitt the author – is your reading, are your various fascinations, particularly vital to who you are?

Yeah, I think that’s probably true. Part of it is that, I mean, now that we have the internet, it’s so easy to share things with people. When I started out, I would just discover the most amazing things, and I would think, “I’ve got to get this into a book!” Now maybe people would just put it on Twitter. I think of someone like David Foster Wallace, he clearly shares an enormous amount of information in his books – but it’s a kind of minstrelisation that he does, where he is very aware of being a nerd. He grew up at a time when it wasn’t normal to be interested in these things. So he felt the need to be performative about sharing whatever information it was.

I don’t think people feel that same defensive need to seem quirky now. That’s one great thing about the internet – people just share. But I’ve always had this sense of just wanting to bring things into my work. And I realised that the kinds of things I discovered and found interesting tend not to be what you cover when you are studying formally.

You have done a lot of learning, both formally and informally, including a stint as a researcher and lecturer in Classics at Oxford. What led you to leave and pursue this autonomous life as a writer?

Well, I had started out an undergraduate degree at Smith College in the US, which was a women’s college. I wanted to go somewhere to live the life of the mind. I thought it would have the seriousness and intensity it would have had when it was founded in 1876, back when it was very radical for women to attend college – it wasn’t like that at all. It was racist, homophobic, classist. I hated it, I took a leave of absence, and eventually applied to study Classics at Oxford.

Hungarian grammar and Turkish graphic novels feature in the “Abridged Library of Helen DeWitt.” Photo: Luca Godec

I liked being at Oxford, although it wasn’t the solution to all my problems. I mean, Boris Johnson was there when I was. But it was serious. I remember being in the common room watching my now-ex, the classicist David Levene, argue with this philosopher called Peter King, who hated the mannerism of Sergio Leone. And then David and I went to the video store and rented out all these Leone films. You have to understand that, before that, I hated any Clint Eastwood movie, I hated any movies where people got beaten up or killed. But then suddenly I had this revelation – that moment where something I’d started out hating suddenly had me saying, “Oh, my God, this is absolutely amazing.”

I loved working at the Staatsbibliothek on Potsdamer Platz, where you could sit at a desk looking out across a great well of air.

When I began my doctorate, I had very specific aesthetic tastes. I loved Proust, I loved Henry James. I loved Euripides. And then I met David who loved Faulkner. He loved Wagner, Strauss, Aeschylus, anything that was grand. For him, Moby Dick was the best novel. I was engaging with a person who had this radically different aesthetic picture of the world, this radically different way of understanding art. And then he introduced me to all these different things – Leone, Kurosawa, bridge and poker. He would talk to me about statistics. Suddenly all of this was amazingly interesting. Meanwhile, with my academic research, I’d been assigned a topic I hated and was looking ahead to a life of endlessly publishing pointless papers. So I became a writer.

It’s interesting that this had such an effect on you. It seems to be a running theme of your fiction, too – pedagogy, learning, being taught the rules of a game…

Yes. It’s not that I would ever want to force things on people. But sometimes people just don’t realise that there are things they think they would be no good at, or think they would hate, just because they don’t understand. There is so much learned helplessness, you know? And then there’s this shift in the head, where you suddenly see how something works.

Ludo, the brilliant boy at the heart of The Last Samurai, is deeply curious – but he comes up against a world of incuriosity and conventionality. The unlikeable industry types in Some Trick, too, seem less greedy and more just narrow-minded. Is it your experience that the literary world lacks curiosity and openness?

The thing I liked about being at Oxford was the argument. It’s like poker – it’s not about being nice, it’s just the game, you try to win. When you become a writer, though, suddenly you’re in this terrifying world where the rules are always changing. For you as the author, the text is a little cargo of meaning that is yours. But all that white space in the rest of the book is the province of somebody else, so you don’t have control over it. The space, the typography, the design – even your usage, which for classicists is unbelievable.

Being surrounded by this completely other language was a comfort. And the arbitrariness of the foreign culture was a comfort.

With The Last Samurai, my contract actually did give me the last word over everything, because there were lots of different styles of textual usage, this little six-year-old kid with his diary, a distracted mother scribbling notes. I was meant to have final approval. But then this copy editor – I didn’t even know that such a thing as a copy editor existed – went over it, and I disagreed with a lot of the changes. I checked all these dictionaries and sources, and made all my notes. So then this person just put Wite-Out over my markup and sent her version to the printer and I had to redo it. Convention at this unsuspected level could be so sacred it could override a legally binding contract.

Throughout Some Trick, various artists and intellectuals have industry people circling around them trying to get a piece and cash in – at the risk of killing the thing they love.

Yeah, well, one of the things that seems strange to me is how badly the industry manages its authors, and how clueless people are. In the horse racing world, the general idea is that, if you want to win, you have to get the best out of the horse. The horse comes first. That’s just it. There’s a lot of interesting and fun things you can do with a horse – getting it to do dressage, whatever – but there’s also just getting the manure out of the stall. Anyone who’s serious about horses is not going to be cherry picking the fun bits. But if you’re a writer, well, suddenly you’re in a world where the author comes last. I thought I could just tell them what I needed in order to write books, then we can publish some of those, and there is money in it for everyone – it turns out this was wrong.

Some of these literary people, I mean, they don’t even understand what it would mean to be good at dealing with a writer. It’s just like those really rich kids whose father bought them a horse even though they’re not competent to look after it. Anybody who cares about horses would never sell a horse to that family, but some can’t resist the money.

It was shortly after the snafu with The Last Samurai that you first came to Berlin. What drew you here?

From about 1990, I had been renting a room in London from a German-Estonian artist, and she also had an apartment in Berlin, on Naunynstraße near the Wall. In 2001, after the stress of the publication of The Last Samurai, she said I could go and stay there for a month. I had previously been terrified of spoken German: I had learned to read German as part of being a graduate student, because lots of Classics scholarship was in German, but that was all just looking up words. It was kind of inconceivable to me then that people could actually communicate to each other speaking this language (laughs).

But then I found I could understand the radio. English, at that time, was just sort of corrupt for me. It all reminded me of the publishing disputes. Being surrounded by this completely other language was a comfort. And the arbitrariness of the foreign culture was a comfort. Everything’s arbitrary, but when it’s your own culture, it becomes invisible. You feel trapped in it. But then you come here and, you know, there’s this whole thing where an espresso drink comes with a little biscuit and a glass of water. But then a Milchkaffee was categorised as something different, so no biscuit. And an espresso would come with a handle, but a Latte Machiatto would come in this hot glass with no handle. All these conventions that made sense to everyone else. And you can think, “Okay, it’s just the conventions, I don’t need to internalise them.”

I do think Berlin is the kind of place where you can go and meet people – where somebody trying to be a writer doesn’t have to feel trapped in the machine, where it isn’t just a career and you can be interested in things – but I’d just been through a really bad time and what I wanted was somewhere to collapse. I remembered this years later after another bad time.

Were there any particular places or things you really liked when you came back?

There are some amazing museums here, and it is wonderful to go to them. But it was cheering going to KaDeWe, that one floor where each section is dedicated to a different kind of food or drink, that was enchanting. I liked Dussmann, which is gloriously vast, and the university bookstores. Or even just going to newsagents on Friedrichstraße and finding that they had all these amazing Reklam books! Including, like, a bilingual edition of Spinoza in Latin – that was just: Wow. You would never see that in Britain. It was also exciting to see so many Eastern European authors available, not only in German translation, but even in bilingual editions.

I loved working at the Staatsbibliothek on Potsdamer Platz, where you could sit at a desk looking out across a great well of air. I was trying to incorporate statistics and information design into a book, and they have an amazing collection of books available on open shelves and in the stacks. And because I was working on information visualisation, I was looking out for books making intelligent use of design, so I bought a lot of brilliantly designed books on mathematics. Also many, many different kinds of maps – my favourite was probably a booklet with walking tours called Berlin. Offene Stadt, but there were so many others.

The thing I really love is when this boring thing just suddenly seems fascinating.

One thing that still makes me laugh is the attitude in Berlin that any vacant space is just crying out for a café. You’d go into a tattoo parlour and find they had a spare corner and had concluded that the obvious thing to do with it was to install a café. You’d be living on a street and see that one of the buildings was under construction, and wonder what was coming – how could you ask? And each café would be its own little world, whose owner had complete artistic control.

New York had been a shock after London, where a pub isn’t just a place to buy a drink but a place to hang out. But cafés here are something different again, they’re open for breakfast, often through early morning, and nobody really cares how long you sit over a coffee.

Have you developed much of a literary network in Berlin over the years? You seem like someone who likes to do their own thing…

I tend to cross people’s paths. I once wrote a collaborative novel with the Australian journalist Ilya Gridneff, and I met some people through him. He’s completely insane but a brilliant writer. There’s the artist Paul Thomas, and an American novelist, Tod Wodicka, who I think is better suited to the writer’s life than I am – I remember when he went to London to meet his agent, and they ended up doing cocaine together. That’s probably how I should have bonded with my ex-agent the former crack addict (laughs).

“I stepped outside for a cigarette.” Photo: Luca Godec

Then there’s Ryan Ruby, who wrote this very philosophical novel set in Oxford called The Zero and the One – I met him at an information session for Berlin’s stipend for writers who are not writing in German. I stepped outside for a cigarette and met Ryan there. He’s theoretically sophisticated and opinionated and tendentious and I mainly follow him on Twitter. I gave a reading at Hopscotch and met Rebecca Rukeyser, who wrote her first novel The Seaplane on Final Approach; we mainly swap emails. The artist Calla Henkel sublet my apartment for a while; I wrote an intro to a book for the artist Jay Chung. It somehow doesn’t feel like being part of a network, since we’ve never been in the same room at the same time, but then I find that these people I know all seem to know each other!

You are an author with great enthusiasm for new ideas and interesting subject matter. And when someone’s reading your work, there’s a strong sense that knowing new things is just great for its own sake – including all those kanji the boy learns in The Last Samurai, for instance. Is that something that motivates you when you write: the chance to share things you’ve learned?

Oh, yeah. My sister was a bilingual teacher in Oakland, and I went in to do a little lesson introducing some of the basics of kanji, like how you have one little image that’s a tree and if there’s three then it’s a forest. And my sister sent me this dictionary card made by a second grader, Cesangari, with the kanji for mountain next to the word montaña, and the kanji for fire next to the word fuego, and the kanji for volcano next to the word volcán. There are so many things that look intimidating and daunting – but if you get the kanji for fire and the kanji for mountain, and you put them together, then that’s volcano. A seven year old can get that.

Of course, to master a language, there’s a whole lot more that you would have to do, and you might not want to. But I also think that this initial moment where you just think, “Oh my god, what?” is so great. And it bothers me that people would be shut out from that. It isn’t some elite thing – it’s just great.

In your work and in person, you’re clearly someone with undiminished curiosity and excitement. What’s the secret to retaining a sense of wonder?

I mean (laughs), I sort of feel tired and jaundiced and old, but one of the things that I like is how I will frequently start out by thinking something is unbelievably boring – you know, like math or science or whatever. Or when my uncle tried to teach me to play bridge and I thought, “How is it possible for a game to be so pointless and boring.” I used to think gardening, too, was as boring as it gets. But the thing I really love is when this boring thing just suddenly seems fascinating.

When I was younger, I thought a plant was just a plant – why can’t it just get on with being a plant? At one point I was living and writing in Chesterfield, my one little treat was going to the market and buying some luxuries. Then at some stage I had this revelation that if you buy this tiny little plant and put it in a really big pot, you give it room to grow. It’s true for humans, too, you just need to give us a bigger pot. Then later in Vermont, I wanted blue hydrangeas, and the guy at the nursery was saying, well, I don’t sell blue ones, the colour depends on the soil, you need the right acidity in the soil. And now of course I have this monstrous blue hydrangea. The point of all this is that it’s a source of joy to rethink everything you previously thought – including what you thought was boring.

Do you think readers are less risk-averse than the publishers themselves? The Last Samurai sold pretty well…

Not sure. One nice thing about coming across something in a book is that you’re not on trial – you can like it, or you can stick it back on the shelf. Nobody’s feelings are going to get hurt. Maybe you get fed up reading it – or maybe you want to read it ten times. So the reader always has less at risk. I’ve had people say, “Oh, I read The Last Samurai and I hated it – but I realised that, actually, I could learn to read Greek.” And I think to myself, “Success!” (laughs). It’s not that I think everybody should learn Greek. But I do think nobody should think they can only see Greek letters in little formulas – everybody should be thinking, “Oh, what does that say? Maybe I can work that out!”