Review by Jack Dunleavy
Like Fernando Passoa’s The Book of Disquiet, found written on loose sheets in a trunk after the author’s death, or the works of Kafka, saved from flames against his dying wish, Goliarda Sapienza’s The Art of Joy is another 20th century masterpiece with a novelistic origin story.
Goliarda Sapienza was born in 1924 in Catania, Sicily, where the majority of The Art of Joy takes place. Sapienza’s parents were anarcho-socialists, and from the age of 16 she studied at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Rome. After a lengthy career in literature and film, Sapienza began work on The Art of Joy in the late 60s, finishing her magnum opus in 1976. The novel deals frankly with sex, both hetero and homo, Marxism, Fascism, Feminism and murder; unsurprisingly it failed to find a publisher until after the author’s death in 1996.
The Art of Joy was found by the Sapienza’s widower in a chest, (an event which sounds more dramatic than it probably was) and great though it is, it is easy to see how such a book could be forgotten under a pile of blankets for so long. I don’t mean to suggest that The Art of Joy would have been better off left hidden away, it is a remarkable book, but nothing if not unwieldy.
The book takes place in Sapienza’s native Sicily, and tells the story of Modesta. Born into poverty, raised by nuns and married into the local aristocracy, Modesta’s story is at times a kind of Sicilian Moll Flanders; she lies, seduces, manipulates and even murders her way to the top. In Modesta, Sapienza has pulled off the bizarre literary trick of making the reader love their protagonist madly and despite their damnable faults. Modesta is not presented as a loveable rogue though, neither is her story a confession of past sins; she is compelling because of her complete lack of regrets and refusal to let anything detract from her dignity.
From the first chapter, in which the infant Modesta touches herself ‘in the spot where the pee-pee comes out’ and there discovers ‘a pleasure greater than that of eating freshly baked bread,’ it becomes clear what at least one aspect of the ‘art of joy’ constitutes for Modesta. Seeing no reason to be ashamed of her discovery, she shares it with the people around her. This plays out about as well as you can imagine, and eventually the child is sent to a nunnery. But here too she finds people are not immune to the temptations of the ‘art of joy’, and, disillusioned, her love for the pious life soon turns to hatred. She manipulates her situation and is sent to live with a family of aristocrats in a local country house. Here she discovers an additional kind of joy, the joy of reading and learning, and her intelligence, kindness and determination enable Modesta to eventually become the matriarch of the family, building around her a politically radical feminist enclave which is only frailly protected from the increasingly Fascist Italy around her.
Throughout the book the description of landscape and setting is sublime. Modesta, who as a child never sees the ocean, is wide-awake to her environment, and the reader is drawn deeply into it. Though Modesta’s fictional birth occurred twenty-four years before Sapienza’s actual birth, Sapienza conjures the world of the first quarter of the twentieth century convincingly. Historical details such as Modesta’s first encounter with a motorcar as a child are dealt with in an un-cliched manner, and as Modesta grows older the evolution of her thought, brought on by the slow filtration of ideas of psychoanalysis, socialism and modernism to this small corner of Europe, conveys the dramatic changes of the period. It is reductive to say that Modesta’s story is the story of the 20th century, even if her life runs in parallel to it, as one of the wonderful things about this book is that Modesta’s story is her own; one can read countless books about down-at-heel Parisians in the 20s, or stylish New Yorkers in the 50s, but Sicilian bisexual adopted-aristocrats are less often encountered.
However, The Art of Joy is a victim of the curse of many long novels. Around the half way mark, when Modesta is living, learning and loving in her mansion surrounded by an increasing brood of children and friends, the excitement of the novel begins to wane. Not because the writing deteriorates (though there are many more passages of near endless dialogue and fewer descriptions in the second half than in the first), but the reader begins to realise that the best bits of the book may already be behind them and there are still nearly four hundred pages to go. The book remains interesting but largely for the sake of the discussion of politics—Mussolini and Fascism are introduced in an off-hand manner early on but slowly and sinisterly begin to dominate the conversation—as well as the occasional shimmer of beautiful description or dialogue, most of which is limited to the romantic scenes. The second half of the book is still good, but reading it becomes something of a chore rather than a joy, which can be a death sentence for a book this long.
At its best, The Art of Joy is an insight into Sicily in the 20th century, as well as a portrait of a woman of great intelligence and poetic ability. At its worst, (and I acknowledge it is wrong to judge a book based on its author’s biography, especially when the judgement is made from a very small amount of information) it can seem like a novel found in a chest, written by someone whose freethinking parents told them they could do anything they put their mind to. The Art of Joy is not quite a beach read, nor is it the kind of book to keep you up reading until early in the morning. It is the kind of book that requires an increasing amount of concentration to get the best out of, an increasing amount of concentration which must constantly battle with an increasing lack of interest. Nevertheless, this book is a one of a kind and the opening chapters alone are sufficient for it to be considered a ‘modern classic’.
Jack Dunleavy is a third year English & History of Art student at the University of York.