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The tumultuous twentieth century, told through the life of a single extraordinary woman
Rejected by a series of publishers, abandoned in a chest for twenty years, Goliarda Sapienza’s masterpiece, The Art of Joy, survived a turbulent path to publication. It wasn’t until 2005, when it was released in France, that this novel received the recognition it deserves. At last, Sapienza’s remarkable book is available in English, in a brilliant translation by Anne Milano Appel ...
The tumultuous twentieth century, told through the life of a single extraordinary woman
Rejected by a series of publishers, abandoned in a chest for twenty years, Goliarda Sapienza’s masterpiece, The Art of Joy, survived a turbulent path to publication. It wasn’t until 2005, when it was released in France, that this novel received the recognition it deserves. At last, Sapienza’s remarkable book is available in English, in a brilliant translation by Anne Milano Appel and with an illuminating introduction by Angelo Pellegrino.
The Art of Joy centers on Modesta, a Sicilian woman born on January 1, 1900, whose strength and character are an affront to conventional morality. Impoverished as a child, Modesta believes she is destined for a better life. She is able, through grace and intelligence, to secure marriage to an aristocrat—without compromising her own deeply felt values. Friend, mother, lover—Modesta revels in upsetting the rules of her fascist, patriarchal society.
This is the history of the twentieth century, transfigured by the perspective of one extraordinary woman. Sapienza, an intriguing figure in her own right—her father homeschooled her so she wouldn’t be exposed to fascist influences—was a respected actress and writer who drew on her own struggles to craft this powerful epic. A fictionalized memoir, a book of romance and adventure, a feminist text, a bildungsroman—this novel is ultimately undefinable but deeply necessary; its genius will leave readers breathless.
“It overflows with elements that might be at home in any sweeping, epic European novel of the 20th (or any) century—a simultaneous engagement with and undermining of religion, along with fallen aristocrats, inbred grotesques, Sapphic ecstasy, complicated marriages, sudden deaths, murder, fascists and communists . . . A 700-plus-page-turner, propulsively translated by Anne Milano Appel, The Art of Joy colonizes your attention like some rollicking, manic mashup of Lampedusa, Laurence Sterne, Dante, David Foster Wallace and Margaret Atwood. Perhaps it needed the shattered attention span of the Internet era to succeed . . . Sapienza’s Italian adventure may be just the racy, weighty tome that the age of unexpurgated information needed . . . Sapienza’s prose is breathless throughout, urgent, driven forward by the twin engines of sex and history . . . But the relentlessness is balanced by the compression of each chapter, a consequence of Sapienza’s writing process: She composed the novel on single, folded sheets of typing paper. This keeps everything tidy and actually encourages a focus on events as they unfold through the narrator’s perspective. It's a feast delivered on small plates.” —Maria Russo, NPR
“This is the publishing event of the summer . . . As errant, excessive and irresistible as the woman at its heart, The Art of Joy more than lives up to the title. Modesta’s ‘intense feeling for life’ overcomes whatever obstacles the ideologies of ‘sorrow, humiliation and fear’ can throw at her as she embraces ‘life’s fluidity’.” —Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
“From its explosive, disturbing opening to the quiet cadences of its lyrical close [The Art of Joy] is crammed with passion, ideas, adventure and mystery. Sapienza flits from first-person narrator to third, often on the same page, with stylistic dexterity. Her protagonist shuttles between peasants and aristocrats, party stooges and revolutionaries, male lovers and female. The cast is huge, but not once do we feel that Sapienza is overreaching herself. Anne Milano Appel’s expert translation deserves mention, and her illuminating glossary decodes recondite Sicilian slang and contextualizes songs, proverbs, historical figures and the many references to Dante . . . [Sapienza] writes authoritatively and enthrallingly on Italy’s moral disintegration and seductively on her beguiling heroine's resistance to social norms and opposition to Il Duce’s restrictions . . . Sapienza gives both [Tomasi di Lampedusa and Giovanni Verga] a run for their money with her original voice and her wonderful lead, who insists on plowing her own furrow.” —Malcolm Forbes, The San Francisco Chronicle
“A compelling novel that sweeps through Italian history, bounces through philosophical ponderings, and tries damn hard to shatter as many taboos as it can . . . The Art of Joy is less about sexual exploits and the price they demand and more about defiance of all social constraints, sexual, political, and domestic . . . so gripping . . . compressed chapters and engaging . . . prose make the 670 pages seem like something unique . . . no one is going to feel indifferent about Sapienza’s book. And this is a good thing.” —Vincent Francone, Three Percent
“In The Art of Joy, Sapienza surrenders utterly to her headstrong heroine, accompanying her on an action-packed, lubricious journey from 1900 to the jet age. It is a wild and bumpy ride, and . . . the vividness of Sapienza’s leading lady cannot be denied . . . when it comes to the more ineffable achievement of using literature to uphold the right of women to be whatever they wish to be, and to love whomever they wish to love, with total disregard for society’s whispers, Goliarda Sapienza stands proud on a high pinnacle of postwar European letters, a signpost marking a road forward that is mined with both risk and reward, still perilous, still provocative.” —Liesl Schillinger, The Barnes and Noble Review
“Goliarda Sapienza’s greatest, posthumously published novel is both a celebration of an individual woman’s self-realisation and a biography of the Italian 20th century . . . The Art of Joy was considered too shocking for release even in the 1980s, and . . . the book retains a disturbing power. Sapienza’s eroticism resonates . . . in her beguiling ability to capture the sensuality of Sicily itself. Drawing on her childhood in Catania, Sapienza is most successful when conjuring the sugar-almond scent of the lava-walled convent, the ‘spiteful’ gaze of the moon, the pungent kisses of the wind, the contrast between the Brandoforti villa, which seems ‘made of silk,’ and the austere beauty of the sun-raked chiana, layering them in an unforgettable portrait of a lost world . . . Minor characters are drawn with vivacity and dignity, their clothes, their speech and their Sicilian dialect wonderfully vivid . . . The Art of Joy contains much brilliant writing . . . Modesta is in many ways a model of the picaresque heroine.” —Lisa Hilton, Standpoint
“Imaginatively and unobtrusively translated, perseverance brings considerable rewards.” —Caroline Moorehead, Times Literary Supplement
“An epic tale of Italian life in the 20th century, as seen through the eyes of an indomitable woman. Modesta is born into a land of heat and dust at the very dawn of that century . . . Modesta grows, becoming increasingly ungovernable even as Italy falls under the sway of fascism, unafraid to declare herself a socialist and resist the regime . . . A definitive roman à clef recounting its author’s life . . . Those who are familiar [with Italian history] may find in the book a sort of worm’s-eye rejoinder to Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, narrated from the point of view of one not born to privilege . . . [The Art of Joy] has considerable merit, particularly for students of women’s literature of the past century.” —Kirkus
“This massive book, unpublished when Sapienza died in 1996, first printed in a limited edition spearheaded by a friend, then reprinted to become a sensation in France, finally appears in English. It’s easy to see why it . . . has such passionate promoters now: the story of Modesta, born poor in Sicily in 1900, passionate reader, lover of men and women, and fighter against fascism and patriarchy, is a stirring and potentially shocking tale of a woman’s awakening . . . The strong first section introduces Modesta just when she’s discovered the art of self-pleasure. Surviving rape and fire, she’s taken into a convent where she discovers another source of pleasure: words, and the ability to manipulate others . . . With its specificity of place, experimentation (Sapienza switches between third- and first-person points of view, sometimes on the same page), and pugnacious determination to use one woman’s life to show a tradition-bound world struggling toward modernity, Sapienza’s singular book compels.” —Publishers Weekly
“[Modesta] has a strange, often unexpected, charm . . . Modesta is vivacious and ruthless, a woman who refuses to bow down to tradition and expectation, a woman unafraid of her often scandalous choices. She takes both male and female lovers. She is not a woman to accept limitations—she travels, manages her estate, swims, rides horses and motorcycles, shelters political refugees, raises children who are not her own . . . This is an ambitious book, impossible to label. It’s a novel of ideas. It’s concerned with birth, life, and death, the education of women, politics, social and cultural history, sexuality, free love, psychoanalysis, familial bonds, childrearing, and more. It’s also racy and dramatic. There is so much movement and thought contained within these pages—rarely a dull moment . . . Following Modesta and her family as they struggle to carve a place for their way of life is fascinating. The translation, by Anne Milano Appel, captures the musicality and energy of the book quite well. Fans of Anaïs Nin will dig the unabashed take on female sexuality, but this book will also appeal to those interested in Mary Wollstonecraft and the like—Modesta is head-strong, passionate, educated, and fighting, despite her limitations, for the freedom that so many proto-feminists sought. It is an engaging, if lengthy, look at how women’s lives were changing in the first half 1900s, when the tides of sex, education, and cultural expectation were shifting so rapidly. Even without the emphasis on politics and history, The Art of Joy is an intriguing read: fast-paced and one of a kind.” —Sara Rauch, Lambda Literary
“An unquestionable discovery—a phenomenal survey of the political, moral, and social history of Italy from the vantage point of a marvelous Sicilian narrator with her sometimes rational and sometimes passionate impulses. This is the revelation of an exceptional writer.” —Le Monde des Livres
“Steamy. Thought-provoking. Unflinching. . . . [An] incredible translation . . . Sapienza has created a character who is not particularly likeable, but who is unforgettable and influential. There is nothing apologetic in Modesta. Her feminism is specific, clear, considered and unwilling to compromise. There is a lot of sex in this novel and every word of it has narrative relevance. War, politics, clothing—anything that crosses her path is not mentioned unless it is relevant. Reading this novel takes energy, focus and the willingness to be face to face with this woman for 670 pages. It is no small feat and is entirely worthwhile.” —Left Bank Books
“Sapienza’s style is dramatic . . . her dialogue is operatic in its intensity . . . [The Art of Joy] is an astute litany of the moral, political, and feminist issues of the last century. —Deborah Donovan, Booklist
“Ms. Sapienza’s greatest strength is in vividly conjuring the confusion of being young, especially as Modesta confronts the eroticism that becomes the backbone of the story . . . Ms. Sapienza seems aware of her seductive storytelling technique, as young Modesta often interrupts her own thoughts to comment on their dramatization . . . Without warning, the narrative can switch from first to third person, as Modesta, like a lot of young people, half-believes herself to be a character in a novel, and it makes the challenges Ms. Sapienza throws at her more interesting.” —Ali Pechman, The New York Observer
“[The first] 150 pages of fierce lyricism, eerily synesthetic descriptions of sex and incest, moral ambiguity and Machiavellian scheming do Sapienza credit . . . One of the most salient characteristics of the novel is the way its voice shifts from the first to the third person, even within the space of the same sentence. This shifting makes sense if we understand it as a kind of splitting, a symptom of the trauma Modesta experiences within the early pages of the novel, the collapse of physical pleasure into rape and murder. The result is an almost Cubist-like depiction of the different sides of Modesta, as she sees herself and as the world sees her, and as she thinks the world sees her . . . [Modesta is] a fierce character.” —Lauren Elkin, The Daily Beast
In 1976, an Italian actress-turned-writer named Goliarda Sapienza finished writing a novel called The Art of Joy, on which she had worked obsessively for a decade and which she regarded as her masterpiece. Sapienza, born in 1924, was a woman of smoldering beauty and fiery opinions. She began acting in her teens, winning acclaim for her portrayal of Pirandello heroines; but in her thirties, having scored no greater film roles than an uncredited bit part in a Visconti melodrama, she entered therapy and changed careers. Her first book, Open Letter (Lettera Aperta, 1967), was a slim, memoirish novel about her Sicilian girlhood. Her second, The Meridian Hour (Il Filo de Mezzogiorno, 1969) was a fictionalized account of her sessions with her psychoanalyst. The Art of Joy carried on her pet themes of nostalgia and Freudian introspection but was much more ambitious in scope. A sprawling Sicilian family saga, nearly 700 pages long, it roiled with sex, incest, deviant nuns, hot-headed nobles, high-born lesbians, violent vendettas, and political intrigue, and tussled with every Big Idea from fascism to feminism, from Catholicism to communism. Voltaire (whom Sapienza frequently name-checks in these pages, along with Gramsci, Bebel, and Maria Montessori) might have deemed The Art of Joy Panglossian for its "metaphysico- theologo-cosmolo" aspirations. But Voltaire, of course, could not read this book, having died 200 years before it was written. Neither, for decades, could anyone else.
Twenty years after Sapienza completed her fervid manuscript, no Italian publisher had deigned to publish it. It was not until 1998, two years after her death, that the novel appeared, in full, in Italian, in a small print run paid for by her devoted widower, the actor and writer Angelo Pellegrino. In his introduction to the first English translation of the novel — a lively translation by Anne Milano Appel, studded with Sapienza's meaty Sicilian dialect — Pellegrino writes that he longed for the reading world to appreciate his late wife's literary gifts. In particular, he begged critics to admire her main character, a shrewd bisexual rabble-rouser named (with deliberate irony) Modesta, whom Pellegrino calls "the most vivid female protagonist in our twentieth century," despite the fact that, as he scrupulously concedes, she was conceived "between avant- gardism and minimalism," two movements that played down strong character development. In any case, he continued, his late wife preferred "lucid yet passionate abandon" to "types and forms." In The Art of Joy, Sapienza surrenders utterly to her headstrong heroine, accompanying her on an action-packed, lubricious journey from 1900 to the jet age. It is a wild and bumpy ride, and fully realized or not, the vividness of Sapienza's leading lady cannot be denied.
Born into poverty in a squalid Sicilian hut, Modesta (also known as Mody) soon jumps to a more comfortable perch in a convent, relocates to an opulent country estate, then keeps moving onward and (usually) upward for half a century, transforming herself from peasant to princess, from maredda (Sicilian for "girl") to matriarch. In Modesta, Sapienza invented an arresting new exemplar of female virtù that had nothing to do with "virtue": her protagonist was a woman who scorned convention, renounced feminine modesty as a sexist con, and valued personal fulfillment — sexual, intellectual, and material — above all. Beginning her story with Mody's elated discovery of self-pleasure at the age of four or five, Sapienza follows up the girl's juvenile erotic reverie with a horrific rape by her own father (which Mody instantly avenges, and from which she seems to suffer no lasting emotional damage). After a spot of R&R at the nunnery (poignantly named Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother), Mody embarks upon her emphatically consensual sexual education, which continues over half a century, culminating in a euphoric climax between the senescent protagonist (now a grandmother) and her latest conquest. At the age of sixty, Modesta had exhorted one of her grandsons: "Let's let others be the way they are, or how they want to be!" (onlookers who saw the red-hot nonna holding hands with her handsome nipote thought the two were lovers, à la Harold and Maude). This exclamation, which could be spoken by one of the Pirandello heroines Sapienza played in her youth, is very much the cri de guerre of The Art of Joy and may encapsulate the deeply held conviction that inspired the author to write this book in the first place. But that's not what Italian critics thought when they first encountered Sapienza's magnum opus in 1998.
Upon the book's first Italian release, critics heaped it with scorn — one reviewer called it "a pile of iniquity" — but circulation was so minimal that few ordinary readers registered its existence. If Sapienza's intention with The Art of Joy had been to shock, she succeeded. But in all likelihood, she herself would have been shocked by the outrage her novel inspired. "Each of us is the result of a unique past and of our upbringing," her character Modesta tells one of her nephews, and indeed, Sapienza's past and upbringing were more unusual than most. Born to provocation, she may not have recognized how startling her value system would seem to those who did not share it. Her mother was the feminist socialist labor leader Maria Giudice, who gave birth to Goliarda at the age of forty-four — a year after serving time in a Sicilian prison for fomenting rebellion against Mussolini. Her father, Giuseppe Sapienza (he and Giudice never married), was an anti-fascist lawyer who fought for social justice, warred against Mafia corruption, and home-schooled Goliarda to shield her from fascist influences. The name the couple gave their only child (Giudice had seven children from an earlier partnership with the anarchist Carlo Civardi) sounds to a Latin ear like a wry literary invention or a mischievous stage name, and in a way, it was both. Goliarda means "juggler "or "buffoon;" while sapienza means "wisdom." In their lifetimes, Maria Giudice and Giuseppe Sapienza fought tirelessly for their progressive beliefs on the battlefield of Mussolini's Italy. Giudice, a stalwart feminist, championed women's right to equal pay for equal work and for control over their own bodies. Their daughter would continue this struggle on other stages; first in the theater, later in literature.
Internalizing her parents' convictions, Sapienza took their struggle indoors with The Art of Joy, wrestling with the endless, unwinnable conflicts that arise between parent and child, teacher and student, master and servant, man and woman, heterosexual and homosexual, and making the political personal. She uses Modesta as the mouthpiece for her own class-blind and gender-neutral views, as her heroine emphatically argues with her sexual partners, male and female, trying to break them of hidebound habits of inhibition and socially clouded judgment. When one of Mody's many female lovers, a woman named Joyce, confesses that she regrets her homosexuality, regarding it as "unhealthy" and futureless, Modesta scolds her: "All relationships are without a future, given that people change and as we change relationships grow stale for us, making us require fresh emotions." When one of Modesta's many male lovers, Carlo, gets angry when she criticizes his lovemaking and calls her "vulgar," she lightly retorts, "For you, everything natural is vulgar." "Oh God," Carlo replies in despair, "I can't take any more of this! I'm leaving before I kill you!" But like so many other of Mody's lovestruck admirers, he backs down, conciliating, "We'll talk about it later."
Reading this book in English, fifteen years after it first appeared in print, nearly forty after it was completed, it's easy to see why the first eighteen pages (which contain the sexual misadventures of the child Mody) scandalized early readers; but less easy to see why the great majority of the book did not garner it at least some serious critical attention. At the time of the novel's first appearance, Pellegrino showed the Italian edition to European editors, convinced that his late wife's signal achievement had been underrated. In 2005, a French translation emerged, belatedly bringing Sapienza and her novel respect and praise. On the heels of this rehabilitation, and in the wake of increasing Italian interest in the author's personal history, the novel was published anew in Italy a few years ago, this time bearing on its cover an iconic photograph of Sapienza in late middle age, looking weathered and fierce, evoking the memorable description by her contemporary Marguerite Duras in the novel The Lover: "Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you're more beautiful now than then?. I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged."
When it comes to literary style, even Angelo Pellegrino would allow that Sapienza is no Duras. Where Duras is terse, enigmatic, cinematic, and tautly structured, Sapienza is florid, confrontationally declarative, melodramatic, and meandering. But when it comes to the more ineffable achievement of using literature to uphold the right of women to be whatever they wish to be and to love whomever they wish to love, with total disregard for society's whispers, Goliarda Sapienza stands proud on a high pinnacle of postwar European letters, a signpost marking a road forward that is mined with both risk and reward, still perilous, still provocative.
Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based writer and translator. Her Penguin Classics translation of The Lady of the Camellias, by Alexandre Dumas Fils, came out this summer. Her illustrated book of neologisms, Wordbirds, appears in Fall 2013, from Simon & Schuster.
Reviewer: Liesl Schillinger
Posted August 4, 2013
No text was provided for this review.