By Tami Klein
Posted in books
Chronologically, ‘The Art of Joy’ takes place between 1900 and 1940 in Sicily. Readers witness two world wars, the Spanish Flu pandemic, fascism’s rise to power in Italy, aristocratic families and poor, simple people, and the mobilization of a communist organization, mainly by young intellectuals outside Sicily and its infiltration into the island, devout Christian conservatism, Mafia resonances (not a surprise), and reverberations from events in other European countries and Turkey.
The main character Modesta emerges and grows in the context described above, where she was born into a very poor family and faces an unfortunate fate and difficult, and even cruel, relationships. Modesta takes on forms and changes them for another in an almost dizzying array. She leaves home in tragic circumstances, enters a convent, and becomes connected to an aristocratic family where her extraordinary skills began to find expression. She is intelligent, smart, talented, beautiful and incredibly sexy. Modesta is a “street cat” in the positive sense of the phrase. Circumstances determine her behavior and her passion for life dictates her ways. She manages to formulate a worldview that suits the events in her life, and also works to her benefit. Thus, she became a noblewoman in one of Sicily’s aristocratic families.
We will try not to give away too much of the story. Why? Because the details of the story are the surprising part, and they advance the plot. Hence, do not be astonished that the writing style is actually the most faithful expression of the reader’s experience. Here, I will confess that despite the initial difficulty I experienced, due to the frantic writing style, this difficulty was also the impetus to identify the narrator throughout the book’s 700 pages!? Stylistic transitions from first-person to third-person, to writing similar to script, then taking a broad view suitable for writing a novel, addressing the reader, moving from elegant descriptive language to everyday language…. In retrospect, the style reflects how events occur, to whom and under what circumstances. Dizzying, but captivating, mostly because of the subject.
When the axis that advances events is revealed, and it becomes clear that sex is what both bores deep within the main character and pushes her upward, I smiled to myself and thought: it is like a cork screw that rotates and digs down before lifting the cork up and out. At this point, the form of writing is also understandable and flowing.
What is behind the title of this article, go wild in a book? It is meant to reflect the carousel of life described in the book, the surprising human connections and, of course, the descriptive sex scenes. It is no coincidence that the book has been labeled “pornographic,” although it is not actually pornography. Rather, the novel is the story of Modesta’s life and it is realistic. Human lives are so different from each other. Moreover, different contexts produce very varied biographies. Before labeling a book, it would be better to peel back the events, feelings, sensations, desires, loves and disappointments. The variety of human lives is endless, and who are we to stick labels on them? Labels by nature erase depth and shades of emotion and reference.
When the book was first published in 2003, it caused a sensation with its a plot full of manifold infatuations: love between the main protagonist and younger and older women; love with men, of all ages from varied social classes and at different stages in the protagonist’s life, reverberating against the 40 year period from 1900 to 1940, which was no less fascinating. The reader sees how the common people lived their lives, observes actions of the mafia, and the aristocratic families from within and without, the place of the servants, the springboard provided by education – for women, too – how fascism arose in collaboration with Il Duce in Italy, and the oppressiveness of that fascism. Through all of this, people are trying to survive, to remain alive. Despite two world wars and a global pandemic, they fall in love and sex vibrates their hearts and bodies. Thus, class barriers fall, who is attracted to whom in tumultuous loves, that also bear fruit, beloved and carefully-nurtured children.
There is a lot of beauty in parts of Modesta’s stories. One, quite unusual, is how she “bought” the status of a noblewoman. Furthermore, the tale is told of how she raised and housed in her spacious home a number of children and their mothers, when only one, in fact, is the fruit of her womb. There is much beauty in the atmosphere of acceptance, multi-sided discourse and varied details in her home: the aristocracy, the servants and the guests. There is also much beauty in the descriptions of bodily love between two women and between a woman and a man.
The book also has a great deal of clear-eyed life wisdom and insights about the world that she gathers over the years.
All I found among your comrades was a barely concealed aspiration for sainthood and a vocation for martyrdom. Or else a ferocity of dogma hiding a fear of investigation, of experimentation, of discovery, of life’s fluidity. If you want to know, I didn’t find anything resembling the freedom of materialism. And I ran away, yes, because I had no intention of falling into a trap perhaps worse than the Church from which I had escaped…
I’m not denying any struggle! I’m critical of a mind-set and way of thinking that is not very different from the old world that you seek to oppose. By thinking the way you do, you will build a society that, in the best of cases, will be a copy, and an inferior one at that, of the old Christian bourgeois society (page 230).
The life story of the writer, Goliarda Sapienza, a colorful and interesting character, who undoubtedly supports and is reflected in The Art of Joy. Sapienza was born in 1924 in Catania, Sicily and became a very well-known figure in Italy.
Both of Sapienza’s parents were members of the anti-fascist left. Her mother, Maria Giudice, was a journalist and socialist politician, close to the thinker and communist leader Antonio Gramsci, who was persecuted by Benito Mussolini. She was one of the most renowned and important socialist leaders in Italy, a leading figures in the Italian Socialist Party and among the first feminists in the country. Her first husband was killed in World War I, leaving her to support and raise seven children. She arrived in Sicily in 1919, to organize socialist activity on the island and help establish the local trade union. In Catania, she met her second husband, Pepino Sapienza. Goliarda was their only joint daughter, but since her father also had three sons (and several other illegitimate children whom he recognized) the house where they lived was crowded with people and activities.
Her father, a socialist and lawyer from a poor family, achieved his status thanks to his education. He took his daughter out of school so that she would not be exposed to the curriculum of Fascist Italy. Sapienza was also a film actress and also a friend of director Luchino Visconti. Sapienza earned a reputation as an eccentric and suicidal character.
Sometime in the late 1960s, Sapienza decided to devote herself to writing a great novel, and began writing The Art of Joy in 1967. It was completed in 1976 and all publishers in Italy rejected the novel. Desperate, Sapienza decided to embark on a criminal path. In 1980, she gained sensational publicity after robbing a wealthy friend’s jewelry. The police caught here when she attempted to sell it under a false name. The judge showed mercy on her, but she insisted on being incarcerated in the tough Rebibbia prison on the outskirts of Rome.
Two years after her death at the age of 72, her husband, who was an active partner in editing the book, managed to get it self-published. A German literary agent from Frankfurt, who came across it by chance, told a friend, the French publisher Viviane Hamy, about the book. Hamy was enthusiastic about it and managed to excite the literary press and bookstore owners in France about it, too. Only after The Art of Joy became a best-seller in France in 2005, did publishers in Italy agree to print it.
Details of Sapienza’s life are not only reflected in The Art of Joy, they are woven into the novel’s plot, which us why we found it appropriate to elaborate on the writer’s biography.
Additional interesting testimony that illuminated the plot of The Art of Joy, is the following quotation from the book’s Hebrew translator, Shirley Finzi Lev, to whom it is worth listening: “For the past two years I have been accompanied by The Art of Joy by Goliarda Sapienza, a wide-ranging and trail-blazing novel (500 pages in the original). Hopefully it will arouse the interest it deserves when the translation is finally published [as it was in 2020]. There is much to say about it, and the main character, Modesta. A women from a poor village family in Sicily who – aided by her determination, wisdom, beauty and lack of any moral inhibitions works her way to the high, educated class on the island. I suppose it was the complete absence of moral inhibitions that delayed the publication of the novel in its homeland, because Modesta not only sleeps happily with anyone who pleases her, men and women, but also does not hesitate to remove from her path anyone who interferes with her. And by ‘remove,’ I mean that she does so in the Sicilian style.”
The words of Angelo Pellegrino, the author’s last husband, are moving: “Do you remember how the book ends? It ends with the words, ‘Tell me, Modesta, tell me.’ We both felt that something completely new was born here. Something like nothing else. We immediately began to work on the manuscript, edit it and prepare it for publication. It was a tremendous job and it took two years, but those were two years of great happiness. The original manuscript was much longer than the version that was finally published, but this was exciting, moving work through which our love was also born. We worked everywhere, in bars, restaurants, walking on the cliffs near where I live, on the train and on planes, wherever we sat long enough. We could no longer wait to see people, other hands, holding the book. We wanted to see Modesta running between readers…. Between other eyes because, for us, Modesta was a real living being. At the end of July 1978, the manuscript was ready and we immediately sent it to a large publishing house in Milan…” But, as we know. the novel, The Art of Joy, was ahead of its time.
This quotation explains and refutes at one and the same time. It explains the physical and mental structure that is the foundation for Modesta’s behavior, and it refutes the label of pornography that has been attached to it. The speaker in this quotation is the protagonist when she was a young girl living in a convent.
Tearing off my smock and shirt, my hands found those tight strips “so your breasts won’t show” which until that moment had felt like a second skin to me. A seemingly compliant skin that bound me with its reassuring whiteness. I took the scissors and cut them to shreds. I had to breathe. And finally naked – how long had it been since I felt my naked body? we even had to bathe with our shirts on – I rediscover my flesh. My released breasts explode beneath my palms and I stroke myself there on the floor, taking pleasure in the caresses which those magic words had triggered (page 57).
Publishing – Farrar, Straus and Giroux