Goliarda Sapienza – The Art of Joy


The Art of Joy is a challenging book but it can be read very rapidly. The title would suggest an essay, on the contrary it opens the doors on a world, Sicily and more in general Italy at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The novel follows the life of a woman, “born on January 1st 1900”, who overthrows her own century’s conventions one by one. Surrounded by exclusive individuals, Modesta experiences a full life. She knows ambition that will take her to be the chief of a noble family in decadence, passion that will lead her to the research of pleasure for the sake of it, and eventually she knows that kind of serenity, which can only be reached by people who are satisfied with their own existence.

According to these premises, the novel, not claiming to be realistic, stands as a paradigm of an omnivorous lifestyle, to such an extent that it exasperates the character in her needed universality. Modesta is a daughter abandoned to her own, and then almost adopted, she is a wife, a mother, a lover both of women and men, a grandmother, a servant and a landlady, a politician never candidate, with an interesting transversal view on the Italian history. Therefore Modesta embodies a summa of archetypical roles, without being excluded by any of them. That’s why, it’s not the events, though representative, to be relevant but the story of the relationships, which becomes the story of the relationship between the reader and the book, any word of which is necessary in order for everybody to feel included, at least partially, in the narration. This interpretation allows to neglect minor falls, like some scenes apparently redundant, but useful to complete the whole description of the protagonist. The author’s need to condense such a great amount of meanings within a single character also explains the incongruities of a plot sometimes too much characterized by fortunate coincidence. The roughly sketched language holds together the narration and enhances the descriptions giving the novel its rhythm and breath.

A last note is due to the story of the text. Refused by the publishers for twenty years and recently rediscovered, it can still be shocking because of the plain language through which Goliarda Sapienza describes erotic scenes, also homosexual (though it is the absolute conscience’s freedom of the protagonist that should be shocking). At present, the title might be declined as the art of accepting oneself and the others.

Translation by Anna Anzani (edited by Chiara Canova and Robert Mardle)