Usually if a book was controversial or never published, we think it worthy of rescuing from the literary dustbin. But a sexually charged Italian novel leaves Lauren Elkin wondering if some novels are best left to history. Read her earlier essay on the opposite case.
The Art of Joy is the story of Modesta, born to an impoverished Sicilian family on January 1, 1900, and therefore well-placed to witness the century that is always exactly as old as she is. Within the first 150 (of 670) pages, spread from Modesta’s childhood to late adolescence, she has discovered masturbation and cunnilingus, been raped by her father, killed her mother and sister, lusted after a nun, killed said nun, married a prince with Downs Syndrome, and become a princess with her husband’s sister, Beatrice, as her consort. Modesta is a quick study not only in the art of joy, but the art of manipulation.
And that ought to have been the end of that. These 150 pages of fierce lyricism, eerily synesthetic descriptions of sex and incest, moral ambiguity and Machiavellian scheming do Sapienza credit, raising The Art of Joy if not alongside Bataille’s The Story of an Eye, then not far behind. Alas, there are 520 pages and forty years or so to go, a tired parade of characters and subplots, of seemingly endless reported conversations about socialism and feminism, love and fascism, as Modesta reigns as matriarch of the gothically declining Brandiforti family and spends the 1920s -1950s being revered, loved, and looked up to. This does not provide a meaningful vehicle to carry the novel’s transgressive spirit through six hundred pages. Whatever radical feminist points the novel had to make are blunted; whatever illumination shone through in those early pages is covered over with Sapienza’s woolly inability to judge when a story has run its course.
When she died in 1996, Goliarda Sapienza, the daughter of well-known Sicilian socialists, an actress who had appeared in films by Ludovico Visconti and Francesco Maselli, still hadn’t found a publisher for her novel L’arte della gioia (The Art of Joy), which she finished in 1976 after nine years of work. (If you watch her scream her head off in this clip, you’ll feel you truly understand the intensity she brought to writing as well as acting.) She went into desperate financial straits trying to finish writing this book, and even went to jail for stealing a friend’s jewelry: this makes her a more-than-averagely daring and committed writer, as well as a bit of a loon.
Sapienza’s husband Angelo Pellegrino brought out The Art of Joy in Italy on his own dime in 1998, then, following a television documentary about Sapienza, a larger print run followed in 2003. 2005 saw a French translation (Le Monde called it “a phenomenal skimming of the political, moral and social history of Italy”), and 2008 saw a reissue by the eminent Italian publisher Einaudi. Modesta’s flouting of the laws of church, country, and morality—and Sapienza’s experiments in form and narrative—was taken to be a major achievement. And now it is appearing in English for the first time, translated with great stamina by Anne Milano Appel.
Worst of all for a supposedly “erotic” novel, the dirty bits are so badly written that The Art of Joy becomes a strong contender for the Literary Review’s Bad Sex award.
Unfortunately, the book is being touted as a “lost masterpiece,” with a foreword (written by Pellegrino) that calls its main character “the most vivid female protagonist in our twentieth century” and suggests that its “fusion of cinema and psychoanalysis restored the novel’s natural tempo, ending the era of the antinovel.” To inflate the reader’s expectations this way is to do Sapienza an injustice. Perhaps in Italian and in French, languages that lend themselves to a certain effusiveness and earnestness, there is much to love here, but in English The Art of Joy comes across as a sensationalist saga of a novel, whose writing—after those magic first pages—only occasionally rises above the literal and the plodding. If this is the novel’s natural tempo, give me the “antinovel” any day.
One critic who saw the manuscript in the 1970s called it a “pile of iniquity”; Sapienza and her supporters chose to believe that the manuscript was simply too daring, too much ahead of its time. But if Goliarda Sapienza could not publish her novel in 1976, it is only partly because she was the victim of a misogynist and closed-minded literary establishment. Mainly, I am convinced, it is because she did not write a good book. Pellegrino reports that Sapienza nearly undertook a thorough revision in 1996, but she was reluctant to censor herself under the influence of the unkind words that were once said about the novel. Tired and beaten down by rejection, Sapienza could not see her work clearly. It is too bad she had no one to help her, because with an editor willing to strip back the excess and sharpen the conflicts the novel could in fact be the great novel its publishers all want it to be.
The Art of Joy is billed as a novel of female awakening, but the ongoing exposition gives the impression that this female keeps awakening, and awakening, and awakening. Modesta is compelling, but Sapienza fumbles her handling of her heroine’s desires and drives. 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. But for all this narrative box-stepping we’re never really brought into Modesta’s mind: what makes her tick, what is she after? As Modesta finds herself pitted against forces of morality or ethics, she takes arms against them through sheer force of rhetoric. She engages in long-winded Platonic dialogues that are denuded of all meaningful fictional trappings, and therefore leave nothing at stake except for Modesta to prove yet again that she is right. Such arguments reduce Modesta—such a fierce character earlier on—to a set of opinions, as if summarizing a Cliffs Notes version of her character’s beliefs. Here, she discusses with Carlo, a vertically-challenged Gramsci-reading Communist, the relationship between sex and politics:
“‘But Modesta, don’t you see? You’re denying the sacrifice and abnegation of those who are fighting for the proletarian cause, for a better society without class differences, without man’s exploitation by other men, without…’
‘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.’
‘But radical transformations take time. First we have to over-throw the bourgeoisie through revolution and change the relations of production. Everything else will then follow on its own because the superstructures created by the bourgeois ideology will collapse… In any case, what I wanted to talk about is us. I don’t see what this theoretical discussion has to do with it. But we’ll talk about it later.’”
The novel is full of this kind of flat, presentational dialogue, punctuated by occasional lyrical disquisitions on the moon, the sea, and other tropes of re-birth. Most of the characters sound alike, though Modesta is the only one who can be easily identified, as she’s the one who sounds a bit like a martyr. Two world wars rock the Continent and fascism rises and falls, but their effects barely touch Modesta and her family, except for the occasional visit from a ragtag crew of Communists and Black Shirts who pass through the Brandiforti villa. Modesta has a brief spell in prison, but as she finds a new lover in her cellmate it isn’t actually that bad, and in the blink of an eye fascism is over and Modesta and Nina are free.
Worst of all for a supposedly “erotic” novel, the dirty bits are so badly written that The Art of Joy becomes a strong contender for the Literary Review’s Bad Sex award—or at least the Bad Postcoital Award: one scene has Modesta exclaiming over her lover’s flaccid member “First it was sooo big, now it’s teeny weeny.” Taking a gun to her dead lover’s son Mattia, Modesta seems not strong, intense, and “dangerous” (as the other characters repeatedly describes her) but petulant and erratic: in the very next breath she’s begging him to let her stay. “I lose myself in your eyes. Don’t make me go… your gaze is like a wind that sweeps me away.” Mattia is turned on. But they can’t have penetrative sex—every time Modesta does that she gets pregnant—so they make use of other crevices. Modesta slathers her lover’s juices all over her body before applying her own particular art of self-joy. Anais Nin it isn’t.
In her preface to Muriel Rukeyser’s Savage Coast, Rowena Kennedy-Epstein writes “there is a continued need for archival work that restores feminist and radical texts and puts them in print.” But what ought to be the editor’s role in this process? Apart from what we learn in the foreword, I don’t know the circumstances of the way this text was edited, either by Sapienza, Pellegrino, Appel, or FSG, nor do I know to what extent this final text represents Sapienza’s wishes. And if it does, perhaps her editors ought not to have obeyed her. A strong edit would have saved Sapienza from herself.
The myth of the author would suggest that great works of literature are born of a unique individual genius, who finally lays down her contribution, shining and perfect, bearing no fingerprints but her own. The reality is much more collaborative; where would Raymond Carver have been without Gordon Lish, or TS Eliot without Ezra Pound? The fact that The Art of Joy appears in translation complicates this role, but it is a well-established tenet of translation theory that the work is not sacrosanct, to be rendered in the target language but otherwise left untouchéd. Too often editors “canonize” works in translation, Martin Riker (formerly of Dalkey Archive) suggested in a lecture to the British Council a few years ago. “There is no reason why a book should not be edited simply because it has already appeared in another form (language), if the original form is flawed, and assuming that the editor is proceeding responsibly.”
I can get behind the archival value of The Art of Joy; it will appeal to anyone curious about Italian writing in the late twentieth century, the women’s movement in Italy and in Europe, the culture of Sicily. But its feminism and radicalism are drowned out in the barrage of dialogue, its avant-garde ambiguity coagulates into outright obscurantism. This is a book that just isn’t ready to see the light of day.
Let’s not be afraid to apply our own standards to these “lost” books, to reshape them as their authors could not. I’m not “denying the sacrifice and abnegation” (as Carlo accuses Modesta) that Sapienza went through to write this book; rather, with Modesta, I’m “critical of a mind-set and way of thinking that is not very different from the old world.” In other words, by approaching every recovered text as if it were a masterpiece, making it party of the canon by sheer virtue of its age or even its daringness, we are reproducing the very circumstances and old-world values that prevented these books from being published in the first place.