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The Art of Joy

By Goliarda Sapienza

Translated by Anne Milano Appel

New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, 704 pp., $30.00, hardcover

Goliarda Sapienza's The Art of Joy, a historical romance in which an exuberantly passionate girl grows into a fiercely self-determining woman, was completed in 1976 but not published commercially in her native Italy until 2008. In its ambition and scope it can be compared to Bernardo Bertolucci's film of the same year, 1900 (Novecento): the protagonists of both, born on January 1, 1900, express Italy's political and cultural changes through their emotional and social lives. But where Bertolucci refracts his narrative through the lens of class struggle, Sapienza foregrounds sexual politics. Her hero, Modesta, struggles to realize all her desires--erotic, financial, intellectual, and emotional--in order to express herself as a woman unburdened by local customs and norms. Using her intelligence, courage, and native wit, she takes advantage of every opportunity to ensure not just that she survives but that she surpasses her circumstances.

Sexual curiosity is a main driver of Modesta's trajectory, and Sapienza aims to describe her physical and emotional experiences as explicitly as possible. No doubt this was one reason for the book's widespread rejection by Italian publishing houses and why it remains controversial. Another was Modesta's "libertinism"--her defiance of accepted ethical norms. (As recently as July 5, 2013, a columnist in the Turin daily La Stampa described it as "this labyrinthine, mad and desperately erotic book," and accounted for the publication of the English translation in the US and the UK by the interest in female sexuality following the success of Fifty Shades of Grey [2011].) Sapienza also aimed to write a book that would reach a popular audience, cramming it with incident and drama to make a compelling read. From the first page, the author launches into a startling sequence of scenes, emotions, and events. Modesta begins life in an impoverished shack on the lava-strewn slopes of Mount Etna. Her careworn mother has devoted her life to her other daughter, who is disabled. The resentment and hatred Modesta's situation inspires prompt her first impulses to masturbation. Her pleasurable initiation into lovemaking with her friend, the peasant Tuzzu, is followed at shocking speed by a rape inflicted by a man claiming to be her father. A fire started accidentally by Modesta brings death to her mother and sister, and Modesta is taken to a convent, where the next episodes in her life begin.

These first chapters put into place an emotional groundwork of motifs and personalities that recur throughout the rest of the novel. There is Modesta's own quest for a richer, more fulfilling life and her refusal to succumb to victimhood. There are also the hateful but desired older woman who stands in Modesta's way and consequently must be killed or otherwise disposed of; the trustworthy man of the people and earth, close to nature, source of confidence and advice; the sexually dominating male whom Modesta must conquer and learn to love and then to move beyond; and the damaged sibling. As she later remarks: "That's how the past came back ... not with the same characters ... but with new ones that trigger the memory of fears that haven't been expunged." Trauma, too, recurs: fire, attempted suicide, murder, and attempted murder. These events, which have a strongly cinematic feel, are recorded in confused and confusing language, leaving the reader as uncertain about what has happened as Modesta herself, who has to rely on what others tell her.

At the convent, under the guidance of the Mother Superior, Leonora, Modesta learns to conceal her passions beneath a veneer of civilized behavior. She discovers her appetite for language, beauty, and music, as well as for the smaller luxuries of clean sheets and gentle voices--but she also becomes aware that in this environment, too much attachment to the pleasures of the flesh will be condemned. Developing her own brand of hypocrisy, she hides her resistance to religion and her growing contempt for the nuns behind lowered lashes and outward conformity. At the same time, she feels uncomfortably aware that such concealment makes her greedy absorption of new knowledge and accomplishments feel almost like theft. Her sensual frustration by Leonora, from whom she wants more than occasional strokes, breeds hatred, and when it bursts out in a denunciation of Leonora's sexual hypocrisy (taken into Leonora's bed, Modesta has lain at Leonora's side while the nun masturbates) she finds herself emotionally rejected and once more wishing death on a powerful killjoy.

This time, instead of Tuzzu, she finds an ally in the convent gardener, Mimmo. He advises her on ways of escaping the convent--if all else fails by killing off Leonora--and assures her that she has it within her power to be a princess.

   He called me sunflower, little missy, princess.
   "Why princess, Mimmo? I'm not a princess."
   "But you are, you are. A princess by caprice
   of nature"

After the death of Leonora in a planned "accident," Modesta indeed has an opportunity to become a princess and avoid life-long imprisonment in a convent. Her story then takes on the momentum of a rags-to-riches fairy tale.

This fairy tale has godmothers, but no Prince Charming. If Leonora is Modesta's first godmother, Leonora's mother is her second. Both recognize the potential in her quickness, beauty, and grace, and support her developing ambitions without expecting or receiving gratitude. Leonora had arranged to send Modesta to her mother's country villa, where she meets the prince she decides to marry. He is regarded by all as a monster, and is not to be transformed by a kiss. Modesta, however, quickly recognizes in him the same malady that her dead sister had (what she calls "mongolism": Down syndrome), and realizes that with careful handling, she can become his wife while finding sexual satisfaction elsewhere. In his aristocratic family, she enters a world of incestuous and semi-incestuous relations and gives her bisexuality free rein. She forms a happy sexual relationship with the prince's sister and finds further erotic satisfaction through a liaison with the steward of the family estate, who fathers her child. Her intellectual world is enlarged when she discovers the library of the prince's freethinking uncle, now dead, through whose books she discovers an invigorating rationalism, radicalism, and anticlericalism. But throughout the story sexual desire remains her driver, and her secretive manipulation of those she regards as enemies remains an enduring inheritance of convent life.

The Art of Joy is the only true novel Goliarda Sapienza wrote. Born ninety years ago, in 1924, she trained in Rome as an actor, working in theater and film. The most famous film she appeared in was Luchino Visconti's Senso (1954). In the course of a long collaboration with the director Francesco (Citto) Maselli, she developed an understanding of the cinematic techniques that she deploys in The Art of Joy, most notably the rapid movement between first and third person narration within scenes (evoking the oscillation between internal and external point of view in cinematic representation) and the rendering of some scenes entirely in dialogue. With the onset of a profound depression Sapienza gave up acting. She turned to writing, first poetry and then lightly disguised autobiography.

The only works she published in her lifetime were Lettera Aperta (Open Letter, 1968) and II filo di mezzogiorno (The Meridian Hour, 1969). Neither has been translated into English. These books reveal Sapienza as a talented practitioner of what the writer Stephen Reynolds in 1906 termed "autobiografiction." They grow directly from immediate life experience. In Lettera Aperta, Sapienza strives to write out the thoughts and experiences that "weighed on her shoulders for forty years" and twice led her to attempt suicide. II filo di Mezzogiorno recounts the psychoanalysis to which she turned after hospitalization and electroshock therapy. Both communicate the confusion and fragmentation of someone pummelled by internal and external forces. In contrast, The Art Of Joy, on which she started work in 1967, affirms her protagonist's continuity and consistency, even though at moments of emotional crisis Modesta's memory becomes blurred and events move out of focus.

Aspects of Sapienza's life are still crucial to the novel's story. It transforms not only Sapienza's sexual and political experiences but also those of her family, which it blends with the history of Italy and the physicality of the Catania region. She makes fascinating use of her psychoanalytical experiences and insights. For example, as her heroine moves from domination by primitive impulses to more circumspect strategies, Sapienza emphasizes the need to hold onto and understand feelings, to recognize hate and envy as motivations, and to seek more than orgasmic pleasure (while not discounting its power) in love. In the course of Modesta's fraught love-affair with Joyce, a woman she is sheltering from the fascist regime, Modesta discovers the elements of psychoanalysis. The lovers read Freud together while Joyce, already trained in analysis, shows Modesta how to trace her memories back, to learn more about herself. To this woman Modesta confesses herself a murderer.

The novel also draws on the experiences of Sapienza's mother, Maria Giudice (1880-1953). A teacher and trade unionist from Northern Italy, as a young woman Giudice (together with Angelica Balabanoff) founded a journal, Su Compagne, in 1904; it was aimed at women workers and opposed the double exploitation of women in the factory and in the home. In 1920, Giudice was sent to Sicily as an organizer and agitator by the Italian Socialist Party. There she entered into a free union with Giuseppe Sapienza, a left-wing Sicilian lawyer, who became Goliarda's father. Giudice already had several children from a previous relationship with a socialist, Carlo Civardi, who was killed in World War I. Giuseppe, too, had children from other relationships. As Balabanoff dryly observed in her autobiography, My Life as a Rebel (1938), this made for a "lively household." When, in the novel, Modesta meets and loves a socialist doctor from the North, Sapienza intriguingly gives him the same name as her mother's first lover. Giudice herself, with Balabanoff, becomes a fringe character in the story, as Modesta becomes a supporter of the socialist and antifascist movement.

By knitting Maria Giudice's story together with Modesta's, Sapienza constructs a tradition of women's activism separate from the Catholicism and Communism that dominated politics in post-World War II Italy. This alternative tradition foregrounds the themes of women's freedom to choose whether to marry or not, and whether to have children or not. It refuses the double standard of morality for men and women, and asserts women's right to vote, to own property, to have full access to education, and to organize in trades union for equal pay.

Modesta's life also resonates with aspects of the women's movement of the 1970s, contemporary to Sapienza's writing, particularly in its emphases on a "politics of the unconscious" and on sexuality and reproductive rights, and in its stubborn opposition to the subordination of women's concerns. Her emphasis on pleasure is at one with the 1960s 1970s Italian counterculture.

The novel's resonance with the 1970s women's movement is so striking, in fact, that it is surprising that it failed to find a publisher. Perhaps Italian publishers at the time felt that there was only space for one long women's novel--and that Elsa Morante's La Storia (History, 1974) was enough. The Art of Joy was published commercially in Italy only after its French translation became a best seller. Since then, Modesta has been greeted as a feminist heroine, and the many unpublished manuscripts left behind by Sapienza, who died in 1996, are now receiving public acclaim. These later works include treasures like L'Universita di Rebbibia (Rebibbia University, 1983), a spellbinding account of life in the women's prison in Rome, where Sapienza was sent after a conviction for petty theft; and Io, Jean Gabin (I, Jean Gabin, 2010), a brilliant return to the more directly autobiographical themes of Lettera Aperta.

When Modesta first learns about socialist ideas she feels inspired by Maria Montessori's call for revolutionary fairy tales, and The Art of Joy can be read as a feminist fairy tale. It has been adopted by its readers as a work that speaks to the heart and imagination in Italy, Spain, France, and Germany, and Sapienza has been a subject of scholarly discussion in England. Although it sprawls across 670 pages, it should now gain even wider success because of the quality of the translation. Capturing not only the pace of the narration but the vitality of the woman at its center, translator Anne Milano Appel has done a classy job.

Rosalind Delmar is a writer and lecturer specializing in feminist thought. She has translated several texts from the Italian women's movement, including A Woman by Sibilla Aleramo (1983).
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Title Annotation:The Art of Joy
Author:Delmar, Rosalind
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2014
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