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The Art of Joy—written by Italian firebrand Goliarda Sapienza sometime between 1967 and 1976 and set for its first stateside release by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux this month—follows the life of Modesta, born in Sicily on the first day of the twentieth century. From her squalid childhood to her adolescence in a convent to her entrance into a wealthy family, where she eventually becomes Princess—leader of the family and household—the narrative continues all the way through to the late years of Modesta’s extraordinary life.
While not exactly a sympathetic narrator, Modesta’s struggles embody those of women fighting for the right to education and sexual freedom, and she has a strange, often unexpected, charm. While a lot of her struggle is bound up with the political upheaval of Italy in the first half of the nineteenth century it has broader implications as well. 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. When confronted by a female lover about the “aberrant” nature of their relationship, she refuses to succumb to being shamed.
Not surprising, given the narrative arc of this hefty tome, The Art of Joy covers a lot of ground. It is part history, part feminist text, part bildungsroman, part epic. Though Modesta is both protagonist and narrator throughout—in some places the tone shifts to that of a woman recalling her younger days—it also shifts narrative point-of-view from first to third, sometimes within the same paragraph, which gives it an occasional out of body feeling. It also encompasses many different styles: present and past tenses switch fluidly, there are pages of dialogue that read like a play, there is a scene of a play included, there are diary entries, and internal monologue.
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. And while occasionally scenes feel repetitious, 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.
The Art of Joy
By Goliarda Sapienza
Translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel; with a foreword by Angelo Pellegrino
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Paperback, 9780374106140, 704 pp.