The Art of Joy
Publication Date: July 30, 2013
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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The tumultuous twentieth century, told through the life of a single extraordinary woman
Rejected by a series of publishers, abandoned in a chest for twenty years, Goliarda Sapienza’s masterpiece, The Art of Joy, survived a turbulent path to publication. It wasn’t until 2005, when it was released in France, that this novel received the recognition it deserves. At last, Sapienza’s remarkable book is available in English, in a brilliant translation by Anne Milano Appel and with an illuminating introduction by Angelo Pellegrino.
The Art of Joy centers on Modesta, a Sicilian woman born on January 1, 1900, whose strength and character are an affront to conventional morality. Impoverished as a child, Modesta believes she is destined for a better life. She is able, through grace and intelligence, to secure marriage to an aristocrat—without compromising her own deeply felt values. Friend, mother, lover—Modesta revels in upsetting the rules of her fascist, patriarchal society.
This is the history of the twentieth century, transfigured by the perspective of one extraordinary woman. Sapienza, an intriguing figure in her own right—her father homeschooled her so she wouldn’t be exposed to fascist influences—was a respected actress and writer who drew on her own struggles to craft this powerful epic. A fictionalized memoir, a book of romance and adventure, a feminist text, a bildungsroman—this novel is ultimately undefinable but deeply necessary; its genius will leave readers breathless.
Goliarda Sapienza (1924–1996) was born in the Sicilian city of Catania, into a staunchly anti-fascist family. At sixteen, she moved to Rome to study at the Academy of Dramatic Arts, and during the 1950s and '60s she was an actress in both films and the theater. She worked with, among others, Luchino Visconti (in Senso) and Francesco Maselli. Her novels include Lettera aperta (1967), Il filo di mezzogiorno (1969), and L'università di Rebibbia (1983); Io, Jean Gabin (2010) and her most important work, The Art of Joy, remained unpublished until after her death.
Anne Milano Appel, PhD, a former library director and language teacher, has been translating professionally for more than fifteen years and is a member of ALTA, ATA, NCTA, and PEN. Many of her book-length translations have been published, and shorter works that she has authored or translated have appeared in other professional and literary venues.
Praise for The Art of Joy:
“It overflows with elements that might be at home in any sweeping, epic European novel of the 20th (or any) century—a simultaneous engagement with and undermining of religion, along with fallen aristocrats, inbred grotesques, Sapphic ecstasy, complicated marriages, sudden deaths, murder, fascists and communists . . . A 700-plus-page-turner, propulsively translated by Anne Milano Appel, The Art of Joy colonizes your attention like some rollicking, manic mashup of Lampedusa, Laurence Sterne, Dante, David Foster Wallace and Margaret Atwood. Perhaps it needed the shattered attention span of the Internet era to succeed . . . Sapienza’s Italian adventure may be just the racy, weighty tome that the age of unexpurgated information needed . . . Sapienza’s prose is breathless throughout, urgent, driven forward by the twin engines of sex and history . . . But the relentlessness is balanced by the compression of each chapter, a consequence of Sapienza’s writing process: She composed the novel on single, folded sheets of typing paper. This keeps everything tidy and actually encourages a focus on events as they unfold through the narrator’s perspective. It's a feast delivered on small plates.” —Maria Russo, NPR
“This is the publishing event of the summer . . . As errant, excessive and irresistible as the woman at its heart, The Art of Joy more than lives up to the title. Modesta’s ‘intense feeling for life’ overcomes whatever obstacles the ideologies of ‘sorrow, humiliation and fear’ can throw at her as she embraces ‘life’s fluidity’.” —Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
“From its explosive, disturbing opening to the quiet cadences of its lyrical close [The Art of Joy] is crammed with passion, ideas, adventure and mystery. Sapienza flits from first-person narrator to third, often on the same page, with stylistic dexterity. Her protagonist shuttles between peasants and aristocrats, party stooges and revolutionaries, male lovers and female. The cast is huge, but not once do we feel that Sapienza is overreaching herself. Anne Milano Appel’s expert translation deserves mention, and her illuminating glossary decodes recondite Sicilian slang and contextualizes songs, proverbs, historical figures and the many references to Dante . . . [Sapienza] writes authoritatively and enthrallingly on Italy’s moral disintegration and seductively on her beguiling heroine's resistance to social norms and opposition to Il Duce’s restrictions . . . Sapienza gives both [Tomasi di Lampedusa and Giovanni Verga] a run for their money with her original voice and her wonderful lead, who insists on plowing her own furrow.” —Malcolm Forbes, The San Francisco Chronicle
“A compelling novel that sweeps through Italian history, bounces through philosophical ponderings, and tries damn hard to shatter as many taboos as it can . . . The Art of Joy is less about sexual exploits and the price they demand and more about defiance of all social constraints, sexual, political, and domestic . . . so gripping . . . compressed chapters and engaging . . . prose make the 670 pages seem like something unique . . . no one is going to feel indifferent about Sapienza’s book. And this is a good thing.” —Vincent Francone, Three Percent
“In The Art of Joy, Sapienza surrenders utterly to her headstrong heroine, accompanying her on an action-packed, lubricious journey from 1900 to the jet age. It is a wild and bumpy ride, and . . . the vividness of Sapienza’s leading lady cannot be denied . . . when it comes to the more ineffable achievement of using literature to uphold the right of women to be whatever they wish to be, and to love whomever they wish to love, with total disregard for society’s whispers, Goliarda Sapienza stands proud on a high pinnacle of postwar European letters, a signpost marking a road forward that is mined with both risk and reward, still perilous, still provocative.” —Liesl Schillinger, The Barnes and Noble Review“[Sapienza] makes fascinating use of her psychological experiences and insights . . . Sapienza [also] 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 . . . 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, Women’s Review of Books
“Goliarda Sapienza’s greatest, posthumously published novel is both a celebration of an individual woman’s self-realisation and a biography of the Italian 20th century . . . The Art of Joy was considered too shocking for release even in the 1980s, and . . . the book retains a disturbing power. Sapienza’s eroticism resonates . . . in her beguiling ability to capture the sensuality of Sicily itself. Drawing on her childhood in Catania, Sapienza is most successful when conjuring the sugar-almond scent of the lava-walled convent, the ‘spiteful’ gaze of the moon, the pungent kisses of the wind, the contrast between the Brandoforti villa, which seems ‘made of silk,’ and the austere beauty of the sun-raked chiana, layering them in an unforgettable portrait of a lost world . . . Minor characters are drawn with vivacity and dignity, their clothes, their speech and their Sicilian dialect wonderfully vivid . . . The Art of Joy contains much brilliant writing . . . Modesta is in many ways a model of the picaresque heroine.” —Lisa Hilton, Standpoint
“Imaginatively and unobtrusively translated, perseverance brings considerable rewards.” —Caroline Moorehead, Times Literary Supplement
“An epic tale of Italian life in the 20th century, as seen through the eyes of an indomitable woman. Modesta is born into a land of heat and dust at the very dawn of that century . . . Modesta grows, becoming increasingly ungovernable even as Italy falls under the sway of fascism, unafraid to declare herself a socialist and resist the regime . . . A definitive roman à clef recounting its author’s life . . . Those who are familiar [with Italian history] may find in the book a sort of worm’s-eye rejoinder to Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, narrated from the point of view of one not born to privilege . . . [The Art of Joy] has considerable merit, particularly for students of women’s literature of the past century.” —Kirkus
“This massive book, unpublished when Sapienza died in 1996, first printed in a limited edition spearheaded by a friend, then reprinted to become a sensation in France, finally appears in English. It’s easy to see why it . . . has such passionate promoters now: the story of Modesta, born poor in Sicily in 1900, passionate reader, lover of men and women, and fighter against fascism and patriarchy, is a stirring and potentially shocking tale of a woman’s awakening . . . The strong first section introduces Modesta just when she’s discovered the art of self-pleasure. Surviving rape and fire, she’s taken into a convent where she discovers another source of pleasure: words, and the ability to manipulate others . . . With its specificity of place, experimentation (Sapienza switches between third- and first-person points of view, sometimes on the same page), and pugnacious determination to use one woman’s life to show a tradition-bound world struggling toward modernity, Sapienza’s singular book compels.” —Publishers Weekly
“[Modesta] has a strange, often unexpected, charm . . . 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 . . . 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 . . . 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.” —Sara Rauch, Lambda Literary
“An unquestionable discovery—a phenomenal survey of the political, moral, and social history of Italy from the vantage point of a marvelous Sicilian narrator with her sometimes rational and sometimes passionate impulses. This is the revelation of an exceptional writer.” —Le Monde des Livres
“Steamy. Thought-provoking. Unflinching. . . . [An] incredible translation . . . Sapienza has created a character who is not particularly likeable, but who is unforgettable and influential. There is nothing apologetic in Modesta. Her feminism is specific, clear, considered and unwilling to compromise. There is a lot of sex in this novel and every word of it has narrative relevance. War, politics, clothing—anything that crosses her path is not mentioned unless it is relevant. Reading this novel takes energy, focus and the willingness to be face to face with this woman for 670 pages. It is no small feat and is entirely worthwhile.” —Left Bank Books
“Sapienza’s style is dramatic . . . her dialogue is operatic in its intensity . . . [The Art of Joy] is an astute litany of the moral, political, and feminist issues of the last century. —Deborah Donovan, Booklist
“Ms. Sapienza’s greatest strength is in vividly conjuring the confusion of being young, especially as Modesta confronts the eroticism that becomes the backbone of the story . . . Ms. Sapienza seems aware of her seductive storytelling technique, as young Modesta often interrupts her own thoughts to comment on their dramatization . . . Without warning, the narrative can switch from first to third person, as Modesta, like a lot of young people, half-believes herself to be a character in a novel, and it makes the challenges Ms. Sapienza throws at her more interesting.” —Ali Pechman, The New York Observer
“[The first] 150 pages of fierce lyricism, eerily synesthetic descriptions of sex and incest, moral ambiguity and Machiavellian scheming do Sapienza credit . . . 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 . . . [Modesta is] a fierce character.” —Lauren Elkin, The Daily Beast