The Joys of Sex

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More than three decades after it was written, Penguin publishes the ‘thinking woman’s Fifty Shades’. But it fails to live up to its reputation
The Art of Joy | By Goliarda Sapienza | Translated by Anne Milano Appel | Penguin | 670 pages | Rs 1,299

I heard of Goliarda Sapienza and The Art of Joy from The Guardian. A few weeks before it made its debut in the English literary world, The Guardian gave the book a pre-release write-up that made me mark its release date in my planner, leave requests at the neighbourhood bookstore and secure a review in Open. It’s not everyday that a publishing house ‘braces itself for controversy’ before the release of a book. Particularly for one that was written 37 years before a publisher decided to pick it up. The Guardian informs me that long before Fifty Shades of Grey became the poster-child for mainstream erotic fiction, Penguin Classics had decided to take the bold step to translate and publish Sapienza’s Italian masterpiece. It’s just that Anne Milano Appel took two years to translate the 700-odd pages of the thinking woman’s Fifty Shades of Grey, because the sex is offset against the history, politics and philosophy of Italy in the 20th century. Reason enough to be excited? You bet.

In the time it took me to go through the book, I realised a pretty basic truth about reading and writing—readers love good stories. And sometimes, the authors’ own make up for all that is lacking in their books. And I have to admit, as far as background goes, it doesn’t get more compelling than Goliarda Sapienza’s. Born in 1924 to fiercely anti-fascist and Mussolini hater parents, Goliarda spent a childhood being home-schooled by her parents to shield her from fascist influences. She spent most of her teens and early adult years as an actress, most notably her widely acclaimed portrayal of Pirandello heroines; but by her thirties, having scored nothing more substantial than a minor uncredited part in a Visconti melodrama, she went into therapy and gave her writing career a serious shot. Her first book, Open Letter (Lettera Aperta), was a memoir about her days as a young girl in Sicily. Her second, The Meridian Hour (Il Filo de Mezzogiorno), was a fictionalised account of her sessions with her psychoanalyst.

In 1967, she started work on The Art of Joy, her self-proclaimed masterpiece, and it wasn’t until 1976 that she finally managed to finish the Sicilian saga that packed in everything from rape, incest, murder, ambivalent sexuality and deviant nuns to fascism, communism, opportunism and feminism. By the time Goliarda died in 1996, she was penniless (with a stint in jail for stealing her friend’s jewellery) and heartbroken, given that no publisher was willing to touch the book, thanks to its exhausting length and the chaotic blend of subjects.

Two years after her death, her husband, Angello Pellegrino, an actor himself, managed to muster funds to self-publish 1,000 copies of the book for posterity—propelling it towards its destiny as a literary sensation in Europe, despite a renowned critic dismissing it as a ‘pile of iniquity’. In the foreword of its English avatar, Pellegrino, given his theatrical inclinations, writes, ‘Goliarda will not see her Modesta in bookstores. But I know that the sorrow is no longer hers; it’s all mine for her.’ It is difficult to ignore such sweeping sentimentality, and in a world where Donal Ryan makes the Booker long-list after facing 47 rejections from publishers, JK Rowling is given an advance of a meagre £2,500 for the first Harry Potter manuscript and Paul Harding’s Tinkers remains obscure until it suddenly wins the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, Goliarda has everything one hopes for from a posthumously celebrated writer: an intriguing back story, the trials of poverty while relentlessly pursuing publication and a manuscript that licked the dusty bottom of a chest in an attic for 20 long years before being rediscovered.

There’s plenty of material within The Art of Joy to make it a desirable conversation-starter and lubricant at cocktail parties. But does that translate into an actual inclination to pursue Modesta’s destiny through 670 exhausting pages? I would be very surprised if it did.

The Art of Joy is the story of Modesta, conveniently born on 1 January 1900. Everything that can possibly happen to people living in Italy and Europe—and for that matter, on planet Earth—over the course of the next six decades or so, happens to Mody. Her story begins explosively: soon after discovering the confusion and illicit thrill of self-pleasure, the ironically named Modesta is raped by a man who claims to be her father, who then torches her house and kills her mother and mentally challenged sister. The orphaned but curiously unaffected Modesta finds a home in a convent, where she discovers her love for words. Within the first 100 pages itself, Mody has turned into the remorseless murderess of the Mother Superior at the convent she lives in. From there it’s on to the wealthy Brandiforti estate, where she marries Ippolito, a man-child, to consolidate her power and position in the clan and bears him a child she secretly conceived with another man. All this, while carrying on an affair with Beatrice, her muse within the Bandiforti family.

Curiously, despite Mody’s multiple relationships, unrestrained by considerations such as age and gender, The Art of Joy isn’t really about sex. Anyone looking for a dirty book would be sadly disappointed. Despite the occasional forays into dialogues that are more suitable for a mediocre bodice-ripper—‘Surrendering to her, I left behind that inferno of qualms and bands and lava walls. The convent receded when I stared into her eyes. It collapsed behind me and I could see the stars again. Was that what paradise was: love?’—The Art of Joy largely has sex as a tool that Modesta uses to assert the freedom of her thoughts. While the sexual boundary-breaking might be what attracts a large portion of the book’s readers, the truly gripping parts of the story are the ones where its untarnished Italian-ness shines through. The autobiographical way in which Sapienza makes her Modesta grapple with fascism accounts for the truly page-turner moments in the book.

Did I read every one of the 670 pages that take the reader through the sometimes erratic, sometimes excruciating details of Modesta’s life? I did. Had it not been for this review, would I have abandoned the book mid-way in the sheer exhaustion of following a woman who’s life is almost schizophrenically dramatic? I probably would have. Why? Somewhere along the way, it gets tiresome to see Modesta greet each new person in her life as a probable passion. Despite the rich historical and political setting, it becomes harder and harder to believe in a character who kills many times over, feels jealousy for the first time in her middle age and is grappling with the concept of love until the very end. It is, perhaps, due to these contrived pretensions that Sapienza uses liberally while developing Modesta’s character that it becomes almost impossible to look past the obvious repetitiveness of her sexual misadventures and focus on the more layered political considerations of her timeline.

While in some ways time itself is Sapienza and Modesta’s greatest ally, in many ways, it is their greatest undoing. While everyone wants to champion the cause of a writer who didn’t get her due in her lifetime, one can’t escape the fact that we live in a world of internet over-share. What chance does a story, completed almost four decades ago and relying mainly on the shock-and-awe value of its protagonist’s sex life, have? What can she possibly have experienced that someone somewhere hasn’t already spoken volumes about in the consequent decades? Not much.

As far as characters and their stories go, I’d pick Goliarda over Modesta in a heartbeat.