cover image The Art of Joy

The Art of Joy

Goliarda Sapienza, trans. from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 (704p) ISBN 978-0-374-10614-0

This massive book, unpublished when Sapienza died in 1996, first printed in a limited edition spearheaded by a friend, then reprinted to become a sensation in France, finally appears in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 didn’t sell initially and 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. Unfortunately, it is often filled with exposition and moralizing. 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. She leaves the convent for the home of the well-to-do Brandifortis, where she learns how to make love and run an estate. The later sections, in which Modesta reads Gramsci, fascism begins its rise, and the Brandiforti family expands and contracts in complicated ways, feature Modesta’s too-frequent sermons explaining love and deploring men. Still, 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. (July)