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Goliarda Sapienza: She wrote “The Art of Joy” while imprisoned for theft 

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. Born into brutal poverty in Sicily in 1900, Modesta adroitly manipulates both circumstance and the credulity of others to rise from convent orphan to aristocratic matriarch, negotiating socialism, fascism and the ancient traditions of her adopted class along the way. Written when its author was imprisoned for theft, The Art of Joy was considered too shocking for release even in the 1980s, and while its perceived sexual outrageousness now seems relatively tame, the book retains a disturbing power. 

Sapienza's eroticism resonates less through her descriptions of lovemaking than 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, a civilisation entirely distinct, as Lampedusa's The Leopard also defines, from its mainland counterpart. Minor characters are drawn with vivacity and dignity, their clothes, their speech and their Sicilian dialect wonderfully vivid, yet as Modesta moves from a Mediterranean Gothic world of enclosing walls and enchanted gardens, as reality and politics intrude, the narrative takes on a verbose clumsiness which dismantles its poetry.

Born in 1924 to deeply committed anti-fascist parents, Sapienza was named for her half-brother Goliardo who had been murdered by the Sicilian mafia in the struggle for expropriation of peasant land, and she claimed that his name was a "weight" she bore all her life. After training as an actress in Rome, she played minor parts in neo-realist films, including Visconti's Senso, but her contribution to the movement came significantly from the bugia-realtà (lying realism) style of her novels, the first of which appeared in 1967. Sapienza had been raised in "absolute liberty" by her parents, who would not allow her to attend school for fear of fascist influence, but an inability to respect moral boundaries both polluted her own life  (she attempted suicide twice and went to prison for stealing from friends' houses) and infected her novels.

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