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.
Although she is little-known outside Italy, Sapienza’s reputation on “the continent” as her Sicilian protagonist Modesta refers to it, is prestigious, but The Art of Joy, though it contains much brilliant writing, is a remarkably dreary masterpiece. The novel is often compared to Hermann Hesse’s 1922 Siddharta, whose title from the Sanskrit means “he who has found meaning in existence”, and Italian critics have focused on its celebratory qualities, on Modesta’s joyful impermeability to both morals and mores, at the expense of its immaturity.
Modesta is in many ways a model of the picaresque heroine, but with two significant exceptionsm — she is both genuinely criminal, murdering at least four people in the first section of the novel, and entirely humourless. Sapienza implies an existential relationship between Modesta’s ongoing sexual liberation and her disregard for the rights of others, but fails to investigate this convincingly within its own terms. To expect fictional revolutionaries to be charming is naive, but as George Eliot’s struggles in Daniel Deronda or Felix Holt illustrate, it is also extremely difficult to make them engaging. The oppressed proletariat don’t tend to do jokes, so while the political passages of the novel may be worthy, their earnestness is discouraging. The contrast between the indolent south and the politicised north of Italy is hammered home, purportedly to the latter’s advantage, but by the time Antonio Gramsci appears as a walk-on, one wishes oneself back in the convent.
Modesta’s ethical development is intrinsically concerned with nothing more than her own advantage — “it is necessary to study the emotions that others awaken in us just as we study grammar or music.” Despite her courageous sexuality and insistence on the intellect as the only means of achieving strength, Modesta’s consciousness remains as barren as the volcanic plain where she is born. She encounters the problems of existence at their most extreme, yet the will to happiness of this lesbian socialist Pollyanna can feel relentless. Sapienza emphasises that the only way to a fully realised existence, particularly as a woman, is to connect the disparate parts of the self, yet Modesta is incapable of acknowledging her own amorality, conflating the merely transgressive with the progressive. Perhaps in this, The Art of Joy is indeed an accurate reflection of Italian political life, which continues to combine touching innocence with staggering, and staggeringly unexamined, levels of corruption.
An admirer of Sapienza’s claimed that “Goliarda does not exist. She is existence.” Modesta’s journey to self-realisation may be celebrated in Italy as a “hymn to the plenitude of life”, but by page 670 of The Art of Joy one can’t help wishing she had discovered the meaning of existence rather sooner.