Readers love a good story. But they really love a good author bio. If an author’s life story is interesting, readers get excited. They share a book with friends by first telling them about the writer. Oh, this Bolaño guy—he was a heroin addict and was in a Chilean jail and should’ve been killed but some high school chums saved him. This Burroughs dude—he shot his wife at a party! A writer with an interesting life is bound to attract readers because we love a good tale, especially if it is (supposedly) true. Hopefully we can get past the myths and legends of the bio page and actually read the works these writers produce.

I wonder if that will be the case with Goliarda Sapienza. Her back story is pretty great (here I go sharing her bio): she was an actress who worked with Visconti; she was a writer of some renown whose biggest project, which she spent years composing, was rejected by every publisher and dismissed by Italy’s top critic as “a pile of iniquity”; she was broke often and once jailed for the theft of a friend’s jewelry; she died penniless; her friend and lover self-published her masterpiece, which was, of course, recognized as a book of genius well after her death. This is a familiar story to readers of Dickinson or John Kennedy Toole, as endearing as her poems of solitude and his comic novel: the legendary writer not recognized in their lifetime.

In the case of Sapienza, the bulk of her novel The Art of Joy may intimidate readers who would be happy to share her story of poverty and literary struggle at a cocktail party, but might not venture further and actually read the thing. But if they do they’ll discover 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 theme of a woman exploring her sexuality is nothing new to American readers who devour Fifty Shades of Sex in the City and The Real Desperate Housewives of Wherever. But The Art of Joy is bound to challenge readers of this sort, less because of the subject matter and more for the tone. Though not short of description one might find in the average bodice-ripper (“his hands close around my waist and lift me up, making me soar, light as a feather. It was like looking into a ravine. The greater the terror, the greater my desire to plunge in”), the book digresses and meanders through 20th century Italian history and political and philosophical tangents along with the odd murder plot and musings on the true dominant theme of the book: rebellion and freedom. The readers witness the book’s hero, Modesta, age and transform from an innocent girl raped by her father to a lover of men and women, wife to a man-child, aristocrat, rebel, libertine, mother, and anti-fascist imprisoned for her politics. And as Modesta grows into an independent woman, Sapienza becomes a liberated writer, shifting from first to third person willy-nilly, letting her muse have full reign over self-editorial impulses. The book slowly makes room (lots of it) for politics along with the perils of male-female relationships and whatever else entered Sapienza’s head during the time she held the pen.

And yes there’s some sex. But, despite the outrage from Sapienza’s critics, it’s a pretty tame story. Those looking for a dirty book will be disappointed. 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. Sapienza introduces us to her ideal heroine, who is bold, transgressive, intelligent, and willing to suffer for her convictions. And she laughingly names her Modesta! In one chapter, Modesta tells her son that the reason people call her a whore has less to do with her sexuality and more to do with their manipulation of his feelings for her. People want to dominate unchained femininity, she suggests, and how better to achieve this aim than by condemning sexual expression. In this moment, among any like it, Sapienza conveys her theme perhaps a bit too demonstrably, but this is what makes the book so gripping. The sexual exploits and melodramatic plot too often feel trite. Absent the digressions and socio-political discussions, the book would suffer, becoming little more than the literary equivalent of Seinfeld’s Euro-trash flick, Rochelle, Rochelle. But compressed chapters and engaging (though at times overwrought) prose make the 670 pages seem like something unique.

I anticipate split opinions on this one; no one is going to feel indifferent about Sapienza’s book. And this is a good thing. I appreciate art that is this divisive and elicits strong feelings, positive and negative. But I still don’t know if I love it or hate The Art of Joy. I admire it. I respect the author. I love her story, maybe more than I love her book. And I get the feeling that immediate recognition and success might have offered Sapienza the chance to write better books. Instead, we have her life and her tome, both of which will have to do.

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The Art of Joy
By Goliarda Sapienza
Translated by Anne Milano Appel
Reviewed by Vincent Francone
704, hardcover
ISBN: 9780374106140
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