Happy Are The Happy
By Yasmina Reza
Translated by John Cullen
Other Press, 2015
160 pages, $14.42
Reviewed by George Salis
Symbolism is the engine of fiction, albeit subconsciously. The symbols tend to arise without the writer’s knowledge. However, sometimes the symbol is the genesis of artwork. Vladimir Nabokov conceded this when he said the progenitor or, as he put it, “initial shiver of inspiration” of his masterpiece Lolita had been a news story about a scientist who, for months, continued to coax an ape for a drawing, and what the scientist eventually received was a charcoal rendition of the ape’s cage. How one goes from that news story, that symbol of despondency, to the composition of Lolita is somewhat of a mystery, and it relates to those subconscious gears. As for the finished product, Martin Amis couldn’t help but see the entire novel as an allegory for the relationship between a tyrant (Humbert Humbert) and his subjugated population (Lolita). Nabokov dismissed symbolism as the ludicrous beliefs of Freud, whose mythology he actively despised. But the subconscious seems to play a large role in the lives of writers.
Yasmina Reza’s new novel, on the other hand, seems to have evolved a kind of antibody to symbolism. Rather, we might call her novel an exploration into various slices of life. And life, as we know, tends to be mostly banal. This is what John Updike had in mind when he said, “my only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me—to give the mundane its beautiful due.” He accomplished this through an acute and unique penchant for description and with characters that embody life itself. Reza’s prose is more like the sociopathic anti-hero in Camus’s The Stranger, declarative and matter-of-fact and almost but not quite devoid of emotion: “I go into the bedroom and get back in bed,” “I lay sprawled, my head pressed against the wall,” “I no longer thought it was a good idea to go to his apartment,” and “In my way, I’m alone too.”
The above quotations are taken from the perspective of four ‘different’ characters. That’s the hitch; the characters are all versions of the same problem: unhappiness. Hence the title, which is at once redundant and sarcastic, bringing to mind the title of Orwell’s essay on the horrors of British boarding school in the early 20th century: Such, Such Were the Joys. Likewise with Orwell’s essay, the title owes itself to a poem, and in this case it’s by Jorge Luis Borges:
Happy are the loved ones and the lovers
and those who can do without love.
Happy are the happy.
The poem presents us with a paradoxical dichotomy where it really is damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But we find that the loneliness and unhappiness of each character tends to be enclosed and maintained by a certain species of silence. The novel begins with a petty quarrel in the grocery store, after Robert Toscano looks at the items his wife, Odile, has piled into the shopping cart: “It’s ridiculous to gorge those kids on sugar and fat,” says Robert, who has two children. The following exchanges are coated with a kind of passive-aggressive sadomasochism that can only come from the most incompatible of couples: his wife tells him that “as soon as you run out of arguments, you say I’m out of here, you immediately resort to this grotesque threat.” When mentally comparing himself and his wife to another couple they know of, he decides that “there isn’t really a whole lot of difference between Let’s eat well tonight, my own, and I’m counting to three, Odile, in both cases the effort to be a couple causes a kind of constriction of the being.” The scene culminates in a physical struggle for Robert’s keys, which are in his wife’s purse. On the way home, Odile notes that “someday someone should make a study of the silence that falls inside a car when you’re returning home after having flaunted your well-being, partly to edify the company, partly to deceive yourself.”
The silences the characters describe act as the enclosure for more specific problems: Robert’s unhappiness with his mundane job when what he really yearns for is the spontaneous excitement and danger of the outdoors, and consequently Odile must deal with a distant and reserved husband. Marguerite Blot, Robert’s Aunt, is an aging divorcee who prays to her dead father to intervene in her life. “I find it appalling that the dead have no power,” she concludes. She fears becoming une dame de compagnie, a lady companion, and yearns for “someone I can laugh with and who likes to go on walks.” Pascaline and Lionel Hutner, the couple Robert deems as ostensibly happy yet in the same position of constriction, have a different kind of rift in their happiness: their son, Jacob, is psychologically ill and is convinced that he is Céline Dion. After trying various treatments, they eventually have Jacob committed, convincing him that the mental clinic was “a kind of studio-hotel reserved for stars of his stature.” Ernest Blot, Odile’s father, insists on cremation after his death, which distresses his wife, Jeannette. After a spell of silence she eventually tells him “you don’t want to be with me. With you where? I ask. —With me in general. —But I do, Jeanette, I want to be with you. —No you don’t. —Everyone’s alone in death.”
All twenty-one chapters, named after the speaking characters, are a marmoreal block of text whose shape and narrative style is taken from Schnitzler’s La Ronde, a play that arrived at the beginning of the 20th century and challenged the social mores in Germany. As with the play, the narrative lacks an overarching or cohesive structure and in consequence reads less like a novel and more like a collection of vaguely interrelated monologues, with characters floating in and out of the text like ghosts. The lack of paragraphs makes the reader crave those asymmetrical clouds. The reader will also learn a new appreciation for the quotation mark. They do more than nestle the words, they act as visual vocal cords, and in towers of text it would make exchanges clearer.
The novel nears its end in bathos with the funeral of Ernest Blot a decade or so later. Most of the characters are wrangled in for attendance, engaging in moments of silence that are encouraged in this setting by the funeral director. The atmosphere causes Robert to think:
I too will stifle in the strongbox of death, completely alone. And so will Odile. And the children. And everybody here, high and low, more or less old, more or less happy, doggedly holding their own in the ranks of the living. And all of them completely alone.
What kind of happiness maintains itself within such a context? The kind that needs constant reinforcement, as with a mantra or prayer. As Tolstoy phrased it, “What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are but how you deal with incompatibility.” With Reza’s characters, we find this true for more than marriage.