February 2015

Lucia Cowles

fiction

Happy Are the Happy by Yasmina Reza, translated by John Cullen

I first encountered Yasmina Reza's writing accidentally, several years ago, when I attended a production of her play God of Carnage at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. The play's premise is deceptively simple: two couples meet in a sparely depicted living room after one of their sons has hit the other in the face with a stick. What ensues is dramatic warfare. The sharp, incisive dialogue turns in on itself again and again to uncover fresh arenas for conflict. I felt I was watching a dance performed in language, the prose shifting from wit to profound admissions of uncertainty and loss. Each escalation and then release of tension was a thrill. I left buzzing with excitement in the afterglow of what, I felt certain, had been a transformative encounter.

I have since read the oeuvre of Reza's plays (find yourself a copy of Art), her debut novel, Desolation, and now, a new novel translated into English by John Cullen, Happy Are the Happy. (Reza is also the author of a book of nonfiction on Nicolas Sarkozy entitled Dawn Dusk or Night, and two more novels.)

In all cases, Reza is an exacting architect. Constraint, character depth, and specificity of language are the hallmarks of her work. She uses simple sets and simple premises to place full dramatic focus and time on her characters. Whether in a protracted monologue, or a dinnertime, warfare-ish dialogue, Reza's characters cannot escape themselves. Instead they turn and turn through various arguments and distracting complaints, until they are stripped to the bare bones of their propulsive feelings: their essential fear or loneliness.

Happy Are the Happy will be a recognizable read for fans of Yasmina Reza's work. The novel presents a host of scenes from the interconnected lives of a set of people living contemporaneously in Paris. Her characters are middle- and upper-class journalists, lawyers, doctors, an actress, and a professional gambler. All cope with various forms of isolation and uncertainty. They misbehave even as they admit, in the same or in another chapter, their own love and forgiveness for one another.

At the core of the group are Odile and Robert Toscano, a married couple. She works as a lawyer, he as a journalist. They have two children, in-laws, lovers, friends, and each other to take care of. The novel opens with a violent confrontation between the two of them, as they stand in line at the grocery store to exchange Morbier for Gruyère cheese. This chapter, and Robert and Odile's observations of each other in later chapters, are some of the strongest, most fully realized moments in the book.

Though Reza has long since proved -- and proves here again -- her acuity in depicting marital warfare, Happy Are the Happy encompasses a greater swathe of human experience than coupled life. Odile's aunt wishes not to be set adrift by loneliness in her old age. An acquaintance's twenty-something son has a wrenching encounter with what it means to be young, "to have years ahead of you. In other words, nothing. A deep abyss." Lovers use each other or despair at being used. And friendship emerges as the form of intimacy in which men, in particular, best express a patient, resolute type of love.

The novel's chapters don't all rise to the same level. The chapter "Philip Chemla," for instance, expands the scope of human experience captured by the novel, but seems to play a supporting role to chapters narrated by more fully realized characters. And the chapter narrated by Rémi Grobe doesn't quite earn its ending, though the author's intention -- to show a willful choice to be happy in the face of disappointment -- is both evident and mathematically smart to include.

The novel's end also lacks resolute force. A funeral ceremony gathers the novel's major and minor characters together, and the family's later journey to scatter the ashes allows a final, loving glimpse of the more central characters. Even at the scene of death, new dramas ensue. But neither of these scenes -- the funeral or the deposition of ashes -- ends in a manner that reverberates back through the book. Reza seems aware of this: she tacks on a denouement after the final chapter that provides a sweetly humored image of two men, who panic after succeeding to catch a fish. Still this final image dims in comparison to the bright, fighting energy of earlier chapters.

On the other hand, life lacks neat resolution, and resisting the narrative impulse to resolve drama into legible meaning seems to be part of Reza's project. Her characters undergo change, but none escape life's plaguing uncertainty. Perhaps the novel's ending chapters mean to reflect back this same ambivalence. A man has died, and, even as he's honored, life continues on in petty conflict towards the unknown. So the end of Happy Are the Happy works, if not with the satisfying force I had hoped for.

But Yasmina Reza's achievements in Happy Are the Happy are considerable. The voices Reza produces rival that of Kaye Gibbons's Ellen Foster or Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King, for their singularity and their bright, ebullient energy. Reza has created a novel with the formal sensibility of Didion's Play It as It Lays. She allows the novel's world to grow out of the ample white space left between short, precisely articulated chapters. A sensory moving-image of a world appears in the reader's mind, one whose dimensions are never directly articulated in the text.

Happy Are the Happy is an evocative little book, one that spears the narcissistic vicissitudes that dominate the minds of an educated, professional class. It will seduce you with its wit, and it will require you to think hard with it about language, that damning and defining material of our lives.

Happy Are the Happy by Yasmina Reza, translated by John Cullen
Other Press
ISBN: 978-1590516928
160 pages