Having already been to France once this Women in Translation Month, I wasn’t planning on making a return trip. However, when a book I was counting on didn’t arrive, I was forced to bring in a last-minute replacement, a book taking me off to Paris once more. As it turns out, it was a fortuitous turn of events – a book that made me feel, well, happy 🙂
Yasmina Reza’s Happy are the Happy (translated by John Cullen, review copy courtesy of Other Press) has a small but bold claim on the cover – ‘A Novel’. Why is that bold, you might ask? Well, mainly because I’m not sure every reader would quite agree with that description. The book, a mere 148 pages long, is actually a series of connected short stories, brief pieces which have characters making return appearances, with one big scene bringing the cast together towards the end of the book. While the story, as it is, is linked by its characters, in terms of a plot, I’d have to say that there isn’t one, really.
Whether a novel or something else entirely, Reza’s book looks at love in all its complicated and messy forms. We start with a long-married, squabbling couple and go on to find out about a whole host of affairs. There’s a respected oncologist with a secret life after hours, a politician with several women on the side and a loving couple with a son, one with an unusual mental issue. They’re all very differerent, but similar in one regard – they want to be happy…
Reza is better known as a playwright, and although this one is in prose, it definitely has the feel of a play at times. The structure of the novel is based on that of Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler’s play Reigen (La ronde), a controversial piece looking at ten couples either before or after sex. As well as (loosely) borrowing this format, Reza stays with Schnitzler’s theme, happy (!) to cast her critical eye over sex and gender relationships.
In part, Happy are the Happy (the title comes from a Borges poem) is an examination of couples. Several of the characters find the idea of a long-lasting, legal attachment an unnatural, absurd idea:
“Couples disgust me. Their reciprocal wizening, their dusty connivance. I don’t like anything about that ambulant structure, or the way it cruises through time taunting those who are alone.”
p.89 (Other Press, 2014)
However, in this quest for happiness, becoming part of a couple is also shown as a necessary step. More than a result of affection or lust, it’s portrayed as a partnership of protection against the outside world and the dangers it brings.
There’s also a focus on gender roles and attitudes, with Reza’s men and women acting very differently. The men of the novel, in particular, are far from modern attitudes, as we see from the very first scene:
“Does this Boer person have a wife and children? A guy who confronts grizzly bears and temperatures of twenty-five below zero isn’t likely to put up with being bored to death in a goddamn supermarket at grocery rush hour. Is this any place for a man?” (p.6)
There’s little room for equality and mutual respect here. The men frequently get together to discuss conquests (past, present and future), and many of the sections highlight a rather aggressive attitude towards the opposite sex.
Still, lest we should fall into the trap of man bashing, the women are no angels either, and they’re certainly happy to stray themselves. In fact, from time to time, Reza’s women share some interesting views:
“A woman wants to be dominated. A woman wants to be enslaved. You can’t explain that to everyone.” (p.116)
Of course, whether that’s true, even in this book, is highly debatable. Physically? On occasion. Mentally? Not at all…
In truth, if you’re looking for a summary of Happy are the Happy, it’s hard to really pin down what the book is about, mainly because its subject matter is so wide. Reza uses her broad cast to take a general look at life and loves, and (as is the case in real life) what emerges is an array of messy, tangled relationships. The structure lends itself to this, with first person monologues or reports giving us an insight into a character, who is then later (or perhaps earlier) seen through others’ eyes, allowing us to get a more rounded view.
What makes the book enjoyable, though, is less the what and more the how. Happy are the Happy is frequently funny, and not afraid to shock either. In searching for comparisons, I’d be looking as much towards the screen as the page. Some scenes reminded me a little of Kingsley Amis’ The Old Devils, but there’s just as much Woody Allen here as Amis. The book also has a fair bit in common, thematically, with the film Love Actually (albeit for a slightly more grown-up audience):
“In the past, when I’d stayed out all night, she’d rumple my pajamas before the housemaid arrived. My wife is counting on the grave to outfox spiteful gossips, she wants to remain a petit bourgeois even in death.” (p.47)
Affairs are all well and good – let’s just try to keep them from the neighbours…
Happy are the Happy, in the end, is a look at how people try to find this elusive happiness, all while trying (to varying degrees) not to hurt other people in the process. It’s funny, seemingly casual, but actually tightly constructed, and its lack of real plot and focus is actually an asset, allowing the reader to focus on the people rather than their actions. For a book I decided to read at the last minute, it was a great success – I’m certainly happy I read it 😉