The Art of Joy

Written by Anne Milano Appel (trans.) Goliarda Sapienza
Review by Viviane Crystal

Modesta begins her account by describing her mentally challenged sister, Tina. Their mother says Tina is a curse caused by her father’s sinful ways. Sin is a constant presence in Modesta’s early years but not something she takes to heart after she has been raped, becomes an orphan, and is sent to live in a convent financed by rich, aristocratic families. She quickly displays a keen intelligence and becomes the protégé of the Mother Superior, Mother Leonora, to whom Modesta links with emotional and sexual energy that sets her apart from her other teachers and peers. Her idealization of this woman is shattered when she discovers that the older woman also sexually satisfies herself, and on it goes until her death.

To Modesta, sex is an ever-present focus, which she describes in essence as “an art, a skill, a mental and physical exercise of the mind and of the senses like any other.” Those who deny this definition she perceives as holding a deep fear of “investigation, of experimentation, of discovery, of life’s fluidity… a copy of the old Christian bourgeois society.” She moves on to serve as a maid in the Bradifortis family and marries their retarded son. Never satisfied, she has an affair and an illegitimate child. Relationships seem beyond her, a distraction to a constant elusive hunger. Later, she discovers a political sense during WWII when she helps those fleeing the harshness and life-threatening eye of Fascism. Affairs with men and women characterize the later years of Modesta’s life, always qualified by a refusal to be possessed or adhere to social standards.

The Art of Joy to this reader is difficult to define or pin down as presented by its first and third-person narrator, whose life can be exemplified by the same ambiguity. Interesting and very different historical fiction!