On Second Thought, It’s Kind of Joyless: On Goliarda Sapienza’s Forgotten Novel, ‘The Art of Joy’

The story behind The Art of Joy is inextricable from the novel itself: Italian-born Goliarda Sapienza wrote the nearly 700-page novel from 1967 to 1976 in Rome and would spend much of her life trying to publish it. She died in 1996—mostly forgotten and in poverty as a result of her efforts—and never saw its publication. Her husband, Angelo Pellegrino, writes in the foreword to the new English translation that the novel, which charts the life of its heroine, Modesta, in the first half of the 20th century, must have been “cursed.” It was ridiculed and rejected by publishers for its overt sexuality and exhausting length. Like Ms. Sapienza, Mr. Pellegrino originally worked as an actor, and he spares no dramatic note in describing the book’s destiny. “Goliarda will not see her Modesta in bookstores. But I know that the sorrow is no longer hers; it’s all mine for her.”

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