Boyd Tonkin: Spend a summer of love with Goliarda Sapienza's The Art of Joy

The Week in Books

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With an English grandmother and governesses hired from London, the noble if faded clan of the Brandiforti of Catania know a bit about those other islanders who, just like Sicilians, refer to European mainlanders as "continentals". And what they learn is that the proud English imagine themselves free if, like horses in a paddock, you secure them with a long enough tether. That image, from Goliarda Sapienza's newly-translated masterwork The Art of Joy, came back to me when I looked up the – so far – sniffy, blasé and even frightened responses over here to this quite extraordinary novel.

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Sapienza was born in 1924 to a family of rule-busting Sicilian revolutionaries. She became an actress on stage and screen and a stalwart of the Neo-Realist movement in Rome before turning to fiction. And she sacrificed almost everything for The Art of Joy: comfort, reputation, respectability. Written between 1967 and 1976, her close-focus epic of 20th-century Sicily, as viewed through the liberated life of her protagonist Modesta, not only failed to find a publisher. Its sexual frankness brought career-ending accusations of obscenity and immorality. These curses, remember, struck her in the Italy not of the Fascist 1930s but the supposedly anything-goes 1970s. Anything did not go for women: "always part of the opposition", as Modesta says.

Sapienza died in 1996. Two years later, her husband Angelo Pellegrino published The Art of Joy at his own expense. Shocked silence greeted it. A few years after, however, a French edition won warm praise. Now, thanks to translator Anne Milano Appel and Penguin Classics (£25 for the hefty hardback; £14.99 for the holiday-friendly e-book), Mody's transgressive adventures have reached this other island. Forget the Cuckoo and its over-amplified Calling. For me, this is the publishing event of the summer.

Born in 1900 (you might even see the book as a distaff-side counterpart to Bernardo Bertolucci's film chronicle Novecento), Modesta escapes poverty, ignorance and a stifling convent's walls via marriage into the enervated Brandiforti. Now a princess, but always a passionate lover of women and men alike, a free spirit and "heretic", she exploits rank and role to pursue rebellion on every front. A parade of intensely dramatic scenes (Sapienza's background never feels far away) show us Modesta at successive stages of her, and Sicily's, life: from the Great War and the breakdown of a feudal order to Fascist rule and Communist resistance to it, Hitler's war, the American invasion, postwar affluence.

It's not always the easiest plot to follow. Lovers, children, step- and half-siblings proliferate and intertwine. A family tree or cast-list would have helped as well as the translator's notes. For all her mystical invocations of Sicily and its "powerful, secret physical body", Sapienza sets scenes and sketches background very sparingly. High-voltage encounters, erotic and intellectual (often both), command her stage; several chapters are set as dialogue alone. Even if readers now will have few problems with her pan-sexual voraciousness, Mody's taboo-smashing chutzpah can still make jaws drop. She is a feminist, anarchist, bisexual Scarlett O'Hara in Catania (Gone With the Wind does spring to mind) and Lady Chatterley in the sun-caressed Med (a convent gardener has a big part). Sapienza may root for the headstrong heroine, but she refuses to airbrush her faults. Mody can be (in every sense) a total mare. Meanwhile, read the novel as a radical riposte to the nostalgia of Lampedusa's Sicilian elegy, The Leopard.

As errant, excessive and irresistible as the woman at its heart, The Art of Joy more than lives up to the title. Modesta's "intense feeling for life" overcomes whatever obstacles the ideologies of "sorrow, humiliation and fear" can throw at her as she embraces "life's fluidity". Don't be that fettered horse, but join her as she gallops through all the passions of history.

Lost keys, red faces: one for the No 10 Nanny?

Let no one say that literature has no effect on real life. According to David Brown of the London Fire Brigade, handcuff-related call-outs have soared since frisky readers shackled EL James's SM-lite trilogy to the bestseller charts. Mr Brown, who clearly knows how to lob a headline to the hacks, noted that the tied-up callers would turn 50 shades of red when his crews arrived. Given this proof of grave social harm by EL James, Nanny Cameron should surely make a speech with plans to block her e-books from the net.

After Shaw: a Wagnerite economist

Blissed out as ever by Tristan and Isolde, I came back from the Proms last Saturday and searched for instant reactions to conductor Semyon Bychkov's concert version (with Robert Dean Smith and Violeta Urmana as Wagner's ecstatically expiring lovers). Via his tweets, I discovered that none other than Paul Mason – Newsnight's economics guru – agreed with me about a highlight of the night: the terrific singing of Japanese mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura as Isolde's maid, Brangäne. A radical economist as dedicated Wagner buff? In fact, there's a distinguished pedigree behind Mason. In 1898, George Bernard Shaw published The Perfect Wagnerite: his virtuoso anti-capitalist reading of the Ring cycle. I shall look forward to Mason's Newsnight analysis of Tristan as an allegory of early-medieval trade wars between Cornwall and Ireland.