Howard Jacobson: How happiness can inspire great art

Part of Jane Austen’s greatness is something that Mike Leigh also demonstrates in his magnificent new film

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All happy families are alike, is how Rosemary Edmonds translates the famous opening sentence of Anna Karenina, "but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion".

Wouldn't you say that's ever so slightly dismissive of the happy? As though they can be left to look after their own business, don't need the novelist's help or, at the very least, don't engage his interest to the degree that unhappy families do.

The cliché has it that happiness – particularly marital happiness – gives the writer little to work with. Art, the cliché continues, thrives only on conflict. Mike Leigh's magnificent new film Another Year deals that idea a crushing blow – unless you are one of those who argue that the happy pair to whom the more miserable and defeated characters turn for sympathy could do with being a little less pleased with themselves. Though even then you are conceding that happiness can be as dramatically interesting as its opposite.

It isn't really meant to be possible. Happiness itself, that is, not just the successful depiction of it. "Call no man happy until he is dead," every Greek thinker is reputed to have said. And that has remained the tenor of European thought ever since, with no small support from Christianity which can't wait to whisk us off into a happier existence. The version of earthly vanity I've always relished is Dr Johnson's, as expressed in his parabolic tale Rasselas, a work on which Jane Austen cut her teeth.

Sometimes literary critics cite that piece of facetious footling Tristram Shandy as the formative influence on the English novel, but they are wrong. Tristram Shandy took the English imagination by the nose and led it into that cul de sac called jocularity where you can still occasionally see it flailing its limbs and thinking it's magic realism. Rasselas,with its serious self-mocking sonorities, wedded the English taste for moralising to the English genius for melancholy dissatisfaction and laid the ground for the great tragicomic English novel of the 19th century.

Trapped in the Happy Valley, Rasselas wonders why, with every reason to be content, he isn't. "Sir," his aged instructor tells him, "if you had seen the miseries of the world, you would know how to value your present state." To which Rasselas, with a wit that presages the disappointments to come, replies, "Now you have given me something to desire; I shall long to see the miseries of the world, since the sight of them is necessary to happiness."

What follows is one deflation of seeming-happiness after another. The apparently sociable turn out to live in terror of solitude, while those who live in solitude cannot wait to return to society. The prosperous fear being stolen from, while the poor possess hearts "cankered with discontent" and look up with "stupid malevolence" at those placed above them. Stoicism fails at the first touch of human loss. Men of vision and invention grow enamoured of their own powers and believe the planets turn at their behest. Madness waits on genius and bitterness on expectation. Those who have everything have nothing, and those who have nothing have less.

As for marriage: "A youth and maiden meeting by chance exchange glances, reciprocate civilities, go home and dream of one another. Having little to divert attention or diversify thought, they find themselves uneasy when they are apart, and therefore conclude that they shall be happy together. They marry and discover what nothing but voluntary blindness had concealed; they wear out life in altercations, and charge nature with cruelty."

You see what I mean when I say Jane Austen sharpened her intelligence on Rasselas. Though it is part of her novelistic greatness to hold out against this stinging scepticism just long enough to gift those she loves the chance to be happy in their love for one another.

I'd say it is part of Mike Leigh's directorial greatness, in Another Year, to have done the same. The film opens on the face of depression – Imelda Staunton scrubbed of hope, her eyes devoid of light, her very skin defeated. It's a wonderful piece of almost wordless acting through which, though she says nothing about herself, we come to know everything. We see her for a few moments only, then she is gone, never to return, disappeared back into a world from which nothing is to be expected.

Out there, youths and maidens meet by chance, reciprocate civilities, fancy themselves to be in love, and wear out life in altercations. And viewed from one angle they are the lucky ones. If Imelda Staunton is superb in her brief scenes, then Lesley Manville's exhaustive performance as a woman for whom even the chance exchange of fond glances proves impossible, is beyond superb. Never have eyes searched the opposite sex with such a terrible desperation to find. To find what? You name it. Love, sex, a hand to hold, a companionable moment, a kind word, a cuddle from someone worse off than herself – anything to retrieve a single moment of happiness from lonely despair.

It is pitched as comedy but it is a comedy that lies too deep for laughter. Those who complain of exaggerated mannerism in Mike Leigh's films must have terrible trouble with Dickens – and with life, come to that. That there can be happiness in such a world is a sort of miracle, but happiness there is – acted with exquisite understatement by those Mike Leigh stalwarts Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent. She's a counsellor, he a soil engineer. Enough said. They get on. He even does the cooking. The lonely come to them, drink too much, know they won't be harangued, and stay the night.

It says something about our routine suspiciousness of happiness that some reviewers find them smug and have the impertinence to wonder whether Mike Leigh has noticed. He doesn't need to notice. He has allowed them to live. And in life the happy are pleased with themselves because it is a rare pleasure to be happy. That they are, for all their consideration, an affront to those who aren't happy, goes without saying, not because they mean to be, or because they lack feeling, but because life is cruel.

In one of the film's greatest scenes the sounds of contentment – holidays remembered, further ones planned – break like the deepest ocean around the head of Lesley Manville's drowning desolation. There is nothing more callous, if you are miserable, than the happiness of others. This, then – terribly – is how all happy families are alike. Their happiness is a torment to the unhappy. And not all the kindness in the world can make it otherwise.

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