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on 26 May 2015
This was not an easy book to read. The blending of Italian background history between the two world wars with more personal family affairs was a suitable frame upon which to build the body of the story. Individual insights into life and thought of the period was a compelling feature of the story, as was the erotic content - primarily the sexual orientation and relationships of the story's narrator.
Blending the historical narrative with passages of dialogues between characters was an unusual feature of the book. Though not always understood, the passages of written Italian was an apt aspect of the book.
This is a book that would certainly benefit from a second reading, but not before the elapse of a suitable period of time. I suspect that it contains more personal philosophy than is obvious at a first reading and that the "art of joy" requires the understanding that a second reading would provide.
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Taking nine years to write and rejected by publishers at the time due to the nature of our main character as well as the length, Goliarda Sapienza unfortunately never saw this novel fully published in her lifetime.

The story here, a fictional memoir of Modesta, does have some influence from Sapienza’s life and the way she was brought up. Apparently born on the first day of the 20th Century this takes in the first half of that century. From an early age Modesta finds the joys of masturbation, and we see her being raped by a man claiming to be her father, before she makes a dramatic exit from her peasant roots. The next we see her is popping up in a convent, and then onto marriage and a place amongst the aristocracy of Sicily.

This has a lot of sensuality and drama with Modesta, or Mody as she is also called bedding both men and women, and making the most of her life, being someone who has no time for the perceived feminine appearance of the period. That is probably one of the reasons people like Mody, she may do some bad things, be manipulative and have other defects, but like everyone, male or female she wants to be treated on her own terms, with sexual discrimination not being a barrier.

Of course as we follow the main character here there are many others, who appear, relatives, lovers and children, as Mody creates an ever larger family. I know some people don’t like books with lots of different characters, but if you just sit back and take your time you should be able to take in who everyone is, and their relationships to others.

Because of the period this takes in we read of between the wars, the rise of Mussolini and Hitler, as well as communism and the struggle going on in Italy and elsewhere, which led to the outbreak of the Second World War. Very much influenced by the author’s own experience of being taken out of school due to fascism, and her parents being liberal intellectuals, she was brought up in a bohemian way, and this comes through on the pages here.

A force to be reckoned with, Modesta is one of the great female characters of the 20th Century, and unforgettable, whether she is repelling the forces of government, ordering assassinations, or just bringing up her children. Believing ultimately in a better world some day, we see this remarkable woman trying to live her life to the fullest, and making sure that her children do the same.
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on 6 August 2013
I read a review of this book in the Guardian. It instantly appealed to me, and I wasn't disappointed. The style is slightly dated, it was written over a number of years in the late fifties and early sixties, but it's a wonderful tale of an eccentric hedonistic woman living in Sicily in the early part of the twentieth century.
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on 16 October 2013
There are very few novels you will come across in your life - that are huge in scope. That literally takes the breath of the reader and is not shy or apologetic about it. It is also about the magnitude of some novels that almost make you wonder if such authors exist anymore or can there be works of this nature ever produced again. "The Art of Joy" by Goliarda Sapienza is one such classic.

Very few books have left me stupendous - literally dumbfounded at times, without anything left to say. What "The Art of Joy" also does ironically is make you think of your voice and your opinions. Goliarda's protagonist is so strong and yet so weak, that any of us can identify with her and yet emerge our own person. I also think that somewhere is the underlined intent of the book.

Modesta is everything a woman is - weak, powerful, giving, restraining and yet wanting it all. She blends into the plot, with the history of Italy as the plot unfolds. It is a memoir of sorts and yet it is as hidden as it could get. There are spaces in-between that shine through and will dazzle the reader. There are times when the writing just takes you by storm. The story of Modesta and Italy are superbly portrayed. There is no separating the two.

What I am most surprised is that the book was rejected by various publishers, before it could get published in 2005 and deserved recognition at last. Modesta's story is one to reckon with. "The Art of Joy" spans through the entire century - the history of the twentieth century, with the figure of one lone strong woman.

There are so many linear plots to the novel and yet there wasn't a single time I was tired reading it. It felt that I had to go on and on or else I would not be able to sleep. Modesta's hopes, desires and her aspirations become yours. She is able to be her person and voice in a society that is patriarchal and driven by what men think and feel.

"The Art of Joy" cannot be classified in any genre and yet I will call it literary fiction. It is one book that I think everyone must read at some point in their lives. This book should be cherished and perhaps reread. This is what the value is. A marvellous read.
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on 21 May 2015
I almost gave this five stars but stopped short because of the translator's notes which were random and not particularly helpful, and possibly in a few instances, not quite accurate. The other thing that annoyed me about the translation is the unexplained use of italics for Sicilian dialect and the occasional use of Italian words as well, that made some parts read like a 1950s war move with "Germans" shouting "Achtung" and then reverting to stilted English. Translate the whole or explain in a translator's preface the rationale for decisions like this. That's the bad bits out of the way. The contents are excellent and if you want to understand the first half of the 20the century in Sicily and how women were affected by the life that flowed around them, this is THE book. The protagonist Modesta is appealing in her own way and does live life according to her rules. This brings her into conflict with others but also contains its own admirable qualities. The contradictions in the character and the journey she makes (one can't really call this a story as the narrative has to be constantly interpreted and re-interpreted as you read) are what makes this a great book. It is warts and all, a human being struggling to make sense of a turbulent and oppressive world, and in doing so ranging between self-indulgence and concern for the marginalised. It explores in this context the communist allure in Italy following the downfall of fascism, the allure from the safety of the well-heeled villas and palazzi where no-one need work except to ensure an income. Modesta realises that she was happiest in prison where her hedonistic lifestyle would be seemingly most curtailed. It is these questions that remain and colour the book that give it its strength and balance.
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on 25 November 2013
interesting in parts but I have given up for now as it is just so long. Will try again soon.
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on 16 July 2014
bit weird, bending towards kitsch, but very interesting and readable.
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on 25 March 2015
One of the best book I have ever read.
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on 28 October 2015
all good
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on 26 April 2014
i think it is one of the best books i ever read, feels so real and very honest, very positive, wish i read it earlier in my life!
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