“Other people’s happiness often seems somehow aggressive.”
Structurally, French author and playwright, Yasmina Reza’s novel Happy Are the Happy reminded me of Daniel Kehlmann’s excellent Fame. Both novels do not follow a straight narrative, but instead the book is constructed of multiple interconnected voices. While in Fame, the theme centered on identity, fame and the cell phone, in Reza’s Happy Are the Happy, the focus is happiness. Through 21 chapters and 18 voices, questions regarding the ephemeral nature of happiness emerge: what does it take to make a person happy, why do we sometimes deliberately seem to sabotage ourselves, and is happiness even possible for the sane?
Part of the fun with this book is picking out the connections between the characters who include a bickering married couple: Robert and Odile Toscano, their friends the Hutners, Loula Moreno–an attention-seeking trainwreck of an actress who admits she prefers “the dangerous irrational type,” Chantal–the mistress of a married man, Doctor Chemla, a well-respected oncologist who equates passion with abasement and pain, and a couple of Chemla’s patients.
I’m not going to distill each chapter and every voice into a couple of sentences–instead I’m just going to mention my favourites, and I’ll start with the very first chapter which is told by Robert Toscano, a married man who tells the story of a traumatic trip to the supermarket with his wife Odile. The simple quest for food turns into a debacle over cheese choices and a knock-down-drag-out occurs in the supermarket in front of an audience of amused/appalled innocent spectators. Since I have a fondness for watching bickering couples in the supermarket, this chapter had great appeal. Of course, in the case of the Toscanos, the problem really isn’t about the cheese in the cart; it’s about the power structure of the marriage, and about knowing the other partner so well, it’s all too easy to know which buttons to push to raise the irritation factor to dangerous levels.
I stand close to Odile and say in a low voice, I’m counting to three. You understand? And for some reason, at the moment when I say that, I think about the Hutners, a couple of friends of ours who are curled up together inside a willed state of conjugal well-being. Lately they’ve taken to calling each other “my own.” I don’t know why the Hutners cross my mind at the moment when an opposite madness has come over me, but maybe there isn’t really a whole lot of difference between Let’s eat well tonight, my own, and I’m counting to three, Odile, in both cases the effort to be a couple causes a kind of constriction of the being, I mean there’s no more natural harmony in Let’s eat well, my own, no not at all, and no less disaster either, except that my I’m counting to three causes a shiver to pass over Odile’s face, a wrinkling of the mouth, the infinitesimal beginnings of a smile, while I must absolutely refrain from beginning to smile myself, of course, as long as I don’t receive an unequivocal green light, even though I really feel like smiling, but instead I’ve got to act as if I haven’t noticed a thing, and so I decide to count, I say one, I whisper the word distinctly, the woman right behind Odile has a ringside view, Odile pushes a bit of discarded packaging with the tip of her shoe, the line’s getting longer and not moving at all, its time for me to say two, I say two, openly, generously, the woman behind Odile practically glues herself to us, she’s wearing a hat, a kind of overturned bucket made of soft felt, I can’t stand women who wear that sort of hat, a hat like that’s a very bad sign, I put something in my look intended to make the woman back off a yard or so, but nothing happens, she considers me curiously
The impasse between Robert and Odile, in the queue for the cheese counter, continues… I loved this chapter because it captures the tension, the build-up and the petty bickering only a couple can perfect to such exquisite levels. And this chapter, the first in the book, is a wonderful introduction to all of Reza’s robust, engaging, genuine voices. Odile Toscano has her own chapter, and this one takes place in the bedroom during another back-and-forth squabble. This time it’s over Odile reading late at night. Robert wants the light off and Odile refuses. The tension is high in this latest power struggle, and with the light being turned on and off, Odile can no longer follow the plot to her book.
I’m cold, I want to pull up the comforter, but it’s stuck under Robert, who inadvertently sat on it. I tug at the comforter. He lets me try to pull it out from under him without lifting himself an inch. I haul on it, groaning slightly. It’s a mute and completely idiotic struggle. In the end, Robert gets up and leaves the room. I turn to the preceding page to figure out who Gaylor is. Robert reappears fairly quickly. He’s got his pants back on. He looks for his socks, finds them, puts them back on. He leaves the room again. I hear him in the hall, opening a closet and rummaging around. Then he goes back into the bathroom, or so it seems to me. On the preceding page, Gaylor’s in the back of a garage arguing with a man named Pal. Who’s this Pal?
Yasmina Reza explores the nature of happiness in one of its more bizarre manifestations through a couple of cancer sufferers. Vincent Zawada relates how he takes his elderly mother, Paulette, for radiation therapy:
While waiting for her radiation therapy session at the Tollere Leman clinic, my mother scrutinizes every patient in the waiting room and says in a barely lowered voice, wig, wig, not sure, not a wig, not a wig … Maman, Maman, not so loud, I say, everybody can hear you. What are you saying? my mother asks. You’re muttering under your breath and I can’t understand you. –Have you turned your ear on?–What? –Where’s your hearing aid? Why don’t you have it on?–Because I have to take it off during the radiation
You normally wouldn’t expect much humour in this situation–a room full of people waiting for their cancer treatments–but here we see that Vincent’s mother is facing treatment, but she still delights in certain things. She finds it “reassuring” that she’s not the “oldest person here” while noting that another patient “won’t last a month.” She also delights herself by telling someone that she’s the doctor’s “pet patient–he says, you’re completely atypical, translation, you should have croaked a long time ago.” There’s also happiness to be found in a flirtation with another patient. This episode shows how the things that make us happy–in the case of Paulette, she needs to feel unique and attractive–continue to make us happy throughout our lives. Also we see how Paulette’s ability to live in the moment allows her to feel happy in spite of her disease. Fellow cancer patient Jean Ehrenfried appears twice more in his own chapters, and at one point he has to listen to the woes of Darius, a self-centered friend who’s visiting Jean in the hospital. Darius, according to Jean “cheated” on his wife “night and day,” so why is he sure he can never be happy again now that his wife finally leaves him for the landscaper?
But my favourite chapter, and it wasn’t easy to pick one, concerns the Hunterts who would seem to have the perfect, sickeningly sweet relationship. According to Robert Toscano the Hunterts are curled up in “a willed state of conjugal well-being,” and willed is the operative word here. While it may appear that they have made this firm decision to be happily married, there’s a lot more under the surface. In fact they have to cope with a son locked up in an institution who thinks he’s Céline Dion. Is it best to leave him happy and delusional waiting for the fans to arrive or to try to bring him back to the misery of reality?
Some readers who seek a linear narrative may not like the book’s structure, but for this reader, since the book is more thematically based, the structure was more than acceptable, and the chorus of voices absolutely delightful. While exploring the nature of happiness, Reza establishes an interesting triangular relationship with the reader, for many of these stories show troubled lives of people who are coping with various dilemmas all told in (with one possible exception) a generous amount of humor. Various theories of happiness drift to the surface as the chapters continue: do we have to be insane in order to be happy, why do we cause our own misery, and why do the bad circumstances endured by others give our lives a sense of superiority? And should we, as Jean notes, “refer to happiness as an end in itself“? Happiness, when it appears in the novel, comes in flashes of unexpected moments as these characters traverse their complicated lives and confront infidelity, friendship, passion, illness, marital strife and the never-ending travails of every day life. The book begins with a Borges quote–a quote that says a lot about our chances of happiness:
Happy are those who are beloved and those who love
and those who can do without love.
Happy are the Happy.
In a strange coincidence, Emma from Book Around the Corner saw a play by Yasmina Reza and posted about her experience a day after I picked up the book. After reading the vibrant chorus of voices in Happy Are the Happy, I can only imagine that the author’s plays are every bit as alive and witty as this book.
Translated by John Cullen