Happy Are the Happy
By Yasmina Reza
Translated by John Cullen
Other Press: Jan. 27, 2015
$20.00, 148 pages
People are often heard to say, “I’d like to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation.” It’s human nature to wonder exactly what was said and done in the course of a dramatic or consequential encounter. But there’s an additional layer of meaning in the use of the fly as the eavesdropper: flies have compound eyes that allow them to see virtually everything around them.
Based on Happy Are the Happy, a series of 21 interconnected stories about the lives and loves of a group of Parisians, Yasmina Reza is a human “fly on the wall” with few equals. The acuity of vision displayed in these snapshots of intimate relationships is stunning; Reza has laser-beam insight into both the mundane and the profound aspects of her characters’ flawed humanity. The result has the cumulative effect of a long and moving novel.
Reza is best known as an accomplished French playwright, whose plays includes Art (1994) and The God of Carnage (2007), both of which won the Laurence Olivier Award (UK) for Best Comedy and the Tony Award for Best Play. But she has also written six books, and Happy Are the Happy makes a convincing case that she is equally adept at fiction.
Like the proverbial fly on the wall, Reza flits among eighteen characters, whose lives intersect in unexpected ways. She fully inhabits each of these people in their first-person narratives, a feat of impersonation that would make a chameleon turn green. Reza reveals the tragicomedy beneath the surface of polite society, as disillusioned and deluded romantics of all stripes struggle against their own shortcomings and the interference of others to find momentary happiness. Perhaps it is all just a fool’s errand.
Happy Are the Happy begins with the troubled marriage of Robert and Odile Toscano, a journalist and lawyer respectively. We meet them in media res, as they argue during a trip to the market. What has set them off? Nothing, really. Yet everything. As in most long marriages, arguments may appear to be about trivial matters, yet the true catalysts of these heated verbal exchanges are important issues and sometimes long-dormant resentments that are just too difficult or complicated to talk about. There is a power struggle going on here and neither intends to lose.
Marguerite Blot has had an affair with a fellow professor but is worried about ending up a spinster. We soon learn that she is Odile Toscano’s aunt and good friend.
When we return to Odile’s life in the third story, we are given a longer look at her life with Robert. Odile contends that, “Everything gets on his nerves. Opinions, things, people. Everything. We can’t go out anymore without the evening ending badly. I find myself persuading him to go out, yet on the whole I almost always regret it. We exchange idiotic jokes with our hosts, we laugh on the landing, and once we’re in the elevator, the cold front moves in. Someday someone should make a study of the silence that falls inside a car when you’re returning home after having flaunted your well-being, partly to edify the company, partly to deceive yourself. It’s a silence that tolerates no sound, not even the radio, for who in that mute war of opposition would dare to turn it on?” Reza appears to have been in the back seat of everyone’s car on such evenings.
But we also see another aspect of Robert: the doting father. Odile drily notes that, while she undresses, Robert “is dawdling in the children’s room. I know what he’s doing. He’s checking their breathing. He bends over them and takes the time to verify unequivocally that they aren’t dead.”
The pot reaches the boiling point when Robert wants to go to sleep, but Odile wants to read in bed. After a few terse exchanges of verbal gunfire, Robert loses patience and says he will go sleep in a hotel. But their spat is interrupted by their nine-year-old son, Antoine, who wakes up and can’t find his favorite stuffed animal, Doudine. After they find the animal and put Antoine back to bed, contentedly cuddling Doudine, Robert and Odile return to bed, mirroring Antoine and Doudine.
Soon we meet the Toscanos’ friends, Lionel and Pascaline Hutner, whose teenage son Jacob believes he is Celine Dion. Robert’s best friend, Luc Condamine, is having an affair with Paola Suares, who realizes Luc will never leave his wife, despite their problems. She has been trying to breathe new life into her affair with Luc, but he remains uninspired. “It didn’t even occur to Luc to take me to a hotel. He was so used to coming to my apartment that he couldn’t conceive an alternate idea. Men are totally immobile creatures. We women are the ones who create movement. We wear ourselves out invigorating love. I’ve been going to a great deal of trouble ever since I met Luc Condamine.”
In another early story, Vincent Zawada accompanies his elderly mother to see her oncologist, Dr. Chemla, where she chats amiably and a bit too loudly with an older gentleman named Jean Ehrenfried about cancer treatments, Israel (they are French Jews), and life in general.
Eventually we will get to know Virginie Deruelle, Dr. Chemla’s medical secretary, who, it turns out, is interested in Vincent, in part because he is kind to his mother. Luc Condamine, thinking Robert Toscano was depressed, had previously introduced him to Virginie in an attempt to raise his flagging spirits (and other things).
Chemla, a brilliant young oncologist, reveals that he has been permanently twisted sexually and morally by several years of abuse by a family member. His medical practice is his only sanctuary.
Odile Toscano has a lover of her own, of course. Remi Grobe has the stereotypical French male’s attitude about extramarital relationships: enjoy the adventure, avoid getting sentimental, move on quickly if either party develops feelings. But on an overnight trip to Douai in northern France, where Odile is representing asbestos victims in a class action suit, he finds himself in a muddle of feelings for the charismatic and beautiful attorney, whose professional performance has impressed him immensely.
“I started to have a feeling, I mean a real feeling, at that moment,” he tells us. “As we were getting out of the car, in Wandermines, in the rain. The influence of place on our emotions doesn’t get its just due. Without warning, certain nostalgias rise to the surface. People change their natures, as in old tales….I felt the catastrophe of sentiment. There had never been any question of that sort of foolishness before. I know her husband, she knows the women who pass in and out of my life. There’s never been anything at stake between us except sexual distraction. I said to myself, you’re having a fade-out moment, my boy, it will pass.”
One character, Darius Ardashir summarizes the male view of marriage and the role of wives and mistresses. While he has had several lovers, he becomes unmoored when his wife Anita leaves him for the gardener.
“Women don’t take lovers,” he tells his friend, Jean Ehrenfried, whom he is visiting in the hospital. “They get infatuated, they make it into a big drama, they go completely crazy. A man needs a safe place to go to so he can face the world. You can’t deploy if you don’t have a fixed point, a base camp. Anita’s the house. She’s the family. If you want a breath of fresh air, it doesn’t mean you don’t want to go home. I don’t get attached to women. The only one that counts is the next one. But that stupid bitch goes to bed with the gardener and wants to run off with him. What sense does that make?”
Reza’s background as a playwright is felt throughout the novel. These monologues of six-to-eight pages could easily be translated to the stage. In fact, the inspiration for Happy Are the Happy is Arthur Schnitzler’s famous play, La Ronde (1897), which examines the interactions of several pairs of characters whose lives are connected. Reza has more than matched her inspiration in Happy Are the Happy. The dialogue is rapier sharp, the conflicts familiar yet still absorbing, the characters recognizable and mostly sympathetic in spite of — or perhaps because of — their foibles. They are us.