In Other Words
Happy Are the Happy by Yasmina Reza
Happy Are the Happy by Yasmina Reza, translated by John Cullen, Other Press, 148 pages
Humor is not easy to carry off in a dramatic piece; for that reason alone we should be grateful to French author Yasmina Reza for the sparks that shimmer through her melancholy novel Happy Are
the Happy. Perhaps a precondition of humor is that a particular institution gets skewered. Reza targets married life. It can sometimes feel that the author is looking at marriage from the outside, but the laughs keep coming — and many of the characters, married or not, get a chance to be ridiculed by the end.
Happy Are the Happy starts off with a jolt of familiarity. A man finds himself in a grocery store, having an impossible argument with a family member over the purchase of some cheese, and he wants to get the hell out of there. Usually such vehemence is the domain of parent-child relationships, so it’s a surprise to find out that this man, whose name is Robert, is fighting with his wife, not his mother. Robert has a deadline for a newspaper article he’s writing, and he needs to leave immediately. Meanwhile, his wife, Odile, disapproves of his choice of cheese (Morbier) and rejoins the long cheese line to buy Gruyère. The couple’s physical struggle over Odile’s bag, which contains the car keys, is frightening but laugh-out-loud funny at the same time.
Later, Odile notes about Robert, “Everything gets on his nerves. Opinions, things, people. Everything. We can’t go out anymore without the evening ending badly. … 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.”
In Reza’s view, there is almost constant friction between married couples. Husbands and wives live together in an atmosphere of resigned misery. The nature of their charges against each other range from petty (whether or not Odile turns off her night lamp when Robert is having trouble sleeping) to major-league. Jeannette, Odile’s mother, believes that Ernest, her husband and Odile’s father, has ruined her life: “Women are seduced by frightful men, because frightful men present themselves in masks, as at a costume ball.”
Occasionally, a character slips into preciousness and clichés, as when a character called Doctor Chemla considers how an abusive brother and an inattentive mother have forever colored his private life. But the author soon discards vague narratives and returns to her brisk specificity. During an annual bridge tournament, a husband becomes so irritated with his wife — also his bridge partner — for not playing her cards right, causing them to lose, that he eats one of his cards.
Until the last couple of chapters, the book feels not so much like a novel as it does a series of vignettes with recurring characters. Despite its structural shortcomings, the bursts of pleasure
Happy Are the Happy serves up are enough to make you put everything aside until you’ve read it all the way through.
The novel gets its title from an observation by Jorge Luis Borges: “Happy are those who are beloved and those who love and those who can do without love. Happy are the happy.” Maybe it says something about the joylessness of American “dysfunctional-family” literature that reading this book is like drinking iced ginger ale when you’re hot and thirsty.
The story enters poignant territory with the funeral of Ernest, who had once been a bank chairman. The family, including Odile and Robert, journeys to his hometown to scatter his ashes. Ernest and Jeannette’s relationship has been so strained that, even in the face of this tragedy, we can’t escape Reza’s relentless portrayal of marriage as a wasteland — something that’s put on for show and convenience, a practical matter that only gets sentimental because it’s nice to have a hand to hold in old age. Whether or not this is the French view of marriage is debatable, but the author gleefully makes her bias clear.
Reza’s other targets include illicit lovers and the ways in which parents moon over their children even as they must deal with the frustrations they bring. Robert and Odile have two boys who defy their bedtimes and want a second dinner right when Robert is trying to bond with two old buddies over a late-night meal. Another set of parents has a son who believes he is Celine Dion — a charming affectation when he was a child, but distressing enough once he’s a teenager to require admission to a psychiatric facility.
Maybe it’s because these stories are set in France that family bonds miraculously endure the times when irritation grows into bitterness. Mother Teresa once said, “There is hunger for ordinary bread, and there is hunger for love, for kindness, for thoughtfulness; and this is the great poverty that makes people suffer so much.” Happy Are the
Happy’s characters mostly have a fine time, going through the motions of their lives and navigating finite pleasures, but there are yearnings in their deepest selves that remain unrequited. Those intelligent enough to be aware of that inner hunger are anything but happy.