Hap­pi­ness, as Such

Natalia Ginzburg (auth.), Min­na Proc­tor (trans.)

  • Review
By – January 6, 2020

Natalia Ginzburg’s Hap­pi­ness, as Such is an arrest­ing, enter­tain­ing read and a book I plan to gift to friends. As I read it, I won­dered why the only bit I knew of Ginzburg’s work before­hand had been her essay He and I.” Her book should be required read­ing as her writ­ing is wit­ty, cut­ting, and wonderful.

Hap­pi­ness, as Such is part-nar­ra­tive, part-epis­to­lary nov­el in its struc­ture — that is, the char­ac­ters write a series of let­ters to each oth­er as the book unfolds. They are all writ­ing to their son/​brother/​lover, Michele, who has gone away, due to a mix­ture of his rad­i­cal pol­i­tics and his aim­less nature. Each char­ac­ter is enam­ored with Michele, but his respons­es to them are so cur­so­ry he comes across as com­plete­ly self-involved. The char­ac­ters revealed in the let­ters are fas­ci­nat­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly the forty-three-year-old moth­er, Adri­ana. She is both a force and a woman ren­dered help­less by her ties to her chil­dren and ail­ing hus­band. Adri­ana, like all the char­ac­ters, makes mov­ing obser­va­tions about hap­pi­ness and human rela­tion­ships. She tells Michele that her mem­o­ries with his father weren’t hap­py mem­o­ries because your father and I were nev­er hap­py together…but peo­ple don’t love each oth­er only for hap­py memories.”

The book becomes a med­i­ta­tion on the nature of hap­pi­ness as each char­ac­ter mulls over it. In clos­ing a let­ter, Adri­ana sends her son hap­pi­ness, if there is such a thing as hap­pi­ness. A pos­si­bil­i­ty that we can’t entire­ly exclude, despite so rarely see­ing evi­dence of it in this world that’s been giv­en to us.”

Mara, the girl Michele may have got­ten preg­nant before flee­ing, observes after a series of love affairs have gone sour, you see, hap­pi­ness doesn’t last long. Every­one knows that.” Mara’s most recent lover, a man she dubs the Pel­i­can,” wish­es her hap­pi­ness, if there such a thing as hap­pi­ness” in what has by now become the book’s refrain. The Pel­i­can con­cludes he doesn’t believe it’s real, but oth­er peo­ple do, and who is he to say they are wrong.”

Ginzburg effec­tive­ly uses the char­ac­ters to remark upon the fleet­ing nature of this emo­tion, as when Adri­ana con­cludes that hap­pi­ness can spring up in the midst of argu­ing or upon real­iz­ing that one no longer hates an estranged spouse. Upon this real­iza­tion, Adri­ana noticed the sun­set, beau­ti­ful pink clouds over the city, and for the first time in a long time…was almost hap­py.” How­ev­er, she laments in a let­ter, we sel­dom notice such moments when we’re in the midst of them.

Read this book for its lessons on life, but also for its mix of lev­i­ty and grav­i­ty. Ginzburg is a mas­ter of mix­ing dark and light — just when a char­ac­ter is despair­ing upon the world, a line will be thrown in that’s so snarky you’ll spit your tea out in laughter.

Ginzburg pro­vides per­fect coun­ter­weight to stark­er points of the plot, show­ing us the true range of her tal­ent. She could blend humor and tragedy deft­ly, which makes sense as her life offered plen­ty of it. She had to pub­lish under a pseu­do­nym to get around laws that kept Jews from pub­lish­ing, and she lost her hus­band to fas­cist tor­ture. We should all read her work, espe­cial­ly this book, which is, in the end, a trea­tise on the tran­sient nature of joy in our all-too-human lives.

Emi­ly Sulz­man is a writer and PhD stu­dent study­ing lit­er­ary non­fic­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cincinnati. 

Discussion Questions