Yasmina Reza, a renowned contemporary French playwright and novelist whose works have been translated into more than thirty languages, has crafted Happy are the Happy, a novel set primarily in Paris that relays stories from eighteen different viewpoints. Among the plot twists and varying perspectives of the characters, who range from doctors to lovers to children, the novel maintains a mood of disappointment and lethargy that is present in each character’s stream of consciousness.
Throughout, the characters grapple with what it means to be happy. Ironically, it is an insane character who is happiest: Jacob Hutner, an institutionalized young man who is completely out of touch with reality and believes he is Céline Dion. At first glance, Reza seems to be making the dismal argument that reality is an unhappy place in which to live, and that only those who ignore it and live in a world of their own making are satisfied. But it seems more likely that Jacob is the happiest because he actively sought out what would make him happy, whereas the other characters continue their lives without alteration. Reza’s novel, then, is ultimately a condemnation of fatalism, and an argument that people need to define their own happiness to find it.
Jewishness, while not overtly present throughout the novel, still plays a large role in shaping the characters’ mentalities. Many of them are not religious, and God is seen as either impotent or unconcerned with their daily lives. Culturally, however, Judaism plays a larger role, serving as a means of identification, a cause of political disagreement about Israel, and a source of shared history. Reza herself is Jewish, the child of a Russian and a Hungarian Jew who both immigrated to Paris, though it is unclear to what degree her upbringing influenced the structure and characters of her novel. Nonetheless, the novel has an authentic Jewish feel and seems to be grounded in real experiences.
While the book’s many convolutions and characters may confuse some readers, others will find it enriching and interesting. In particular, people interested in French Jewish culture, and what it suggests about happiness, will relish the various perspectives of the novel’s many characters.
- Paris, France, and French Jews Reading List
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