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Happy Are the Happy


Happy Are the Happy

written by Yasmina Reza, translated by John Cullen

If there is a theme that runs through the major works of French playwright Yasmina Reza, it is the theme of personal destruction. She is best known for two of the more successful plays in recent years, “Art” and “God of Carnage.” In the first, an expensive, all-white painting is the catalyst for an argument among three well-to-do male friends, one of whom has invited the others to his apartment to show off the newly purchased work. In the second, two sets of parents get together to discuss their quarreling 11-year-old sons and end up at each other’s throats. In Reza’s world, it doesn’t take much for small conflicts between friends and couples to precipitate a release of long-suppressed resentments. Her characters don’t turn molehills into ordinary mountains. They turn them into Everest.

The same is true of many of the characters in HAPPY ARE THE HAPPY, her entertaining new work of fiction. The title of Reza’s book comes from a quote by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Although the quote yields a catchy title, a more suitable Borges line for this volume would have been “To fall in love is to create a religion that has a fallible god.” This slim book’s 20 vignettes, all of them set in France, are about love and its complications. Most of the conflicts focus on married couples and the stresses brought about by children, careers, infidelities, or just the natural erosion of love between partners who have been together for too long. But for all the problems the two-dozen or so characters in the book suffer through, the quest for perfect love is never far from the top of anyone’s list. They never stop worshiping their fallible god.

"[A]midst all the couplings and uncouplings, Reza, through her characters, offers insightful comments on the nature of romantic entanglements."

HAPPY ARE THE HAPPY does not have a traditional protagonist. Rather, Reza introduces a few characters for a short scene, then moves on to another set of personalities, until by the end we see how all of their lives intersect. Each chapter title is the name of one of the characters. Reza begins with Robert and Odile Toscano, a writer and lawyer, respectively. Odile’s father is Ernest Blot, the director of a prominent bank. Robert and Odile bicker in a grocery store, first over Robert’s choice of a supposedly unacceptable type of cheese, and then over the car keys that Odile refuses to surrender. Then Reza shifts to the story of Marguerite Blot, Ernest’s sister, a professor of Spanish at the Lycée Camille-Saint-Saëns. Marguerite, who is married with children, hopes for a relationship with another professor, Jean-Gabriel Vigarello, but when he later rebuffs her advances, she fears she will end up like the lonely old woman she and her parents used to see at the hotel in which they often took their dinners.

The pairings get more complicated as the book progresses. Robert and Odile attend a party at the home of Rémi Globe, who is Odile’s lover. Rémi does business with a gambler named Yorgos Katos, who is present at a bridge tournament when Raoul Barnèche, a friend of Ernest Blot, eats the king of clubs to protest the poor play of his wife, Hélène. Later in the book, Hélène bumps into Igor Lorrain, an old flame and a “psychiatrist and psychoanalyst” who treats two of the book’s other characters.

Many more characters populate HAPPY ARE THE HAPPY: a 30-year-old actress who wants to play a nun and likes dangerous men, a voluptuous “event decorator” who once dated the Secretary of State for the Tourism and Craft Industry, and a couple whose teenage son is convinced that he is Céline Dion.

A summary of all the plot points might give you the impression that Reza’s book is a farce. It does have its comic moments, and the tone is much breezier than the allusion to Borges would lead you to expect. But amidst all the couplings and uncouplings, Reza, through her characters, offers insightful comments on the nature of romantic entanglements. Halfway through the book, Jean Ehrenfield, a cancer patient, receives a visit from an old friend whose wife, whom he has cheated on many times, has left him. After listening to his friend’s lament, Jean thinks, “The couple is the most impenetrable thing there is. You can’t understand a couple, even if you’re part of it.” His fellow disciples of Borges’ fallible god would no doubt agree.

Reviewed by Michael Magras on January 30, 2015

Happy Are the Happy
written by Yasmina Reza, translated by John Cullen

  • Publication Date: January 27, 2015
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Other Press
  • ISBN-10: 1590516923
  • ISBN-13: 9781590516928