Happy Books


First Person

From Recent Vases, a portfolio by Francesca DiMattio in issue no. 228.

This year I was so happy. I was happy for the main reason that I think people have been happy throughout human history, which is that I fell in love. At least that’s why stories tend to tell us that people are happy—happily ever after, and all that. When people asked how I was, I found myself saying, so happy, almost involuntarily, and then feeling a little ashamed, like maybe I was boring them. The thing is that other people’s happiness is often boring. All happy families are alike, and all that. I read a line in a short story in the recent Fall issue of The Paris Review, in fact: “We were happy on the road, and happiness can’t be narrated.” This felt true to me, and I also wanted to argue with it. Yet whenever I did, the terms seemed to slip away from me—what was happiness, anyway, and what did it mean to narrate it? And was I really so happy, when in fact lots of things in my life were going wrong, when as always there were days when I woke up listless or anxious, despite some undercurrent of feeling like I was terribly, almost frighteningly happy? Could there be such a thing as a narrative of happiness, and—here, I was thinking selfishly—what might it tell me?

I began to read with these ideas loosely in mind. In the fall, alone in Vermont, I read James Salter’s Light Years. This is a novel about a marriage—about the surfaces of a life and the cracks beneath that surface, the eventual rupture and the aftermath of that break. You have to wonder, a little: how did these two people ruin this beautiful life in a house on a river, filled as it was with bowls of cut flowers, bottles of wine, a pony, a dog? Skating on ponds in winter and Amagansett in the summer. Who would actually wreck such a thing and why? But then I remembered, surprisingly close to the end of the novel, that my own parents had ruined just such a happiness in just such a way, perhaps more dramatically, but not so differently; I had a childhood filled with cut flowers too. This is a tragic book, but it also manages to narrativize something about happiness, about how it is always a dance between the surface and the subterranean. This dance is obscure, even to its participants. We cannot know other people or their happinesses and we cannot quite understand even our own.

I also read, this fall, Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin. This is a novel about two married couples, and I was interested especially in one of them. This couple is not very different from the couple in Light Years: they too have a beautiful and aesthetically oriented life characterized by a certain kind of abundance. There is also a woman whose power comes from her slight withholding, and a man who struggles against this, sometimes to the point of misery. And yet this novel is essentially comic. That is where Colwin points us in much of her work, toward that glass-half-full view of human relations and how they might be navigated; even when the actual situations might seem miserable (untenable affairs, as in Another Marvelous Thing), she takes a view of them that might be described as both clear-eyed and full of light. In Happy All the Time, happiness works its way into the narrative mostly through the characters’ acceptance of its limits, and their realizations that the fact of it is a grace. When the four characters sit down with four glasses of wine and toast “to a truly wonderful life,” I thought, Yes, there it is. I am always insisting on toasts, and remarks, on the mysterious power that lies in repeating over and over how lucky we are, really, to be in the company of those we love.

So it does exist, she thinks, happiness.

So it does exist, he thinks, happiness.

These lines appear in the middle of Jenny Erpenbeck’s new novel Kairos, which I also read this year. It is a marvelous novel, but decidedly not one about happiness, or not one that appears to be; it probes instead the profound depths of misery we sometimes endure in the name of what we call love. There it was, though, the word happiness, coming up again and again, maybe because I was looking for it. The tortured couple discovers over and over that they are happy. They’re wrong, I thought, reading those lines, but then are they really, and who was I to say? How many times have I been wrong too? I used to lie in bed in certain moods and listen to a YouTube recording of James Merrill reading his poem “Days of 1964,” and these lines always made my breath catch:

I hoped it would climb when it needed to the heights
Even of degradation, as I for one
Seemed, those days, to be always climbing
Into a world of wild
Flowers, feasting, tears­­—or was I falling, legs
Buckling, heights, depths,
Into a pool of each night’s rain?

Who can tell the difference, really, in those moments of total suspension, between the climbing and the falling?

I began to tell people I was working on “my happiness project,” an essay of sorts that was also kind of a reading list, a way of immersing myself in thinking about something I couldn’t stop thinking about anyway. I kept feeling like I was making no progress on this so-called project. (Was I “too happy to write,” or simply too lazy?) I read Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, a book whose tone is defined by that slightly manic happiness of being young and alive in Paris, having love affairs, getting into scrapes and out of them—the happiness of the carefree or reckless, depending on your point of view. In Lucia Berlin’s short stories, too, and Cookie Mueller’s, which I read to start the year, there is lots of that madcap happiness, which we might more often call pleasure for its association with drugs and dancing. This is the kind of total bliss that can presage the moment when someone burns down the house.

And then there is Penelope Fitzgerald, who came to mind first when I thought hazily about happy books. I mentioned the novel The Blue Flower to someone, when I was talking once again about happiness. I said I have always considered it a sublimely happy book. He said, “But she dies.” My first thought was, well, we all do, but he had a point; death is the place where that particular narrative ends, and prematurely. So I reread those last pages, and I thought that after all, I was right—that at its core this novel articulates something I had been trying to find or say myself, about the possibilities of love, even as it comes to an end one way or another.

I said before that I was “frighteningly” happy, and that word seems telling to me, because the narrative of happiness, if such a thing can be said to exist, is always defined by the possibility of happiness’s end. There is, and we know this now, no happily ever after, no final resolution, though of course that doesn’t stop me from writing to Kristi, every now and again: I just want to know how everything will turn out. We are happy and so we worry—or should I say, I worry. I know there are people who can leave a happiness unexamined, but I am not one of them. In turning our happiness over and over, inside out, we can see all the paths for it, or so we think, though the truth is that we are never exactly right. In Kairos, the young woman says to her mother that she wishes she knew where they would be in a year, and her mother says, “We’re lucky we don’t know.” You might read that ominously—we are lucky because we are blind to the coming disaster—or you might read it, as I did, as a comment on the way unknowability is essential to happiness, which is not stasis, but rather something that is surprising and changeable. That’s what makes it possible, the narrative, the fact that there is no solidity or stability to happiness, and also no end.


Sophie Haigney is the web editor of The Paris Review.