In The Atlantic‘s “By Heart” series, Happy Are the Happy author Yasmina Reza spoke to Joe Fassler about finding a title for her latest novel, the intricacies of narrative voice in Wuthering Heights, and the distance between an artist and the art she creates.
Reza found the title for Happy Are the Happy in a Borges poem, “Fragments of an Apocryphal Gospel.” Of the title and Borges she says:
I only knew I didn’t want something that had to do with love or couples—two obvious themes of the book. I didn’t want something that alluded to the content so directly…I love the way Borges ends the poem with this self-reflexive “happy are the happy.” The condition of being happy, in other words, can only be obtained by those who are happy. This is so paradoxical, so enigmatic, so Borges. You can turn that idea over and over in your mind.
Happy Are the Happy has twenty-one chapters, eighteen of which are narrated by different characters in the first person. The novel’s structure is inspired by Schnitzler’s La Ronde and Reza’s appreciation for The Wire. Writing so many different voices was a challenge for her:
You must see your characters as other people see them, and then also explore how they feel inside. Yet this came naturally, too, in a way; this mingling of so many different voices…I tend to write with “Je,” with “I,” with the first person. It’s the voice that comes to me immediately. I love how inner it is, how intimate. The third person seems much less natural. For me, there is something strange about it.
Though she speaks of her writing process with such elegance and insights, Reza remains skeptical of the ownership an artist holds over her work:
The meta-discourse that every writer is obliged to provide—to the press, or to whoever asks—is bullshit. It’s artificial. It’s something imposed upon the process later…An artist can’t speak about the art. A work exists in a temporary state—the minute it is produced, it falls away from us and becomes distant.