Sunday, November 01, 2009

Five Books of happiness

A month ago, when I linked to the American Book Exchange’s list of the top ten depressing novels and added a few suggestions of my own, the book industry blog Pimp My Novel was aghast. “[P]eople are actually making lists of the top ten most depressing books”—can you believe it?

Part of the problem is the English language, which overflows in expressions of gloom and bitterness but keeps its ejaculations of happiness to a minimum. “All happy families are alike,” Tolstoy famously complained. Not many stories in that.

Or are there? As the critic Maureen Corrigan wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this year when reviewing Jennifer Weiner’s Best Friends Forever, there are some books that you read and reread because they just make you happy. Corrigan names Jeanette Haien’s Matters of Chance, Susan Isaacs’s Shining Through, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, “most of Barbara Pym’s novels, and, of course, Pride and Prejudice.”

These are the books that do it for me.

(1.) Barbara Pym, Jane and Prudence (1953). “Most of Pym’s novels” is not much of a help. Here is the place to start, the most comic of her novels if not the best. Like Jane Austen, she writes stories about the man-chase. The difference is that, in Pym, the man is not always worth the chase. Jane is happily married to a vicar and worried about her beautiful friend Prudence, who has “got into the way of preferring unsatisfactory love affairs to any others, so that it was becoming almost a bad habit.” She takes it upon herself to find a match. The results are happy, although not quite the same as in Emma.

(2.) Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King (1959). Eugene Henderson, war hero, millionaire, a bear of a man, is bundled off to Africa to search for his soul. “I want, I want, I want,” he chants. There he communes with King Dahfu, who is really Bellow’s late friend Isaac Rosenfeld in disguise and attended by a bevy of naked ladies, and succeeds in lifting and carrying an enormous wooden idol, ending a drought. He returns home with an American orphan, fulfilled and happy. Bellow’s most life-affirming novel.

(3.) Calder Willingham, Rambling Rose (1972). The best novel by an unfairly neglected Southern novelist. A “big towheaded country girl” with “dusty shoes, runs in her stockings and a twinkle in her cornflower eyes” joins the Hillyer household “not merely as a servant but as a companion to herself and the entire family.” She conceives an infatuation for Daddy and steals into thirteen-year-old Buddy’s bed for consolation. Nothing untoward happens, except that the Hillyers learn from Rose how to be happy.

(4.) Laurie Colwin, Happy All the Time (1978). The only novel that I know which sets out to prove Tolstoy wrong. Colwin describes the love affairs and marriages of two couples. After marrying Guido, Holly believes that her life has become “frighteningly perfect.” She leaves for Europe, makes a few discoveries, and comes back happier than ever. Misty, by contrast, is a Jew who “can’t do anything without a fight”—including falling happily in love. Her new boyfriend Vincent is what would now be called a player; he is used to women falling uncomplicatedly into his bed. Misty changes all that, although in the end Vincent teaches her how to lose her fight against happiness.

(5.) Francine Prose, Hungry Hearts (1983). The greatest novelist of her generation rewrites Ansky’s Dybbuk to happier effect. Dinah Rappoport plays Leah, Ansky’s possessed heroine. Just like the girl she is playing, Dinah feels that she has been betrothed “forty days before birth” to Benno Brownstein, the actor who plays Chonon, the heartbroken lover whose spirit possesses Leah. The impresario of the Yiddish Art Theater commands them to keep their marriage secret; audiences will never accept a Leah and Chonon who are married in real life. The secret itself becomes a dybbuk that she must exorcise. In Montevideo, remarkably, she does.

Set apart from the rest, though—not necessarily above, but definitely apart—is John Collier’s His Monkey Wife (1931). Emily, an African chimp who is intended as a gift to Alfred Fatigay’s fiancée, takes her place in the wedding, heavily veiled—a soft-eyed Leah with plum-blue skin. After many separations and misadventures, the couple is happily reunited. “Behind every great man there may indeed be a woman,” the novel concludes, “and beneath every performing flea a hot plate, but beside the only happy man I know of—there is a chimp.” Perhaps the weirdest novel ever written.

9 comments:

tickletext said...

Since this is a list of "Five Books" and not "Five novels" of happiness, I would add M. F. K. Fisher's The Art of Eating and Thomas Traherne's Centuries.

R. T. said...

Once again you add to my "required reading list." I have read Bellow's novel (a delightful romp that seems so different from Bellow's other novels), but now I must sample the others you've recommended. I would nominate a rather different list of five titles: Austen's Persuasion (closely followed by Northanger Abbey); Rushdie's Midnight's Children; Winterson's The Passion; Welty's The Ponder Heart; and Voltaire's Candide. Each is a first-class, comic entertainment. It is an eclectic list, and it may not meet with approval; nevertheless, these are some of my favorites.

D. G. Myers said...

My friend John Podhoretz, who won’t comment himself, probably, now that I have become a Leftist, nominates Joy in the Morning, “the best Jeeves novel.”

Stephen said...

And there's always Eric Newby's A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Or Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts. Anything about youth and travel...

shade said...

The Pickwick Papers.

Buce said...

The Jeeves novels are good candidates and for an interesting reason: they are prepubescent, untroubled by the anxieties of lust. In the same vein, perhaps, is a not-quite children's book, Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle.

Ray Sawhill said...

Some fresh titles for me to catch up with, tks. Hey, here's a related blog posting:

http://www.2blowhards.com/archives/001187.html

Scott said...

A.J. Liebling's _Between Meals_ is maybe the most joyful, alive work I've ever read. Just enough tang of nostalgia (and, written on the eve of his death, a touch of bittersweet foreknowledge) to make the sweet all the sweeter.

Kathleen said...

Happy-book lists, what a great idea! I would also like to to put in a vote for Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita," which never fails to make me laugh. It's funnier the more you know about Russian literature and the Stalinist era. But you don't have to be an expert in either of these subjects to amused by the idea of a book about Satan coming to Moscow in the 1930s and righting many wrongs.

"Manuscripts don't burn."