What Writing Has in Common With Happiness

The author Yasmina Reza says that Borges taught her fiction, like joy, is borne of mysterious, instinctual processes achieved in an unconscious state.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

The final line of an enigmatic Jorge Luis Borges poem became the title for Yasmina Reza's latest book, Happy Are the Happy. For Reza, Borges’ poem suggests that happiness, which people tend to talk about as achievable and context-dependent, is dispensed more mysteriously than we like to think. In our conversation for this series, we discussed the ways contentment transcends our understanding—and how works of literature, too, are more than what their authors understand them to be.

Happy Are the Happy features 18 different narrators, each of whom gets to command the reader's attention for at least one chapter. Because the characters know one another intimately—as friends, lovers, spouses—each successive voice complicates our understanding of the other characters, and raises new questions of its own.

Reza’s books—novels, plays, and an unorthodox book-length profile of Nicolas Sarkozy—have been translated into more than 30 languages. Her celebrated work for the stage includes two Tony “Best Play” winners, “Art” and God of Carnage. Reza wrote the screenplay for Carnage, the Roman Polanski-directed film adaptation of her 2006 original.

She lives in Paris and spoke to me in New York City.

Yasmina Reza: Late in the process of finishing my new book, Happy Are the Happy, I started looking for a title. I didn’t have one at that point, and I wasn’t sure what it would be. 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 was on a plane when the French phrase heureux les heureux, happy are the happy, came to mind. It seemed beautiful, and it occurred to me it might work as a title. But I couldn’t remember where I’d heard first it. I knew it was from Borges—that’s all. I wasn’t sure where the line originally appeared.

So when I went home, I took all my Borges off the shelf. I went through, looking for the phrase. It found it by sheer luck. It’s from the last line of a poem, “Fragments of an Apocryphal Gospel,” which ends this way:

Happy are those who are beloved, and those who love, and those who are without love.

Happy are the happy.

It was exactly, precisely the subject of the book. Immediately I decided to take it as a title.

In English, “happy are the happy” is not as fantastic as it is in French (heureux les heureux), or in the original Spanish (feliz los felices). In English we have to add the “are” because, without a verb, the sentence doesn’t make grammatical sense. I prefer the Spanish sense “happy the happy,” which is the same in French. Except French is the best formulation, I think, because heureux also means lucky: Lucky are the happy. French is the only language that carries this additional connotation.

In any case, 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.

Part of what Borges is saying, I think, is that happiness has nothing to do with external forces. Happiness is a disposition you have inside of you. It’s not the outside world—it’s you.

The sentiment is echoed in Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary: “It’s not the circumstances but what our soul is made of that makes us happy.”

In Happy Are the Happy, I enjoyed exploring my characters’ subjective perceptions about other people’s emotions. A struggling couple, for instance, looks with jealousy and annoyance on another pair who constantly display affection and seem to be the picture of conjugal bliss. Though I didn’t initially intend to write the book this way, the novel slowly reveals that the happy-seeming couple is, in fact, in great distress.

In some ways, it was challenging for me to write a book with so many different narrators. 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. My background is in the theater. I’m a playwright. And when writing for the stage, you give every character their own voice to speak with. A play is a collection of first-person voices. There was something about this novel that felt close to the dramatic form, as I wrote from the point of view of both men and women, people of many different ages.

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. For example: “One day, Judith opened the door. She was very tired.” Who’s speaking? I want to know right away about the person who is telling us about this Judith.

So many novels largely narrated in third person actually are told to us by a character. Wuthering Heights, which I consider a masterpiece, is my favorite example of this technique: the story by the old nanny, who introduces herself. We may forget it at times, but the book is written by her—not Emily Bronte. This means all the details are based on the nanny’s perceptions; her point of view serves as a filter for the information we receive. You see this technique used by many writers—including Stefan Zweig, for instance, or by Edith Wharton in Ethan Frome.

The speaker—explicit or assumed—profoundly affects the sentence-level telling of a story. If a character looks at a painting and tells us what he sees, we know he is really seeing himself—he sees what only he can see. In the first person, description is so profoundly subjective that it’s no longer description. But when a third-person, omniscient narrator selects details, it feels too much like the uninvolved writer writing.

When description is supposedly “objective” it’s watching someone build the set on the stage. So then the question is, who designed the set?

And yet, all these decisions are totally instinctive. I think that writing fiction is not an intellectual process. It’s as mysterious as painting, as drawing a brush across the canvas to see what happens. I suppose art is to distort the world and restructure the world. But why do we do that? Why do people write and paint? Why is life not enough? It’s a true mystery. We don’t know.

And we can never know. I don’t know what I’m writing about when I write. I’m sure no one knows what they write. 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. We write in a specific moment, and the production is between us and the paper. The next day, it is no longer ours. It’s gone.

I have material proof of this. After my first plays were published, a few years later another publisher asked to republish the books. It was a much better publisher, and the books would be more beautiful. And since I knew there were things I wished I could change about the previous plays, I was glad—I would have a chance to fix what I considered to be mistakes. Very quickly, I realized this was impossible. The person who wrote the books was no longer the same. If I changed anything, I would have to rewrite the entire work.

Art is not something we can know intellectually. What we think we are writing is usually not what we are really writing. We have an instinct about what is good for us, in and writing and in life, but it is unspoken and mysterious. We try to pay attention to that impulse, and move towards it when we can.