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.