A few years ago, I found myself introducing a talk about Happy are the Happy in Milan, a storybook by Yasmina Reza in which the stories are closely connected to each another like the characters in a novel. I remember preparing hard for the meeting with the author, who is considered a reserved person. And it is all too easy to use the wrong tone with reserved people when you don’t know them.
So I accepted the challenge because I liked Happy are the Happy very much. It is a sort of Kama Sutra where sex is replaced by mutual irritation and its wild, multifaceted everyday life. And if the topic was interesting, the style was masterly with a typical slow-moving action on a nervous plot, where nerves end up being controlled and become part of a single flow of analytical melancholy. The natural and compact prose of the author seemed to contradict the idea that a playwright is not so good at managing a short story. Finally, I was curious about getting to know a specialist at addressing a theatre of human reactions with a “crude but not cruel look” – to use her words. For cruelty – as that look seemed to suggest to the readers – is first and foremost stupid.
Yasmina Reza entered the crowded hall with the typical stealthy look of a star. Her tiny lineaments looked like those of a star as well. Perhaps she wasn’t very much at ease with her photogenic, tiny lineaments, since the only thing the audience was not allowed to do was take pictures – as a member of her Italian publishing house kindly asked: “Please no photos.”
Her pose made me think of her as a star, too, though her general look implied something else, someone else. Someone looking at her defects or grimaces perhaps? Or maybe a very much beloved someone acting as a cruel lover on his part? I could never confirm these suspicions. But the overall impression – certainly groundless – is useful to identify common features among artistic temperaments who don’t write nor look for a large and generic audience, thus committing themselves to an exclusive interlocutor. The atmosphere seemed to be dominated by a judge and his warning to everyone in the hall: No photos.
He could have been anyone, even the incarnation of Yasmina Reza's aesthetic perfectionism. Indeed, she was elegant, welldressed, her curves seemed to have been designed by Thierry Mugler, and her thin waist was perfect for a belt by Azzedine Alaïa. While looking at her I was thinking of a specific hybrid and geometric French fashion. Yasmina Reza’s listening predisposition resembled a seduction weapon because I felt as if I was talking to a well-dressed, though loaded gun.
I began by recounting a family anecdote, a sentence that my grandmother used to say all the time, which had come to my mind while reading the book: “There’s more than one way to throw dishes at each other.” Happy are the Happy features all kinds of clashes between partners, or better yet, between human beings sharing a relationship: married couples, lovers, parents and children, brothers and sisters. She liked my grandmother's anecdote, as she nodded with interest, which made me feel her great respect for my entertainment. Was hers more of an American than an intellectual respect? Not bad for a dish throwing! – seemed to comment her Billy Wilder side. I believe that different voices and sources of inspiration coexist in her, all of which would look upon a good joke as a serious matter. Yasmina Reza’s talent, not just as a playwright, is made of the right time-frames, a fierce pace which is antithetical to sarcasm.
She was born in Paris. Her father was an Iranian engineer and her mother a Hungarian violinist. Does her cosmopolitan origin correspond to the education inferred from the common language used by a large and dispersed family? All her characters, be they relatives or not, share the same family traits. Could it be her family?
Who knows. Yasmina Reza doesn’t talk much nor does she say anything about her private life. But her books do feel like private experiences. According to her, “books should be enough, without further comments”, and therefore with no need for autobiographical investigations.
She says she is shy, which is probably true. However, the receivers of such an affirmation – though legitimate – must put it aside and continue to observe. If we didn’t go beyond her shyness, we couldn’t understand her refusal to have pictures taken, her stealthy look when taking the stage, her psychological acuity in observing others without letting them know anything about her, her empathy with any bare human weakness, and her reluctance to give interviews. Indeed, shyness is the key to fully understanding Yasmina Reza, which is why it must be put aside.
If we wanted to make a portrait of her because she is shy, it would be enough to have her pose while smelling a daisy, lowering the eyes and turning red. The conviction that she doesn’t want to end up like Bashful in Snow White makes me exclude this possibility. So, what frightens her about photos? Why does she consider them illegitimate, thus refusing to authorise them?
“In the end I consider myself to be a photographer more than a writer,” she says. “In Babylone I describe what I see by means of still frames. I choose one and shoot. Time dedicated to posing is perhaps a little longer.”
She writes by means of photographs and doesn’t want to get caught inappropriately, unsure that whoever took that picture would choose the best frame. Therefore, Yasmina Reza doesn’t really write; she thinks up what she writes, thus refusing any journalistic determinism and confining herself to shooting at the right time with an unknown ability.
As the epigraph to Babylone she chose a quote by the famous street photographer Garry Winogrand: “The world is not a tidy place. It's a mess. I never try to put it in order.” Yasmina Reza’s works are meant to be a testimony, and to bear witness to the mess it is necessary to catch its essential aspects. But perhaps she doesn’t think that anyone can do this. That severe judge, that someone else, that cruel lover, that exclusive interlocutor – as opposed to a large and generic audience – is her own eyes.
Even if she likes mystery and privacy, and never appears on social networks, Yasmina Reza is a very sensitive contemporary writer. It is no coincidence that her interest in high-level, historicised, and quality photographic testimony (as we read at the beginning of Babylone, it is inspired by Robert Frank, rather than someone posting a selfie) is strongly revealed nowadays, as photography is – among all the means of expression – a newly elevated and mass art at the same time.
It is said that Babylone’s characters come out of the photo captions that Yasmina Reza noted next to pictures by famous artists. Such illustrated books could in turn become artist books. I am not suggesting that she finds a gallerist; I just want to underpin her ability to interpret today’s world. Goethe affirmed: “Each and every individual is an organ of their century, mostly acting unconsciously.” Goethe's quote is valid for each and every individual; however, some can unconsciously act better than others in mysterious ways. Yasmina Reza’s voice is an explosive contemporary one, whose triggers are often ordinary things. For instance, Happy are the Happy begins with a quarrel turning into a furious fight over a piece of cheese at the supermarket. “She’s sly” – the same old irritating people will say. “She’s sociological” – they will add, getting more and more boring.
Yasmina Reza is an artist who could also be an actress, a violinist – like her mother – a designer or even a “spy”. Not to define herself a writer, she considers herself a photographer, but her work risks falling into the category of literature.
Oh well, she has been walking a lot around the Venetian alleys lately, as it looks like they inspire her. Happy is she who sees no crowd, although this new passion for the Venice lagoon could be the result of her unquestionable and fertile imagination.
Biography Letizia Muratori
Born in 1972 in Rome, Letizia Muratori is the author of seven novels. The most recent, Animali domestici (Pets), was published by Adelphi in 2016. Her voice is considered one of the finest and most elegant in modern Italian fiction.
Reza and photography
Yasmina Reza’s most recent work is a novel called Babylone. It was inspired by the photographer Robert Frank’s highly influential 1958 portrait of American society, The Americans, which had an introduction by Jack Kerouac. Babylone also contains a quote by another famous American photographer, Garry Winogrand, who said: “The world is not a tidy place. It’s a mess. I never try to put it in order.” Photography is close to Reza’s heart. “In the end I consider myself to be a photographer more than a writer,” she has been quoted as saying. “I describe what I see by means of still frames. I choose one and shoot.”
Reza and theatre
Yasmina Reza is a French playwright and screenwriter as well as a novelist. It was her 1994 play, Art, that spread her name beyond the theatres of her native France. Her 2007 play, God of Carnage, won multiple awards and was made into a film, Carnage, with a script she wrote herself with director Roman Polanski. The film starred Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C Reilly. The movie is set almost entirely in one living room, where an argument between two couples about their children takes place. The living room is a favourite setting for Reza and also features in her most recent book, Babylone.
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