She further withdrew from the world to write what is now considered her masterpiece, “The Art of Joy,” a monumental historical novel detailing a woman’s pursuit of cultural, financial and sexual independence in early-20th-century Sicily, and including scenes of incest, rape and the murder of a nun. Sapienza threw herself into the task, which took her nine years to complete and drove her to destitution. To her great frustration, she could not find a publisher. “My super-rejected novel,” she called it.
In 1979, when she married Pellegrino, who was 22 years her junior, the scandal further damaged her reputation. By the following year, Sapienza was so impoverished that she resorted to petty theft — stealing a friend’s jewels — and was jailed for several months.
She felt more accepted by her fellow inmates than by other Italian intellectuals, and, behind bars, briefly found the recognition she craved. “I’ve gone back to live in a small community where one’s actions are followed, and approved when right, in short, acknowledged,” she wrote in “L’Università di Rebibbia,” an account of her time in prison. Published in 1983, the book was a small commercial success, but the media treated it more like an oddity than a work of literature. A cringeworthy TV segment shows Sapienza discussing it on a talk show as the host and the other guests — all men — smirk derisively.
In 1998, two years after her death, Pellegrino printed 1,000 copies of “The Art of Joy” at his own expense and a few years later sent some to the Frankfurt Book Fair, where the book was noticed by a German editor, who published it in Germany and passed it to an editor in France. There it became a literary sensation, selling 350,000 copies and earning Sapienza comparisons to D.H. Lawrence and Stendhal.
Sapienza’s French triumph sparked new interest in her in Italy, where the prestigious publisher Einaudi has since released nine of her books, including “The Art of Joy,” which appeared in English in 2013. Like “Meeting in Positano,” “The Art of Joy” revolves around the idea that women deserve to be happy, even if society seems designed to prevent them from being so. Men, Sapienza suggests, have a natural tendency to crush women, yet women can defend themselves against this impulse if only they dare to break some rules.
In both novels, Sapienza plays with abrupt transitions from the first to the third person, as the protagonists’ voices are briefly interrupted by a narrator. (In the American translation of “Meeting in Positano,” this effect is toned down, and sentences like “Goliarda dimenticò Erica” become “I forgot about Erica.”)