In this and the following entry I’d like to write about two very different books I’ve been reading for academic purposes, in one case connected with teaching and in the other with the search for a topic linked to a conference. You’ll see why.

I chose Rafael Yglesias’s novel A Happy Marriage (2009) for my MA course on gender issues as I wanted to include a story about marriage itself, something not so easy to find. I was actually spurred by that poignant moment in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity in which the narrator, Rob, acknowledges that he cannot fully commit to his relationship with his girlfriend Laura because he’s too cowardly to eventually face her death. He imagines Laura dying of cancer and, well, sadly this is exactly what happened to Rafael Yglesias’s wife of 30 years.

Seeking to overcome his grief and bereavement, Yglesias narrates in his autobiographical novel the first three and the last three weeks of their ‘happy’ marriage, using a title which he describes as “neither ironical nor sincere.” The novel is cleverly structured so that the beginning and the end of their story occupy alternating chapters. The author himself indicates in an interesting TV interview (see that despite the sincerity with which he portrayed himself even at his worst, this novel should not be approach in a “gossipy” spirit, as he aimed at telling “the truth” of human experience, and not just of his own. Interestingly, he set out to tell a story of a long romantic relationship but realised that this could only be told if a member of the couple had died. Yes, in fiction we need closure and this is what the female protagonist’s harrowing decay and death provide.

The novel is, as you may imagine, both moving and exasperating. readers value it highly and I can’t say I regret having included it in the course. In the end, however, apart from contributing plenty to our discussion about the lack of stories dealing with long-standing relationships –the ones assumed to be happy– Yglesias’s novel turned out to be particularly useful as an example of not quite successful quality literary fiction. We’d gone through Annie E. Proulx’s brilliant “Brokeback Mountain,” Sarah Waters’s sparkling Tipping the Velvet, Nick Hornby’s candidly confessional High Fidelity and Sophie Kinsella’s truly bad Can you Keep a Secret? with considerable critical self-assuredness. A Happy Marriage presented us, though, with the very interesting critical challenge of having to point out what exactly was wrong with it. In the end, we more or less agreed that the author sounded too smug, too self-centred to give the dying heroine enough presence and that, at too many points, his prose was too pretentious, yet we also felt oddly callous to be criticising someone’s style in a book that is so personal. On the other hand, one of my students did worry indeed that she was being taken in and that all Yglesias wanted was to cash in onto his wife’s awful death… an ugly suspicion…

As Yglesias includes so much about his own literary career in this novel, A Happy Marriage can also be read as a document regarding the life of the average American writer today. I mean the writer that perhaps should be called ‘mediocre’ but who is good enough to have been around for decades thanks to the loyalty of his or her readers. Perhaps we focus too often on the major living figures and the classics and forget that there’s a whole army of writers just getting by, struggling to write their best even though that might not be good enough to interest scholars in generating bibliography about them. And they must be the majority. I don’t think Yglesias, judging from this novel, will make it to the history books about contemporary US Literature yet, having found his book relevant though hardly pleasing given its subject matter, I can only wonder at how many other writers have been lost for us in, as the cliché goes, the mists of time.