Winner or finalist of countless prizes; best book of the year for five or six of the main Anglo-Saxon magazines; even the most enraged critics kneed before the exotic author: and so A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, finally entered my home a couple of years after the Italian version came out. Then, knowing that I would have to spend forty-eight hours locked up at home waiting for the results of the swab, I said to myself, well, the time has come to read it.
On the Internet they called it ‘a great gay novel of more than a thousand pages’, but given that during the lockdown I had managed to re-read all of the Christopher Isherwood books that had found their way into my home as well as Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, I felt ready to deal with both: a gay novel and a thousand pages. I started it on a Friday night and finished it the following Sunday, late at night.
Here I say and reiterate: this book reminds me of recipes that without butter or sugar – but with a handful of flour, a glass of water and little else – would give life, as if by miracle, to delicious, fragrant, soft and wonderfully tasty cakes.
I have never read a story so devoid of ingredients and so acclaimed by critics. The author is very skilled, no doubt about it: she masters an effective narrative technique (already widely tested but ‘never change a winning team’); moves the strings of her many puppets with boundless imagination and undoubted mastery; brings all of their stories to completion (or almost all of them: in a couple of cases the thread has broken and the puppet has been abandoned to its fate behind the scenes); and ultimately crafts an epic that despite little or no basic preparation arouses the unstinting admiration of authoritative literary critics and a good part of its readership (above all, women). How she managed to reach such acclaim with such a flimsy novel is a mystery that I hope sociologists and/or psychologists may want to unravel one day: I will not even try.
Yanagihara succeeds in recounting forty years in the life of a group of American teenagers without ever mentioning a President, an event or any fact whatsoever (historical, political, social, customary) – and the United States in those years were far from lacking them. She sets up a story where there are more homosexuals than in Queer as Folk without ever mentioning a bar or a gay meeting place and without the acronym AIDS ever cropping up in at least one of the claustrophobic pages (I will not elaborate on the ‘timelessness’ of the story, as some eminent critics have done: when terms like hedge funds, non-profit organizations and nerds are used, the story takes on well-defined temporal contours). She digs very deeply into the psyche of her characters, besides using the most usual array of stereotypes, without even questioning the blatant inconsistencies of the two protagonists.
The first one, martyred since childhood (David Copperfield was a smiley emoticon, by comparison), who, not satisfied with the atrocious harassment he suffered, inflicts himself as many others knowingly; who lives through an escalation of violence and abuses half of which would have knocked out a lumberjack; who does not dare to rebel against any of his multiple tormentors and lets himself nearly be brought to death on more than one occasion without even trying to lift a finger (no: on reflection, he lifts a paperback…); who whispers “excuse me, excuse me” at least 1,091 times in the 1,091 pages; who is the quintessence of submission and submissiveness, often crossing the limits of masochism; but who, as if by magic, becomes gritty, fearsome and ruthless only when he wears a lawyer’s robe in the defence of billionaire businessmen and fierce multinationals, humiliating honest prosecutors one after the other, not to mention the very prestigious law firm with which he becomes associated, where he terrorises colleagues, trainees and secretaries with just one glance.
The second one manages to become a multi-awarded and universally known actor (even in Rome, his face stands out on the facade of a whole building, a prowess that neither George Clooney nor Brad Pitt will ever be able to achieve) without even seeing Hollywood from a train window. Moreover, he is very popular in all the art-house theatres around the world, as if he were the reincarnation of Lawrence Olivier.
To complete the group, a Puerto Rican raised in a varied gynaeceum that – listen, you simple ones – becomes surprisingly gay, and the son of two elite black parents (father a financial genius and mother a prominent academic) and therefore very wealthy – can one think of anything more politically correct? – who goes through numerous colleges without ever falling victim to an episode of racism (in the USA? around the eighties? in culturally elevated environments? Credible as an elephant dancing on its toes…).
Needless to say, all four of them become the very image of success, whether artistic or not, long before they start sporting white hair on their temples.
There is no need to elaborate about the doctor who, given his abnegation and patience, would make even Hippocrates blush; a couple of adoptive parents who cannot be more melancholic (but how many and what guilty feelings the professor hides, I wonder…); a little monk who, well before the advent of the web, knows a crowd of paedophiles that would work up the whole of today’s US police officers; and finally various other side characters (their boring list appears every other page at every event or party described in the book), some of which are presented to us until the last breath of life as if the events of the Magnificent Four were not already redundant enough and did not contribute to raise the number of pages well above the guard level. Their stories unfold with such predictability that even I, a rather naive reader, had foreseen the two final shocks two hundred pages in advance.
The Italian translation left me puzzled more than once, starting with the title (since when does ‘little’ mean ‘whatever’?), but I am not going to get the original to substantiate my doubts.
To cut it short, despite the considerable size and weight of the book, I finished it in little more than two days. Why, you may ask. Because it still conveyed a good dose of anguish and I did not want to see it in my way any longer. This is perhaps the reason why I still have not grasped the message it was intended to convey. Given that the honeyed sentiments with which it is permeated all go down the drain in the finale, what was the point of the exercise?
And if the moral of the tale was the sublimation of suffering, then I can be excused if I prefer a Gadda, a Hölderlin or a Bernhard. Comparing this novel to the great works of the nineteenth-century, then, as someone has recklessly attempted to do (beyond the numerical analogy with the Dumasian musketeers), is even blasphemous: the remains of Flaubert, Balzac, Dickens, Melville or Manzoni would be whirling in their respective graves to eternity.
At a time when image is king, I would not be surprised if a large part of the success of Yanagihara’s novel was due to Peter Hujar‘s evocative picture on the cover – even if, given the crudeness of the events covered in the book, a photo of a Mapplethorpe (of the kind not forbidden to minors, of course) would perhaps have been more appropriate.
Click here to read this article in Italian