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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Day before Happiness

Erri De Luca

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To purchase The Day before Happiness

Title: The Day before Happiness
Author: Erri De Luca
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 175 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: The Day before Happiness - US
The Day before Happiness - UK
The Day before Happiness - Canada
The Day before Happiness - India
Le jour avant le bonheur - France
Der Tag vor dem Glück - Deutschland
Il giorno prima della felicità - Italia
El día antes de la felicidad - España
  • Italian title: Il giorno prima della felicità
  • US edition: translated by Michael Moore
  • UK edition: translated by Jill Foulston

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Our Assessment:

B : strong storytelling -- that undermines the novel where it takes itself too seriously

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ C 30/11/2010 Niklas Bender
The National . 8/12/2011 Matthew Jakubowski
NZZ A 13/11/2010 Helmut Moysich
The Spectator . 16/7/2016 Ian Thomson

  From the Reviews:
  • "Vor allem die Liebesgeschichte ist in ihrer sadomasochistischen Tendenz schwer erträglich; hier entgleitet De Luca auch die Sprache. (...) Die pathetischen Formeln mögen durch die Büchergläubigkeit der jungen Menschen begründet sein, sie wirken trotzdem wie Brocken zu dick aufgetragener Schminke." - Niklas Bender, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Given Don Gaetano's lessons and the fascinating history he relates, the book doesn't end feeling like a semi-tragic teen romance. De Luca's main interest is the inner struggle of man against violent urges and the strength that pacifism requires." - Matthew Jakubowski, The National

  • "Ob das Sonnenlicht sich zugleich als Gesicht zeigt oder als Schweiss (...), das eine gibt das andere im Roman dieser körperlich-sinnlichen Wechselspiele zwischen Mensch und Naturkräften. Die Sonne, der Wind, die Aufständischen Neapels, das Mädchen Anna oder der unfreiwillige Narr La Capa. Sie alle sind Mitspieler einer ursprünglichen «Musik der Materie»." - Helmut Moysich, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "No doubt The Day Before Happiness is intended to capitalise on the worldwide success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. By comparison De Luca’s book is no masterpiece, but those who love Naples (as I do) will find something to enjoy here." - Ian Thomson, The Spectator

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Day before Happiness is narrated by a young man who describes his childhood in post-World War II Naples. Left without parents, he had a foster mother whom he never saw and was basically watched over (but not really raised) by the local doorman (cum concierge and building super(intendent)), Don Gaetano. Despite his circumstances and poverty, he nevertheless seems to have been fairly dutiful and ambitious as a child, an enthusiastic reader who practically never missed school, for example, and apparently did quite well at his studies.
       The Day before Happiness is very much a novel of Naples, from the local dialect -- which translator Moore gives many examples of -- to the dominating nearby volcano. As Moore also mentions in his Translator's Note at the beginning of the novel:

The primary building material of the city is the soft volcanic rock known as tufo. Dug into the tufo substratum of Naples is an underground city of tunnel networks, spacious cavities, cisterns, and even the remains of the ancient Greek and Roman city, Neapolis.
       As a young boy the narrator comes across an entryway into this nether-world:
I descended into a grotto. Underneath the city is the void on which it rests. Our solid mass above is matched by an equal amount of shadow below, bearing the body of the city.
       So also is the boy's entire world, not just the physical one -- and it is a void that he only slowly explores and learns about.
       Among the stories Don Gaetano relates to the boy is how he kept a Jew hidden in this particular hideaway during the war -- a generous, dangerous act, but one where he also admits he was never entirely sure he wouldn't hand him over after all. He conveys to the boy that moral absolutes are never quite so easily reached or held onto, that circumstances can change in an instant.
       The Neapolitan attitude during the war and after is also presented as an unusual one, the city a place that Don Gaetano understands as: "monarchist and anarchist. It wanted a king but no government."
       When he was young, the narrator saw a girl that he could not forget, Anna, but she disappeared from his life for many years. When she does reappear, the narrator is still strongly drawn to her -- even as Don Gaetano warns him that she's not right for him, and that she's dangerous. As the boy becomes a man, Don Gaetano also chooses to reveal his background to him -- changing how he sees himself:
Ever since I was a child I imagined I was a fragment of this building, my mother the courtyard. I used to rummage through every corner, so I could get to know them. It was a version that kept me company and made darkness my friend.
       Illumination, on the other hand proves quite a burden, saddling him with a personal history that he's not sure he's equipped for -- especially given the sense of inevitability at how life unfolds in this part of the world. Other aspects of southern Italian life apparently include a really touchy sense of honor, and, at least right after the war, all the women of Naples losing: "their heads and all the rest" -- and even Anna, late in the game (i.e. quite a while after the war is over), isn't right in the head, obviously using the narrator for her own twisted purposes. It doesn't take Don Gaetano gifting a knife to the young man to see where this is all heading .....
       If Don Gaetano turns out to ultimately be too perfect a wise man cum fixer (to the extent that the story's conclusion has an almost deus ex machina feel, everything organized down to the last step (though it does all come at a high cost to the narrator)), he's nevertheless an appealing guide for both the narrator and reader. The Day before Happiness is an often wonderfully told novel of Naples in and after the war, with both the childhood reminiscences of the narrator and the wartime reminiscences of Don Gaetano often beautifully done and presented. But there's also both a lack of follow-through -- the narrator descibes being under the spell of reading, for example, but once he's mentioned it there's very little more of it -- and a sense of everything being too carefully guided and arranged by Don Gaetano. The narrator lives in a world not so much with a 'king but no government', but rather a god and no government: left seemingly to his own devices, but in fact carefully guided most every step of the way (right down to his sexual initiation) -- and that with a sense of inevitability to it that suggests that personal fate is inescapable. It makes for an odd, mixed message -- and De Luca makes too much too easy for himself here.
       (There's also a problem with the female figures in the book, who seem all to be somehwere on the nutty-slut spectrum (apparently they are: "exalted because of the force inside them", and that leads them to ... overheated actions) and aren't good for much more than sex and causing trouble. There are no maternal figures in the narrator's life, and though apparently assigned a foster mother, she seems to have played absolutely no role in his life, other than enrolling him in school.)
       Some of the overblown writing is okay, but some is downright awful. Not typical, but perhaps the worst of it is:
She pushed her mouth so deep inside mine I felt it in my throat. My sex was a block of wood glued to her womb.
       But there's enough here that works that one can (try to) laugh off these missteps.
       De Luca writes with an easy confidence, suggesting he can do most anything: it makes for a good -- indeed, at times very, very good -- read. But grandioseness seems to get the better of him, and a lot here doesn't withstand closer scrutiny. Still, if one doesn't look too closely, much of The Day before Happiness is a hell of a read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 June 2012

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The Day before Happiness: Reviews: Erri De Luca: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Erri De Luca was born in 1950.

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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