Hector, a psychiatrist, helps unhappy people in search of happiness. His first tactic is to ask them “what does happiness mean to you?” He listens to them, helps them solve their own problems. He gives them pills when that is not enough. At the end of the day he goes home to his girlfriend, whom he loves but is not in love with. One day he realises that he doesn’t know what happiness looks like, that he is, in fact, less than happy himself. So he sets off on a quest. His journey takes him to China, Africa, and the USA and on the way he has many exciting adventures and learns many amazing things and attempts to capture them on paper. At the end of his journey he has defined 23 rules for happiness and so, on his return home, he lives happily ever after.
This first episode, in what is to become a series for Gallic Books, is all very jolly – except where it’s wistful and sad – and told in a very simplistic way which keeps the smile on the reader’s face, while dealing with existential problems. I certainly enjoyed the quirkiness for the first half. Then the charm wore thin and I suspected the narrator was spmewhat condescending. Either that or writing a book for young children – except no, some of the content is quite adult. So I’m back to being a trifle irritated. Why refer to locations by euphenism only? Los Angeles, for example is this city that was as big as a small country, right near the sea. That said the lessons on happiness are actually quite profound and the book is worth reading for that alone.
I won’t quote Hector’s 23 lessons but my answer to his question makes an appearance in rule 19. A summary of Hector’s findings is neatly captured in the following paragraph. (Look away if you don’t want spoilers.)
A university professor looked at Hector’s list and told him that, thanks to a lot of studies and calculations, they’d shown that if you compared yourself to others and didn’t find yourself wanting, if you had no money or health problems, if you had friends, a close-knit family, a job you liked, if you were religious and practised your religion, if you felt useful, if you went for a little stroll from time to time, and all of this in a country hat was run by not very bad people, where you were taken care of when things went wrong, your chances of being happy were greatly increased.
Hector did not go to Holland on his world trip but had he done so, and met the protagonist of Hansjörg Schertenleib’s novella, he may have spared himself a lot of bother.
Happiness writes white is an oft-quoted writerly maxim and in this novella Schertenleib sets out to prove that it is not true. With the epigraph, Fortuna Caeca Est (Fortune is blind – Cicero) Schertenleib introduces us to his 48-year old protagonist, a musician, married and still in love with his wife. A modest man, who is always smiling. That, in itself, is set to grate on others.
What’s that guy smiling about? Does he know something I don’t? Why are things going better for him than for me? A persn who’s always in a good mood is a challenge; someone who’s always smiling, a provocation. What could be worse than another person’s happiness? Not that his unhappiness would make us happy, but we need it in order to bear our own.
Such are the risks Schertenleib runs. Will his happy man irritate us in this way? It transpires that he’s not happy, merely content.
Everybody in this world has doubts, everybody carps and bellyaches but the contented man is king. He lives in peace, unlike the happy man. He doesn’t have to prove anything, not to himself or anybody else. He doesn’t feel called upon to convince anyone of anything, has nothing to fear.
But he does have moments of happiness. It came and found him in the moments when he forgot about himself. Moments when he is playing a gig, lost in music or time spent with his wife. The first half of the story shows him in such. The second half introduces moments of darkness. His wife, who clearly reciprocates his devotion, suffers from depression and his teenage daughter behaves in – well – typical teenage fashion. But the happy man takes it in his laid-back stride.
The technical problem Schertenleib had to solve is where to go with this modest tale of a contented chap. What would make it stand out? He solves this brilliantly with a foreshadowing leitmotiv involving his protagonist’s fearof dogs.
Schertenleib’s pen is sure, though obviously he never contemplated a translation into English. If he had, surely he have chosen a less confusing name for the happy man. This Studer makes for difficult reading.
Hector and The Search for Happiness
A Happy Man