Heartwood 2:8 – A Happy Man

A Happy Man
by Hansjörg Schertenleib (1957 – )
93 pgs.  Melville House, 2009.
Trans. by David Dollenmayer.

A Happy Man is a gem of a book for those who like brief, tightly constructed stories with lyrical language and likeable characters engaging in snappy repartee.

At the center of the story is a jazz trumpeter named This Studer who goes to Amsterdam to perform in an old friend’s quintet. His wife Daniela accompanies him, but eventually she feels the need to return to work in her pottery studio. Staying at home is their teenage daughter Anna, who has recently entered a surly and difficult stage.

The book unfolds as a lively blend of family, friends, reminiscence, and art – what art is and how to make it, as well as the art of living. As the title indicates, the book is also interested in the question of happiness. Some of the most intimate scenes include This’s grandfather, who mentored him into the world of jazz. The narrative moves back and forth in time and includes a significant event in This’s youth which haunts him and becomes important later in the novella.

A Happy Man captivated me with its interesting characters and ideas, its sure-handed storytelling, and its poetic prose. As an example of the latter, we get this detail in a description of the grandfather’s trumpet: “the bell had a little dent that gathered the light the way low ground collects water.”

A Happy Man is such a fine, memorable, and completely satisfying read that you may want to read it twice.

 *

Bonus read-alike: for another fine piece of writing that addresses art and happiness take a look at the 8-page story “Notes from Underground” by Mu Xin in his excellent collection The Empty Room.

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