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Curzio Malaparte, 1949 (Photo by KEYSTONE-FRANCE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Curzio Malaparte: Self-love among the ruins

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Essay | 17 minute read
An editor, polemicist, satirist and war correspondent, Curzio Malaparte was also a fascist who made his name and reputation in the service of Mussolini's barbaric regime. Yet there is something dazzling in his writing that retains its value, argues one writer.

Half Aztec temple, half Modernist living-machine, the Casa Malaparte stands alone on a rocky, sea-lashed promontory that juts out towards the mainland at the eastern edge of the island of Capri. You may recognise this house even if you have never heard of the dashing, gifted but bedevilled Italian writer who had it built according to own plans, after a quarrel with the architect he hired. In Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film Le Mépris (Contempt), the warring couple played by Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli strut and spar across the villa’s vast rooftop patio.

In this Homeric spot, a monstrous movie mogul (Jack Palance) tries to produce a shambolic adaptation of the Odyssey directed by the great Fritz Lang (acted by Lang himself). The sun hammers down on this austere avant-garde hideaway; vast monumental steps rise up to the rooftop stage; the waves of the Bay of Naples surge and swell, as does Georges Delerue’s lush soundtrack. People remember the Casa Malaparte, and Bardot in her glory as queen of this eerie outpost, long after they forget the film’s plot.

Later ad campaigns have exploited that terrace, that flight of steps. To promote the label’s spring 2018 collection, Kate Moss recently did a shoot here for Yves Saint Laurent. The villa served as the poster image for the 2016 Cannes film festival. Curzio Malaparte (1898–1957), the attention-seeking loner and celebrity-mad maverick who constructed it in the years after 1937, would no doubt have appreciated its lasting allure for the A-list.

Yet, as with so much that Malaparte did and wrote, a large part of the villa’s effect arises from theatrical sleight-of-hand. His grand designs, which more than doubled the original estimate of the cost, never factored in the location and the climate. Salt winds and waves began to degrade the fabric almost as soon as Malaparte moved in. It took long years of conservation to restore his solitary palace to a stage fit for a new generation of film-stars and supermodels. Malaparte called his cherished, gale-lashed home ‘Casa come me’, a house like me. With its splendid, heroic face to the world, hiding an interior chilly, bare and prone to decay, the clifftop house on Cape Massullo arguably does hold up a mirror to its maker.

Brigitte Bardot on the set of director Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, 1963 (‘Le Mepris’) (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Bruce Chatwin, who saluted a sort of kindred spirit in Malaparte when he wrote about this place for Vanity Fair in 1984, summed up the villa as ‘Self-love among the ruins’. As editor, polemicist, satirist, front-line war correspondent and creator of dazzling, shocking ‘non-fiction novels’ decades before the term existed, Malaparte took the human and physical ruins of Europe in the age of Mussolini, Hitler and genocidal warfare as his principal theme. He certainly displayed plenty of self-love. Behind the façade, however, as in the bleak chambers of the villa, we may detect emptiness, self-doubt, even self-disgust. This consummate opportunist, after all, had made his name and reputation in the service of a brutal and barbaric regime.

Malaparte was a Fascist. That statement holds good even if we accept (against the evidence) his later claims to have dissented at an early stage from Mussolini’s path of blood and terror. Whether he ever believed sincerely in the Duce’s totalitarian mish-mash is another matter. Malaparte made a career out of masks and poses, not intimate confessions. As a swaggering intellectual dandy, he talked the Fascist talk and walked the Fascist walk with a zest and zeal that far surpassed mere prudence or conformism. As the tide turned against the Axis powers in the latter half of the Second World War, this canny chameleon rebranded himself as a fearless anti-fascist rebel, a persecuted truth-teller and a fervent advocate of communist equality, American-style democracy and/or Catholic piety – Malaparte liked to cover all possible bases. At the end of his life, he even flirted with Mao’s China – another total system built on a seductive big idea.

In reality, Fascism had made him. The movement cleared his path to success as the author and editor born Kurt Erich Suckert – the son of a German textile merchant who had settled in Prato, Tuscany, with a Milanese wife – sought to establish himself. After courageous service in the First World War, Suckert – whose pseudonym, ‘Malaparte’, ironically nods to that other almost-Italian hero, Napoleon Bonaparte – became an enfant terrible of a writer-activist: a super-patriotic modernist dandy. For all his occasional squabbles with the regime, the Italian dictatorship would shower him with jobs and favours over the coming years. His biographer Maurizio Serra concludes that ‘the Duce always showed signs of considerable indulgence towards him, you might even say of rough affection, if that word can apply to Mussolini. And not only during the 1920s and 1930s but, literally, up to the eve of his downfall, on 25 July 1943’ (my translation).

In the Anglophone world, we now demand virtue from authors – living or dead – and hunt down their private misdeeds with punitive severity. Various literary giants of the twentieth century cower in the dock of posterity, arraigned both for their words and (alleged) deeds. If, however, you take as your yardstick for toppling the greats of the past the level of casual prejudice found (for instance) in Philip Larkin’s letters, then the case of Malaparte shoots right off the scale. Mussolini and his entourage did the writer so many good turns – the editorship of La Stampa; funding for a glossy cultural magazine; ultra-lenient treatment after he had clashed with a faction among the Duce’s henchmen; diplomatic postings; embedded wartime access as a journalist to the Axis high command – not out of benevolence but as a reward. Apart from his militant support for the Fascist ‘revolution’ after Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1922, and his craving to fill the role of house intellectual for the regime, Malaparte had made one move that still echoes – many would say, still stinks – today.

In June 1924, Fascist squadristi – street-fighting bully-boys – had kidnapped and murdered a brave opposition politician, Giacomo Matteotti. Malaparte knew one of killers, a sadistic thug named Amerigo Dumini. He went to court (twice) to testify in this murderous hooligan’s defence by stating that the gang had only wanted to frighten their victim. The Matteotti killing was a turning point. It had shown the true face of Fascism to the world, and shook Italy to the point that Mussolini’s overthrow for a while looked imminent. The Duce’s literary crony helped him out of the tightest of spots. Mussolini, surely, never forgot. Later, from the time that Allied victory looked inevitable, Malaparte forever crowed about his arrest in 1933, his jail spells and his exile on the island of Lipari. In reality, he had served a few brief months of ‘confino’ after he crossed the Blackshirt leader and star aviator Italo Balbo, then returned for a period of cushy house arrest in the Tuscan resort of Forte dei Marmi. There he hung out with his chums Galeazzo Ciano, Italy’s playboy foreign minister, and Ciano’s wife: Mussolini’s own daughter, Edda.

Typically, when in 1946 Malaparte had to prove his anti-fascist credentials, he bent the truth by claiming that he had denounced Dumini. Whereas his role in the affair remains (in Serra’s words) ‘the most enduring stain on his reputation’. So here we have a writer who, for at least a decade, lent his pen and mind to a savage tyranny not as a naive fellow traveller but an ideological activist who sought a gilded seat at the state’s top table. Worse: when the Fascist regime tottered and might have collapsed, he stepped in to secure its survival. All of which puts the latest literary Twitter gaffe into some sort of perspective.

Yet I believe that Malaparte was a great writer by any standards and that his twin masterpieces – Kaputt and The Skin – rank as two of the most irresistibly powerful works to emerge from the Second World War. The trouble readers, publishers and even librarians still have in assigning them a genre – documentary fiction?; non-fiction novels; creative reportage?; autofiction? – bears witness in itself to the capacity of modern conflict to overturn every principle of order, in literature as much as politics and ethics.

Before Chatwin and Ryszard Kapuscinski, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, Emmanuel Carrère and V.S. Naipaul, Malaparte affirmed through his ambiguous art that, for any writer-witness, the line between setting things down and making things up may prove well-nigh impossible to hold. In extreme circumstances, pursuit of the truth may mandate imagination as well as observation. Did a row of crucified, but still-living, Jews curse Malaparte when he rode past them in the ‘black wind’ of Nazi-occupied Ukraine, refusing to end their agony by shooting them? Probably not. Still, this scene, like many in Kaputt and The Skin, sears itself indelibly into the reader’s memory – and, perhaps, nightmares.

Casa Malaparte, designed by Curzio Malaparte, on Capri island, Campania, Italy (Photo by: Giuseppe Greco/REDA&CO/UIG via Getty Images)

Confronted with an author of vision or genius who holds abhorrent views or serves unjust authorities, readers who love the books but hate the politics tend to react in one of three ways. We can separate the writer from the work, and leave the unhappy creator to their biographical folly, bigotry or madness – as with the poet Ezra Pound’s own, much more erratic, sympathy for Italian Fascism – while rescuing the creation for some ideal realm of truth and beauty. We can hope that time and change will erase the missteps of the artist and preserve the wisdom of the words: ‘Time that with this strange excuse’, as W.H. Auden’s elegy for Yeats puts it, ‘Pardoned Kipling and his views,/ And will pardon Paul Claudel’ – the conservative poet who, after France fell, backed the German stooge Marshal Pétain – ‘Pardons him for writing well’. Or we can maintain that the works contradict or undermine the views – that the Kipling who bangs a drum in public for the imperialism of the Raj in India then finds refuge in stories and poems where forbidden realities can thrive.

None of these saving gambits works with Malaparte. His aesthete’s appreciation of power and its enforcement – in politics, war and revolution – never wavered. This taste for force as a kind of art led him to seek out the places and the people where he might best study it, up close and very personal: the circles of Mussolini himself and of Edda and Galeazzo Ciano; the elite of Soviet Russia just as Stalin took control; the killing fields of the Eastern Front in 1941–43; war-ravaged Naples and Rome as the American conquest announced the arrival of a new world order.

The artistic impulses that made Malaparte prey to fascinating Fascism stand at the incandescent core of his imagination. In his hot-headed youth, if not later, he shared, and nourished, Fascist aesthetics: the near-mystical cult of sacrifice and heroism; the neo-classical, hyper-masculine modernism; the fetishism of nation, war, death and even cruelty. When he gazed into the abyss, he was looking into himself. Whether in Ukraine, as the SS massacres villagers, in Finland, as Russian prisoners perish from cold and hunger in the ‘winter war’, in Poland, where the genocidal Nazi Governor Frank goes shooting Jews in the ghetto, or in Naples itself – just across the bay from Casa Malaparte – as a total breakdown of laws and values leads parents to sell their children to the Allied troops, he finds a front-row seat for spectacles of almost unendurable horror.

A whiff of sulphur has always clung to Malaparte. But the patchy translation of his many books has left English-speaking readers with only a partial picture of this incendiary figure. There is no accessible English edition, for example, of his Technique of the Coup d’Etat (1931), a Machiavelli-like comparative study of the Bolshevik and Fascist takeovers that implicitly brackets the two movements together and so annoyed Mussolini (whom it also flatters). Largely driven by Kaputt (1944) and The Skin (1949), a broad spectrum of writers have nonetheless voiced a sometimes grudging or guilty admiration for his work.

In recent years, they include Margaret Atwood and Edmund White. Now New York Review Books (who also publish Kaputt and The Skin) have issued Jenny McPhee’s new translation of The Kremlin Ball. With the other two works, it composes a sort of informal trilogy about power and its abuses on the front-lines of twentieth-century politics and warfare. This novel – or perhaps semi-fictional reportage, ‘material for a novel’ – was prompted by Malaparte’s visit to Moscow as a well-connected correspondent in 1929. Yet he only composed it in the later 1940s, as he tried to cosy up to the Stalin-supporting Communists in Italy. It remained unfinished and unedited.

 

In Moscow, a mere dozen years after the October Revolution, Malaparte identifies the upper echelons of the Bolshevik government as a new ‘Marxist nobility’. For him, the party elite has already morphed, or decayed, into a ‘corrupt ruling class’. Always a crashing snob and an inveterate name-dropper, Malaparte adores what he condemns. He hobnobs with ballerinas, poets, apparatchiks, professors, artists and even leftover relics of the Tsarist aristocracy – some of whom have adapted shrewdly to the Soviet era. In Moscow’s foyers, salons, restaurants and palaces, he scrutinises ‘the tragic sunset of a revolutionary society’, and has a whale of a time doing so. Proustian drawing-room intrigue joins acid-tongued satirical takedowns and rich character-sketches: for instance of Florinsky, the (real) chief of protocol for the foreign ministry. This camp, snobbish gay aesthete flounces around Moscow like some cartoon of turn-of-the-century decadence, ‘sophisticated, spirited, gossipy, grudge-holding’, and yet a loyal servant of the Soviet state. As Russia’s ‘unrealisable Utopia’ fades into fantasy, and Stalin waits in the wings to clear away this hedonistic Bolshevik bohemia, Malaparte shows that new elites quickly mimic the vices of old ones. The style may summon Proust, but the insight recalls Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Above all, though, Malaparte challenges this party ‘nobility’ not simply because it copies the faults of the ruling class it ousted, but because its doctrines deny the deepest currents of human nature. If, by the late 1940s, Malaparte was keen to build bridges with the Stalinists – rather than the ‘Trotskyist’ gang he burlesques in this book – he also angled for the goodwill of the Church in Italy. In The Kremlin Ball, the atheist author bows despite himself to the sovereign power of faith in human hearts. He argues that the aggressive godlessness of the USSR only strengthens the hand of traditional belief: ‘here one was able to feel the presence of God more than in Europe’. Soviet Communism, he notes, has nothing to say about death – despite its religion of mass sacrifice for the common good. Or rather, ‘Communism replaced the Western fear of death with the shame of death’. He finds that same shame in the cosmetic beautification of the corpse practised in capitalist America, that ‘country of the rich and happy dead’. Secular creeds, Marxism among them, can do nothing in the face of ‘the supreme wretchedness, the supreme nakedness, the supreme loneliness, the supreme degradation of death’.

Kaputt and The Skin are both grotesque festivals of death: carnivals of mortality in which industrialised warfare finds ever-more ingenious and harrowing ways to torment and fragment the human body. The atrocities that Malaparte records, and poetically embroiders, in no way exceed the actualities of the Eastern Front. Indeed, his battlefield tours from 1941 to 1943 predated the full implementation of the ‘Final Solution’ in the extermination camps. Instead, the genocidal violence he observes tends to unfold as intimate, face-to-face crimes.

Take the Jewish girls enslaved in a military brothel in Moldova, raped by 43 soldiers in one day (one victim reports that ‘The physical exhaustion was worse than the disgust’), then discarded to be shot after a few weeks of agony. Malaparte might have fabricated his visit to these particular slaves, although their fate was real, and common, enough. However, if he did drop in on this backwater of hell and coolly take notes for his reportage from its abused victims, then veracity might be more culpable than fiction.

Reading Malaparte can be, to say the least, a queasy experience. He implicates the reader in his own deep complicity – uniforms, passports, top-brass patrons, officers-mess dinners and all – with the routines of evil. Critics sometimes blame him for inventing too much and checking too little. Yet you end up hoping that he did manufacture, or at least exaggerate, the most horrific episodes – just as, in The Skin, he playfully admits to rearranging rams’ bones so as to convince his appalled American comrades that he had just eaten a human hand (with couscous garnish).

Malaparte, for whom the bare human skin stripped of soul, home or hope has become ‘the true flag of us all’, yearns to report from the heart of darkness because he knows that darkness lies inside as well. However strained the relationship of report to event in Kaputt and The Skin, the notorious set-pieces of these books – the horses trapped head-deep in the Finnish ice, the Croatian dictator who serves him a bowl of human eyeballs, the children peddled for a few dollars to US or French-Moroccan troops as Naples sinks into ‘an inferno of degradation’ – crystallise into ghastly epitomes of the types of cruelty and suffering that Malaparte had undoubtedly witnessed.

On a practical level, he could never have come so close to the lowest circles of hell without his hybrid accreditation from Mussolini (and later from the Allied forces in Italy) as reporter, diplomat and officer – as a correspondent in uniform. On an emotional plane, his attraction to the baroque extremities of total war, as ‘the grace of Europe’ expired in ‘a heap of putrid flesh’, drives him to inhabit the minds, even souls, of the licensed slaughterers, torturers and rapists as no squeamish liberal ever could. Did Governor Frank actually take pot-shots at ghetto Jews in Warsaw in Malaparte’s company? Perhaps not. On the other hand, Malaparte’s chilling account of Frank, the witty, cultivated butcher of Poland, convinces because the officer-reporter (for Corriera della Sera) enjoys his observation-post in the belly of the Nazi beast.

The arrival of Hungarian Jews in Auschwitz-Birkenau, June 1944 (Photo by Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)

We may not believe Malaparte when, in The Skin, he shows the US general Mark Clark being served a dead girl at a dinner in starving Naples. He likes to confess to the odd leg-pull, and hints that the ‘poor boiled child’ is a rare fish from the raided aquarium. However, scores of hideously memorable details in these books of embellished actuality ring absolutely true. Only Malaparte will tell you what the elite chambers of the Third Reich smell like as Nazi bigwigs refurbish castles and mansions during their rampage across Europe: ‘a cloying odour of fresh paint, new leather and newly polished wood’.

A vainglorious narcissist, embedded up to his own eyeballs in the hierarchies of Fascist and Nazi domination, Malaparte proves beyond almost any of his European peers that a major writer can betray truth and justice to build his own myth, and save his own skin. But then he showed little respect for the bulk of his fellow-humans. He preferred the company of his beloved dog Febo, ‘the dearest of brothers to me’, to the succession of lovers who briefly intruded on his ascetic and disciplined habits. Yet a ‘nicer’ Malaparte – more humane, more principled, more responsible – would hardly have consorted so eagerly with the demons of his age, nor sent back those phosphorescent missives from Europe’s wartime pit of fire. We still need his testimony. It takes us closer to the molten core of modern evil than any apostle of virtue and moderation ever could.

In The Kremlin Ball, Malaparte enjoys the services in Moscow of an attentive, even doting official minder: a smart young Georgian called Marika. Just as Malaparte always shows himself flooring statesmen and generals with his rapier wit, he pretends that every woman will swoon at his irresistible charm. So it is with Marika, although his ‘bourgeois’ posturing infuriates as much as amuses her. ‘You pig, you dirty pig,’ she – half-affectionately – scolds him, in English. His readers will often feel the same way in the face of some outrageous Malaparte stunt. ‘You pig, you dirty pig,’ indeed. But history made the dirt that stained him. History, too, would erode his memory just as the salt winds of Capri ate into the walls of Casa Malaparte. Perhaps it’s time for curious readers – not just art directors and fashion houses – to climb those steps and discover his unsettling legacy.

The Kremlin Ball, Kaputt and The Skin are all published by New York Review Books Classics.

Boyd Tonkin’s 100 Best Novels in Translation is published in late June (Galileo Publishers)