Nearly everything about Curzio Malaparte—who wrote Kaputt and The Skin, two of the most memorable books about World War II—was bogus, starting with his name. He was born in the town of Prato in Tuscany in 1898, the son of an irascible German (and Protestant) father, Erwin Suckert, and a Tuscan mother. Originally the future writer was dubbed Kurt Erich but quickly that difficult Teutonic name was Italianized into Curzio. When he was in his twenties and already the author of a few published works, he decided to change his last name from Suckert to Malaparte because that sounded more Italian (in that way he was like Ettore Schmitz, who became Italo Svevo). Malaparte was also obviously an allusion to Bonaparte, the dark side of the good.
Although after World War II Malaparte was adroit in claiming that he had been a victim of the Fascists, in fact he had joined the party as early as 1922, shortly before the March on Rome, and had been an eager journalistic supporter and cultural mainstay of the regime until Mussolini put him under house arrest and sent him to the island of Lipari off the coast of Sicily in 1933. Later Malaparte would claim that he’d been arrested because he had opposed Mussolini, but in fact he never publicly criticized the dictator. He’d been arrested because he’d slandered a high government minister, the ace pilot Italo Balbo, saying that Balbo had become so physically and morally plump that he would have been a suitable minister under the nineteenth-century bourgeois French king, Louis-Philippe. As soon as these words, scribbled on the back of a postcard, were inevitably brought to Balbo’s attention by state censors, Malaparte was arrested and sentenced to five years on the island (eventually the sentence was reduced to several months). Mussolini loved to play cat-and-mouse with his followers, punishing them before restoring them to favor.
Malaparte’s active complicity with Mussolini was fairly constant and had started much earlier, in 1924–1925, when the dictatorship had first been declared. Giacomo Matteotti, a socialist deputy who was vocal in his denunciations of fascism, had been kidnapped and murdered. Mussolini (either correctly or incorrectly) had been blamed for the assassination—and many Fascists abandoned the party, outraged by the illegal, high-handed violence. Despite this forceful attack on his regime by members of his own party, Mussolini, supported by the king of Italy, now usurped parliamentary power and declared himself the sole ruler of the country. Malaparte, in a cool act of opportunism, testified in court on behalf of Mussolini at this crucial junction. The writer probably expected “Muss” (as he called him) to be grateful, but if so he failed to understand how short the dictator’s memory could be.
After the war Malaparte rewrote his role in this historical crisis, the most important one in Mussolini’s career, so that he appeared as an innocent opponent of the regime. No wonder that Malaparte came to be known as “Don Cameleon” (later the title of one of his books). At various points in his long life he became a playwright, a novelist, a polemicist, a journalist, and the editor of the leading newspaper La Stampa (the youngest in its history); he criticized Hitler initially but later endorsed him, sympathized with Stalinism, made a pilgrimage to Mao’s China and praised it, attacked the bourgeoisie of Tuscany—and ended up by joining the Catholic Church. In fact that was the most fascist thing about him—his admiration for brute power in whatever form it came. Otherwise he did not subscribe to right-wing nostalgia for the past or a veneration for the altar and throne, nor was he an anti-Semite or racist. He was in favor of syndicalism and belonged to the labor wing of the Fascist Party.
Malaparte was not unlike other literary buccaneers who came to prominence between the wars—Céline, for instance, or André Malraux or Pierre Drieu la Rochelle or Louis Aragon. But there were differences as well. Céline and Drieu were both anti-Semites and right-wing partisans; Malraux was so mercurial and such a liar and poseur that it was hard to say what he stood for, though he started off stealing Khmer antiquities and ended up De Gaulle’s minister of culture.
Malaparte knew some of these men and was certainly aware of the others since he was a Francophile. He gained prominence in France when he had trouble getting his work past the Italian censors, and lived for extended periods in Paris. To this day he is better known in France than in his native Italy. He supervised the translations of his own books into French and drove his translators wild with his revisions; his best friends were Marianne and Daniel Halévy, an intelligent, well-connected Parisian couple—Halévy was a historian of France’s Third Republic—who remained loyal to him throughout his stormy life.
The excellent new biography of Malaparte was written by an Italian in French, which in itself is emblematic of the novelist’s wide appeal. Maurizio Serra is the Italian ambassador to Unesco in Paris and also an astute writer fascinated by European figures of the first half of the twentieth century who, like Malaparte, are difficult to categorize or summarize. One of his recent books is Les Frères séparés: Drieu La Rochelle, Aragon, Malraux face à l’histoire, which examines these multifaceted personalities (to paraphrase Serra’s words): Drieu, the dandy, with one foot in fascism and the other in mysticism; Aragon, the Surrealist converted to communism who reverted in old age back to the sometimes homosexual libertinage of his youth; and Malraux, the youthful revolutionary who ended up a government minister in a double-breasted suit. Drieu may have committed suicide as the war was winding down partly because he feared reprisals for his participation in French fascism, but Aragon and Malraux were survivors no matter what regime was in power. They were more successful versions of what Malaparte aspired to be.
With one difference: though all three were brilliant writers none had the literary panache of Malaparte, the ability to create strong scenes, unforgettable visual tableaux, haunting moments of political horror that bypass historical exposition and scene-setting and condense all the tensions of the epoch. Which leads me back to his two masterpieces, Kaputt and The Skin.
It’s not quite clear whether these books are novels or works of nonfiction. In both there is a narrator named Malaparte who seems to be vouching, as an eyewitness, to the veracity of the often mythopoetic things he observes. If there is someone important in the vicinity, we feel sure that that person will invite Malaparte to dinner; he always has access to the rulers and deal-makers. The characters in these books will explain their often indefensible beliefs and actions to Malaparte in paragraph after paragraph of highly articulate dialogue. In a handsome bit of intertextuality, he has French officers discussing in The Skin whether one can believe anything in Kaputt. They’re about to enter and “liberate” Rome; they’ve just eaten a couscous lunch on the grass prepared by Moroccan soldiers:
“Do you want to know,” said Pierre Lyautey, “what Malaparte will say about this lunch of ours in his next book?” And he proceeded to give an extremely amusing description of a sumptuous banquet, the scene of which was not the heart of a wood on the high bank of the Lake of Albano but a hall in the Pope’s villa at Castel Gandolfo. Seasoning his discourse with a number of witty anachronisms, he described the porcelain crockery of Cesare Borgia, the silver ware of Pope Sixtus—the handiwork of Benvenuto Cellini—the golden chalices of Pope Julius II, and the papal footmen busying themselves about our table while a chorus of angel voices at the end of the hall intoned Palestrina’s “Super flumina Babylonis” in honor of General Guillaume and his gallant officers.
Malaparte the character has his revenge. While the meal was being prepared an imprudent Moroccan had stepped on a mine and had his hand neatly severed from his body. Now that the repast is coming to an end, Malaparte claims that he has eaten the hand, which found its way into the dish, but that until now he was too polite to mention it. His French hosts, looking at the bones, are sickened and turn green; only later does Malaparte reveal to a laughing American pal that he made the whole thing up and skillfully arranged a ram’s bones on his plate to resemble a hand. What’s interesting here is that Malaparte answers the accusation of lying by inventing another deceit.
Malaparte might be a narcissist, but he’s certainly not the boring kind. He exists as a presence in these two books but always as an observer in the background who refuses to condemn even the most savage acts. Some of his contemporaries criticized his coolness, but today we can appreciate that he presents rather than judges the horrors he encountered. He doesn’t try to experience our feelings for us.
The scenes covered by a single chapter are sometimes joined only by a poetic theme. For instance in The Skin there’s a chapter called “The Black Wind,” which begins with the narrator dreaming of a black wind while in Naples, though the location is thrown in only because the entire book nominally takes place there during the American occupation of 1943. But soon we’re in the Ukraine in 1941 and a real black wind, not a remembered one, is blowing constantly and blackening the landscape and all the animals, including Malaparte’s mount. As he rides through the opaque black wind he hears voices coming from above and eventually he sees that many ragged or naked Jews have been nailed to trees. They are in excruciating pain and scorn him for his pity “as a Christian” and beg him to shoot them through the head. He’s psychologically incapable of killing them and rides on in despair.
He sinks into a fever and when, a few days later, he has recovered and retraces his path, he sees that all the Jews crucified by the Nazis have died. Now, instead of moaning, the crucified victims have fallen into a terrible silence. By a bit of legerdemain Malaparte tells us he recognized that silence, which he experienced much earlier during his Mussolini-imposed exile on Lipari where his only friend was his dog Febo. The animal becomes his best friend and sole comfort on the island. Then one day Malaparte and Febo are abruptly transferred to Pisa. Febo goes out for his daily exercise and never returns. Malaparte scours the city for him and eventually discovers that he’s been kidnapped and sold to the veterinary clinic at the university. Poor dying Febo is all trussed up and his stomach has been exposed for an experiment. Malaparte wonders why none of the dogs is barking and the vet tells him that the first thing they do is to cut their vocal chords.
In the space of a few pages we’ve moved from Naples to the Ukraine to Lipari and Pisa—and backward in time from 1943 to 1940 to 1933. And these disparate tales have been strung together on the slender threads of the black wind and the deafening silence, and the grotesquely parallel deaths of the Jews and the dogs.
What sort of writing is this? We scarcely believe the crucifixion scene, at least in this highly stylized El Greco version, and Serra tells us not to believe the more plausible-sounding details of his house arrest in Lipari. In The Skin he says he was taken in chains to the island but in fact he traveled untrammeled with his mother and two policemen. While there he could read, write, listen to the radio, receive letters from friends—and write an unpublishable collection of invectives against Muss, whom he calls “The Great Imbecile.” There is a bit of duplicity even in the publishing history of his two books. Malaparte pretended that he’d finished Kaputt in the fall of 1943 but in fact he hadn’t prepared it for publication until the spring of 1944; by falsifying the dates he wanted to suggest that he’d written the book before the fall of Mussolini and the Allied landing so that he would look like an early, eager anti-Fascist.
What sort of man was Malaparte? He usually had a mistress but never married, even though Mussolini made it clear that unless he married the dictator would never appoint him ambassador (Malaparte’s fondest wish). He liked men and could be a regular guy with them, but he could not sustain a friendship with a man. He seemed even less capable of becoming close to a woman, though he was famous as a womanizer. His dog was his dearest friend. Calling him a narcissist seems warranted since he wrote a book called A Woman Like Me and built a spectacular house cantilevered out over a cliff in Capri called “House Like Me.” He seemed a narcissist in that he could spend three hours every day doing his toilette. One critic said of Malaparte that “at every wedding he wanted to be the bride and at every funeral the dear departed.” An enemy said, “He loved his mother and luxury hotels,” though in fact he was fairly stoic and certainly courageous (he fought some twenty duels and was severely injured in several). He rigorously maintained his figure—he was six feet tall and weighed 162 pounds—though as he grew older he let himself go; a French writer noted that in his last years he had the bloated face of an emperor disgusted by his spaghetti.
Although his Fascist allegiances were a bad career move, nevertheless his fame has continued to grow in Europe. Milan Kundera has written admiringly about him as has Dominique Fernandez, and Bernard Henri-Lévy carried Kaputt with him into the siege of Sarajevo. Margaret Atwood is a major fan in the New World; maybe she is drawn to his combination of high political seriousness and mythology.
It’s difficult to pin down precedents for or influences on Malaparte. Serra tells us that Malaparte admired Chateaubriand, and we can see that Chateaubriand’s bifocal trick of remembering his years as a starving émigré in London while decades later he is the overfed French ambassador to London would have appealed to Malaparte. But there are few models for his blend of autobiographical realism and grotesque fantasy unless it is Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night with its boatload of angry French colonials heading toward the coast of Africa and plotting to kill Céline, or the ghostly corridors of a New York hotel, the Laugh Calvin; from his window Céline watches the men in the rooms opposite shave at night without removing the cigars from their mouths.
But whereas Céline is always complaining and paranoid, Malaparte is discreet, urbane. His vision is Baroque, terrifying, unruffled. In Kaputt, his book about the war on the Eastern Front and Finland, there is a grotesque scene worthy of Visconti’s The Damned in which a German “king” of Poland (appointed by the Nazis) invites all his guests to visit the Kraków ghetto, which he is convinced is far more humane than the Western press would suggest. At a certain point a German soldier fires his gun; he explains to the German king of Poland that he’s shooting at a “rat.” The rat, it turns out, is a Jewish child.
In The Skin the people of Naples are selling black American soldiers to other Neapolitans (without the soldiers knowing about it). They are valuable because of their PX privileges—and because they are generous with their pay, especially to the Italian girls they’re courting. This strange parody of buying and selling black slaves is presented but not commented on.
In another scene a puritanical Mrs. Flat, an officer in the WACS, is being welcomed to Naples with a big banquet. She is longing to partake in a true “Renaissance” repast so they have added to the usual Spam and powdered milk a fish course. Throughout the meal they keep hearing that the fish course will be a “siren.” At last, to everyone’s horror, a boiled little girl is served up with a fish tail attached to her body. Revulsed, the Americans refuse to eat the child, though they’re assured it’s a real mermaid from the city’s aquarium. It turns out that even to this day Neapolitans talk about how the occupying American army, which had forbidden them to fish lest they trigger mines laid by the Germans, ate all the rare species from the aquarium.
Perhaps the most beautiful (if grotesque and equally implausible) scene occurs in Kaputt. The Finnish army pursues the Soviet cavalry through the forest, which they set on fire. A thousand Russian horses, running from the conflagration, plunge into the lake, which in a moment freezes over. The next day only the horses’ heads are visible floating above the water. Later, on a Sunday, locals would go down to the water and sit on the horses’ heads and play an accordion and sing.
These haunting tableaux (and I’ve mentioned only a few) occur again and again in these two books. Fantastic though they may be, they are symbols adequate to the horrors of the war; they are in the same league as Goya’s Saturn devouring his son or his Disasters of War.
In the past the French would half-grudgingly, half-admiringly refer to “American-style biographies,” meaning these big all-inclusive lives that cover every significant detail in the life and work of a subject. Now Europeans are turning out these books as well, though perhaps they prefer to refer to them as “scientific” biographies. Another recent example is René de Ceccatty’s informative and evocative life of Alberto Moravia, also written in French,1 or Claude Arnaud’s meticulous life of Jean Cocteau.2 Certainly they are no longer the usual “studies” of the past of writers and thinkers, slender meditations on their creative contributions.
Maurizio Serra gives us a congenial insider’s view of Malaparte. As an Italian diplomat he understands how to do research into the archives of the Fascist years. He understands the complex Italian social realities that Malaparte’s life touched on and explored. He has a sophisticated and complicated view of Mussolini, whom he never confuses with the strutting caricature invented by his enemies. He presents the dictator as a micromanager who personally appointed every dogcatcher, absorbed every crumb of information brought to his huge empty office in the Palazzo Venezia, never forgot a slight and seldom rewarded a service, a man who read everything, feared and disliked Hitler—in short, a fascinating figure who should be the subject of a later Serra biography.
Although Malaparte only met Mussolini five or six times face to face, the two men were obsessed with each other. Perhaps Malaparte dramatized this obsession best in his friendship with the dictator’s glamorous son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, and Mussolini’s daughter Edda. In Kaputt Malaparte devotes an entire long chapter, “Golf Handicaps,” to the last idyllic days of the Fascist elite, with Count Ciano’s world right out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald story of boating and cocktails and adultery and beautiful clothes.