The Skin BY Curzio Malaparte. edited by David Moore, Rachel Kushner. New York: New York Review Books. 368 pages. $16.

The cover of The Skin

In October 1980, the Czech astronomer Z. Vávrová of the Klet’ Observatory at Ceske Budejovice discovered planet number 03479, a celestial body the size of a large asteroid, in the nether reaches of the cosmos. The astronomer named it after his favorite writer, Curzio Malaparte. A literary homage drifting in outer space would have appealed to a writer who inhabited an unclassifiable planet of his own, a writer known for ingenious deceptions, morbid hilarity, and what one might call heartfelt insincerity.

However engaged he became in the splendors and miseries of the sad century he lived in, Malaparte carried himself with an air of antic dignity, an almost posthumous detachment redolent of a cosmic private joke. He embraced ideas with the grip of an octopus and abandoned them as casually as Kleenex.

In the many photographs taken of him—reviewing troops in Ethiopia, strutting in jodhpurs at the Russian front, fencing with the Futurist Mario Carli—Malaparte’s expressions suggest perplexity and seriousness. His face resents the camera, as if it were interrupting matters of vast importance. He bears a marked resemblance to the German actor Kurt Raab. These fierce looks belie a personality reputed to be oversize, gregarious, playfully argumentative, a bit catlike. His books reveal an addiction to name-dropping. He had the habit, common among the well-to-do, of relating intricately detailed, nauseating anecdotes while others were eating dinner.

Screen-star handsome, sardonic, disarmingly droll enough to charm the feathers off a peacock—Malaparte had the lethal fascination of a cobra. His impeccable manners and easy grace marked him as a born aristocrat, which he wasn’t.

Curzio Malaparte was born Kurt Erich Suckert in Prato in 1898. His German Protestant father manufactured textiles. His Catholic mother was a great Milanese beauty. His mixed parentage, he claimed, made him feel less than completely Italian; in compensation, his work features a proprietary chauvinism rarely found in that of his contemporaries.

His most relaxed and amiable book, Those Cursed Tuscans (1956), is a mischievously needling celebration of the Etruscans and their descendants. Those who have spent time in Prato will recognize the veracity of some of Malaparte’s most hyperbolic arias:

And there is nothing—absolutely nothing—which the people of Prato cannot turn into a profit, beginning with the rags that arrive at Prato from every part of the world. They come from Asia, Africa, both the Americas, Australia: and the filthier, viler, sleazier and more flea-ridden these rags are, the more precious they seem in the eyes of a people that has learned how to enrich itself out of the refuse of the whole earth.

At fourteen, he began writing poetry. Early verses celebrated, among other things, the Italian annexation of Libya.

Two years later, he joined the Italian Alpine regiment, fighting the Germans in France, an experience recounted decades later in Il Sole è cieco (1947), a deflationary corrective to Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel (1920) and Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire (1917). Missing from Jünger’s and Barbusse’s novels (ideologically opposite, equally “committed” in repulsive ways) is what Malaparte finds obvious: the fantastic unnaturalness of war, its existential incredibility.

He served the full four years, a cadre of the Fasci d’Azione. His lungs were damaged in a chemical-weapon attack in the battle of Bligny.

Malaparte acted as press coordinator at the Versailles Conference, which had to have sharpened his sense of absurdity (cf. John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace [1920]). He then served as attaché to the Italian ambassador to Poland. He filed daily reportage to L’Idea Nazionale and Il Giornale. In 1922, he began contributing to Fascist publications. Patriots of a certain vintage welcomed his first book, La Rivolta dei santi maledetti, by smashing hundreds of bookshop windows, because Malaparte defended the 350,000 Italian troops who deserted from the battle of Caporetto after a mustard gas bombing.

In 1924, he launched a Fascist weekly, La Conquista dello Stato. The Fascist cause had begun to splinter, partly in reaction to the murder of Socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti, presumably the work of Mussolini’s squadristi.

In January 1925, Mussolini preempted investigation of the Matteotti affair by assembling the Chamber of Deputies and declaring a dictatorship. Just after that, Kurt Erich Suckert began going by the name Curzio Malaparte—“bad part,” as if proclaiming his role as an irritant to the state.

Malaparte’s reputation has been colored by a false impression of his involvement with the Fascist state. In fact, his relations with it were mostly adversarial. Malaparte acted for a time as a theorist of Fascism; he participated, somewhat comically, in the polemical warfare between strapaese (Fascists advocating a return to bucolic life and traditional values) and stracittà (those favoring Mussolini’s state-shaping schemes by means of technology and urbanization). Consistently inconsistent, he wrote articles for the strapaese journal Il Selvaggio arguing one side of the question while simultaneously launching 900, a journal supporting the policies of the stracittà.

He had access to the powerful, including Mussolini, but that wasn’t unusual in a society where artists and writers enjoyed at least as much status as politicians, if not actual power. Mussolini distrusted him, and Malaparte reciprocated. He thought Fascism could get along without a dictator. Later, he concluded that Italy could get along without Fascism.

Despite the many editorships and publishing boards he circulated through in the ’20s and ’30s, Malaparte had no significant role in Mussolini’s regime, and negligible relevance to Fascism’s theoretical permutations.

Malaparte retained a pragmatic, honorary allegiance to Fascism, as many Italian writers did; some survived by avoiding overt political statements in their work. Malaparte’s case is more complicated. His egotism repeatedly drew him back into one kind of complicity or another. Yet his compulsive candor invariably got him in trouble. In effect, he repeatedly failed to compromise himself, even when he tried.

He withdrew from politics entirely for several years, managing a publishing house and editing a daily Neapolitan newspaper. He published books of poetry. He assumed directorship of La Stampa in Turin, owned by the proto-Taylorist Fiat manufacturer Giovanni Agnelli. He traveled throughout the USSR and Eastern Europe and wrote two books about Lenin.

In 1932, Malaparte published Coup d’État: The Technique of Revolution. In Coup d’État, he views the state as an industrial machine that any determined individual or faction could operate, a gear works lubricated by human labor. Malaparte speculates that a figure like Max Bauer, a key strategist behind the Kapp Putsch in Germany in 1920, might have derailed Louis Bonaparte’s coup d’état on 18 Brumaire; he dissects Trotsky’s mistakes in his struggle with Stalin.

Coup d’État’s neutral exegesis is a model of clarity, but its chapter on Mussolini, withering and flattering by turns, enraged Il Duce. Malaparte saw the wisdom of an extended trip to Paris, where his journals recorded his estrangement in a country in which, as an Italian, he was often suspected of being a spy. (Diario di uno straniero a Parigi remained unpublished until 1966.)

A still-obscure contretemps between Malaparte and Italo Balbo resulted in the former being convicted on charges of slander and defamation and exiled to the island of Lipari, off the coast of Sicily. Balbo, Italy’s hero of long-distance aviation, moonlighted as a squadristi assassin. He had the dash of Lindbergh and the morals of a flea. Mussolini appointed Balbo air minister but later hustled him out of the country by making him governor of Libya, after discovering the vast extent of his financial chicanery.

A popular story claims that the real reason Malaparte was banished to Lipari was for criticizing Mussolini’s neckties; if such stories concerned irrefutably stable personalities, they would sound insane. But dictators generally follow the advice William S. Burroughs has one judge offer another: “If you can’t be just, be arbitrary.”

Malaparte spent a year on Lipari. In The Skin (1949), he fumes about his sufferings in exile, defending himself against the ridicule of some young Communists. Alberto Moravia’s autobiography, however, states that “the arrest was a joke. . . . Malaparte saw his friends, his women, strolled along the beach in a bathing suit, holding his Lipari greyhound on a leash.”

Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law, faciliated his friend Malaparte’s transfer to Ischia; Malaparte considered buying a house there before his sentence was commuted to house arrest at Forte dei Marmi in Tuscany—a location too enviably splendid to be considered exile.

Released from custody in 1935, Malaparte founded Prospettive, a monthly journal, two years later. The first phase of its publication championed Mussolini’s regime; Malaparte needed to get back into the public eye. In this instance, playing the strumpet had salubrious results.

Prospettive restored Malaparte’s visibility and useful contacts within the regime. Rehabilitation enabled him to transform Prospettive into an important outlet for the most progressive and experimental modernist literature.

The revamped Prospettive ranged across international boundaries. It published works by Claudel, Apollinaire, Picasso, Beckett, Giraudoux, Breton, Éluard, Montale, Lorca, Rilke, Sartre, Heidegger, Morante, Landolfi, Joyce, Hesse, Eliot, Pavese, and Moravia. It featured essays on Lawrence, Gide, Freud, Kafka, Cézanne, Lautréamont, Rimbaud, and other, emphatically “European” voices.

Curzio Malaparte on the set of Il Cristo probito, ca. 1950.
Curzio Malaparte on the set of Il Cristo probito, ca. 1950.

In the late ’30s, Malaparte acquired property on Capri, intending to build a house. The writer redesigned every detail of his planned villa after disputes with the architect, Adalberto Libera, ended in an impasse. With the contractor Adolfo Amitrano and Amitrano’s two sons, Malaparte built the place himself.

In The Skin, Malaparte relates that when German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel visited him on Capri, the Desert Fox asked if the writer had designed the house. “No,” Malaparte replied. “I created the scenery.” Malaparte had likely rehearsed this response to a yearned-for query for years in his bathroom mirror; it was too good a line to throw away, so he simply invented a visit from Rommel that never occurred.

Casa Malaparte bears a glancing resemblance to certain naval vessels used in the American Civil War: a long, slightly out-sloping rectangle, slanted on the landward end, where a trapezoidal stairway widens as it rises from the ground, ending level with a flat roof, where a C-shaped brise-soleil is the only interruption of the sea view.

The building sits on a plateau, flanked by wind-rustled boas of pine boughs and branches of holm oak overhanging the cliffsides of Capo Massullo. The site is the least hospitable outcrop of tufa on Capri, in spitting distance of Tiberius’s grotto where, centuries ago, prepubescent “little fishes” nibbled at the emperor’s genitals.

Malaparte referred to this domicile as casa come me, “come me” being a favored appellation for things he greatly liked. Another example doubles as a caution against unskeptical readings of Malaparte’s fiction: Febo, a dog he rescued on Lipari, inspired a tender prose poem, “cane come me.” In The Skin, Malaparte tells how, after years of tender devotion, Febo disappeared. The writer, frantic, searched everywhere on the island for the dog. He finally learned that Febo had been snatched by thieves who sold animals to a local vivisectionist. Malaparte raced to the laboratory, only to find his half eviscerated pet in the wrenching throes of its last minutes.

The scene breaks any reader’s heart. It broke mine, until I chanced upon a letter Malaparte’s brother wrote, noting Febo’s old age.

You know the house, from Godard’s adaptation of Moravia’s novel Contempt. In the film, its owner is the producer Jeremy Prokosch, played to Visigoth perfection by Jack Palance, who tyrannizes director Fritz Lang (playing himself) and cuckolds screenwriter Paul (Michel Piccoli) by seducing Camille (Brigitte Bardot) with Paul’s spineless acquiescence. They’ve come to Capri to finish Lang’s version of the Odyssey.

Godard implied no parallels between Malaparte and Prokosch. Prokosch is, as Malaparte wasn’t, a dictator in his island hideaway, a barbarian who echoes Goebbels with a contemporary twist: “When I hear the word culture, I take out my checkbook.”

Malaparte’s casa come me owes nothing to Fascist monumentalism and little to architectural modernism. It is, like the Viennese house Wittgenstein built for his sister, a unique, incomparable architectural anomaly. It was far from perfectly engineered, however. The drainage system wasn’t adequate to leach the Mediterranean salinity out of the roof and stucco walls, which were drenched constantly by the Caprian rainfall and occasionally by massive waves. Before its restoration, Casa Malaparte’s walls had a consistency of 42 percent corrosive salt.

On the third day a huge fire flared in the Raikkola forest. Men, horses and trees clutched within the circle of fire sent out awful cries. . . . Mad with terror, the horses of the Soviet artillery—there were almost a thousand of them—hurled themselves into the furnace and broke through the besieging flames and machine guns. Many perished within the flames, but most of them succeeded in reaching the shores of the lake and threw themselves into the water. . . .

The north wind swooped down during the night. . . . The cold became frightful. Suddenly, with the peculiar vibrating noise of breaking glass, the water froze. . . .

On the following day, when the first ranger patrols, their hair singed . . . reached the lakeshore, a horrible and amazing sight met their eyes. The lake looked like a vast sheet of white marble on which rested hundreds upon hundreds of horses’ heads. (Kaputt)

Malaparte wanted, fervently, to be Marcel Proust. History robbed him of the opportunity. He became instead the Proust of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings. His circumfluent sentences conjure flaming cities, war machines laying waste to centuries of civilization, repulsively decayed and mutilated corpses.

Perhaps because of his longing for Proust’s rarefied milieu, the associations triggered in Malaparte by apocalypse are escapist memories. Kaputt (1944), his ersatz journal of his wartime peregrinations as an Italian officer/observer and newspaper reporter, is a picaresque of violence, but it is also an album of sedative recollection. The desert of the present dissolves into oases of golden afternoons, quiet moments in salons, flirtations, friendships, the pentimento of la dolce vita.

Abruptly, the cacophony of war obliterates the sweetness of a dead world. In the fearsome present, the slightest flicker of human decency produces an unnerving shock, akin to finding the Duchesse de Guermantes working in a whorehouse.

Europe is a brothel attached to an abattoir. The Nazis ape the politesse of the vanquished, impersonating the dignified lives they’ve destroyed, clumsy as children wearing their parents’ clothes.

Everything, in short, is kaputt.

Kaputt’s travelogue of carnage, its scathing set pieces in drawing rooms whose furnishings fell off a truck, its portraiture of the Master Race’s demented slobs, surpasses in sheer rage and bilious perspicacity anything written in the era aside from Céline’s later trilogy (Castle to Castle, North, Rigadoon).

Malaparte describes rooms, landscapes, objects, and personalities with prose so replete with uncanny detail one would call it lyrical if lyrical didn’t suggest vapidity. What becomes lyrical, in that sense, is Malaparte’s habit of tossing moralistic asides to the reader, casting himself in the most flattering light possible, and trumping everyone else in conversation. He never gives anyone else the last word.

A writer who compulsively imparts his dissembled noble sentiments while consorting with moral imbeciles has got to be the unreliable narrator par excellence.

Malaparte narrates fiction using his real name, a practice familiar enough from Céline, Gombrowicz, and, on occasion, earlier writers like Zola. Today it has become a more commonplace technique, especially since publishers have taken to deciding whether something written as fiction would score better sales as a memoir.

Even among serious writers who use this device, Malaparte’s presence in Kaputt and The Skin complicates the fictional construction of the self, because Malaparte is not reinventing himself. He doesn’t function as a doppelgänger with a different life; his character traits aren’t molded into an assumed personality whose “I” can be distinguished from the “I” of the writer.

Malaparte is Malaparte. He lives among real persons, witnesses real events. More complicating still, Malaparte sometimes was where he says he was, though quite often he wasn’t, and his version of what happened makes florid use of his imagination.

If all his work’s ambiguities are part of an aesthetic strategy, it follows that Malaparte enlarged the art of fiction in more perverse, inventive, and darkly liberating ways than one would imagine possible, long before novelists like Philip Roth, Robert Coover, and E. L. Doctorow began using their own and other people’s histories as Play-Doh.

Surprisingly, many readers have imputed a claim of factuality to Malaparte’s fictions. Things that couldn’t possibly have happened are cited as facts, or disputable facts, wherever this writer is referenced—and we now have the Internet to thank for blanketing the universe with any mythic whopper the literal-minded choose to swallow. (When I Googled “Malaparte,” I found little reliable research in several thousand web pages; what I did find were over ninety citations of a passing reference I made to him in a review I once wrote of Bill Clinton’s autobiography.)

Most assuredly, hundreds of horses fleeing a forest fire were not trapped up to their necks in Finland’s Lake Lagoda and flash-frozen by an amazing cold snap; Ante Pavelic´, the Ustashi capo in Croatia, never unveiled for Malaparte’s delectation what appeared to be a basket of Dalmatian oysters but proved to be forty pounds of human eyes; Heinrich Himmler and Malaparte never vigorously flogged each other with birch branches upon emerging from a Finnish sauna, before plunging into an icy river. These are, to paraphrase Picasso, lies that show us the truth.

Malaparte’s introduction of the imaginary into the ostensibly real has a legible purpose. It reveals a psychological reality—in Kaputt, a pathology woven into all social relations by the war. If Malaparte insists that he’s witnessed atrocities, he does so in order to undermine the powers of denial shared by the considerable elite who never had to come in contact with the battlefield. (He did, of course, witness many; his dispatches for Corriere della Sera from the eastern front are collected in The Volga Rises in Europe (1943). But here there are no surrealist embellishments, only lapidary, unjournalistic, but fastidiously accurate observations—too accurate, in many instances, to allow their publication in Corriere della Sera.)

Céline and Malaparte were the only writers who directly addressed, with appropriate rage and devastating candor, the dirty secret of World War II: While bombs dropped on Prague and Hamburg and Budapest, the aristocrats of Europe, the owners of the continent, fretted exclusively about whether troop movements were likely to prevent their restorative weekends in Baden-Baden, delay their taking the waters at Carlsbad, ruin their customary month of Mozart and mud baths in Marienbad.

Death and suffering, at least until the final movements of Europe’s Götterdämmerung, were for working-class suckers. While employees bled out in the snow around Leningrad and had their heads blown off in obscure parts of Romania and Poland, the old money and the new Fascist oligarchy had their champagne and caviar flown in from Paris and Kiev and Stockholm right on schedule, just like in the old days.

The Skin, a kaleidoscope of the American occupation of Naples, has the densely packed, peripatetic, demonic abandon of a vaudeville revue in hell. Its premise—that once all ideals have been shattered, a person’s only flag is his own skin—is exampled throughout the novel by an array of degradations, including the beneficence of the “liberators”:

If ever it was an honor to lose a war, it was certainly a great honor for the people of Naples, and for all the other conquered peoples of Europe, to have lost this one to soldiers who were so courteous, elegant, and neatly dressed, so goodhearted and generous.

And yet everything that these magnificent soldiers touched was at once corrupted. No sooner did the luckless inhabitants of the liberated countries grasp the hands of their liberators than they began to fester and to stink. It was enough that an Allied soldier should lean out of his jeep to smile at a woman, to give her face a fleeting caress, and the same woman, who until that moment had preserved her dignity and purity, would change into a prostitute.

The Skin makes liberation as gross a nightmare as the Europe of Kaputt. Malaparte guides us into a cult of “inverts,” a network of intelligence agents extracting secrets from Axis generals fond of sodomy; in this “religion,” the central ritual features a godlike androgyne giving birth to a large wooden effigy. (Homophobic as this sounds, Malaparte’s treatment is jesuitical in the extreme and can’t be dismissed as a simple effusion of prejudice.) The ghastly child entrée served at General Cork’s banquet is actually a manatee, the last occupant of the Naples Aquarium—because of a fishing ban, now all the aquarium’s exotic specimens have been served up at the liberators’ official dinners.

Malaparte’s theme takes literal form when the author guides the troops of one Colonel Granger from Naples into Rome: As the Romans ecstatically greet the American military, one of its tanks runs over an evacuee from the Abruzzi. His body, flattened like a pancake, is hoisted on a staff and borne like a flag at the head of the advancing army.

Before the war ended, Malaparte acted as a liaison officer for the Allies. He later joined the Communist Party. He moved to Paris in 1947, where his biographical play about Proust, Du Côté de chez Proust, premiered in 1948, somewhat untriumphantly. A play about Karl Marx, Das Kapital, fared no better in 1949. In 1950, he directed the film Il Cristo proibito, a well-acted, intelligently photographed melodrama that can be read as a plea for reconciliation, a denunciation of war, or one of Malaparte’s most extravagant efforts to display his Italianness—the film includes nearly every trope of Neorealism, with a closing scene that virtually copies the ending of Rossellini’s Stromboli, released in the same year. While Il Cristo proibito sometimes appears to have been cut with a pair of dull pruning shears, its pacing is much less soporific than many “classics” of Neorealist cinema. (I know I’m in a minority, but The Bicycle Thief is the most boring film I’ve ever seen.)

None of Malaparte’s books of the 1950s have the amplitude or amazing audacity of Kaputt or The Skin, but neither do they evidence any waning of skill or flagging of prescience; they have a much less ornamental style, an assured concision that gives Malaparte’s wit an aphoristic brevity his more celebrated works never really attempt—Kaputt and The Skin, indelibly horrific and beautifully written though they are, have a deliberate, arguably sadistic long-windedness that Malaparte dispenses with in Those Cursed Tuscans and Il Ballo al Cremlino (1971), the latter a deliciously deadpan satire of Soviet high society, Communist officialdom rendered in the delicately subtle shadings with which Proust painted the vedettes of St. Germain.

Near the end of his life, Malaparte began traveling in China, and, inevitably, shifted his utopian longings once again, in favor of Maoism. He made a preliminary attempt to elucidate the next-to-last volte-face of a lifetime marked by fervid allegiances and sudden repudiations, in Io, in Russia e in Cina (1958), but plans for a more epic work on the new workers’ paradise were cut short by lung cancer, diagnosed by Chinese doctors as “a little bug.”

As Malaparte endured a horribly prolonged end at the Sanatrix Clinic in Rome, his condition was reported in the Italian press like a national emergency. The lifelong irritant had become a cultural treasure. Malaparte had always been an enigmatic, contradictory, fantastically opaque entity: He has so often been branded an opportunist that it seems important to point out that every time he seized an “opportunity,” he did so precisely when it was already, obviously, a liability. It would be more just to say that Malaparte enjoyed the contradictions he epitomized and preferred being contrary to being on the winning side of anything.

Gary Indiana is the author, most recently, of Schwarzenegger Syndrome: Politics and Celebrity in the Age of Contempt (New Press, 2005)