Translated by Stephen Twilley
Reviewed by Basil Ransome-Davies
An adjective frequently applied to Curzio Malaparte is ‘colourful’. To the Cambridge dictionary it means ‘vivid, rich, or distinctive in character’, and that will often do. At the same time, in English at least, the word can euphemise less appealing character traits – ‘dodgy’, for example, or ‘egomaniac’. This may reflect the subdued, conformist appetites of a nation that dresses its schoolchildren in uniform, but the ambivalence is certainly there in the author’s career, literary style and repertoire of traveller’s tales. Here is a man who strongly supported Mussolini then royally pissed him off, earning exile and jail, and after surviving World War II ended his life as a devout Communist. Way to go, if you have the chutzpah.
It’s quite an act and the book is an unabashed display of personality in the form of a diary, one manifestly intended for publication. Entries are not daily and the text has been arranged under three headings: ‘1947’, ‘1948’ and ‘Undated Entries’. In his preface Malaparte declares it to be ‘portrait, chronicle, tale, record, history’, which suits its reissue at a time when multigeneric mashups are common cultural fare (‘fiction’ he doesn’t admit to). He has a sweeping, aphoristic style: ’Cinema is the homeland of foreigners’, ’Italy is a country of slaves’, ‘the deep-seated wish of every writer to have other writers shot’). Paris in the late 1940s is a city where the emotional temperature generated by war, defeat, occupation and resistance still runs high and the defeat of Nazism has exposed a liberated France’s political and cultural fault lines. The pot is boiling, and the author is having the time of his life. Yet it is the past that can prompt him to distil his rhetoric to a poetic accuracy, as in this recollection of a dawn bombardment by German artillery during his service in World War I: ‘A sound in the pink sky like the scratch of a diamond on glass– and I’d see the sky open, like sheet of paper sliced in two with the edges of the gash exposed, and a ray of deep blue appear the same colour as the live flesh at the bottom of a scalpel wound.’
Malaparte is a well-connected cosmopolitan, a sophisticate among sophisticates. Though he titles himself ‘Mr Chameleon’, able to mix comfortably with all classes, his tone tends to be lofty. Along with the eloquent record of dining out, theatre nights, distinguished company and other urbane pleasures runs an intermittent vein of harrumphing at the appearance of postwar youth, its casual dress and insolent attitudes – this is even before rock ‘n’ roll. He suspects a drift to homosexuality among adolescent young males. Not only that, but French existentialism is shallow and bogus (‘Sartre was writing Existentialism for Ladies’). Also dated. And anyway, Italy did it first, so there.
The first section concludes with an extended tragicomic anecdote, recalled from February 1942, when Malaparte was an Italian diplomat in on the Karras front and the Soviet Union at war with Finland. One day it is reported to him by a Finnish general that his troops have captured a group of Spaniard soldiers serving in the Red Army. Malaparte agrees to interrogate them. He finds that they are all proud, stubborn communists who want nothing to do with Francoist Spain, so he contacts de Foxa, the Spanish ambassador to Finland in Helsinki. When de Foxa turns up in a sled he is not happy. He continues to be unhappy for the many return visits he has makes, enduring frozen conditions to attend to the problem, all the while peevishly blaming Malaparte for his well-meaning interference even as he offers him effusive thanks for his help.
There were certainly Spanish soldiers, former republican evacuees, in the Red Army, but don’t ask whether every detail is factual. It’s high-grade creative storytelling by one who knows how, at the same time pointing up the strange anomalies emerging from the feverish European politics of the 1930s as they shaped the combatants’ line-up of the 1940s. Yes, there’s a lot in the way he tells them, but not it’s not quite true that, as a friend of his teasingly suggests, ‘Malaparte’s stories are made out of nothing’.
‘1948’ finds the diarist in Chamonix, Switzerland, where his habit, apparently tolerated in France, of barking loudly in the night and waking up the dogs – and human sleepers – for miles around gets a curt reproof from a local. ‘it begins with barking, monsieur, and finishes with biting. The Swiss don’t like to be bitten.’ This doesn’t stop him. Fellow guests complain. He insists on his ‘freedom’, which, though he declares himself a foreigner in France, echoes the bloody-minded individualism that the French can offer on spec.
The fact is that Malaparte doesn’t care to be consistent. His career is not an unbroken arc. His mind is discursive, skittish, improvisational. Despite his rubbishing of what he sees as Sartre’s and Camus’s airy pretensions he can occasionally drift into the pastures of the higher bullshit.
The ‘Undated Entries’ section continues to prove that if there is a continuity in this book aside from obsessive dog-love, it is a continuity of the ego, wearing assorted colours, espousing different faiths, swinging between bouts of philosophy and the reporting of personal oddities, dropping names like confetti but always pronouncing with confident abandon on the busy stream of experience. Conclusion? There’s something for everyone here, whether you’re a lover of French classical tragedy, a Virgil freak, a student of the Fourth Republic or a moody existential dreamer. Otherwise, you may just enjoy the memory-rich raconteur’s vivacity of expression, or the quips, jokes and comic sketches that a man who barks with dogs has sagely dropped into this carnivalesque tossed salad of a book.
Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.
Curzio Malaparte, Diary Of A Foreigner In Paris (New York Review Books, 2020). 978-681374161, 252 pp., paperback.
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