The International Literary Quarterly

November 2007

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. “It is the Fate of Europe to Become Naples": Curzio Malaparte and the Plague of Benevolent Interventionism.

by Daniel Gunn

Anyone wishing to be forewarned of the dangers of intervention in another country’s affairs, especially if this intervention be well-intentioned, need seek no further than Curzio Malaparte’s novel The Skin, published in 1949 and dealing with the aftermath of the Allied liberation of Naples in 1943-1944 (1) . However, it is not just because Malaparte’s work reads like a How Not To manual of “regime change”, nor just because it seethes with an irony that has become particularly relevant and bitter in the years following the invasion of Iraq, that his work rewards sustained attention now.

For Malaparte's best work lays bare certain of the forces which will unify Europe in the fifty years following the War; and adumbrates the complex relations which will develop between Europe and the United States of America whose armies have come to liberate the Old Continent. Malaparte never makes pleasant reading: he wilfully obscures crucial historical distinctions among the rivals in the Second World War, larding his own involvement in history with a belated and factitious disinterest. Yet in making his often odious defects as personage and writer into crutches, he propels himself with a maniacal energy into a literary realm which is of genuine interest partly because in it the values which sustain the novel form are so recklessly assaulted. In its insistence, its exaggeration, its theatricality, its settling of scores, his work serves as a vital link in a tradition of invective and diatribe that runs from Dostoevsky’s Underground Man through Céline’s enraged doctors and Louis-René des Forêts’ Bavard to Thomas Bernhard’s multiple assaults upon his native Austria.(2) Malaparte lays bare the extent to which the novel form, and the values to which it was wedded, could itself be part of the problem, rather than the solution, for post-War European literature.

Both as real-life author and as fictive narrator (the two are usually synonymous), Malaparte takes the novel’s central tenets and turns them inside out, flattening character into caricature and motivation into self-defeating absurdity. His work serves as a fine introduction to the capital importance of self-conscious distortion in post-War fiction, as it parades monstrously struck attitudes whose power resides in the very blatancy with which these refuse depth or nuance, embracing an anti-novelistic superficiality which, curiously, also serves to tip his prose over from reportage into fiction. And in his two most significant works, Kaputt which was written during World War II, and The Skin which was written shortly after, he does so such that offences of all sorts, to history, psychology, literary habit, plausibility, genre, become something like the yardstick of success; a success to be measured not by the good taste of the living so much as by the affronted silence of the moribund and dead.(3)

Malaparte’s familiarity with death was developed first hand, his life so perilous that underlying his tone can be detected an amazement that he has indeed survived to the present. Born of a German father and an Italian mother in 1898, he took a far from obvious course in 1914, while Italy was still neutral, by volunteering to fight alongside the French, and then by joining up again in 1917, witnessing the carnage near Amiens, and suffering irreparable damage to his lungs in a gas attack. Back in Italy after the Armistice, he rapidly became involved with nascent Fascism and espoused the more violent provincialist strain of the movement.(4) Dissatisfied with his subsequent career as a diplomat, Malaparte also became increasingly disillusioned with Mussolini’s brand of totalitarianism, and was outspokenly critical of the Duce’s close associate Italo Balbo, a critique which earned the author five years of exile on the island of Lipari (though he only served one year of this sentence). He travelled later as a journalist to cover the colonial war in Abyssinia, then the invasion of France by Italy in 1940, (5) then the Eastern Front, collecting his experiences and fantasies from this last destination into the volume entitled Kaputt. Published while hostilities were still raging, Kaputt built upon the anti-war writing of Henri Barbusse, and radicalised it with a lambent mix of cynicism and glamour; so pungent a cocktail that most war writing since, however apocalyptic, appears tame by comparison. Released from prison following the downfall of Mussolini and the invasion of Italy by the Allies, Malaparte served as a liaison officer with the Allied Forces, as they advanced north through Italy: an unlikely post for the former Fascist, which then became the subject of The Skin. By a characteristically maverick realignment and pulling of strings, Malaparte escaped post-War reprisals, and even re-established himself as a major force in Italian political commentary, changing camps once more to end his days as a supporter of Stalin and Mao. And to this dangerous life his writings contributed too, designed as they were to aggravate at all costs, outraging not least the people of Naples, living and dead, who became the principal subjects of The Skin, and who loathed and banned the book.

The city has just been liberated from the South by the Allies, and the Italian army has repudiated its former Axis following the overthrow of Mussolini, the intervention of the King with Marshal Badoglio, and the Allied declaration of armistice on 8 September, 1943. Malaparte celebrates this date with just the sort of equivocation, moral and political, which will invest his novel along with the “liberators”. He writes that, “the Order signed by the King’s Gracious Majesty and by Marshal Badoglio actually contained the following words: ‘Officers and men of the Italian Army, throw your arms and your flags like heroes at the feet of the firstcomer’” (53). And he indicates that he, along with his comrades, gladly obeyed this order:

"We had thrown our arms and our flags not only at the feet of the conquerors, but also at the feet of the conquered; not only at the feet of the British, the Americans, the French, the Russians, the Poles, and the rest, but also at the feet of the King, Badoglio, Mussolini and Hitler. We had thrown them at the feet of all, victors and vanquished – even at the feet of those with whom it had nothing whatever to do." (52-3)

Malaparte drives the language of diplomatic dispatch into parody, turning defeated soldiers into ludicrous marionettes as they fling away their flags. Nor are the flags insignificant, for he describes them not as mere national emblems but as having history, nobility, and myth woven into their very fabric. Here are relics of pre-Unification Italy, pennants of city states, as well as, more fancifully, Garibaldi’s flag, “the standards of Siena, painted by Luca Signorelli; and the Roman flags of the Capitol, painted by Michelangelo” (52). In what will become a typical turn, realism gives way to hyperbole, which itself gives way to bathos, as to the more literal dejection. Nor is it flags alone that are thrown down and downtrodden. Arch-enemies are tossed together into a pan-European melting-pot, as if it were utterly indifferent to whom the Italians capitulated: a levelling of rivalry from the viewpoint of the vanquished and trampled. In The Skin Malaparte certainly has a personal agenda: to conflate the warring parties in such a way that his own repeated changes of side – Fascist, dissident Fascist, Nazi fraterniser, Nazi satirist, Anti-Fascist Resistance fighter – are seen as barely changes at all, mere slidings within the heart of a Europe united in abjection(6). Yet his implicit agenda becomes itself subject to a larger (and this time literary) reversal in which reportage yields to a self-conscious fiction that seeks to turn abjection into a source of glory – a glory in which devastated Naples excels.

For the ruined city, in the enthusiasm with which it swaps allegiances, snatches victory not from but in the jaws of defeat; an illogic in which Malaparte revels. In his history of the period, War in Italy 1943-1945, military historian Richard Lamb does not neglect the anti-Fascist and anti-Nazi Resistance movement, nor the civil war which accompanied liberation. Yet he opens his volume, unambiguously, with the heading: “Italy Changes Sides”(7). Malaparte the historical reporter and realist does not deny it, but Malaparte the writer attempts to undermine the heading’s truth-value by loading with irony and exaggeration the very notions of sides and defeat: “All of us, officers and men, vied with one another to see which of us could throw our arms and flags in the mud most ‘heroically’” (53). The exploits of soldiers, their suffering, their sides, their screams even, defy, in their absurdity, notions of liberation or defeat, and so defy the sort of truth that reportage can produce. As the combatants throw down the flags for which they have been willing to surrender their lives, they irreversibly enter the literary, overwhelmed, Malaparte claims, by “Homeric laughter” (54).

Naples is the site and subject of The Skin not least because it permits on a grand scale the triple Malaparte move of: self-consciously literary inflation, dejection, followed by laughter. It is the city which, as Walter Benjamin wrote some twenty years prior to Malaparte, manifests paradox and reversal in its very stones(8). Malaparte’s narrator, also named “Malaparte”, will spend the novel walking through this city, in the company of various American commanders, exposing in almost picaresque fashion the city’s capacity for eluding rational accounting through paradox and metamorphosis. The Skin opens with a staging of the descent:

"Naples was in the throes of the 'plague'. Every afternoon at five o’clock, after half an hour with the punching ball and a hot shower in the gymnasium of the P.B.S. – Peninsular Base Section – Colonel Jack Hamilton and I would walk down in the direction of San Ferdinando, elbowing our way through the unruly mob which thronged Via Toledo from dawn until curfew time.
We were clean, tidy and well-fed, Jack and I, as we made our way through the midst of the dreadful Neapolitan mob – squalid, dirty, starving, ragged, jostled and insulted in all the languages and dialects of the world by troops of soldiers belonging to the armies of liberation, which were drawn from all the races of the earth." (1-2)

The entire novel will be an exploration of this 'plague', which proves to be one to which writers rather than doctors have access, being not of the body but of the spirit:

"This was a plague profoundly different from, but no less horrible than, the epidemics which from time to time devastated Europe during the Middle Ages… It was a kind of moral plague, against which it seemed that there was no defense." (26-7)

The purveyors of this plague are themselves unaffected by it: the victorious armies “contained not a soldier who had a boil, a decayed tooth, even a pimple on his face”; notwithstanding which state of supreme health, “everything that these magnificent soldiers touched was at once corrupted” (29). The gesture of the conqueror-liberators which assists is precisely that which infects. Even in the case of Colonel Jack Hamilton, an American of considerable culture and classical learning, his benevolence will prove lethal:

"The source of the plague was in their compassion, in their very desire to help those unfortunate people, to alleviate their miseries, to succor them in the tremendous disaster that had overtaken them. The source of the disease was in the very hand which they stretched out in brotherhood to this conquered people." (30)

With peculiar prescience and characteristic violence, Malaparte dramatises the latest form of sickness brought by cultural imperialism. Watching Naples be harnessed once again to the imperial yoke, after its being colonised by one power after another ever since the Middle Ages, Malaparte is especially acute on how the new benignity will exact its cost. Top on the list of victims, most significant because most implicit, is narrative itself, and the satisfactions offered by a plot drawing on linearity, comprehensibility, or development; characteristics which are ceding here to a narrative short on telos, psychology, and motivation, a narrative which is advancing by way of fragmentation, reversal, and repetition.

Malaparte’s analytical acuity resides upon the claim made by his narrative structure itself, that the present situation cannot be comprehended by rationality or realism, only by fantasy and fiction which must almost invariably be in excess of events. I say almost, because even Malaparte can be elliptical, when it suits his purpose. One thing he does not mention, for example, is that there was a serious secession movement in Sicily and Southern Italy at the end of the War, which aimed to have the region annexed to America and declared the forty-ninth state. Here as elsewhere it is instructive to note the contrast with Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44. Lewis, a British Army Intelligence officer at this time, is at pains to show that his claims for the folly of the liberators’ policies in post-War Naples are in fact understatement, and so has no hesitation in mentioning the secession movement(9); where Malaparte prefers to overlook the real political manoeuvres which threatened the integrity of the Italian State, the better to lodge his claim as patently excessive and writerly. Through this piece of withholding immediate gains accrue to Malaparte’s narrator and his part in this “plague”. Where Lewis, in his diary, seeks distance from what he describes, Malaparte seeks distance and at the very same time immersion. As he continues, he lets it be seen that his crisp suit is in fact riddled with bullet holes, that it has been plucked off the body of a British soldier killed at Tobruk. Though his incandescent self-regard may at times obscure this, from the outset Malaparte does make it clear, that his narrator, because he has survived to write this tale, is necessarily, from page one line one, himself already infected, his healthy appearance being indeed a sign of this fact.

Nor is this the only sort of integrity to have been lost to the “plague”, for language itself has been invaded. In the army gym, with punch-ball and shower, Malaparte prepares to “walk down” into the rabble(10). The minor assault being committed here is less visible in translation, as it is against the Italian language, with the intrusion of the American-language “punching ball”, “Peninsular Base Section”, and indeed the name of Malaparte’s companion. This assault will intensify to the point where Malaparte turns his text into a modern-day Babel, with entire conversations being transcribed untranslated. What is more, Malaparte’s chosen route adds to linguistic and cultural confusion: through “San Ferdinando”, of Spanish-Italian resonance, to the unambiguously Spanish, or Bourbon, "Via Toledo" (since renamed “Via Roma”, on maps if not in popular nomenclature), a history of colonial conquest and occupation is inscribed in street names. Such a latter-day Babel is of course no innovation, and T.S.Eliot, in the opening of The Waste Land, presents a powerful version of it following the Great War(11). Yet, where Eliot leaves unresolved the question of whether an ideal reader would in fact know the various languages which seem to be required, Malaparte converts the collapse of linguistic unity into an assault which only he can sustain, in and through his text. For though he in fact possessed limited abilities in the languages he cites – German, French, Greek, Ukrainian, Russian, Finnish, English, Spanish, to name but a few – he presents himself as the indispensable interpreter who has absorbed Europe’s linguistic plurality into himself, thereby into his text. And he does so in a Naples which is itself the supreme site of hybridity, of multiculturalism avant la lettre, as he will later explain to the American General Cork (a pseudonym for General Mark Clark), using the city as both origin and terminus:

"When Naples was one of the most illustrious capitals in Europe, one of the greatest cities in the world, it contained a bit of everything. It contained a bit of London, a bit of Paris, a bit of Madrid, a bit of Vienna – it was a microcosm of Europe. Now that it is in its decline nothing is left in it but Naples. What do you expect to find in London, Paris, Vienna? You will find Naples. It is the fate of Europe to become Naples." (188)

As the novel opens, Malaparte leaves the Olympian heights in order to interpret the Neapolitan depths. And if the echoes are classical, they are also Christian. He continues:

"The distinction of being the first among all the peoples of Europe to be liberated had fallen to the people of Naples; and in celebration of the winning of so well-deserved a prize my poor beloved Neapolitans, after three years of hunger, epidemics and savage air attacks, had accepted gracefully and patriotically the longed-for and coveted honor of playing the part of a conquered people, of singing, clapping, jumping for joy amid the ruins of their houses, unfurling foreign flags which until the day before had been the emblems of their foes, and throwing flowers from their windows on the heads of the conquerors." (2)

Malaparte will be Virgil, guide through Inferno to Colonel Hamilton’s Dante-pilgrim (though never forgoing his role as Dante-narrator). Yet no sooner does he adopt the part than he betrays Virgilian neutrality in his claim that the Neapolitans have been the first to be liberated. For, even considering Italy alone, the Sicilians were prior, as were several important Southern towns; while in no obvious sense was Malaparte, a Tuscan who regularly sang his pride in his native Prato, entitled to speak of Neapolitans as “his” people(12). And the misleading un-Virgilian claims do not start on page one, in fact, but on the novel’s cover in the naming of its author, “Curzio Malaparte”. For this is a pseudonym – Bonaparte turned nefarious – adopted in the 1920s by Kurt Erich Suckert, who attempted thus to reinvent himself, through a gesture worthy of his early idol Gabriele D’Annunzio. Suckert, as Malaparte the Virgilian narrator and tourist-guide, whose Neapolitan credentials place him bang in the centre of Europe. “‘In Europe’,” he will later say, “‘we are all more or less Neapolitans’” (78): more rather than less in his own case, but not through birth-right; through replication, rather, through his parthenogenic recreation of himself in and as this most (re)inventive of cities(13).

The Skin proffers a trajectory into the hybrid heart of Europe in which the innocent American will learn the dark secrets of the Old Continent. Colonel Hamilton is less the Henry James princess than most, in that “he alone realized how much mystery there is in the story and the lives of the people of Naples” (33). Yet, in the event, despite the affronts to his sensibility, the colonel remains naïve, and it is not least this failure of the educational purpose which makes the novel run so contrarily to the grain of Dantesque revelation and novelistic discovery. The Colonel never follows Dante out of Inferno to “see again the stars”, and is in fact dead by the novel’s conclusion. The novel is given an episodic, anti-epiphanic structure by the fact that the account it offers is of the frequently perverse and invariably unsuccessful – therefore necessarily repetitive – attempts to avert a failed communication, to circumvent a botched cross-cultural initiation.

The stone on which the most neo-colonial toes get stubbed is placed on the path by sex; sex where, in the absence of more developed linguistic communication, cross-cultural exchange might have appeared most plausible. Malaparte takes Colonel Hamilton, with Jimmy his subaltern, to see the Naples flesh-pots. Together, they discover ŅThe Virgin of NaplesÓ: a girl who, extraordinarily in this city where the obvious plague is that of venereal disease, and where virtually all girls, and many boys, have been prostituted by their parents, still has her hymen intact, which she displays for a paltry dollar. Jimmy claims to have understood the alarming message; only to reveal that he hasn’t understood a thing when next he is encountered, on his way to the wig shop. What are manufactured here are not conventional wigs, but blonde pubic tufts that prostitutes will wear because, it is reported, “‘Negroes like blondes’” (73). A visit is paid to the steps where dwarf whores solicit soldiers. Colonel Hamilton is invited to witness “the Asiatic cult of Uranianism” (100) in which a group of homosexual men forgather to watch one of their number give birth to a gnarled wooden infant.

The reaction of the Colonel to this age-old ritual serves as a reminder, if reminder were needed, of a further narrative structure which, as much as Dante’s and as much as any novelistic expectation of epiphany, is underpinning The Skin: tourism, and tourism’s origins in that educational form of travel undertaken by travellers on the Grand Tour, during whose time Naples became a cultural capital and the third city of Europe(14). The Colonel’s reaction perfectly mirrors that of one of the most famous of such travellers, offered not to a Neapolitan grotesque this time but to a Sicilian one. When Goethe visited the palace of the Prince of Pallagonia, he found sculptures so odd and obscene, such “deformed and revolting shapes”, that they confronted this most eloquent of writers with the limits of his own capacity for transcription:

"When a person is expected to describe some absurdity, he is always at a loss, because however great his love for the truth, merely by describing it, he makes it something, whereas, in fact, it is nothing that wants to be taken for something… I called them groups, but the word is inappropriate, for they are not the productions of calculation or even of caprice; they are merely accidental jumbles."(15).

Goethe was constrained by decorum to keep his protests verbal, but Colonel Hamilton, when he confronts the “absurdity” of Uranianism, lashes out with his feet, prompting Malaparte, ever-ready with ironic commentary, to exclaim, “‘You’re a conqueror, Jack’” (148). It may be more than coincidence that Malaparte’s Colonel shares his patronym with that lynch-pin of the Neapolitan leg of the Grand Tour, Sir William Hamilton(16). In the late eighteenth century the British Special Envoy was host to many of the writers and artists who celebrated Naples, and he is mentioned more than once in The Skin; while the city into which Malaparte descends with the colonel, given its steep decline from around 1830, is substantially that inhabited by his historical namesake.

No consideration of Naples or its relation to the Grand Tour can ignore the city’s proximity to Pompeii and the volcano that caused its destruction and preservation(17). I shall turn to these shortly, but not before first noting that even for such dignified tourists as Sir William and Goethe, Naples presented opportunities of discovery in the sexual domain. The affair and subsequent marriage are notorious, of the hitherto very sober Sir William to Emma Hart, as is his subsequent part in the ménage-à-trois with Lord Nelson. Goethe is notably coy on matters sexual in Italian Journey, despite biographers’ conclusions that this was a period of initiation for him(18). Yet he does admit to being enchanted by a Princess whose lack of inhibition is such that, like Pallagonia’s statues, it too defies transcription, in that “no censorship could possibly pass her discourses if they were written down”. He is especially titillated by an episode in which, following an earthquake, the princess found herself virtually pinned under an abbot:

“‘Fie!” she cried, leaning her head against the sinking wall. 'Is this proper for such a venerable old man? Why, you’re behaving as if you wished to fall on top of me. This is against all morality and decorum.' In the meantime the house had resettled itself, but she could not stop laughing at the ridiculous and lustful figure which she said the good old man had made of himself."

It is not merely the encounter of Thanatos with Eros that provokes Goethe, rather it is the princess’s willingness to forgo all privacy and pudore for the theatricality of the joke: “she showed no concern for the calamities and loss of life and property which had affected her family and thousands of others, as if this joke had made her forget everything else”(19).

What is it that, one hundred and fifty years later, so horrifies Malaparte’s American companions as they encounter the dwarf and child prostitutes, the blonde pubic wigs, and the homosexual mothers? Beyond the obvious subversion of procreative sexuality, it is the fact that sex has become theatrical; and in becoming theatrical has evacuated the merest trace of privacy, become bankrupt of the interiority so dear to the liberators’ Puritan traditions. It is almost as if Goethe’s titillation had been radicalised through a reading of that other serious Northerner, Walter Benjamin, whose account of his disturbed reaction to the city claims that everything here, from family life to food to commerce, even to sleep, has been theatricalised(20). For Benjamin, Naples becomes the anti-bourgeois capital par excellence, the city where the family barely functions, where life is spectacle and improvisation, even in architecture. For Benjamin, Naples is “porous”, defying the urban definition of, precisely, definedness: permeable, labile, turned inside-out. Benjamin finishes his essay with a panicked admission that eroticism is also omnipresent here; then ends in a somewhat embarrassed joke in which he suffers the indignity of being the butt, yet re-establishes the distance of a foreigner.

With Malaparte, the pubic hair may be dyed blonde, but the tone of sex is darkened: laughter hardens to rictus, while theatre turns into guignol(21). Porosity becomes menacing indeed, as categories flip into their opposite, protectors becoming salesmen, and, in a classic reversal, masters becoming slaves. After wandering into "Via Toledo" with the Colonel, Malaparte points to the Negro soldiers who, even as they are purchasing prostitutes’ services, are themselves being bought and sold, in defiance of their present military, cultural, and economic dominance:

"As he wanders from bar to bar, from inn to inn, from brothel to brothel, as he smiles, drinks and eats, as he caresses the arm of a girl, the Negro is oblivious of the fact that he has become a medium of exchange… There was not a family in the city, however poor, which did not possess its Negro slave."(22). (18)

The wealthier or better-connected the soldier, the greater his value on the slave market: “Drivers were the most expensive of all. A black driver cost up to two thousand dollars” (19). The Malaparte of sex, laughter, and death re-emerges here, as reminder of the hollowness of victory: the scugnizzo leads his master-slave to the flesh-market, starting at home with his own sister; the deathly element derives from the echo in new imperialism of the genocidal affront of African slavery; while the laughter is Neapolitan, in revenge against the liberator-invaders.

Removed from privacy and divorced from sentiment, sex effects reversals which conceal yet further reversals, and these in turn remove this writing not just from conventional propriety but from desire itself as the prime mover of plot(23). Central here are the “inverts”, to whom two long chapters are devoted (“The Rose of Flesh” and “The Son of Adam”). Beyond the obvious “inversion”, the homosexual group which Malaparte frequents is one which upturns the very reality of the War, its hierarchies and ideals: no sooner has the war front shifted north, than “the international community of inverts, tragically disrupted by the war, was reconstituting itself in that first strip of Europe to be liberated by the handsome Allied soldiers” (82-3). Irony bites in “tragically”, yet Malaparte does admire this group: not only because it reinforces his claims for his own pan-European hodgepodge, but also because, ostensibly founded upon sex, it in fact comes close to transcending sexual motivation altogether:

"Inverts, as is well known, constitute a sort of international brotherhood, a secret society governed by the laws of a friendship that is both deep and tender, and not at the mercy of the foibles and the proverbial fickleness of sexual feeling. The love of inverts is, thank God, superior to the sexual feeling of men and women." (131)

What Malaparte portrays here is something akin to the Freemasonry for which Naples was also a home (and which was also suppressed by Mussolini)(24): an “unnatural” fraternity which, even when it has done sterling war service (which Malaparte acknowledges), owes allegiance to plots of neither nation nor libido, rather to something more farcical and moribund – more farcical because more moribund: “They testified, with a dignity beyond compare, to all that was choicest and most exquisite in the world whose passing was symbolical of the tragic decline of European civilization” (83). Beyond the foppery and pantomime, Uranianism’s rite of passage is decadent in the strong sense, when a handsome youth undergoes ritual confinement, labour, parturition: the very excess of the ancient fertility rite being undercut by the deathly sterility of the gnarled wooden offspring, as it is by the failure of the Colonel to learn from it.

Colonel Hamilton lashes out, while Malaparte watches and ironises. Despite the ostentatious parade the real-life author made of his liaisons with glamorous women, the narrator Malaparte is notably chaste in The Skin, indeed throughout the Malaparte oeuvre; nothing of the Dantesque empathy with Paolo and Francesca, rather the lofty disdain of a Virgil, as if no personal weakness of the flesh were imaginable(25). Skin and flesh: the claim Malaparte wishes to make for the emblematic status of the former (to which I shall return) leaving him ostentatiously immune to the lure of the latter. In Malaparte-the-narrator there are to be found no obvious symptoms of sexual desire, of paternal instinct, still less of any dynastic or genealogical drive; though, as we are seeing, this may be less despite the centrality of these forces to the novel genre and tradition than precisely because of their centrality(26). Yet this is the case – and the caveat is crucial – only in that the flesh which might have tempted him turns out to be practically indistinguishable from the surface of his own body. At General Cork’s banquet, Malaparte is asked why Italians did not rebel against Mussolini prior to 1939; to which he responds, characteristically and not without some justice, “so as not to displease Roosevelt and Churchill, who were great friends of Mussolini before the war” (203)(27). In the shocked reactions he receives, Malaparte reaps his reward, which is to become more than merely representative, the very incarnation – in the literal sense – of a time and a place which are otherness itself for his American interlocutors: “I was Europe. I was the history of Europe, the civilization of Europe, the poetry, the art, all the glories and all the miseries of Europe” (203). Malaparte is Europe, Europe is Naples, Malaparte is Naples is Malaparte.

In The Skin, nationalism is always presented as an ideological après-coup designed to erase historical compromises through a bowdlerising of reality. Malaparte’s own anti- or supra-nationalism would, if lodged merely as a claim, be definable in exactly the same way, in that Malaparte himself had every reason to wish to edit his past. But, as in the almost mystical moment at the banquet, Malaparte’s transcendence of national frontiers and ideological definitions is only marginally a claim, being embedded rather in his novel’s structure, as well as in the tone of eroticism with which the novel is suffused. If Malaparte can assume a distance from the theatrical sex of the city, then it is precisely because he already is that city: when he walks into it, accompanied by the Colonel, he is walking into himself. Within the homosocial and homosexual implications of this move lies a further eroticism(28). It is understating the case to claim, as is often done, that Malaparte is self-regarding, for he follows Narcissus through, and plunges into the pool, drowning in his own image; or, to shift metaphors, he is not just Dante and Virgil, but the bolgias of Inferno too, and their inhabitants. The narrator’s every irony, his every snobbish aside, is fed by this radical auto-erotism, which frees him from extraneous temptation. This it is which confers upon him a fluidity denied to the Neapolitans, who for the most part will appear as epigones of his hyperinflationary self. This it is which frees him of national limitations, absolves him of plot as well, of the need or obligation to grow or develop, in that he is already plethoric. Malaparte’s narrator, being entirely turned in upon himself, is also entirely turned out from himself; always on the move because never moving at all; brazenly disinterested because only ever visiting his own person, in a perilous piece of homeostatic bravura. After identifying himself at the banquet as Europe, Malaparte’s Borgesian reversals (hero and traitor) become not a source of anguish but an index of the achieved ecstasy of (re)incarnation: “And simultaneously I felt that I had been oppressed, destroyed, shot, invaded and liberated. I felt a coward and a hero, a ‘bastard’ and ‘charming’, a friend and an enemy, victorious and vanquished” (203).

Underpinning Walter Benjamin’s essay on Naples is a startled perception that this city has somehow avoided the nineteenth century, resisted the embourgeoisement of which Benjamin was himself the consummate analyst. Surprisingly, given his analysis of how the city refuses other nineteenth-century institutions, Benjamin does not draw the obvious literary conclusion: that this is a city which also resists the great nineteenth-century genre, the novel, which has depended so thoroughly on what he calls, speaking of architecture, “the Nordic sense” of interiority and the private self. It is indeed the case that Naples, celebrated for art, poetry, philosophy, theatre, song, is poor in distinguished novelists; as it is the case that Malaparte’s contribution to the impoverished genre was reviled by the Neapolitans who were its subjects(29). Malaparte attempts a Neapolitan novel which does not conceal or avoid the city’s theatricality but magnifies it into ruthless exhibitionism: no rounded characters here, only cut-outs; no intrigue, only exposition; no introspection, only harangue; no multiplication of distinct voices, only a single, strident tone, even when dialogue is transcribed(30). There is nothing novel in this novel that will not be revealed as some sort of repetition, no depth that does not have its innards removed. At its worst and most nostalgic, in moments which seriously undermine much of what is achieved elsewhere, The Skin romantically laments the loss of the values and dimensions which have traditionally sustained the novel genre, and attributes this loss to the withdrawal of the Christian God. Yet at its best, just as it tramples on the notion of nation, it tramples on the novel’s conventions of plot, characterisation, interiority, complexity, plurality, impersonality, epiphany, or reacts to their loss not with a sigh but a guffaw.

If The Skin jolts forwards by means of incorporation and the forging of avatars, then two instances or objects particularly expose and challenge this a-logical logic: Malaparte’s house and Malaparte’s food; the former of which he enters, the second of which enters him. The two are served up together at General Cork’s banquet, organised in honour of a staunchly puritanical arch-American, Mrs Flat (whose name already indicates how hard she will find it, eponymously two-dimensional as she is, to ingest the fare, never mind the larger Neapolitan lesson). Mrs Flat is intrigued to hear of Malaparte’s house on Capri, whither Malaparte would withdraw with top Allied officers when exhausted from the assault on Cassino. Malaparte has already recounted how this multinational group would imbibe fine wines, themselves of farflung provenance, and how the Homeric group would turn almost Lawrencian, as “we used to sprawl in front of the chimney piece on the chamois skins that cover the stone-paved floor” (201). Yet lest this seem like a retreat within the novel from the Neapolitan person of Malaparte, it should be stressed here that his house is, more even than Naples, an autobiographical construction: casa come me, as he called it, a “house like me”, his ritratto di pietra (“self-portrait in stone”)(31).

Built between 1937 and 1942, against every building regulation and upon one of the most spectacular rocky outcrops in the entire Mediterranean, Malaparte’s house was given its initial design by the renowned architect, Adalberto Libera. But Libera never claimed the house among his works, and scholarship has confirmed that Malaparte himself took over the design and made the house his own, doing so with none of the Christian regret which clogs his literary work, but in the resolutely un-nostalgic International Style of Modernism(32). Just how unnostalgic the house is becomes clear when it is contrasted (which scholarship has rarely done) with the equally famous Capri house belonging to Axel Munthe (whom the author invokes in The Skin only to disparage him), the origins of which are recounted in the pre-War bestseller, The Story of San Michele. Where Munthe’s house on the opposite corner of Capri is a product of patient gathering and enfolding, an assemblage designed to promote inwardness, a tender act of homage to the past, a novelistic house indeed, Malaparte’s house is an affront, more gesture than dwelling, projected above the sea in an extraordinary act of pretension, an architectural exaggeration. That it did not hold water, literally, is perhaps appropriate for this autobiographical construction, where Malaparte’s literary selves will fail to hold water more figuratively.

Mrs Flat is alarmed to learn that in 1942, shortly before the battle of El Alamein, General Rommel was a visitor to Malaparte’s house. Malaparte recounts how he served Rommel wine, then joined him to inspect the spectacular scenery. Leaving, Rommel asks if Malaparte designed the house himself, to which the author responds that he “‘bought the house as it stood’” (204). This lie is mere preface to the larger inflation, which itself is prelude to a joke. Malaparte continues, to the banquet guests:

“And with a sweeping gesture, indicating the sheer cliff of Mastromania, the three gigantic rocks of the Faraglioni, the peninsula of Sorrento, the islands of the Sirens, the far-away blue coastline of Amalfi, and the golden sands of Paestum, shimmering in the distance, I said to him: ‘I designed the scenery’” (204-5).

Perplexed and in retreat, Rommel exclaims, “‘Ah, so!’”, Teutonic literalism stumbling over the blasphemous metamorphosis with which Malaparte sets out to épater not just les bourgeois, but les généraux as well (of whichever dominant army). The fact that no history book would have Rommel anywhere near Capri during this period confirms this as another self-aggrandising refusal of historicity(33). Indeed, Malaparte does not hold water: it may be unsurprising that, having built it, the author hardly ever inhabited his house, which may none the less yet prove to be his most enduring construction.

Mrs Flat barely has time to recover from one provocation before a more sinister one is served, in the form of the banquet’s pièce de résistance: “It was the first time I had ever seen a little girl who had been cooked, a little girl who had been boiled” (218)(34). For lack of fish and as relief from spam rations, General Cork’s major-domo has raided the famous Naples aquarium for what has become “Siren mayonnaise with a border of coral”. The guests are appalled, except for the delighted Malaparte:

"Ah! It was worth losing the war just to see those American officers and that proud American woman sitting pale and horror-stricken round the table of an American general, on which, in a silver tray, reposed the body of a Siren, a sea goddess!" (223)

The Sirens’ island off Capri has shrunk into the alimentary nugget which Malaparte prepares to ingest in a characteristic blend of sacrament and cannibalism(35). Only, before he can tuck in, the siren is whisked away by the uncomprehending General Cork, who orders that it be buried. Death rises up for the American other as anthropomorphic, tragic, literary, above all as meaningful, where for Malaparte it is mythic, indifferent, above all a joke in poor taste. Not only, then, do Eros and the “inverts” foreground decadence and death, but eating does too: death, which the new rulers are determined to personalise and which Malaparte is equally determined to keep impersonal, and, if possible, incomprehensible, even at the cost of forgoing one of the greatest of satisfactions that novels can offer. Death is in fact – or rather death is through fiction – what may constitute the major area of resistance to the colonists, and it is also what constitutes the final area of resistance to the inherited novel form which I wish to consider here.

The rapport of food to jokes and fictitiousness, and the relation of these three to death, are underscored by what is practically the only passage in which an irony directed at the narrator’s self threatens to make this self thicken and develop, psychologically and novelistically, with the imminence of a lesson absorbed. Shortly before Malaparte sits down to lunch with various officers in the hills round Cassino, a mine explodes under a goumier, whose severed hand cannot be found. Nothing daunted, Malaparte eats his couscous. His fellow officers take the chance to heap scepticism upon the accounts of banquets in Kaputt, already published and famous by this time: “Judging from Kaputt,” says one officer, “one would say that Malaparte eats nothing but nightingales’ hearts, served on plates of old Meissen and Nynphenburg porcelain at the tables of Royal Highnesses, Duchesses and Ambassadors” (283). A second general kindly overlooks the accurately diagnosed Malaparte snobbery, to conclude: “Malaparte has a very vivid imagination”. As refutation, the author gives a hypertrophic account of the origins of the humble fare currently before them, tracing the foodstuffs through their habitats back to their regal and sacrosanct origins. The encomiums to ham, trout, and kid lead through St. Thomas Aquinas, Schiller, the Danube, Mycenae, Delphi, to Marakesh, as if the entire Mediterranean basin had been required to yield the humble meal just eaten. But if step one is mythopoeic inflation – death as ritual sacrifice – then step two, which threatens to individualise death, is a demonstration that even inflation is understatement where death is concerned, dictated here by scrupulous table manners. Malaparte reports that the flavour of the couscous has been only somewhat spoiled by “the hand of the unfortunate goumier, which the exploding mine had neatly severed and hurled into the great copper pot in which our kouskous was cooking” (287). To his comrades’ appalled disbelief Malaparte replies by assembling the knuckles and finger-bones on his plate: “One should never make fun of a guest when he is devouring a man’s hand… You will forgive me if, in spite of my good breeding, I wasn’t equal to swallowing the nails” (287-8).

Rather as Malaparte’s Naples takes Walter Benjamin’s formulations on the city and radicalises them, so here the author tries to find a space for his own type of death – or his own type of novel – beyond Benjamin’s linkage of the genre to meaningful dying. Benjamin argues, famously, that “Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell”, that, “the novel is significant, therefore, not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger’s fate by virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about”(36). What will turn out to be most rebarbative in Malaparte – and rebarbative to the new colonists first of all, who are seeking to read meaning into him and his culture – is his refusal to render death in the personal terms which they, and novels, most readily recognise.

Returning now to the meal of the goumier’s hand, we know already that Europe is Malaparte is Europe, and therefore that all eating is, for the narrator, a murderous act bordering on auto-ingurgitation. Yet no example makes it clearer that it is a willingness to acknowledge the dead, and at the very same time to extinguish their tragic potential – even at the cost of cannibalism – that is the sanction of Malaparte’s brand of novelistic ambition. This time it is Colonel Hamilton who draws the conclusion: "That’ll teach you," laughed Jack, "to question the truth of what Malaparte relates in his books!" (p.288). Scepticism rebuffed, Malaparte appears more absorptive than ever; until, on leaving the lunch, he lets on to the Colonel that he has in fact been lying, playing a practical joke with rams’ bones. The character Malaparte cedes to the trickster-narrator Malaparte, who is no longer confirming, but inventing himself now, irresponsibly, sadistically, humorously perhaps; veracity is reduced – to the novel’s gain qua novel – into verisimilitude; verisimilitude is theatricalised; while death is flattened, almost literally disjointed, into farce.

General Cork’s banquet concludes with Malaparte’s being denied his Siren, which is buried in a move that underlines the New World’s burying of the Old, a rejection of that special Counter-Reformation to which Malaparte was devoted (and which he had once seen Fascism as promoting)(37). Yet this minor defeat is instantly followed by another dinner, held this time in the palace of the Prince of Candia, who is himself an idealised Malaparte (being born of parents of mixed nationalities, an opponent of Mussolini, and – unlike Malaparte – a nobleman). The prince’s very palace bespeaks resistance, as it “conforms to that imitation Spanish baroque” of the Counter-Reformation, as does the portrait of his father, which depicts him not in his prime but in the activity – or passivity, rather – of dying. High-flown conversation is barely quelled by the German air-raid which ensues, until a bomb explodes alongside, and the populace breaks in, carrying a dead girl. The prince gives the lead on how death should be encountered: “The traditional attitude of the Neapolitan nobility to death is different from that of the common people. They greet it not with tears but with smiles, almost gallantly, as one greets a beloved woman or a young bride” (238).

The transformation the dead girl will undergo has precedents not least in the portrait of the Prince’s father that Malaparte has been admiring. For Naples has been, over centuries, the ideal site of the picturesque. “One has only to walk the streets,” Goethe writes, “and keep one’s eyes open to see the most inimitable pictures”(38). From the time of Caravaggio, if not for longer, artists have been putting frames round Neapolitan experience, turning living into tableaux vivants(39). The dead girl here is dressed, oiled, adorned until she is Clorinda: “As it lay there on the table the corpse invested the scene with an air of brightness and calm; it transformed the hall and the people in it into a peaceful tableau”(40) (251-2). Malaparte is an expert creator of such tableaux, but his are almost invariably mourants rather than vivants. In Kaputt, death’s ability to create a cruel, surreal version of the picturesque is unforgettably illustrated through a scene in which scores of horses are driven by fire and panic into a Finnish lake which then freezes, leaving the deep-frozen horses’ heads as anguished statues above the ice(41). In The Skin the inhabitants of Hamburg, firebombed and covered in phosphorous, which ignites on contact with air, jump into the canals in a fruitless attempt to save themselves. Death transfixes the human, or exaggerates it, into something beyond even tableau – into a quasi-sculptural stasis which defies interpretation.

The literary correlative of this Dantesque infernal stasis leads beyond mythic inflation, beyond bathos and laughter, into silence, a degree-zero knell, not of individual humans or animals but of the human and the animal, the animate per se; and it sounds the more powerfully – the more silently – in that Malaparte is such an inveterately noisy writer. As harbinger of stasis and silence, Malaparte sees a “black wind”, which transforms itself into a “black voice” (169). He recalls their first appearance, in the Ukraine in 1941: a hallucinatory scene in which he rides through an avenue of trees on each of which is a crucified Jew; men who, still just alive, refuse his succour and Christian pity. Malaparte’s remonstrance of innocence is mocked, as “a horrible laugh ran from tree to tree, from cross to cross” (155). To the vividness of the tableau mourant corresponds an inability to interpret its significance, even as vengeful Christian reprisal. Malaparte, listening, is plunged into deathly fever, frozen into synaesthetic blankness: “The silence was horrible. The light was dead, the smell of the grass, the colour of the leaves, of the stones, of the clouds that drifted through the grey sky – everything was dead, everything was plunged in a vast, empty, frozen silence” (160).

The episode which follows is perhaps the most affecting in the novel, and its intensity is only magnified if one knows that Malaparte harboured greater love of dogs than he did of people. In 1940 Malaparte had published Cane come me (“A Dog Like Me”), a hymn – if a typically autobiographical one – to his faithful hound, Febo(42). In The Skin he explains how Febo, like Odysseus’s Argos, would wait for him when he was imprisoned, how he “was, as it were, the mirror of my soul… the dearest of brothers to me, a true brother, one who betrays not, nor humiliates” (161-2). Febo, who is himself of mythic pedigree, who has held his own against the wife of the philosopher Benedetto Croce, walked in Byron’s footsteps, this Febo one day goes missing, just as the “black wind” appears. Frantic, Malaparte seeks him everywhere, until he finds him in a vivisection unit, “his stomach exposed and a probe buried in his liver” (167). Administering death, Malaparte asks only why the agonised dogs are quite silent. The doctor, lethal syringe in hand, replies: “‘Before we operate on them… we cut their vocal cords’” (168). There is no more damaging noise in the novel than this canine mutism, in which death determinedly resists providing the novelistic warmth of which Benjamin writes. It is so silencing that it almost – if not quite – justifies the volume of Malaparte’s own barking. Though whether it justifies it more or less if one knows that the real-life Febo survived the war intact, and accompanied its master into doggish old-age, is an open question.

Compared to Febo’s, the young girl’s death under bombardment is lyrical, as by becoming Clorinda she is removed from the uncomprehending gaze of the invading armies, be they German or American. The silence that falls upon the crowd is not appalled but awed. Yet the community of mourners barely has time to form before a new laughter is heard, when “a tremendous blood-red glare filled the sky” (256). Every ceremony is dwarfed by Naples’ resident deity, “this inhuman scourge” – Vesuvius (262): “It was a pitiless, implacable voice. It was in truth the voice of a tumultuous malignant nature – the voice of chaos itself” (272). If Naples is, for Malaparte, “my city”, then herein lies the final reason for the adoption: its nearness to an abnegating force that renders the entire cityscape a tableau mourant, this force against which Naples’ patron saint, San Gennaro, whose blood is said to liquefy twice a year in token of his protection, is ludicrously meagre, sticking-plaster to a forthcoming amputation.

Malaparte is in a long line of writers to have found Naples’ fascination in its proximity to Vesuvius, the volcano which challenges any writer’s ability to translate its reality into words. The city became a major site on the Grand Tour as a direct consequence of Winckelmann’s excavations at Pompeii, and Sir William Hamilton divided his time between excavations and vulcanology. Pliny the Younger, in the most famous account of the destruction of Pompeii, took refuge in modesty, claiming to Tacitus that his writing on the disastrous eruption of A.D. 79 was “unworthy of history”(43). Goethe called Vesuvius “this peak of hell”, a “shapeless heap” which “declares war on any sense of beauty”, and after his third ascent, wrote: “The Terrible beside the Beautiful, the Beautiful beside the Terrible, cancel one another out and produce a feeling of indifference. The Neapolitan would certainly be a different creature if he did not feel himself wedged between God and the Devil”(44). Of course, Malaparte opts for neither modesty nor indifference, and his description of the eruption is predictably indulgent and excessive. Yet he does not conclude with drama but, counter-instinctually, with anticlimax. In the final chapter of the novel he climbs the now dormant Vesuvius with his American companion. He watches the Neapolitans invert Goethe’s taxonomy and pray to the volcano as to their god, in the hope of rekindling its flames. Rather like Franz Kafka’s sirens which are never so powerful as when silent, somewhat like Samuel Beckett’s Godot who is so determining in his absence, Malaparte’s death-delivering Vesuvius is never so ominous as when it declines to utter(45). Of course, being who he is, Malaparte has to spoil his own best insight with some cod-Christian pontificating about the Second Coming. Yet even this cannot quite undercut his assertion to his companion, that “here in Europe… only the dead count – dead volcanoes too now." (344).

Throughout the novel it has been the dead’s ability to “count”, to thicken into significance, against which Malaparte has been militating. “Everyone knows,” he writes, “what a race of egoists the dead are. They are the only people in the world, no one else counts. They are jealous, and full of envy, and they forgive the living everything save the fact that they are alive” (66-7). His remedy against the attempt of the dead to rise up and claim meaning for themselves? His remedy has been, of course, to flatten them out of (non-)existence: “The police ought to bury them with handcuffs on their wrists and, having nailed up the coffins securely, lower them into very deep, specially dug holes, and then tread down the earth above the grave, to prevent these bastards from coming out and biting people” (66-7).

Crisis conditions and war were the mainstays of Malaparte’s work, and nothing he wrote after 1947 matches the achievement, however flawed, of Kaputt and The Skin. His attempt post-War to be adopted by the French intelligentsia tripped up over his Fascist past; his belated flirtation with Communism, his excursions to Soviet Russia and Maoist China – he even bequeathed his Capri house to the Chinese State – all bespeak the desperation of a fading talent courting admiration at whatever cost. Malaparte never looks more opportunistic than when trying to appear multi-faceted, almost as if he had failed to learn his own lesson – a lesson with whose first and final emblem I wish now to conclude.

After breaking through at Cassino, the Allied Forces under Colonel Granger are finally entering Rome, on the route which Malaparte claims to have suggested, down the via Appia Antica. The triumphal march is mythologised in typical Malaparte fashion, as the footsteps are retraced of victors from Marius to Tiberius; while death has its poetico-artistic place, and its bathos, as GIs stop to have their photos taken in front of Celopatra’s tomb (“Colonel Granger shouted: ‘A famous signorina, wasn’t she?’” (292)). But death is more literally deflating too, when, at this precise place and moment where Antiquity and Christianity converge, an Italian shouting “Long Live America” falls beneath the caterpillar tracks of an advancing Sherman tank and is crushed.

The episode is neither tragic nor merely comic; absurd rather and grotesque, causing Malaparte to recall another such flattening, from 1941 in the Ukraine. There, a man who had been squashed by a tank into a carpet of human skin was impaled, picked up, and carried through the streets as a standard. Back in the present, Malaparte visits the house of the second flattened man, whom he finds “no thicker than a stout piece of felt” (306). It is precisely this piece of human felt that Malaparte wishes to see flying from the tower of Rome’s Capitol, in its unabashed two-dimensionality. For the eponymous skin is not just “the true flag of us all, victors and vanquished” (306), but, in its final denial of all that is inner, it is the true flag of Malaparte’s eviscerated novel as well.


1. Curzio Malaparte, "The Skin" (translated by David Moore, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1997)
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2. See Fyodor Dostoevsky, "Notes From Underground" (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, New York: Vintage Classics, 1994); Louis-Ferdinand Céline, "Journey to the End of the Night" (translated by Ralph Manheim, London: Calder Publications, 1989), and "Death on Credit" (translated by Ralph Manheim, London: Calder Publications, 1990); Louis-René des Forêts, "Le Bavard" (Paris: Gallimard, 1978); and Thomas Bernhard, for example "Extinction" (translated by David McLintock, London: Penguin Books, 1996). Go Back

3. Curzio Malaparte, "Kaputt" (translated by Cesare Foligno, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1995).
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On Malaparte’s political career up to the Second World War, see Giuseppe Pardini, "Curzio Malaparte: Biografia Politica" (Milan: Luni Editrice, 1998). On Malaparte’s life more broadly see Giordano Bruno Guerri, "L’Arcitaliano: Vita di Curzio Malaparte" (Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori, 2000), and "Il Malaparte Illustrato di Giordano Bruno Guerri" (Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori, 1998).Go Back

The reports from the Franco-Italian front became the work entitled "Il sole è cieco", ("The Sun is Blind") (Florence: Vallecchi, 1947).Go Back

6. Malaparte also undertook a more literal, though covert, change of sides in his texts, when he revised them post-War to make them more palatable to those now in authority. See Guerri, "L’Arcitaliano", passim, and Giancarlo Vigorelli, “Malaparte: testimonianza e proposta di revisione”, in Luigi Martellini, ed., "Curzio Malaparte: Opere Scelte" (Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori, Cellection I Meridiani,1977) pp.XI-XXXIX.Go Back

7. Richard Lamb, "War in Italy 1943-1945" (London: Penguin Books, 1993), chapter one.Go Back

8. Walter Benjamin with Asja Lacis, “Naples”, written 1924, in "One Way Street and Other Writings", (translated by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, London: Verso, 1979), pp.167-176.Go Back

9. See Norman Lewis, "Naples ’44" (London: Eland, 1983), pp.59-60, and, for a fuller account of this movement, "Norman Lewis, The Honoured Society" (London: Eland, 1984), chapters 8-9. Go Back

10. The Italian for this is “scendevamo”. Curzio Malaparte, "La Pelle", in "Opere Scelte", p.967.Go Back

11. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” opens with Latin, Greek, Italian, and German, as well as English. In Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber & Faber, 1963), pp.61-3.Go Back

12. Malaparte praises the Tuscans and his own Tuscan roots in many of his works, not least in "Maledetti Toscani" (in "Opere Scelte" pp.1331-1487).Go Back

13. Much of William Hope’s "Curzio Malaparte: The Narrative Contact Strained" (Market Harborough: Troubadour Publishing, 2000) is devoted to discussion of the relation between Malaparte and his various narrative personae. For the present context, see especially pp.61-2.Go Back

14. On Naples’ increasing importance in the Grand Tour, see Melissa Calaresu, “Looking for Virgil’s Tomb: The End of the Grand Tour and the Cosmopolitan Ideal in Europe”, in  Elsner and Joan-Pau Rubiés, eds., "Voyages and Visions: Towards a Cultural History of Travel" (London: Reaktion Books, 1999), pp.138-312.Go Back

15. Goethe, "Italian Journey" (translated by W.H.Auden and Elizabeth Mayer, London: Penguin, 1970), pp.237-9. Go Back

16. In her novelistic account of Naples in the late eighteenth century, "The Volcano Lover" (London: Vintage, 1993), Susan Sontag provides a vivid portrait of Sir William Hamilton, and portrays his, rather than Goethe’s, horrified reaction to the statues of the Prince of Palagonia:
"They said: the world is mad. Ordinary life is ridiculous, if you take some distance from it. Anything can turn into anything else, anything can be dangerous, anything can collapse, give way. An ordinary object can be made from . . . anything. Any shape can be deformed. Any common purpose served by objects balked." (248) Go Back

17. On the role of Sir William Hamilton and Pompeii in Enlightenment Naples see Alain Schnapp, “Antiquarian Studies in Naples at the end of the Eighteenth Century. From Comparative Archaeology to Comparative Religion”, in Girolamo Imbruglia, ed., "Naples in the Eighteenth Century: The Birth and Death of a Nation State" (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp.154-166. See also Ian Jenkins and Kim Sloan, eds., "Vases and Volcanoes: Sir William Hamilton and His Collection" (London: British Museum Press, 1996).
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18. See Nicholas Boyle, "Goethe: The Poet and the Age Volume I" (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), e.g. pp.428, 506-8.Go Back

19. Goethe, "Italian Journey", p.313.Go Back

20. In "Midnight in Sicily" (London: The Harvill Press, 1998), his book on Sicily and the Italian South, Peter Robb recalls his first visit to Naples in similar terms:
"Naples was a theatre, and Neapolitans further offered a newcomer the vast consolation of a people who’d seen it all. They’d learned to live not as the makers of history but as choral onlookers. History in Naples as in Sicily meant two and a half millennia of foreign occupation." (150) Go Back

21. Some way into the Neapolitan episode of Roberto Rossellini’s film "Paisà" (1946), which portrays the liberation of Italy, the Negro soldier who is its protagonist is led by a Neapolitan "scugnizzo" into a theatre where he finds not humans acting but two-dimensional puppets, just the sort of theatre into which, more broadly, Malaparte leads his own companions. The soldier becomes so involved in what is a racial battle on stage (Christians versus Saracens) that he jumps up and takes part, paralleling the confusion and reversal which Malaparte illustrates in his own account of the Negro soldiers.Go Back

22. In Rossellini’s "Paisá", the helping hand of the "scugnizzo" is also the hand that thieves; though Rossellini, being infinitely more compassionate in his vision than Malaparte, has the Negro soldier recognise and forgive the fact that he is being exploited.Go Back

23. On sexual desire as motor of “narrative desire” see Peter Brooks, "Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative" (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), chapter 2.Go Back

24. On the centrality of Naples to the Freemasonry movement, see Carlo Francovich: "Storia della massoneria in Italia" (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1989), especially ch.10.Go Back

25. On Malaparte the lady’s-man see Guerri, "Il Malaparte Illustrato", pp.50-58.Go Back

26. See Peter Brooks, "Reading for the Plot":
"Upon reflection, one can see that paternity is a dominant issue within the great tradition of the nineteenth-century novel (extending well into the twentieth century), a principal embodiment of its concern with authority, legitimacy, the conflict of generations, and the transmission of wisdom” (p.63) Go Back

27. On relations between Mussolini and the US and Britain during the late 1920s and 1930s see Piers Brendon: "The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s" (London: Pimlico, 2001), chapters 6, 13, 22. Not entirely untypical of the positive response Mussolini found in the English-language world is that of the former ambassador to Italy, Richard Washburn Child, who wrote the foreword to "My Autobiography" by Mussolini (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928). Here, Child states of Il Duce:
"Time has shown that he was neither violent nor absurd. Time has shown that he is both wise and humane.
It takes the world a long time to see what has been dropped into the pan of its old scales!… He is a mystic to himself." (XVII-XIX) Go Back

28. As if sensing the difficulty of portraying the sort of homosexual frisson which Malaparte’s novel exudes, which goes beyond shared showers and Uranianism, Liliana Cavani, in her 1981 film version of "The Skin", greatly increases the importance of women in the narrative.
Discussing Malaparte’s personae in relation to an erotic scene in "Sangue", William Hope offers a suggestion which holds true for most of Malaparte’s work: “The underlying factor in this tale is the way in which readers are manipulated by an equivocal narration which highlights the more prurient elements of the scene while the young Malapartian protagonist, who personally participates in the text, is left unsullied by them” ("Curzio Malaparte: The Narrative Contract Strained", p.75). Further fruitful ways of exploring the relation between Malaparte’s prurience and sexual indifference are thrown up by the discussion of the “split between aesthetics and the senses” in Fascism’s founding ideology, as proposed by Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi in "Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy" (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), p.12, and chapter 1.
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29. It is presumably indicative of an ongoing resistance to Malaparte’s view of Naples that he is not so much as mentioned in the most recent English-language history of the city, John Santore’s "Modern Naples: A Documentary History 1799-1999" (New York: Italica Press, 2001); where, by contrast, Norman Lewis’s "Naples ’44" is quoted extensively.Go Back

30. While this can be hypnotic in the fiction, it becomes close to being disastrous in Malaparte’s drama, as it does in his one film, "Cristo Proibito" (1951). For a more generous assessment of Malaparte’s film, see William Hope, "The Alienation of the Viewer in Malaparte’s Il Cristo Proibito" (Salford: ESRI, 1999, Working papers in Literary & Cultural Studies, no.35).Go Back

31. See Marino Talamona, "Casa Malaparte" (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1992), p.20. Michael McDonough writes of the house: “It has been called the twentieth century’s most beautiful house” (rear cover).
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32. Marina Talamona’s volume, "Casa Malaparte", gives a full account of the relations between Malaparte and Libera. More recently, Gianni Pattena has also studied the relation, in "Casa Malaparte Capri" (Florence: Le Lettere, 1999). This and many other issues relating to the house have been documented in "Malaparte: A House Like Me", edited by Michael McDonough (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1999). The house is perhaps best known as a setting for Jean-Luc Goddard’s film "Le Mépris". The plot of Goddard’s film, itself based on a novel by Alberto Moravia, is not without interest in the present context, presenting as it does a form of pillaging of Europe by America and Hollywood.Go Back

33. See Michael McDonough, ed., "Casa Malaparte", p.31.Go Back

34. That not all elements of this repast are apocryphal can be deduced from the fact that Norman Lewis also mentions this meal of a cooked baby manatee, in "Naples ’44", p.61.Go Back

35. Colman Andrews discusses Malaparte and food in an essay entitled “Eating Malaparte”. In McDonough, ed., "Malaparte: A House Like Me", pp.150-155.Go Back

36. Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Reflections of the Works of Nikolai Leskov”, in Illuminations (translated by Harry Zohn, edited by Hannah Arendt, New York: Schocken Books, 1969), pp.94, 101.Go Back

37. On Malaparte’s linking of Fascism to the Counter-Reformation, see his "Muss.: Ritratto di un dittatore" (manuscript unpublished in Malaparte’s lifetime, collected in "Muss.: Il Grande Imbecile", Milan: Luni Editrice, 1999), where, for example, he writes that: “Fascism, in its essence, is nothing but the complex of defects of Catholic civilisation, the final aspect of the Counter-Reformation” (my translation, p.38). Go Back

38. Goethe, "Italian Journey", p.212. On the lure of the picturesque in Southern Italy, see John Dickie, “Stereotypes of the Italian South 1860-1900” in Robert Lumley and Jonathan Morris, eds, "The New History of the Italian South" (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997), pp.114-147.Go Back

39. Caravaggio visited and stayed in Naples twice, in 1606 and 1609. Most famous of the paintings he executed there are the "Seven Works of Mercy", now housed in Naples’ Pio Monte della Misericordia, and the "Flagellation of Christ" now in the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte. On Caravaggio’s use of the Neapolitan poor see Catherine Puglisi, "Caravaggio" (London: Phaidon Press, 2000), pp.259-277, and Helen Langdon, "Caravaggio: A Life" (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2000), pp.319-339.Go Back

40. The original does not employ the French “tableau”, which is self-consciously aestheticising, but “paesaggio”, with its more mythico-buccolic associations.Go Back

41. Malaparte, "Kaputt", chapter 3, “Ice Horses”.Go Back

42. In "Donna come me", in Malaparte, "Opere Scelte", pp. 373-7.Go Back

43. Cited in Robert Etienne, "Pompeii, The Day a City Died" (translated by Caroline Palmer, London: Thames and Hudson, 1994), p.145.Go Back

44. Goethe, "Italian Journey", pp.192, 215.Go Back

45. See Franz Kafka, “The Silence of the Sirens”, in "Collected Stories" (Edited by Gabriel Josipovici, London: David Campbell Publishers, Everyman’s Library, 1993), pp.398-9; and Samuel Beckett, "Waiting for Godot", in "The Complete Dramatic Works" (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), pp.7-88.Go Back