Just ask Kurt Erich Suckert.
Better known by his penname Curzio Malaparte, Suckert moved to Paris in 1947, trailing behind him a controversial past. Born in Prato at the end of the 19th century, he enlisted in the Garibaldi Legion during World War I and fought alongside French troops. When the war ended, Malaparte’s attraction to violence persisted. Upon publishing a couple of books that denounced the political class’s handling of the conflict, Malaparte rallied to the Fascist Party movement led by Benito Mussolini. In 1924, he threw his considerable weight behind Mussolini, who had ordered the assassination of the prominent anti-fascist politician Giacomo Matteotti. A signatory of the 1925 Manifesto of Italian Intellectuals, Malaparte trumpeted the virtues of fascism as editor of the powerful newspaper La Stampa. Yet, in a fantastically misconceived effort to take down the fascist minister of the air force, Italo Balbo, he was exiled to the island of Lipari.
His stay was as short as it was comfortable. When Malaparte left behind the island’s majestic views, he rejoined Mussolini’s regime — that is, until the regime’s fall and Mussolini’s execution. While his former duce hanged by his feet in a Milanese public square, Malaparte did not hang around. With an adroit political pivot, the one-time herald of fascism joined the Allied forces and reported on the battles for the communist newspaper L’Unità. The publication of his collected articles, titled The Skin, resembles, though to more horrific effect, the blending of fact and fiction of a Georges Bernanos or André Malraux.
In fact, Malaparte recounts his first encounter, in 1931, with Malraux in Paris. It did not go well. As Malaparte was about to enter the apartment building of an acquaintance, the essayist Daniel Halévy, a pimply young man accosted him to ask for 20 francs. Without asking why, Malaparte handed him the bill, which the stranger then gave to the driver of the taxi that had dropped him off. Upon taking the change, the stranger pocketed it and, without a word to Malaparte, went inside the building. The bemused Malaparte stood there for a few minutes, then entered as well. When he knocked at Halévy’s door, his host let him in and introduced him to the stranger from downstairs: “And this is Malraux.”
Most of Malaparte’s encounters in Paris, more than a decade later, did not go well either. The Left Bank was not the best of places for a former Italian fascist to pass out calling cards. It was no secret that Malaparte was in Paris not to stroll its streets, but to avoid arrest or worse on the streets of Rome. What is surprising is not the cold shoulders Malaparte kept getting, but that he himself was at first surprised by this reception. His accounts of these many humiliations, which pockmark his diary, are mesmerizing. At times, it seems that the one thing Parisian intellectuals had in common was their distaste for this smooth-talking, shape-shifting Italian.
Take François Mauriac, for example. Malaparte writes that when he first met the Catholic and conservative novelist in 1933, they hit it off. Not so much, though, in 1947. At a dinner party held by a mutual friend, Malaparte is shocked: “I immediately sense something in his greeting that surprises me: a hint of animosity, of repulsion, of dislike. He doesn’t like me, I tell myself.” In a marvel of self-(mis)introspection, Malaparte wonders why this may be the case. What could possibly have gone wrong? After all, the “war did not happen between us. I have the right to find him again as I left him.”
Yet, a war did happen between their countries in 1940 — a war in which the two men chose different sides. Whereas Mauriac was an exceptionally early member of the French Resistance, Malaparte was an exceptionally tardy and dubious member of Italian resistance to Mussolini. And yet, Malaparte does not get it — or, rather, he does get it, but refuses to accept it. After Mauriac repeatedly interrupts him during the dinner, Malaparte falls silent, reflecting that those foreigners “who came to Rome before the war to pay homage to Mussolini are rather more responsible than the Italians, who had no choice.”
Did they not? There were Italian intellectuals who chose to resist. Some, like Piero Gobetti and Antonio Gramsci, paid with their lives; others, like Gaetano Salvemini, fled into exile; yet others, like Carlo Levi, were imprisoned; and, finally, some who were too powerful to be made into martyrs, like Benedetto Croce, were watched carefully but untouched.
Another French intellectual, though on the other side of the political spectrum from Mauriac, reminded Malaparte about the importance of choice — Albert Camus. In 1948, Malaparte was at another dinner party — when not dining at Taillevent, our foreigner in Paris was doing the rounds of socialites — and met the author of the just-published The Plague. This encounter went no better than the one with Mauriac: Albert Camus was “seated on a sofa between two young women. I immediately noticed he was looking at me with hate.” Insisting he did not mind Camus’s hostility, Malaparte reflects: “It’s his business.” When the conversation turned to the trials of Mussolini’s cabinet ministers, Camus pronounced “that all these men, assassins, etc., should be shot.” Among the “etc.,” Malaparte concludes, was Malaparte himself: “I understood very well that Camus wanted to imply that I too should be shot.”
That Camus was seated between two young women is the only credible element to this account. A lifelong opponent of capital punishment, Camus only called for state execution toward the war’s end. In a series of editorials, he insisted that certain collaborators, like the former minister Pierre Pucheu, had forfeited their own lives by having ended the lives of resisters and innocents. By the end of 1945, when he signed a petition for the commutation of the death sentence handed down to the French novelist and collaborator Robert Brasillach, he announced that he had been wrong. (A few years later, he confessed in a public talk that his calls for the death penalty were wrong and that, yes, Mauriac’s calls for charity had been right.) It is unlikely that Camus would have called for public shootings three years later, just as it is all too likely that Malaparte wished he was important enough to merit such a pronouncement from Camus.
Perhaps the factuality of this and other vignettes can be seen as instances of what Edmund White, in his superb introduction, calls Malaparte’s tendency to be what the French call a “mythomane.” Such a person, White explains, is “a compulsive liar who embellishes the truth, not necessarily for gain but out of an irrepressible compulsion.” Yet the fatuousness of other passages, where Malaparte plays with ideas and not facts, makes one wonder why we should read him at all. Consider his reflections on the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Where the French revolutionaries saw a stage for the guillotine, Gene Kelly saw a stage for a dance scene, and the typical American tourist sees a vast gray space and a bizarre obelisk surrounded by a moat of traffic, Malaparte sees an “idea.” In several pages of rambling reflections, Malaparte never clarifies this “idea,” all the while offering provocative but preposterous claims. (We learn, for example, that French modernity issues from neither of the Napoleons, but instead from Louis XV — a statement that would have given Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the late 19th-century city planner who made modern Paris, a good chuckle.)
Even in his most absurd or self-absorbed passages, however, Malaparte often stumbles into insights. Paris was then awash with “résistancialisme,” less a politics than a branding based on the Gaullist myth of France as a nation of resisters. Malaparte’s portraits of Mauriac and Camus capture the sad truth that even people of their high caliber were not immune to this narrative. And while Malaparte’s philosophizing mostly flops, his phrasemaking (so finely wrought by the book’s translator, Stephen Twilley) often shatters. His vignettes of working-class Paris are heart-stopping. We glimpse the Porte de la Villette metro station, with its “little yellow garlands, its glowing yellow glass which is stuck up there like the sign for a lazaretto” as it “rolls along like a […] train of cholera sufferers.” And at the public pool near the Canal Saint-Denis, some of the boys, unable to afford bathing trunks, wear pages of left-wing papers like the Communist Party’s L’Humanité and Camus’s Combat around their waists. Before diving in, the boys place “a newspaper at the edge of the pool to cover themselves with when they return to dry land.”
Such indelible scenes, where Malaparte portrays himself in the company of Parisians and foreigners, rich and poor, abound in the book. Most mesmerizing, however, are those scenes where we see Malaparte in the company of, well, dogs. Peppering the diary are accounts of him barking and howling at night with neighborhood canines. Defending himself against the charge of eccentricity, he insists that “there is nothing more natural, when you love dogs, than to bark with them.” It turned out the Swiss thought it unnatural. While staying at the ski resort of Crans, Malaparte is warned by the local police that barking with dogs is a sign of “loose morals.” When he begins to protest, the official replies: “It begins with barking, monsieur, and ends with biting.” The French, though, are more understanding. Unlike the Swiss, they know “that there is nothing that gives greater pleasure to a man who lives alone than barking with the dogs.” I can’t think of a better distillation of what separates the French from the Swiss, or of a better reason to read Malaparte.
Robert Zaretsky is author, most recently, of Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher and the Fate of the Enlightenment. His new book, The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Acts, will be published next February.