A Panorama of Death and Vanity

Curzio Malaparte, trans. Jenny McPhee, The Kremlin Ball

NYRB Classics, 223pp, $15.95, ISBN 9781681372099

reviewed by Marcel Inhoff

The Kremlin Ball is an extraordinary book – flawed, incomplete, mad. As literature it is nowhere near Malaparte’s best, and yet its inadequacies make it the pleasurable rarity that it is. It is an unfinished novel, found among the writer’s papers after his death. Composed in large part between his two better-known masterpieces, Kaputt (1944) and The Skin (1949), it breaks new ground for the novelist and scandal-monger. Rather than describe – as the other two books did, often in horrifying detail - the devastation of war and its aftermath, The Kremlin Ball, set in Moscow in 1929, projects its violence into the future, with a single death – not observed directly - symbolising the looming murder of millions in Stalin’s purges.

Though nominally a fragment, The Kremlin Ball feels more or less complete, and is composed with at least as much care and subtlety as Malaparte’s other books. Ballet-like, it relies on repetition and dynamism to guide the reader through a sorry time and place in Soviet society, just before Stalin’s paranoia places the leaders of the revolution, the ‘nobility’ of Soviet Russia, on the altar. There is little room for plot, for digression, for description: instead, Malaparte’s book is chock-a-block with famous people and famous names. Two chapters are dedicated to walks around Moscow with Bulgakov; others invoke dinners with Mayakovsky, surprise run-ins with Prince Lvov, and flirtatious chitchat with Dmitry Florinsky, Chief of the Protocol Division of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union. Kaputt had already blurred the lines between documentary and invention, but The Kremlin Ball goes further, and readers find themselves in a hazy dream that combines Malaparte’s penchant for hobnobbing with Western European aristocrats and the liminal state of 1920s Soviet Russia.

Malaparte likes to compare himself – almost obsessively – to Proust and reviewers have seen in him a forerunner to Doctorow or even Kapuscinski, but here, he comes across like an early Gonzo journalist: his walks through Stalin’s court bear many of the marks of Hunter S. Thompson’s encounters with Nixon and his underlings. As Daniela Kirschstein notes, Malaparte is a trickster, a half-German, half-Lombard named Kurt Erich Suckert who adopted the pseudonym ‘Malaparte’ to place himself in the maelstrom of 20t- century totalitarianism and violence – and his method recalls Thompson’s evocations of imagined or real encounters with lawyers, politicians, criminals or cops, all of them centred around ‘a character who’s called “I”,’ to quote a line from Malaparte’s Journal d'un étranger à Paris.

The Gonzo comparison also helps situate his creative and political impetus. Malaparte, along with other writers like Luigi Pirandello, started his career as a writer embracing Italian fascism. Yet his fascist leanings are mostly consonant with those of the ‘conservative revolutionary’ camp, a group of thinkers and writers who at times came into conflict with fascist authorities. Malaparte became notorious by the late 1920s for his inability to ally with a single party, and the title of his first novel, Don Camaleo or Don Chameleon, a satire of Mussolini, was used to disparage Malaparte himself, among other places in Gramsci’s prison journals, where he appears as a man of dubious, protean character.

Without dismissing the gravity of his fascist inclinations, Malaparte’s reactionary ideas about death, order, and masculinity do not easily fit any political map. Much like Thompson’s, his decadent, seemingly indulgent work is fired by a singular political vision; unlike Thompson, Malaparte has no Nixon to take aim at, no obvious political allies or opponents. He supported Mussolini, then fell from his favour while retaining support in Italy’s fascist hierarchy. He sympathised with communism, and tried joining the Italian communist party after WWII, but what drew him to the movement once more eludes any plausible notion of communist orthodoxy.

Indeed, Malaparte’s focus is never really ideology – it is always Malaparte himself, or rather, ‘Malaparte’ the fictional character around whom everything inevitably revolves. In Kaputt and The Skin, his monomania is masked in part by the enormity of the war raging around him, and only becomes evident in the framing scenes: big dinners with aristocrats or higher-ups among the German fascists, like the Governor-General of the occupied Polish territories, or even, in one of Kaputt’s most bizarre scenes, a meeting with Himmler in a sauna, complete with an in-depth description of Himmler’s naked body.

The Kremlin Ball, on the other hand, consists entirely of scenes like this. The vastness of war no longer detracts from Malaparte’s self-regard. Every meeting is with someone famous who treats ‘Malaparte’ with distinction and respect. And the character is always in the eye of the storm, observing important personages soon to be swallowed by the hungry maw of history. The effect is one of distortion, of unreality. Kaputt is based on real reporting, some of it collected in the volume The Volga Rises in Europe. Kirschstein’s applied the ‘trickster’ label in discussing Kaputt, because it is there where Malaparte injects the raw material of journalism with the juice of fiction and the insistent spotlighting of the author’s avatar. Kaputt brilliantly dissolves the borders between reality and invention in that book, whereas in The Kremlin Ball, the journalistic pretence has been abandoned. A note added to the book proclaims that everything described is true; but the book itself seems unreal.

Malaparte winks and nudges the reader multiple times. In a description of a German journalist, he observes: ‘It was that same grotesque and profoundly cumbersome aspect that one finds in the people painted by Lucas Cranach.’ This scene is echoed in the essay about death that caps off the book, noting that ‘[i]n German art, there isn’t a great difference between the dead and the living.’ The Kremlin Ball is largely a chronicle of individuals on the verge of death – or, in the case of Mayakovsky, who die in the course of the narrative – and taken as a whole, it is a panorama or phantasmagoria of death and vanity, with a self-portrait tucked right into the centre. Like many Italian fascists, Malaparte was attracted by Renaissance Italy – D’Annunzio’s short lived Reggenza Italiana del Carnaro in Fiume is the most famous example of this nexus – and this projection of a danse macabre, a ball of the vain and arrogant, fits with that perverse interweaving of ideology and high culture that has characterised a surprisingly broad array of fascists and quasi-fascists, from Goering to the notorious mafia associate and bibliophile Marcello dell’Utri.

It is hard to say how much of the book’s effects are intentional. The many repetitions have a musical effect – but they could be the result of a lack of editing. It may be Malaparte hoped eventually to rectify his excessive doting on the noble and notable. Regrettably, neither translator Jenny McPhee’s introduction nor the notes in the back give insight into why this text was edited as it was; McPhee simply notes that among the papers Malaparte left behind after his death, there were ‘many drafts and versions of the manuscript.’ One wonders at the nature of an editorial intervention that would produce such numerous mistakes: while logical inconsistencies, jumps, and are common in posthumous works, settling on one name for, say, the British ambassador, who is called four different names in the first chapter alone, should be an easy editorial decision. Curiously, these apparent shortcomings add to the text’s allure: there’s a beguiling confusion here, a shimmering opacity that fits the tale told on the page quite well.

In his preface to the German translation of The Volga Rises in Europe, Heiner Müller offers a long elegy to the idea of progress – and the dichotomy of man and machine. The body, he writes, has a different sense of time and progress than the machine. The body is normally front and centre in Malaparte’s best-known books. In The Kremlin Ball, it takes a backseat, even including the account of a makeshift morgue in Soviet Russia. The body is hidden – except for one intriguing episode towards the end of the book.

If you read Malaparte’s work closely, you will note a persistent preoccupation with masculinity and femininity. Like many fascist or formerly fascist writers, his relationship to masculinity and homosexuality is complex. Some of his nonfiction contains homophobic rants, a man in drag appears in a central episode of The Skin, but The Kremlin Ball’s portrayal of a gay man, Dmitry Florinsky, is almost tender. Malaparte registers the pressures of revolutionary puritanism, the way Florinsky expressed his gayness, and at the same time how he was forced to hide it away. The tone is a rare one in Malaparte’s work, and one wonders whether it points toward another direction he might have taken or whether, had he got round to editing this text, he would have struck the tenderness from the page and replaced it with the tense, grotesque violence typical of his descriptions of bisexuality and homosexuality (or effeminate masculinity in general) elsewhere in his work.

For better or worse, The Kremlin Ball gives us a point-blank perspective on Malaparte’s literary and personal inclinations: his egomania, his disdain for simple people, his attraction to totalitarianism, and his conflicted feelings towards masculinity. That alone makes it well worth reading.