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“It begins with barking, monsieur, and finishes with biting.” @nyrbclassics #malaparte

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Diary of a Foreigner in Paris by Curzio Malaparte
Translated by Stephen Twilley

Talk about contrast… My last read was a lovely, escapist set of pieces by J.B. Priestley. So of course my grasshopper mind immediately takes me to something completely different – the diary of an Italian author revisiting his beloved Paris in the aftermath of World War 2! Curzio Malaparte has appeared on the Ramblings before; I read and loved and reviewed his book “The Kremlin Ball” back in 2018, and it was one of my reads of the year. So I was, of course, very excited to hear that NYRB were bringing out his “Diary of a Foreigner in Paris”, particularly as it was set in that particulary city and that particular time – both of which are fascinating.

I said of Malaparte in my “Kremlin…” review: “Curzio Malaparte was the pseudonym of Kurt Erich Suckert, an Italian journalist and public figure whose life history would make a book in itself. Initially a supporter of Fascism, he fell out of favour with Mussolini, was jailed, worked as a correspondent during WW2 and turned to the left politically after the war. He’s best known for books he wrote based on his time on the Eastern Front…” Those books I mentioned are called “Kaputt” and “The Skin”, and from what I know of them I think they might be a little hard for me to stomach. “Diary…”, however, continues the kind of writing in “Kremlin…”; that is, autobiography which may or may not be true!

In periods of revolution, war, famine, epidemics, and other scourges, all peoples turn nasty, very often against their own nature. What happens to individuals happens to peoples: evil, misfortune, and hunger turns them into wolves. But with the return of serenity, nature regains the upper hand, and goodness and kindness return.

Intriguingly, “Diary…” seems to have had almost as complex a history as “Zoo…”, having been published in French and Italian editions, after Malaparte’s death. There are again differences between the two versions, and the NYRB edition admirably brings both together into as coherent a whole as possible. There are dated entries in two sections, for 1947 and 1948, plus a long section of undated entries at the end; so kudos are due to translator Stephen Twilley for bringing this all together.

The Paris that I rediscover is a Paris between two revolutions. I am a foreigner, writing this diary so that it can be published not in my country, which it lacks the spirit necessary to understand and appreciate certain things, but in France.

Malaparte’s “Diary…” notably covers his *return* to Paris; for this was his first trip back to the city for fourteen years, and he was obviously keen to get away from Italy and back to a city he patently loved. So he looks up old friends; wanders the streets and mingles with people from all strata of society; and observes the changes which have taken place during the cataclysmic conflict.

I observe the sad and stunned mask of Jean Cocteau. In his ‘Difficulte d’etre’ he speaks gently, with affectionate detachment, about his face, about the crease or wrinkle in the middle of his face. I don’t see any wrinkles in his pale and gray mask, but something silvery, gossamer, quivering, as if he had just passed through the forest and emerged with impalpable spiderwebs on his face.

However, the return visit is not without problems for Malaparte. For a start, he’s regarded with suspicion by many former friends and colleagues; seen as a collaborator, because of his initial support for Fascism and Mussolini, the fact that he switched sides does not seem to help endear him. And the city and the people have changed; a new generation of young people, influenced by the world view of writers like Sartre, are coming to prominence, and Malaparte simply cannot relate to them. He finds Sartre a fraud; Camus hostile; and the fleeting glimpses of Cocteau present a character almost without substance. In the end, Malaparte seems to relate more to animals than people, gaining his greatest pleasures from howling to the dogs of Paris during the night…

It’s a new race coming up in Europe, invading nations and inundating everything. It’s the race of young petty bourgeois who are disgusted with the bourgeoisie, who don’t have the courage to think of themselves as proletarian, to mix with the workers, to break the ties that bind them to their class, the past, their comforts… The legitimate representative of this class, of this unconfident, cowardly, soft, discouraged race, is Sartre.

“Diary…” was an unusual book, and one that was in many ways a little harder to get close to than “Kremlin…” There’s a similar feeling of melancholy running through it, owing to the devastation wreaked on Paris and its people during the war. Malaparte is quite judgemental, possibly because of the hardships he experienced during the war himself; nevertheless, I was a little surprised to see his negativity towards people for being badly dressed, tired or the like. Paris suffered unimaginably during occupation; perhaps not as badly as for those stuck in the Siege of Leningrad; but even so, to expect things to have returned to a pre-war normality which existed in the 1920s and 1930s is perhaps a little unrealistic. And Malaparte is obviously a man not attuned to the changes taking place and the wish of the younger people to build a new reality; he harks back often to golden days of the past, the men he knew during WW1 and WW2, and there’s a poignancy in his yearning for lost times and places and ways.

I like this hidden love for the new ideas; for the new France, the new glory. However, nothing material binds me to this old France (this old Italy, this old Europe) that I’ve seen – that I’m seeing – die.

There were times when this slightly judgemental attitude rubbed a little, and I found myself wanting to chastise the author for his lack of sympathy. However, I forgave him much simply because of the wonderful quality of his writing! Malaparte really was a remarkable and individual prose stylist; his descriptions soar, his evocations of place and person are vivid, and to be frank those parts of the books were the best for me. Malaparte is keen to discuss his philosophies of life and France, and those were interesting, particularly when they touched on Chateaubriand (who’s still lurking in my TBR); but the book shone when he was conjuring up a night in Paris, a grand actress or memories of his meeting with Mussolini.

Malaparte (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Malaparte’s stories… are made from nothing, but he tells them well.

The introduction by Edmund White describes Malaparte as a mythomane, and certainly with any of his books the reader would be advised to regard all facts as suspect and subject to interpretation! He’s an ambiguous figure, because of his constant shifts of loyalty and his playing with the truth; but what’s not in dispute is his stunning writing and sparkling prose. Whatever his ultimate motives in writing his works, he’s worth reading for the beauty of his narrative and his wonderful evocation of time and place. Malaparte was at this point in his life, as the quote on the back of the book from Barry Gifford quips, a man-apart from the modern world, very much an outsider observing a place he had once loved deeply (and probably underneath it all, still does). His bracing mix of memoir, philosophy and most probably fiction makes for a fascinating look at post-war Paris, as well as giving us a look inside the mind of a very ambiguous and complex man!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

On My Book Table…7 – modest ambitions!

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After the excitement of all the reading and sharing from the #1920Club I was as usual a bit uncertain as to what I wanted to read next. I went for some Golden Age crime of various sorts, but then I decided it was time to have a bit of a reshuffle of the book table to see if I could focus on books I fancied tackling in the immediate future. Plus, a few new titles have made it through the blockades so I thought I would share those too! So here we go…

First up, let’s take a look at the contents of the Book Basket. Some of these are the same as when I last  shared this on social media – the Nairn and the two Huysmans are still WIPs. However, another sneaky little Notting Hill Editions hardback has crept in, in the form of Roland Barthes’ “Mourning Diary” – yes, another addition to my growing Barthes pile! That’s a recent arrival, as is the Dickinson volume. I’ve had a skinny Faber selected volume of her poems since my teens but I’ve been hankering after a complete edition for some time now. When I saw this one available for a reasonable price I snapped it up – ideal for dipping!

Chunksters! Let’s have some big books! All of these have been hanging around waiting for me to notice them for some time now; the Mollie Panter-Downes “London War Notes” volume is a beautiful Persephone I picked up some time back when they had a special offer. It seems like it would be apt reading for these times. The Chateaubriand is a lovely review copy from NYRB (I need to catch up….) and what I’ve read so far has been fascinating. And Carlyle’s “French Revolution” jumped back into my line of sight recently when I read the marvellous Persephone Jane Carlyle book. All would be wonderful to sink into for hours…

Then we have a few random titles which happen to appeal, mostly unearthed after a recent reshuffle. The Colette is one I’ve intended to reread for ages, but somehow never get to despite it being the perfect recent read for 1920… The Bachelard is a more recent acquisition and one which my radar picked up again recently (you might understand why next week). And “I Burn Paris” had been started a couple of times; it’s a beautiful hardback Twisted Spoon edition and although the subject matter is perhaps going to be a little triggery in these pandemic times, I do want to get to it sooner rather than later.

Last but not least, some recent arrivals. Needless to say, because of Outside Circumstances, the books making their way into the Ramblings have reduced in number – no browsing in charity shops nowadays, alas. But I *am* acquiring the odd one or two! The NYRBs are review copies – thank you! – and I’m very excited about these, particularly the Malaparte. “The Yellow Sofa” was one I read about on Tony’s Book Blog and I loved the sound of it (and it’s slim…). “Paris Then and Now” is pretty pictures of the place – ’nuff said. And the Mansfield is a most lovely first edition of her “Novels and Novelists” collection of reviews which I snagged at a Very Reasonable Price online. Last, but definitely not least, “People, Places, Things” is a collection of Elizabeth Bowen’s essays. This is a scholarly publication – but why her non-fiction isn’t more widely available is a mystery to me as I love her writing.

So there you have it. Plenty of reading available for this strange lockdown world in which we find ourselves. As I write this, I’m just coming to the end of another wonderful and comforting Golden Age crime read from the British Library Crime Classics series; so where I go next is anyone’s guess… ;D

Some Christmas gifting recommendations @shinynewbooks

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I’ve been happy to be a contributor to Shiny New Books since the online mag first started up getting on for five years ago; and last year the editors decided it would be nice if we made some suggestions of books that we’d recommend as gifts to people at Christmas, an idea that’s being repeated this year too.

I seem to have had quite a successful reading year in 2018 and it was actually difficult to make my choices. However, I managed to select three titles in the end which really made a big impression on me during the year. Inevitably there are Russians…

The whole feature has some wonderful ideas for Christmas shopping – or indeed for books you might like to suggest people get for you! So do pop over to Shiny and have a look – you can never have too many book ideas to my mind… 🤣

“Art is a mask that covers the face of nature” – a journey back to twenties Moscow with Curzio Malaparte @nyrbclassics

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The Kremlin Ball by Curzio Malaparte
Translated from the Italian by Jenny McPhee

Sometimes I find that I read a book that’s so involving, so thought-provoking and which worms its way into my brain so deeply that I actually find it hard to know where to start writing about it. “The Kremlin Ball” is one of those books; I’d never heard of it but I knew I wanted to read it the minute I saw the blurb in the NYRB catalogue; and now I’ve finished it, I’m struggling to know where to begin. But let’s try….

Curzio Malaparte was the pseudonym of Kurt Erich Suckert, an Italian journalist and public figure whose life history would make a book in itself. Initially a supporter of Fascism, he fell out of favour with Mussolini, was jailed, worked as a correspondent during WW2 and turned to the left politically after the war. He’s best known for books he wrote based on his time on the Eastern Front, but this work is an unfinished gem which has only just been made available in English, thanks to the sterling work of translator Jenny McPhee. Left unfinished on Malaparte’s death in 1957, it was put together from material abandoned in 1950 and never returned to, and it’s unique and utterly fascinating.

Set in Moscow in 1929, the book is narrated by Malaparte himself – whether a fictionalised version of the author, or meant as kind of autobiography is not clear. Malaparte states in his foreword “everything is true” but whether it is, or whether events and people are filtered through the author’s memory, beliefs and sensibility is, in the end, unimportant. What matters is the message the book is trying to get across.

So we are introduced to Malaparte the narrator, in Russia to research books on Lenin (which he did indeed publish) In Moscow he encounters Society (with a very definite capital S) in a post-Revolutionary Soviet Russia. And despite that revolution, things don’t seem to have changed much for the better; because the rich strata of boyars, nobles and Tsars have been replaced by Soviet boyars, high-ranking functionaries with all the privileges available and Stalin. Malaparte ranges between shocked and amused, watching the nouveau riche of Soviet times disporting themselves at parties and functions, while they dream of a lavish Parisian lifestyle, and noting how little changes in any country after a revolution has taken place and then things settle down again.

I spoke to her of Paris. Of the city’s gray and turquoise colors, of the autumnal pinks, the golden leaves of the maronniers, the horse chestnuts along the Seine, of the mist that rises in the evenings along the river, of the leaves crackling beneath the feet of the passersby, of the Tuileries Gardens.

Often accompanied by a juvenile side-kick, Marika, Malaparte roams Moscow, watching as the city is demolished and rebuilt. He wanders the streets with Bulgakov, ruminating on the lack of religion in the Soviet land; visits Mayakovsky’s room shortly after the poet’s suicide, and laments his loss; drops in on Litvinov and ponders the lack of miracles in Moscow; and always has a cynical eye on the fact that one group of the rich has been replaced by a new group of the rich. He’s unsparing when it comes to his portraits of the elite, pinning them down in beautiful but cruel prose.

Madame Yegorova was a petite brunette, very beautiful, clad in soft flab like a pearl in a velvet case, and, like a pearl, she had a damp, cold listlessness, a savage delicacy, a multishaded gray sheen of indifference, a distracted, distant callousness.

The star of the book, however, is the constantly changing Moscow, being rebuilt around him.The cover image, detail from “New Moscow” by Pimenov, is particularly apt, as it shows a modern, skyscrapered city with shiny new cars and fashions; a new world being dragged out of the old timbered city. Malaparte bemoans this wanton, wholesale destruction, particularly whilst ambling with Bulgakov, but I expect the people who had been dealing with the Moscow housing crisis and living through the privations of the 1920s would have been very, very happy indeed to have a roof over their heads. The vivid descriptions bring to life the changing landscape and Malaparte’s wonderful writing really captures the atmosphere of transition.

The complete Pimenov image

However, underlying all this is his meditation on the state of the revolution and how the communist dream has gone sour. There is a constant sense of doom; a feeling that the revolutionary ideals are in peril and it’s worth bearing in mind that the Great Terror was just around the corner (and in fact there are indications of this starting during the book). Malaparte’s narrator-self is looking back at 1929 from a decade and a half later with the knowledge of what came later, and can see that the executions which have begun are only a hint of what will happen during the 1930s. There is a thread which runs through the book concerning the rotting, mummified corpse of Lenin – indeed the final chapter deals specifically with death under Communist rule – and it’s impossible not to see Lenin’s remains as analogous to the rotting heart of Communism.

All of us in Moscow were united in praise for the spareness and simplicity of Stalin’s lifestyle, of his simple, elegant, worker-like ways, but Stalin did not belong to the communist nobility. Stalin was Bonaparte after the coup of 18 Brumaire: He was master, dictator…

Particularly striking for me (bearing in mind my current sphere of interest….!) were the constant parallels Malaparte drew with the French Revolution. This was another conflict which ended up replacing one elite with another, and also descended into wholesale bloodshed. Malaparte almost seems to imply that any revolution is doomed, and that may well simply be because of greed and human nature. The French conflicts are forever lurking in the background, present in references as wide-ranging as the poetry of Andre Chenier or the prose of Proust.

Malaparte

I have to confess that I found the sections which featured Bulgakov and Mayakovsky (two of my great literary loves) particularly affecting. I’ve no idea whether Malaparte actually met them and whether his encounters are based on anything like fact, but there’s an underlying sadness emanating from both men. Bulgakov looks for Christ in Moscow, while Mayakovsky wrestles with his demons and eventually is defeated. Malaparte is moved to defend him against charges of corruption by his visit to America, lamenting the loss of a great man.

To what, I asked myself, could an intelligent man ever be converted to in America?

“The Kremlin Ball” is a fascinating and unique work. The narrative is fragmentary, although how much of this is because of the unfinished nature of the work is not clear. Characters come and go, their names undergoing subtle variations; there are repetitions of descriptions; and all of this reflects Moscow itself, undergoing changes of its own and in as much of a state of flux as the narrative itself. The writing is often beautiful and evocative, and whether the book is fiction masquerading as memoir, or memoir which has been fictionalised is unclear; but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter that much. Malaparte paints a vivid and compelling portrait of a city and its denizens at a point of change, capturing figures who would go on to be statistics in the history books, while pondering on life, revolution and religion. It’s a heady and intoxicating mix, and I think a second reading would bring out many more resonances. “The Kremlin Ball” is one of those haunting books which changes your perspective on a time, a place, a thought, a belief; it’s a shame it was never finished, but how lucky we are to have what remains of it.

Review copy kindly provided by the publishers by Emma O’Bryen, for which many thanks!

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