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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!)

Two Sides of Italy

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The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani
That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since I read these two volumes, so I fear I shall struggle a little to be coherent about them. But they were both fascinating books in different ways and so I’ll try to pull together some thoughts about them. The first of the two, Bassani’s masterpiece “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” is a book that slipped into my vision some years ago in the form of a Penguin paperback version. I struggled to begin it and finally gave it away. However, it was recommended to me again recently after I’d read “The Leopard” and I thought maybe I should have another go. A little research revealed an Everyman version, translated by William Weaver (who was Calvino’s main translator) and I wondered if this might be the key. I took a risk sending off for a copy from an online seller with a terrible record and amazingly ended up with a really nice copy for a low price – an ex-library book, but despite that in very good condition for £2.81!

garden

And I think translation might well have been the issue, because I sailed through this beautiful version with no hesitation. Told in flashback, the story is an elegiac one, narrated by a young Jewish man living in pre-WW2 Ferrara. He is unnamed, but as the foreword tells us, most often referred to as G. as commentators see the novel as heavily autobiographical. As the racial laws begin to take hold and Jews are gradually banned from public places and offices, several young people take refuge in the garden of the title to play tennis. The Finzi-Continis are a reclusive Jewish family, whose members are only glimpsed occasionally during the narrator’s childhood. However, as the exiled young people begin to mix, G. becomes entranced by the daughter of the family, Micol. Suffering agonies of emotion, he finally reveals his passion, but Micol’s response is evasive. Is she having an affair with one of the others? Does she like him or not? Or does she have some presentiment of what is to come?

But then, suddenly, from the door, which had remained half-open there, against the night’s blackness, a gust of wind comes into the entrance. It is a storm wind and it comes from the night. It bursts into the entrance, crosses it, passes, whistling, through the gates that separate the entrance passage from the garden, and meanwhile it has scattered, with its force, those who wanted still to linger, it has silenced abruptly, with its savage cry, those who were loitering to converse. Faint voices, then cries, promptly drowned. Swept away, all of them: like fragile leaves, like scraps of paper, like hairs from a head whitened by years, or by terror…

Really, outlining the plot for this book is almost irrelevant, as the events are not all. The writing is marvellous, long evocative sentences where Bassani puts himself into the mind of the individual characters. His work is compared with Proust, and there are certainly elements of similarity, particularly in the conjuring up of the past. However, Bassani’s writing is more accessible than Proust and his prose captures so beautifully a lost world which is just about to be destroyed. It’s not giving anything away to say that the Finzi-Continis perish in concentration camps as Bassani reveals this early on in the book, and the book is very much an elegy for a lost love and a lost past. I’ve barely scratched the surface here of this book’s brilliance – just read it!

awful mess

In complete contrast, “That Awful Mess…” (also translated by Weaver) is set in a lively, bustling Rome; a city under the control of Mussolini and struggling to cope with the modernising world but with archaic traditions keeping order. Our protagonist is one Officer Francesco Ingravallo, commonly known to all as Don Ciccio; a melancholy and moody man, prone to much anxiety and emotion. Initially, the mess is a burglary at the apartment of a countess which is opposite that of some friends of Don Ciccio; however, soon events take a more sinister turn as murder is committed, and the appalled and angst-ridden detective has to try to get to the bottom of things. This is not as easy as it sounds, as the police force seems staffed with idiots; there are precious few resources (this is in a time before proper roads and transport, where getting from one place to another often depends on bicycles or horses and carts); and there is the rivalry with the Carabinieri. As the facts become harder and harder to untangle, it becomes unclear if Don Ciccio will ever find a solution…

To be perfectly honest, “Mess” isn’t that easy a read; the prose is colloquial and often rambling, following Ingravallo’s random thought patterns and going off at tangents all over the place, making it sometimes hard to keep up with the narrative. The language is dense and complex; the allusions often unclear; and there are long paragraphs having sideways snipes at Mussolini under various nicknames. Nevertheless, there’s something very compelling about it that keeps you reading, despite the fact that like most of Gadda’s works (according to the introduction) it’s pretty much unfinished

This really *isn’t* a crime novel; it’s more about existence, motivations, changing ways of life, the contrast between rich and poor, and it’s also an incredible portrait of human beings. All the characters are brought wonderfully to life with their ambitions and anguishes, and Gadda brilliantly gets inside their heads. I found it a difficult volume to read in places, but still somehow rewarding, and unlike some easier but less memorable books, I think this one will stay with me.

So, a pair of very different works, both with their challenges and both very haunting. Italian literature is something I’ve not explored that much in the past (apart from Calvino) but I’m definitely going to be looking for more books from that country in the future.

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