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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… 🤣

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“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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