The Kremlin Ball by Curzio Malaparte (tr. Jenny McPhee). NYRB Classics. 240pp, $15.95
Curzio Malaparte’s been in his grave for over sixty years, and he’s still trolling us.
That an author whose chosen pseudonym is a conscious inversion of Napoleon Bonaparte would have a fondness for provocation is no real surprise. Malaparte’s work falls uneasily in the gulf between fiction and nonfiction: 1957’s The Kremlin Ball, newly translated into English by Jenny McPhee, is subtitled (Material For a Novel), and its opening pages set out exactly how fiction and nonfiction will intermingle. “The characters did not originate in the author’s imagination, but were drawn from life, each with his own name, face, words, and actions,” Malaparte writes.
In books like The Skin and Kaputt (the inspiration for the Destroyer album of the same name), Malaparte offered a firsthand view of fascism and its horrific effects, albeit from the perspective of an Italian who was, at one point, a supporter of Mussolini. (There are more than a few parallels that can be drawn between Malaparte and various contemporary alt-right figures; it’s also not hard to imagine Curzio Malaparte on Twitter, delighting in triggering literally everyone on there who’s not Curzio Malaparte.) This, then, is the great paradox of reading these works of Malaparte: their view of certain aspects of the war are second to none, but getting to that precipice involves sidling up to a number of disquieting qualities of the author. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, however; maybe that implication of the reader is a good reminder that reading doesn’t occur in a vacuum.
The Kremlin Ball finds Malaparte–or, at least, his semi-fictional avatar–wandering the streets of the Soviet Union in the 1920s, talking with cultural personages and musing on the still-young Soviet Union and its flaws and compromises. This, in turn, leads to some concisely evocative descriptions of the country, including this succinct vision of Moscow.
Moscow, in those years, was still the old orthodox city of a thousand churches, and still hiding in the damp green shadows of the thousand green, yellow, red, and turquoise majolca-clad domes were the old wooden houses spared from the fire of 1812.
From there, Malaparte cites “the imaginary houses of the characters from War and Peace,” and one aspect of the blurred fiction/nonfiction line in this novel takes shape; this is a work in which literary comparisons are every bit as valid as historical or political ones. This impression is heightened when Mikhail Bulgakov shows up in one passage; it’s heightened even more when a description of the death of Lenin involves invocations of the works of Balzac and Zola. Alternately, this is work that blends fiction and nonfiction, and its observations about life place fiction and nonfiction on an equal footing.
In the span of one paragraph late in the book, describing a dead body, Malaparte evokes archetypes found in the fiction of Nikolai Gogol and Leo Tolstoy–and then, a dozen or so pages later, he contradicts himself, debunking “[t]hose who imagine Russians as the characters depicted by Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or Gogol.” There’s a fine line between the implicit self-criticism here and an almost comedic level of lack of self-awareness–though I’m tempted to believe that Malaparte is subtly implicating himself in this tendency to any readers careful enough to notice the dissonance. Or perhaps he’s a hypocrite of the highest order. Or perhaps he’s both.
Occasionally, Malaparte telescopes forward in time to closer to the period when he was writing this book. This is certainly the case when he argues that “Stalin won the war against Hitler the day Jacques Mornard killed Trotsky with a blow of an ice axe to the skull.” This, then, prompts a long meditation on the nature of Trotsky, and what a Soviet Union governed by Trotskyism might have resembled.
We would have seen a truly formidable upset, the people would have followed Trotsky, and Russia would have become, under the name of communism, a fascist Russia led by a kind of Jewish Mussolini who was pompous, bombastic, a speechifier, polemicist, thunderer, militarist, and hedonist surrounded by a small court of the decorated and bejeweled.
There is little room for idealism in this view of the world. Literally every saint and miracle (holy or secular) encountered in the book is debunked in some way, with Malaparte as the endlessly erudite figure interrogating everything around him. “I thought all bloodstains were washed away in Russia,” he comments when observing the site of an assassination. It’s moments like these where Malaparte’s persona can be most difficult to take: the smartest man in the room, detached from everything, quipping endlessly.
There are also some singularly cringeworthy moments to be found here. In books like Malaparte’s World War II-era works, that cringing can spring from the knowledge of the author’s penchant for fascism: a reminder that even a mind as attuned to hypocrisy and societal flaws as Malaparte’s can take refuge in a thoroughly loathsome ideology. In The Kremlin Ball, there are pleasantly few hints in this direction–though after the war, Malaparte’s ideology shifted from the right to the left.
In one scene in The Kremlin Ball, Malaparte writes about Florinsky, a diplomat who manages to endure several ideological shifts during Stalin’s time in power. Florinsky is gay, and there are points at which Malaparte seems to show admiration that he was able to survive under the repressive Soviet regime. “Revolutions always had their puritanical side–of which one needed to be wary,” Malaparte writes–something which subsequent world events suggest was an understatement.
Unfortunately, Malaparte also writes of Florinsky in a fairly derogatory manner. One long description of his face, adorned with makeup, ends with an unsettlingly cruel and judgmental passage: “All of it gave the impression of a wax mask. He laughed, and laughing showed off teeth that were too white, so white they seemed false.” Shortly thereafter, Malaparte writes of looking at Florinsky “with sadness and a hint of disgust.” And while Malaparte comes off as somewhat judgmental about nearly all of the people he encounters, Florinsky seemed singled out in particular–a particularly cruel choice on Malaparte’s part.
Malaparte closes the book’s introduction on an ominous note, with nods to the “Marxist nobility” around which this book is centered. (Elsewhere, he uses the phrase “the USSR’s communist aristocracy”–and if your first reaction is to note the inherent contradiction of such a phrase, well, welcome to the writings of Curzio Malaparte.)
And the author is profoundly convinced that if the existing Marxist nobility were to succeed in dominating Europe, the author and all of his readers would find themselves up against the wall–and not simply because they are criminals, or enemies of the people and freedom, but rather because both the author and his readers are free men.
It’s difficult to read this passage without detecting the almost florid flattery on display, one which doesn’t simply identify readers and author, but compels the readers of this to become theoretical martyrs along with Malaparte. It’s a fascinating rhetorical choice, implicating the readers in an implicit threat, and making the ages-old declaration that the book to follow is no ordinary book, but instead a lethally subversive work of literature. And while it might seem over the top, it’s arguable that The Kremlin Ball is evidence of that selfsame innately lethal quality within all things literary. That the realms of absurdism and exaggeration can, under the right conditions, become realism in the face of totalitarian regimes is but one of the reasons why Malaparte’s work endures even as it unnerves.
Tobias Carroll is the author of the books Reel and Transitory.
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