A Company of Chameleons

When I was teaching in Melbourne, Curzio Malaparte’s novel The Skin was one of the first things to interest me in contemporary Italy. I sympathised with the swashbuckling author who, despite being an Italian liaison officer with the Allies, criticised the Americans. He seemed a free spirit. But on arrival in Naples, where the novel was set, I found that some Neapolitans loathed Malaparte. For them he had taken advantage of the city when it was at its lowest ebb. The Neapolitan novelist and critic Raffaele La Capria accused him of exaggerations, as in the scene of a cooked siren. For La Capria, Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44 had more piety and precision about the same subject. In Melbourne, Malaparte had looked different.

Malaparte has reappeared with the recent issue, by the New York Review of Books publishing house, of his Diary of a Foreigner in Paris dating from his return to Paris in 1947 after an absence of fourteen years. In 1931 he had enjoyed success in his beloved France. His Technique du coup d’état was taken as a criticism of Mussolini and it was followed by his biography of Lenin which contradicted the negative image of him. Both books were first published in France.

On his return to Rome he was arrested for “anti-Fascist activities outside Italy” and sentenced to five years confinement on the Sicilian island of Lipari. He thought this would suffice as his anti-Fascist credential on his return to France in 1947. He was surprised by the hostility of Albert Camus and Francois Mauriac. His Paris Diary is largely a defence against being treated as a Fascist.

It also has piquant vignettes such as that of an insouciant André Malraux who, in fact, was later compared to Malaparte, as were other adventurous writers such as Gabriele D’Annunzio and Ernest Hemingway. It has vivid descriptions of lower-class Paris as well as the cultural elite Malaparte frequented and some intimate admissions—his insecurity about his writing and also his habit of night-time barking at dogs near his hotels. Malaparte said his best friend was a dog.

Malaparte sometimes criticised the Fascist regime but his French critics knew there were others who did not compromise, such as the politician Antonio Gramsci and the novelist and painter Carlo Levi who were imprisoned, and others who paid with their lives. Malaparte was a Fascist from the 1920s. In his first book, Viva Caporetto, he argued that the Italian forces put to flight by the Austrians in the First World War were not cowardly but were marching on the rotten parliament. He saw them as acting in parallel with the simultaneous Russian Revolution. He always considered himself a revolutionary and was certainly a stirrer.

Shortly after the First World War many Italians abandoned hope in the Socialist Party’s potential to displace the prevailing political class and flocked to Fascism as the likeliest movement to install a better society. Benito Mussolini, who had been Socialist, caught the tide. Breakaways from the Socialists founded the Italian Communist Party. Turmoil increased in factories and rural zones. The establishment thought it could use Fascist violence to restore order and then dispense with it. Instead it remained a threat as the government became more totalitarian.

Malaparte strongly defended Mussolini, by now the Prime Minister, who was accused of responsibility for the assassination of a prominent Socialist parliamentarian, Giacomo Matteotti. Four years later he was critical of him in his satirical novel Don Camalèo, which compared Mussolini to a chameleon. He was annoyed that Mussolini had not introduced the social changes he had promised. The novel was being published serially but Mussolini prohibited its continuation. Malaparte did not fight the 1938 anti-Jewish law, but portrayed the Romanian Jews who suffered under the Nazis in the Second World War with sympathy.

Many who had hoped for a Fascist revolution took years to wake up to its sinister aspects. Some only did so when Allied tanks arrived in Rome—with Malaparte (at left in uniform) on board: “winning with them”, he wrote, “their war after losing ours”.

He also switched sides in literary attitudes. From the mid-1920s there were two conflicting literary tendencies, Strapaese and Stracittà. At first Malaparte sided with Stracittà, those who appreciated modernism as against those who valued provincial and rural traditions. Then he switched to the Strapaese group and was one of those who denied the need to translate James Joyce’s Ulysses. However, the Second World War induced him to go beyond the provincial because his novel Kaputt treated it as a civil war destroying a shared civilisation.

Malaparte was born in 1898 in Prato, which he liked best in the evening when the toffs went to Florence, half an hour away, leaving it a workers’ town. Its main industry was converting discarded fabrics into textiles; Malaparte wrote memorably about all the glory of the world, all the emblems of victory, finishing in rags in Prato.

He fled school at sixteen to enlist in France in the Garibaldi Brigade. He was injured and twice decorated for valour. In 1919-20 he worked in the Italian embassy in Warsaw. As noted, he was sentenced later to a five-year exile for anti-Fascist activities but after eighteen months the Fascist Foreign Minister and Mussolini’s son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, allowed him to transfer to Tuscany under lenient house arrest.

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He reported wars in Ethiopia, Finland and Russia, where he irritated the Germans by writing that the Red Army, an authentic expression of the Russian people, would withstand the Nazi onslaught. When Fascism fell he was in Sweden. He could have avoided returning to Italy but returned anyway and was imprisoned as a Fascist. A year later he joined the Italian army, became liaison officer with the Allied forces, participated in the battle of Montecassino, rode into Rome with the American General Clark, and completed his novel Kaputt, which he had begun in the Ukraine in 1941.

After the war he recast his image. He was just on fifty, tall, athletic, an intellectual dandy with many admirers, especially himself. He took part in sports such as fencing and cycling. He wrote a book on the rivalry between the champion cyclists Gino Bartoli and Fausto Coppi as examples of the incompatibility between Catholic Italy (Bartoli) and modern Italy (Coppi) but ignored the fact that the two cyclists were friends—perhaps Giovanni Guareschi was more insightful with his novels about the compatibility of a Catholic priest and his communist mayor.

Accused of being a chameleon, Malaparte complained that many Italian writers who were comfortable with post-war democracy pretended to have opposed Fascism although they had not put themselves at risk. He named people such as Alberto Moravia, who hit back.

A feature of his writing was admitting to contradictory feelings such as compassion and cruelty. This could be taken as ambivalence but many considered it ambiguity. He denounced Mussolini as “the Great Chameleon, the Great Beast, the Great Imbecile”, then added, “I love him because I love those who have fallen and been humiliated.” Many recalled his Fascist past. Many who did so were leftist, such as Italo Calvino who had joined the Partisans, but perhaps the most irritating was Indro Montanelli, another Tuscan whose reporting from Finland and Russia had rivalled that of Malaparte and who wanted an Italian conservative party not tainted by Fascism.

Malaparte treated Montanelli as a pale imitator but Montanelli went for the jugular, calling Malaparte “Ciano’s silly servant” and “a chameleon dressed as Narcissus”. The pair never ceased their sometimes childish rivalry. Friends of Montanelli told him that Malaparte was superior because he had interviewed Mao and Stalin. Montanelli said they were fake interviews, then falsely claimed that, on the day Germany invaded Poland, he had been the only Italian among journalists standing near a frontier bridge when an armoured car arrived in which Hitler was standing. Hitler descended and headed for Montanelli, giving him an interview which was a monologue in a voice Montanelli imitated. His friends asked why it had never been published. He said the German Ministry for Propaganda had intervened with its Italian counterpart to prevent it.

Antonio Gramsci, leader of the Italian Communist Party, had detested Malaparte but after the war his successor, Palmiro Togliatti, courted him and he wrote for the Party daily L’Unità as well as other publications. He made a film, Cristo Proibito (Christ Prohibited), for which he was scriptwriter and director and also composed the music; directed Puccini’s opera The Girl of the Golden West in Florence; his three-act comedy Anche le Donne Hanno Perso la Guerra (Women Too Lost the War) was performed in Venice and he acted in his musical Sexophone. His lust for protagonism and polemics was undiminished as he tried hard to retain his eminence.

In 1957 he was invited to China (below), which he saw as the fulfilment of his ideal of a society in which the workers, in this case peasants, had control. This was before the Cultural Revolution. He presented Mao with an appeal from a group of Italian writers for the release from prison of Catholic missionaries and others.

Soon after his return, on July 19, he died from cancer in a Rome hospital. He said that he did not mind dying young, but he wanted Montanelli to die first—but Montanelli did not die until 2001. As usual, Malaparte sprang surprises, one of them after his death. He is said to have converted from his anti-clerical agnosticism to Catholicism. He left his splendid Capri villa to the Chinese Communist Party, but his relatives successfully contested this bequest. 

The more I learnt about Malaparte the less I trusted him and his writing. At times he was visionary, as with the horses seen beneath the melting ice of Ladoga lake, but I wondered how much invention was involved in his portraits of contemporaries such as the Himmler he said he met. The lack of trust affected my reading of his new books and also the ones I already knew.

A new book is The Kremlin Ball, which first appeared in English in 2018 as part of the New York Review of Books Malaparte publishing program. Based on Malaparte’s spell in Moscow in the late 1920s, it looked at the top Soviet echelons as betrayers of the Revolution, an effete group comparable to the Parisian society portrayed by Marcel Proust. With Kaputt and The Skin, The Kremlin Ball was intended to complete a trilogy but it remained unfinished. It has memorable vignettes and details, such as the description of loudspeakers in Moscow streets blasting out anti-God propaganda, but I wondered how faithfully rendered some of the incidents are or the mention of Mikhail Bulgakov (author of The Master and Margarita) as Malaparte’s occasional companion but who never says anything interesting. Malaparte still made a strong impact, but now grains of salt seemed in order.

Nevertheless, the year before his death he published Maledetti Toscani (Cursed Tuscans), a brief and zestful book on the inhabitants of various Tuscan cities, such as Siena, Florence, Arezzo and Pisa, which captured their peculiarities and passions, suggesting they were bound together by their enmities. His tendency to generalise, which elsewhere can be irritating, with Tuscans became entertaining. He said it was difficult to be an Italian (“I try to be—and not simply appear—an Italian like all the others, and I don’t succeed”), and even more difficult to be a Tuscan. Perhaps he tried too hard.

The final paradox was that Malaparte did not have a drop of Tuscan blood. His mother was Milanese, his father a German master dyer, Erwin Sickert. Baptised Kurt Erich Sickert in the Lutheran church which had his father’s allegiance, he adopted the pen name Malaparte in 1925. That brought him closer to Napoleon, whose mother was Tuscan. His rival Montanelli referred to him as a German. Nevertheless Maledetti Toscani revived my initial enthusiasm for Malaparte and influenced how I saw Italians and, particularly, Tuscans.

Desmond O’Grady is an Australian who has lived in Italy for many years. His most recent book is The Diviner Comedy: A Novel, published this year by Australian Scholarly and reviewed in this issue

2 thoughts on “A Company of Chameleons

  • Harry Lee says:

    Very interesting information in this piece. And the relevance?
    To me, it’s a strong message that among those who can write and speak a lot of words quickly and well, there are many whose beliefs and associated perceptions, judgments and motivations are extremely opposed to the key requirements for human flourishing. This, even though such writers/talkers are convinced of their own superior virtue, ethics, and righteousness. For examples, regard the people of the ABC -esp ABC on-line- and SBS, and as expressed by 90% of the opinion-shouters in the commercial media and in the arts-humanities-law faculties of the universities. And by almost all climate “scientists” and by all proponents of multiculturalism.

  • nfw says:

    Wasn’t this essay in the May 2021 edition of the magazine? Yet no (red) acknowledgment of such in the text of this online version. How odd.

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