Curzio Malaparte is one of the most intriguing figures to emerge from of the chaos of Italy’s involvement in World War Two. He worked as a poet, literary journal editor, filmmaker and novelist, and his literary style can be seen as an important precursor to contemporary magical realism. And he also designed and built the most beautiful house in the world (more on that later).
As a poet, journalist, and literary journal editor, Malaparte played a dangerous double game, both courting and ridiculing the rising Fascist leaders of Europe. A participator in Mussolini’s infamous March on Rome, he was later exiled for speaking out against Italy’s elite, and imprisoned by Mussolini on multiple occasions (partly for the unhealthy habit in 1931 of referring to Adolf Hitler as a woman).
Despite this, Malaparte was invited to cover the war, and most notably the German invasion of Eastern Europe. Malaparte’s father was German, and his mother Italian – influences which enabled Malaparte to both happily dine with the Nazi elite, and critically observe the civilian and battlefield turmoil. The paradoxical recording of this duality (particularly his masterpiece Kaputt) remain amongst the most intriguing documents to have emerged from that terrible conflict.
Kaputt itself is a book very much of two sides. The Italian experience of the war was necessarily ambivalent, and reading the novel can be a frustrating experience of inaction and distance towards the horrors witnessed. A tour of the Warsaw ghetto is contrasted with ghost stories, and other purely fictional passages of lyrical genius. Elsewhere, dead bodies falling from train carriages are described as cooly as the architecture of Stockholm. Most notably, there is little by the way of a traditional narrative.
‘Written as a Fascist, edited as a Communist’ would be too simplistic a description of the novel, as Malaparte’s political opportunism remained constant. But an analysis of its editing process reveals a personal journey of someone who once thought German victory assured, and later witnessed its dramatic collapse first hand. The book remains both a rare perspective from the point of view of the losing Axis powers, and of the emergence of a new postwar reality. The Skin followed Kaputt, itself a fascinating examination of the (almost innocently naive) US forces as they invaded a very complex, shattered Southern Europe.
Paris – and international Communism – became interests after the war, as it was for much of Western Europe’s avant-garde. However, further literary success was elusive for Malaparte. Politically, he continued to maintain consistent individuality. A more notable later interest became film, and Malaparte was awarded the City of Berlin prize for his movie “Forbidden Christ”, at the first ever Berlin Film festival. It could be seen as the closing act of his wartime narrative, a revenge tale against fascist horrors in his homeland.
After literature however, it is perhaps in architecture that Malaparte’s influence has been most widely felt. During a period of internal exile in Italy’s isolated coast, he had the architect Adalberto Libera draw up plans for a house for a particularly spectacular clifftop location in Capri. Dissatisfied, Malaparte redid the design, and had it built by a local stonemason (extreme architectural porn follows).
Malaparte conceived of architecture as an act of self-portraiture or psychoanalysis, and the house is isolated, always outward looking, and blank. The roof becomes a sun deck, it’s views of the Mediterranean a perfect place to observes the trials of an Odysseus.
The interiors have since been restored to their former glory, and can be viewed today. They sit somewhere between a remarkably contemporary looking style, and a record of a peculiar time and place (1940’s Italian Modernism).
The house was notably used by Jean-Luc Godard in his film Le Mepris, with the house acting almost as a major character. The views of the Capri coast were used by Godard as a second ‘screen’, turning the action into a meditation on watching. Passionate desire towards both love and film – and a sense of inevitable dissolution – are both central concerns of the film.
Malaparte’s literary output seems equally contemporary and temporal. His surname – Malaparte – itself is a textural puzzle. First used in 1925, it could be literally translated as “Wrong” or “Evil Side” (a counter to Bonaparte’s “Good Side”). The author’s sense of distance and mutability mirrors both his own country’s wartime experience, and perhaps our own contemporary one.