I suppose everyone has their own Paris, and “everyone” includes Curzio Malaparte. He would have liked nothing more than to be considered the bad boy of 20th-century Italian letters, though there were many who were far worse than him. Performance was in Malaparte’s nature, never more so than in his delicious writings.
Even his name was his own creation, having come into the world with the more mundane cognomen of Curt Suckert – like “Eric Blair”, surely not the name of a great writer. Malaparte – “bad part” – was a play on the name of Buonaparte – “good part” – so small wonder the Italian found himself living in Paris at various points between the wars. “How kind France is when it is noble,” Malaparte waxes. “She embraced me as a mother embraces her son.”
The newly published Diary of a Foreigner in Paris is the writer’s scribblings, published posthumously and now translated, of his first journey to Paris after the war.
An early fascist, Malaparte took part in the March on Rome, founding several periodicals and writing for them at the beginning of the fascist era. But his keenness to goad – a chapter of a 1931 book sought to prove that Hitler was actually a woman – earned him the ire of the authorities who felt there was no place for artistic provocation in a regime devoted to alignment.
Nevertheless, in between odd spells of internal exile and being chucked in Regina Caeli prison, Malaparte managed to commission and build a modernist masterpiece of a villa on Capri (later made famous by a 1963 Jean-Luc Godard film). He was also sent to serve fascist Italy on the Eastern Front as a war correspondent and diplomat, which resulted in Kaputt (1944) and The Skin (1949).
Despite being a bad boy Malaparte always revelled in the smart set. Under Mussolini, he was constantly wining and dining with princesses, ministers, and the Duce’s son-in-law (and presumed successor-in-waiting) Count Ciano, who often got the writer out of scrapes.
And so it was in Paris after the war, by which time he had conveniently discovered his inner communist and branded himself a hero of anti-fascism. There’s Countess This and Princess That, and Ambassador So-and-So, not to mention a panoply of the cultural and literary elite.
“In the gilded frame of Maxim’s,” he writes, “everything takes on an easy-going, debonair aspect.” Yet this was not some intellectual fairytale land: the post-war purges had been in full swing. Writers had faced the death penalty for their work with the German occupiers.
His diaries feature Sartre, Cocteau and Gide, while the shadows of Junger, Peguy, and most of all Chateaubriand linger. Orson Welles even makes a brief appearance. The mountaineer Arnold Lunn is, I think, the only English Catholic mentioned.
Malaparte disdains Sartre and friends as poseurs – suggesting Jean-Paul’s next work will be Existentialism for Ladies – but he still takes them seriously. Camus doesn’t get on with Malaparte, remaining unconvinced, while Malraux borrows 20 francs off him to pay off a cab driver and never repays it. Which anecdote sparks a word of warning about our beloved Italian correspondent. Given his performative nature, the more credulous might believe his writings are factual, or at least accurately portray the writer’s view of events as he saw them. Malaparte can be enjoyed thoroughly but can never be given the benefit of the doubt.
Did he really unknowingly knock past Himmler to get into a hotel lift, as he claims in Kaputt? The appreciative sceptic demurs. Perhaps these diary entries might be viewed as being more reliable as they were only published after his death. But what writer ever truly writes for anything other than publication?
We see a Paris “wrapped in a shroud of heat that lifts the houses into midair, like in Chagall’s dreams”. And yet the writer tells us it’s easier in Paris than elsewhere to hate life. The sense of the city is “fugitive, ephemeral, fleeting, provisional”, where the spirits are “intent on seizing the transient moment”.
Like many, Malaparte finds the real France further afield, at Chartres. “It wasn’t the kings of France, or the great feudal lords, but the small proprietors” who built one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe. “Don’t go searching for it hither and yon: the heart of France is here, at Chartres.” As one who has walked the three days’ pilgrimage from Paris to Chartres, it’s difficult to disagree.
Still, like Malaparte, one always returns to Paris and its mornings, when “a smell of toasted bread would rise from the streets, as well as that fresh smell of damp pavement, the delicate smell of the air of Paris at dawn, when the dust reawakens and vanishes.”