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by Michael McDonald

He was a metamorphic figure: decorated war hero and high-society dandy, fascist political agitator and highbrow cultural impresario, revolutionary theoretician and scandal-mongering journalist. He was also a man of protean talent: poet, playwright, filmmaker, war correspondent, novelist and the architect of a futuristic villa on Capri. Given that he was born into poverty and had to fight to construct a public persona, his life has the aura of an improbable adventure story, but for the fact that it really happened.

Curzio Malaparte Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957) was one of the most provocative European intellectuals of the first half of the 20th century as well as the author of novels, memoirs and political essays of undeniable stature and brilliance. Few 20th century Italian authors are as well known outside of Italy as Malaparte. Yet his life remains relatively unknown in the English-speaking world, obscured both by the central role he played in making Italian fascism respectable and by the radical turns his allegiances took as he grew older.

Malaparte's first book, La rivolta dei santi maledetti (1921), a graphic memoir of his experiences in the First World War combined with a call for fascist revolution, immediately jumpstarted his career as gifted polemicist. He used this notoriety to launch himself into Italian political and cultural life. More than willing to accept positions inside Mussolini's government, he also published his own newspaper, La conquista dello stato, to fuel the fire of fascist revolution. In the meantime, he bombarded the Italian nation with: stinging political tracts extolling the virtues of fascism, L'Europa vivente (1923); Italia barbara (1926); caustic satires of literary rivals, Le nozze degli eunuchi (1921); and satirical novels and poems Don Camalèo (1926), Avventure di un capitano di sventura (1927), L'arcitaliano (1928).

Malaparte was no fool. And yet an inner restlessness at the core of his being combined with a strong belief in the writer’s need to maintain his independence continually led him to mock the fascist leaders with whom he rubbed shoulders. This was particularly true as Mussolini tightened his hold on power and yet refused to remake Italian society in accordance with fascist revolutionary doctrine. In reaction to these events, Malaparte left Italy and spent two years living abroad in Paris and London where he wrote a number of elegant short stories (collected and published as Sodoma e Gomorra (1931)) and also three international bestsellers on contemporary political issues: Intelligenza di Lenin (1930); Technique du coup d’état (1931); and Le bonhomme Lénine (1932).

Perhaps the defining event in Malaparte’s life occurred in late 1933 when he unwisely decided to reenter Italy following the publication in France of an article he had written mocking Mussolini’s dictatorship. Mussolini had him arrested and sentenced, without trial, to five years of internal exile. Released three years into his sentence, Malaparte rehabilitated himself by cultivating the patronage of Mussolini's son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano. It was thanks to Ciano's backing—as well as Malaparte's repeated assurances that henceforth he would support the Party line and devote himself to primarily literary mat—that he received copious subventions from the Duce and was soon back in business as the editor-in-chief of a mass-circulation magazine on culture and the arts entitled Prospettive. Malaparte kept his word and limited himself to writing highly lyrical, personal and completely apolitical stories collected in books such as Fughe in prigione (1936), Sangue (1937), Viaggio in inferno (1938) and Donna come me (1940).

With the advent of the Second World War, the middle-aged Malaparte refused to play it safe. He became a frontline war correspondent for Italy’s most important daily newspaper, the Corriere della sera, and reported on the German Army's invasion of Eastern Europe and Russia and its attempt to exterminate the Jews. The trilogy of eyewitness accounts he later published from some of the bloodiest battlefields of the war are rightly viewed as among the finest writing to have emerged from the conflict: Il Volga nasce in Europa (1943), English edition, The Volga Rises in Europe (1957), Kaputt (1944), English edition, Kaputt (1946), and Il sole è cieco (1947).

When Mussolini fell from power in 1943, Malaparte, who spoke English, was on hand to offer his services to the invading American Army, which, as formerly classified U.S. State Department documents that I have discovered attest, gratefully accepted it. As usual, Malaparte’s experiences with gli americani resulted in a book, this time on the seamy underside of the Anglo-American occupation of Naples, entitled La pelle (1949), which became a bestseller in postwar Europe, was translated into English as The Skin in 1952, and was later turned into a film with Marcello Mastroianni as Malaparte.

In the postwar period, Malaparte adopted the role of an all-purpose gadfly who particularly delighted in attacking the Christian Democrats and the Catholic Church. At the same time, he sought to ingratiate himself with the Italian Communist Party, which exercised a cultural hegemony. In 1947, he returned to Paris for two years and wrote dramas for the stage: Du côté de chez Proust (1948) and Das Kapital (1949). He traveled widely and produced a book on his trips to the Soviet Union and China, where he met Mao: Io, in Russia e in Cina (published posthumously in 1958). One of his final books was a bestselling tribute to his native Tuscany, Maledetti toscani (1956), English edition Those cursed Tuscans (1964). Ever the seducer, this former fascist firebrand and lifelong atheist not only succeeded in receiving Communist Party membership as he lay dying in a Roman hospital in 1957 but also, it is claimed, converted to Roman Catholicism.

Malaparte was a very Italian phenomenon in that he prided himself on his anarchic disposition and independence of spirit, yet he was in some respects the very incarnation of the court poet who uses his intellectual gifts to serve whoever holds power. Indeed, it was his protean ability to reshape himself that inevitably led to charges of opportunism, with his detractors (most prominently among them Antonio Gramsci) acidly referring to him as "the chameleon." Much of his work remains in print in Italy and an edition of his selected works appears in the prestigious Meridiani series published by Mondadori, Italy’s version of the French Pléiade. Malaparte’s European reputation is also quite high, particularly in France, Germany, Spain and Russia where all of his major books and many of his minor ones have been translated.

I am writing the first biography of Malaparte to appear in English. The working title of my book is: Chameleon: The Life and Times of Curzio Malaparte.
McDonald Portraits by Rhoda Baer
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