In the Capri sequence of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, a reluctant Brigitte Bardot is invited by the American film producer Jeremy Prokosch to accompany him alone up to his villa. Bardot, her platinum hair reflecting the brilliant sun, is on a boat with a film crew and her husband, a playwright who has compromised his work ethic and taken on a screenwriting job for the money. She looks to him to intervene, as the boat moves up and down in the gentle Tyrrhenian swell. Instead, her husband urges her to go up to the villa with Prokosch, a millionaire playboy. Violin strings from the film’s melancholy score merge and fuse with Bardot’s shattered reaction: it’s evident to her and viewer alike that she has just been bartered to the producer as part of the job her husband has taken on, a crass remake of the Odyssey.
Bardot quietly complies. Her husband has traded her dignity, and his own, in the interest of historical farce, American-style. The boom operator moves to the front of the boat. Three women in bikinis playing the sirens are in the water, waiting for their scene; as Bardot is ferried away, the director can be heard commenting that he should have done a scene in which the gods discuss man’s fate.
The villa where the producer attempts to seduce Bardot is a cliff-top house shaped like a hammer and stained the color of dried blood. Perched on a windy precipice with panoramic views of the blue bay of Salerno, the house, with its sublime and barren beauty, belonged not to an American playboy but, famously, to the writer Curzio Malaparte, who designed it himself after an architect abandoned the project (its stucco walls, not constructed properly to withstand the salinity of the relentless spray of the Mediterranean, were apparently 42 percent salt by the time the villa was restored, in the 1980s). Malaparte’s friend Alberto Moravia wrote the novel on which Godard’s film is based, a story whose themes of the plunder of Europe by Hollywood are remarkable echoes of a far more profound debasement, the depravity and ruination of Naples under the American occupation, in 1943 and ’44, which is the subject, depicted with a certain voluptuous horror, of Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin, one of the finest if most perverse novels about World War II, and certainly the most viciously comic work of literature to address the war’s direct effect on Italians, as well as its immediate aftermath: the hegemonic rise of America.
“You wouldn’t sell your children,” repeated General Guillaume.
“Who knows?” I said. “If I had a child perhaps I would go and sell it so that I could go and buy some American cigarettes. One must be a child of one’s time.”
If Troy had Athena, Zeus, and Poseidon conniving and double-crossing one another in determining man’s fate, Naples had Mussolini, Hitler, and, finally, the Americans, whose status as either conquerors or liberators is a tension that seems to endlessly amuse and appall Malaparte in The Skin. In any case, from Mussolini to Hitler to the Americans, the fate of the men, women, and children of Naples is suffering, and after the Americans arrive, their suffering seems only to grow more extreme. They are living in a destroyed city, without water—much less food, gas, or electricity—and with rampant graft, looting, filth, vendettas, villainy, and prostitution. The city is ruled only by the most base commodity fetishism: the body in trade. Mothers selling children, and soldiers buying them.
Malaparte, the narrator and central character of The Skin, is an Italian liaison officer in Naples, just as he was in real life. His odd and disingenuous tone, from the very first page, in referring to the “distinction” belonging to the “squalid, dirty, ragged” Neapolitans of “the coveted honor of playing the part of a conquered people,” gives us a clue, right away, of how to read this novel. The Italians, he says, jump for joy “amid the ruins of their houses, unfurling foreign flags which until the day before had been the emblems of their foes, throwing flowers from their windows onto the heads of the conquerors.” In the same double-edged voice, Malaparte describes his friend Colonel Jack Hamilton, with whom he tours the devastation. (Naples had been bombed to rubble by the Allies, and if that weren’t enough, the Germans had retreated with a vow to reduce the city “to mud and ashes.”) Colonel Jack Hamilton seems to hail from an Ivy League America as conceived of by Vladimir Nabokov, a world where military men read ancient Greek in university gymnasiums, surrounded by soaking towels. He insists on speaking poor French, misunderstands most of Malaparte’s allusions, and declares that he is well acquainted with “la banlieue de Paris” (curiously, almost the identical joke—an American thinking the banlieue is something distinguished with which to be acquainted—is embedded deep in The Recognitions by William Gaddis, a novel linked to this one in having something to say about Americans and the soft violence of the postwar dream).
In twelve chapters that are a series of discrete, vivid, and seemingly unlinked vignettes, Malaparte accompanies Colonel Jack Hamilton and other military officers through Naples, attends their banquets, and at one point travels north with them, advising them on the most “picturesque” and historically resonant manner of invading Rome. Despite the lightness of such a discourse, death is everywhere in The Skin, as are starvation and typhus—conditions in Italy at the end of the war that have been well documented. Norman Lewis, who was assigned to the region as a British intelligence officer, gives a portrait of almost unparalleled misery in his book Naples ’44, albeit without quite acknowledging the paternalism of the foreign occupier. From other sources it’s clear that the Allied forces regarded the Neopolitans as crude and criminal and were dismayed by the black market, on which anything might be bought—children, cigarettes, even American tanks, and in one case an Allied navy vessel that disappeared overnight from the Bay of Naples. Lewis seems astonished to report that when the weather turns cold, all the Italian women in Naples are wearing coats made from British military blankets, while with only a dulled sense of scandal does he describe a scene in which ordinary working-class housewives agree to have sex with Allied soldiers in exchange for army rations in front of a large, ogling group. Allied officers decided which residents could marry foreigners, who was guilty of sympathy with Germans (a ridiculous concept, since the Germans had been the Italians’ allies until a few days prior), and who would go to prison for the various petty criminal activities that were necessary in order to survive. The Allies had arrived with what journalist Alan Moorehead describes as an “appalling political ignorance” of the countries they were liberating.
Allied circulars warned of a conspiracy among Italian women to infect their soldiers with the clap; troops were even given leaflets to hand out if they were approached, whose translated message was: “I am not interested in your syphilitic sister.” Norman Lewis reports that Canadian soldiers were notorious for exercising their “droit du seigneur” over the “syphilitic sisters” of the region, while Lewis’s own book features a photograph on its cover of a woman stripping on a bar top, a soldier clutching her legs as if examining them for purchase, unfortunately a perfect symbol of the state of affairs in Naples, where everything was for sale and the Americans were buying—a situation that Malaparte either despaired over or savored. That there is no easy answer as to which tells us something not only about his novel but about him: he was interested in the histrionic and terrible matter of real life—of war, suffering, survival. But most of all, he was interested in being at the center of things, as he is in The Skin.
“The American soldiers think they are buying a woman… they think they are buying love, and they are buying a slice of hunger. If I were an American soldier I should buy a slice of hunger,” Malaparte tells his American dinner companions, “and take it to America, so that I could make a present of it to my wife… a slice of hunger makes a splendid present.”
Turning the tables on the Allies’ perception of shattered Naples, Malaparte renders the situation from the point of view of the Italians, but with a perverse twist that ensures no loyalty to anyone, not even himself. He claims to love the American officers with whom he seems to spend all of his time, but in his love he ends up depicting them as they want to see themselves and also as they don’t: they are clean, bighearted, and genuine, and also clueless, corny, and ruthless. But he does not call the Americans any of these things—not even hypocrites. He lets contradictions rise up and impose themselves on the reader whole, such as when the Americans are greeted, upon entering Rome, by an Italian who runs toward them ecstatically, wildly cheering, “Long live America!” before being flattened accidentally by a Sherman tank. They are guilty of lesser crimes as well, like having no taste. Listening to their own base radio station, the American officers unanimously identify a piece as Chopin. Malaparte disputes this and is reproved, before an announcer comes on to say they’ve been listening to Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto (a work of sentimental dreck). “Addinsell is our Chopin,” an American colonel happily tells Malaparte. And the very language of the book, in the original Italian edition, ridicules English in leaving terms such as punch-ball and booby trap untranslated. Malaparte’s American friends love to say things like “Gee!” and “Nuts!” and “Good gosh!,” which Malaparte also left in English. (This send-up of English is, perhaps, the only meaning lost, if by necessity, in David Moore’s supple and astonishingly modern translation from 1952, which will be republished by New York Review Books Classics in September.)
Malaparte spares no one but himself, but his idea of coming across well is idiosyncratic. He accidentally eats a human hand (or pretends to) that has flown into a soup, and has his fictional vendor tell the Americans, who are astonished at the sight of a vendor’s “pubic wigs” (for women to wear for African American officers, who “prefer blondes”), that the women of Italy have also lost the war. Meanwhile, the Neapolitans, in Malaparte’s hands, are not simply victims. They are at once noble and debased, ruined and pure, as contradictorily rendered as his beloved American frenemies. This tangle of contradictions among victors and vanquished is the axis on which The Skin turns, and one of the reasons why it is such a deliriously great novel: as Malaparte proceeds through the hell of destroyed Naples, he pokes holes in every appearance, semblance, and opinion. Through these holes leak cynical truths, a horrific reality covered by “facts” that both denote and conceal it. For instance, while Norman Lewis reports that a doctor in Naples offers an expensive but popular procedure to restore a woman’s lost hymen, Malaparte, in order to impart the Neapolitan worship of virginity and undergird it, at the same time, with the bleakness of the times, instead describes being taken by one of the American army officers to glimpse a young Neapolitan “virgin”—the last one—whose innocence is her family’s meal ticket. Money is collected by her father at the door to her bedroom, where she waits, propped on a bed, to spread her legs and show each patiently waiting American soldier a close-up view of her untrammeled loins. In a similar parallel, while Norman Lewis says that “near-famine conditions” and an Allied ban on fishing led to a situation where American army generals were served a baby manatee from the city’s aquarium, in Malaparte’s version, the American generals are served, from the aquarium, not a manatee but an elaborately prepared “siren fish,” which the majordomo presents on an enormous silver tray. It looks like a boiled little girl, and perhaps is one. “I looked at the poor, boiled child, and I trembled inwardly with pity and pride. A wonderful country, Italy! I thought.” It is a macabre descent from the movie-within-a-movie sirens who lounge around Malaparte’s sun deck in Godard’s Contempt, after their scene in an ersatz and demeaning remake of the Odyssey, but Malaparte is getting at something similar, in presenting an ersatz and demeaning sacrifice: a cooked child (or last fish in the aquarium, it’s not clear) served ceremonially on a bed of coral, whose death has clearly been for no ennobling purpose, a vision of grotesqueness on the table before the Americans. Malaparte, in his typically devilish role, reassures an especially upset dinner guest, Mrs. Flat, a dowdy WAC officer who the author has just spent an entire page facetiously describing in lavish physical detail as if she were Madame de Guermantes. He informs Mrs. Flat that it is an “excellent fish,” while privately reflecting that it was worth losing the war to see these Americans so pale and horror-stricken. “What did you expect to eat when you came to Italy?” he asks them. “The corpse of Mussolini?” The Americans insist the majordomo take the “siren fish” away, and moreover give her a proper burial, at which point Malaparte acidly informs them that fish are not buried in cemeteries in Naples.
Throughout The Skin, Malaparte is consistently the other characters’ bad conscience. A cruel superego. He is ours, too. But it’s not quite clear if this is the real Malaparte, who is always there at the right time, witnessing scandal and infamy, and ready with a biting retort and repartee. Who, for instance, entertains Rommel at his Capri villa, responding to Rommel’s question about his house that no, he did not build it, and instead, he says, gesturing sweepingly at sky, cliffs, water, he did the scenery. Malaparte refers to himself and the biographical sketch we know to be his, but the question of whether Malaparte is inventing or reporting is flawed. Malaparte wrote fiction and he was a fiction, a highly constructed personage. When he writes in the introduction to his novel Kaputt that he was able to sneak his manuscript out of Germany thanks to a dutiful girl who sewed each page into the lining of his jacket and pants, we aren’t meant either to believe or to disbelieve him. He’s building a joke from reality: probably he did have to sneak the manuscript out of Germany, and a girl attaching to cloth with needle and thread the pages of Kaputt, his tale of picaresque horror becoming the lining of a suit, is a classically Malapartian image, which is to say, it speaks both to historical conditions and to one man’s sense of humor and flights of fancy.
Born Kurt Eric Suckert to a German father and a mother of Italian aristocratic lineage, he invented his surname—an inversion of “Bonaparte”—which means “to be on the bad side,” and indeed this seems to have been his deeper purpose as a person, a historical figure, an author and character—to be the bad part, to take the wrong side. He was a creation, as well as a master manipulator of others’ judgments of him. A negative impression, after all, was in the very tissue of his made-up name. Critics who accused him of being a scoundrel seem merely redundant instead of morally righteous. He forces them to say he is bad whenever they speak his name. Malaparte was sophisticated and slippery, and while it’s never quite clear what his politics were, he was an ideologue of a sort, if a perverse and inscrutable one. He celebrated Lenin, then became a fascist, and then a critic of Hitler and Mussolini. Eventually he was a fan of Mao, and on his deathbed he was visited by Togliatti and joined the Italian Communist Party. (Legend has it that, also while dying, he was formally received into the Catholic Church.) His political vacillations are bizarre and eccentric, not the work of an opportunist, exactly, which is what Malaparte has erroneously been called. He was something more like a pest or enabler, tapping into the hidden bad in everything, most especially in acts and assertions by those who claimed a higher moral ground. Both Kaputt and The Skin are filled with imagined, unlikely, even impossible scenarios, but Malaparte did not invent rapacity. He was merely skilled at summoning it, and calling it out.
He first developed his caustic tone in Kaputt, the novel that directly preceded The Skin (also reprinted by NYRB Classics, in 2005). Originally published in 1944, Kaputt is a hair-raising account of the Eastern front and includes explicit reference to the extermination of Jews overseen by the German officers with whom Malaparte traveled. The author takes care not just to capture in full detail the carnage of the war but to lambast the entire social order of Europe and in particular the aristocrats whose lives were unchanged in wartime—everlastingly petty, vain, and shallow. The book has been regarded with a certain amount of suspicion for its use of surrealist detail, for what has been perceived as an aestheticizing of violence, and for the fact that Malaparte was traveling with the Germans, dining “with monsters” (who were, in any event, the allies of the Italians at that time). Malaparte marched with Mussolini on Rome in 1922 and was a member of the Fascist Party before offending Italo Balbo, Mussolini’s air force marshal, and getting thrown in jail, and he possesses some classical traits of a fascist: a reverence for violence, a fetishization of power, a hatred of the bourgeoisie, and unrepentant dandyism (he had movie-star looks, wore perfectly tailored clothes, and insisted on shaving his legs, armpits, and the backs of his hands). He is guilty as charged of lingering over the grotesque details of war in Kaputt, and he constructs fantastical scenes that bend credulity, but their overall effect is not one of exaggeration—an almost-impossible task, given the incomprehensible carnage of the war. Kaputt is an astonishing and brave account of the most extreme violence of the twentieth century, and at a time when, we might prefer to forget, British and American officials knew the Holocaust was happening and did nothing about it. The word kaputt, his chosen title, has no single sufficient term outside of German: “broken, finished, gone to pieces, gone to ruin,” he writes in his introduction. In English (spelled kaput) this word comes to us through Yiddish, and most kaput in Kaputt are the Jews. Also kaput is Europe, the civilization of the occident, innocence. Perhaps everything is kaput in 1943, from Malaparte’s point of view. What can possibly come after the broken, the finished, the gone-to-ruin? The Skin. The distress signal SOS means “Save Our Souls,” but the soul, like a truth, is immortal. What drowning sailors really mean is “Save our skin,” and a drowning person will generally do anything toward that end.
First published in France in 1948, The Skin came out in Italy a year later and was met with outrage and derision, banned by both the Catholic Church and the city of Naples. “Malaparte has done, God forgive him, one of those things that one really should not do,” wrote the critic Emilio Cecchi. “Silence and hypocrisy are almost better than this ambiguous cleverness. He has brought misery, shame and atrocities into play, and stripped them of all decency, in order to use them for literary purposes.” But Cecchi’s intended disparagement, to me, anyhow, seems more like praise: Malaparte indeed brought misery, shame, and atrocities into play. They were the prevailing features of occupied Naples, and he made of them a literature that looks at the haunted, hidden, “wrong” side of life, its backside, rather than giving the suffering Italians a sentimental paint job and the Americans a congratulatory slap on the back. In a typical moment of truth and levity and darkness merging into one statement, Malaparte writes: “Capitalist society is founded on the conviction that in the absence of beings who suffer a man cannot enjoy to the full his possessions.” The Italians play the role of sufferer, and do suffer, and the Americans are there to gain from this the maximum pleasure of their superiority.
The more time has passed, the more precise and accurate The Skin begins to seem. It is a work that mines certain human truths, no matter how ugly—truths of war, of the dissolution of Europe, of the condition of life under foreign occupation, the nature of the American occupiers, and finally the global rise of the U.S. that Malaparte somehow, mysteriously, knows is coming. Yet while it traverses a complex historical moment and has much to say about it, this work, Malaparte’s very finest, comes to reside ultimately in the realm not of history or of politics but purely of art, as a novel of blacker-than-black comedy in a category of its own making.