In the early 1920s, Curzio Malaparte was summoned to meet Benito Mussolini. The young Italian diplomat, who went on to become a renowned foreign correspondent, had been overheard in a Roman café mocking Il Duce for wearing ugly ties. Having apologized for this potentially career-destroying jibe, Malaparte began to exit the dictator’s cavernous office. He then turned on his heels and said, “You’re wearing an ugly tie today as well.”
Such insouciant sprezzatura was typical of Malaparte (born Kurt Erich Suckert), whose adopted name could be loosely translated as “badass.” He would later be repeatedly imprisoned or placed under house arrest for various faux pas, such as bad-mouthing the aviator Italo Balbo, a much-revered folk hero in Fascist Italy.
Also typical is the suspicion that Malaparte has embellished or perhaps even fabricated the entire story, which features in the diary he kept after leaving Italy for Paris in 1947. Kaputt (1944) and The Skin (1949), his two books of fictionalized reportage about the Second World War, are similarly full of eyebrow-raising scenes, such as an account of a Croatian Fascist leader preparing to feast on a pot of human eyeballs. And by the time he wrote Diary of a Foreigner in Paris, which has been expertly translated by Stephen Twilley, this mercurial gadfly was unsurprisingly eager to play up his own anti-Fascist credentials.
Bait and Switch
Malaparte’s actual record was more than a little checkered. Despite often butting heads with the authorities in both Italy and Nazi Germany, he had remained supportive of Mussolini, served with an elite Alpine regiment during the war, and contributed gung-ho dispatches to the Fascist press from the Eastern Front (while accurately predicting in 1941—to the fury of Joseph Goebbels—that the Soviet Union was not about to collapse).
Like many of his countrymen, Malaparte switched sides after the invasion of Italy and served as a liaison officer with the Allies. But that volte-face cut little ice with the inhabitants of a city scarred by four years of Nazi occupation. Old acquaintances such as the Catholic novelist François Mauriac gave Malaparte a glacial reception. A woman he encountered on the Métro asked whether he had killed her son. And a meeting with Albert Camus left Malaparte with the well-founded impression that his fellow author wanted to shoot him.
Given France’s own patchy commitment to resisting Fascism, Malaparte felt he was the victim of a double standard. As he noted the day after his brittle rendezvous with Camus, “I am more and more convinced that I prefer real collaborators to fake resistants.”
Notwithstanding his sulfurous reputation, Malaparte hardly became a social outcast (though the invitations had begun to dry up by the time he returned to Italy in 1949). “Yesterday evening at Roger Nimier’s, I met Maria Casarès and Orson Welles” begins a typical entry from February 1948. Other dining companions included the ex–prime minister Paul Reynaud and Jean Cocteau, who wears a pair of handmade Italian moccasins in Malaparte’s honor.
A meeting with Camus left Malaparte with the well-founded impression that his fellow author wanted to shoot him.
But his Diary’s dominant note is one of lonely nostalgia as he wanders the battered city, lamenting the “dirty, sad, and tired” crowds on the Métro, the slovenly appearance of younger Parisians, and a generalized mood of self-pity. Only when he encounters veterans of the First World War, alongside whom Malaparte had fought in the French Foreign Legion, does he seem to feel truly at home.
The sharpest anecdotes here, such as the story about Mussolini’s ugly ties, tend to consist of reminiscences about earlier, more momentous periods in the author’s life. Among these are an account of some surreal diplomatic wrangling over a group of Spanish Communist prisoners in Finland, which offers a pithy vignette of war’s ironies and absurdities. And Diary of a Foreigner in Paris concludes with a meticulously observed novelistic set piece about attending an abnormally lavish yet mostly deserted ball in 1938, which had been abruptly boycotted by the Italian Fascist elite because the hostess was married to an American Jew.
That tale might also be read as an oblique commentary on Malaparte’s persecution complex. Even when indulging his bizarre though seemingly innocuous passion for barking in unison with the local dogs at night, he purports to run up against a wall of unreasoning hostility. On a trip to Switzerland, this eccentric habit prompts a visit from the police, who order him to stop. And so it’s back to France, where, whatever its other flaws, “foreigners can bark as much as they like.” But there, too, a hotel owner in Chamonix demands that Malaparte knock it off.
His readers may feel like making a similar request when struggling through Diary of a Foreigner in Paris’s frequent excursions into pseudo-philosophical bloviation and ad hominem point-scoring. As Edmund White puts it in his Introduction, Malaparte’s more cerebral pronouncements are “often confused or repetitive or banal or wrong.” What redeems the book is Malaparte’s loopy anecdotal flair as well as its unwitting portrait of a twisted conscience laboring under bad faith. Having spent two decades crashing the Devil’s party, he wants us to believe he had been on the side of the angels all along. That brazen attempt at re-writing his own legend is as compelling as it is deplorable.
Max McGuinness recently received a Ph.D. in French literature from Columbia University