(C.H. Beck, 2018)
Curzio Malaparte was a spirited and unconventional researcher of the European Zeitgeist. Born in 1898 in Prato, Tuscany, he became a master at sketching the peculiarities and preoccupations of European nation-states and their populations. He captured, too, the brutality that colored their histories with false glory. His Europe was made maniacal by war and violence. Malaparte immersed himself in that mania for years. As a diplomat and a war reporter for Corriere della Sera, he traveled all over continental Europe through the darkest days of World War II — very often directly along the front line.
His two best-known books are novelistic reports of these travels. Kaputt (1944) contains the staggering account of his odyssey across Italy and Yugoslavia, through the « Bloodlands » of Central and Eastern Europe — deep into Romania and Ukraine, to the crystal-clear lakes and seas of Lapland, Karelia and the Gulf of Bothnia. His reporting delivers an almost endless series of tragic stories — confusion, dirty politics, lurid consumption, hardship, hunger, grit, bones, skin and blood — alongside burning love, and a devotion to art, culture and nature. Reading it is at times an almost physical experience. The Skin (1949) reports on the obscene pandemonium into which the 1943 liberation of Naples had degenerated, in which everyone tried to sell their skin as dearly as possible; a harrowing feast of new and old unfreedom, shadowed by death, lust and destruction. The key message here: the surface deceived. This was true of the liberation’s surface, too.
Since 24 February, 2022, one particular harrowing anecdote from The Skin, in which Malaparte treks to Dorogo, has regularly returned to me. Not only because of the accounts of barbaric Russian violence in Ukraine, but also because of a certain inability to truly know and understand that barbaric reality as such, and a subsequent feeling of shame about that inability.
I keep wondering how it’s possible that Malaparte, with an anecdote written in 1949, could look the brutality of today’s reality straight in the eye — while we in our time seem to be looking away. What insights does his writing contain that we’ve lost over the decades? What delusions afflict what we call our shared European history? Was the ethical power of the postwar « West » — for which we in Europe still so readily and unabashedly reach to guide us and to legitimize our actions — a comfortable illusion? What is this « postwar Europe », anyway?
English translations from La Pelle: Curzio Malaparte, The Skin (NYRB Classics 2013)
The phrase « clearinghouse for European history » is inspired by the era’s own vocabulary: « Ecumenical Inquiry on Christian Action in Society », World Council of Churches Study Dept. (Archives of the WCC, Geneva), 14 October 1949, as cited in Clemens van den Berg, « European Believers: Ecumenical Networks and Their Blueprints as Drivers of European Integration, 1933-1954 » (PhD-thesis Utrecht University, 2022).
Historical Archives of the European Union, Florence, Jean Monnet American Sources, 106-114, David Bruce Diaries.
Burton Hersh cited in Nelson D. Lankford, 1996, The Last American Aristocrat: The Biography of Ambassador David K.E. Bruce (Boston: Little, Brown and Company), p. 42-3
In Das Reich der Mütter live the primal forms, of which reality is a reflection, both the dark and the brilliant.
Curzio Malaparte, Diary of a foreigner in Paris (Eredi Curzio Malaparte/NYRB Classics, 1947/2020), Sept. 18, 1947.
Quoted in Tony Judt, Post-War: A History of Europe since 1945 (Pimlico, 2007), p. 61