Part Palace, Part Temple, Part Prison: On the Casa Malaparte

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Curzio Malaparte

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Part Palace, Part Temple, Part Prison: On the Casa Malaparte by Michael Z. Wise

January 17th, 2013 reset - +

POISED OVER A ROCKY promontory jutting into the azure Mediterranean, few houses are as breathtakingly sited as the Casa Malaparte. For the location of his home, the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte chose what he called the

wildest, loneliest, and most visually spectacular part of Capri, the part which directly faces the south and the east, where the island’s civilization gives way to untamed wilderness, and where Nature manifests itself with unparalleled brute force […] a place that is only suitable for the strong and free-spirited.

Harsh winds buffet the house’s blood red façade and waves crash onto it in stormy weather, washing over the roof terrace atop which Brigitte Bardot once cavorted. In recent years, this architectural masterpiece has undergone intensive restoration and is now gaining new recognition along with Malaparte’s prodigious literary output.

Perhaps more than any modern author, Malaparte intimately experienced and chronicled the carnage of the 20th century. He ran away from home at age 16 to fight in World War I, and then went on to become a diplomat, novelist, journalist, political agitator, and lifelong maverick. Dashingly handsome and self-aggrandizing, he was a swashbuckling chameleon who started out as a nationalist, turned fascist and later supported Stalin and Mao before a deathbed conversion to Catholicism. During the 1930s, he consorted with the smart set surrounding Mussolini’s foreign minister Galeazzo Ciano and conducted an affair with the widowed mother of Fiat’s future chief, the industrialist Gianni Agnelli, decades before finding an affinity for Maoism.

Malaparte called the island abode he built on Capri between 1938 and 1942 “a portrait in stone,” “a house like me.” But, which me? Indeed, there were many Malapartes. He died in 1957, bequeathing the house to the People’s Republic of China. However, the Italian government and Malaparte’s heirs successfully contested the will, and the property belongs now to his great nephew, Niccolo Rositani Suckert.

I stayed there for a few days last summer as the guest of Suckert and his wife Alessia, who also manages Malaparte’s literary estate. “What is written in books is often incorrect and I think that it is impossible to understand the house if you don't experience it,” Alessia wrote to me before I arrived.

She was right: the place is part palace, part temple, part prison. Malaparte started construction on it soon after being released from jail for running afoul of Mussolini. He ended up incarcerated in 1933 on the island of Lipari off Sicily. Having internalized a sense of confinement as a result, he called himself “the bird that swallowed its cage,” a phrase that the Academy Award winning film editor Walter Murch has chosen as the title for his newly published compendium of Malaparte’s writings.

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Malaparte, a loner with a penchant for periodic hobnobbing with the wellborn and well-connected, was given to self-dramatization, and he built himself a strangely exhibitionistic stage for the solitary life of a writer. Even today, though it is set well apart from the glitzy town center of Capri with its day-tripping tourists, wealthy Italian holiday-makers and shops touting Prada and Bulgari, Malaparte’s house practically screams for attention on the island's jagged edge: its monumental, trapezoidal staircase creates a startling wedge at one end, and its roof is crowned by a curving concrete windbreak that resembles a snow-white sail. Yachts and other pleasure boats sail by the property in a steady stream on summer days, and sitting inside it’s hard to ignore the drone of tour guide megaphones pointing out the unmistakable landmark. After spotting it from his yacht, a Syrian arms dealer recently tried to buy the Casa Malaparte, and a similarly besotted Indian art collector plans to build a replica on the Ganges.

“We have dedicated our lives to have this place survive with dignity,” Alessia told me as we sat in the grand salone on the second floor. “We’ve not transformed it into a business machine. We want to maintain the mystery and myth of the house.” She, her husband and teenage son come for regular stays away from their main residence in Florence, and despite entreaties from the Capri municipality, they keep the Casa Malaparte as a private home, fearing that to open it to the public or turn it into a museum “would kill the spirituality of the house.”

Because of the intense heat, humidity and salt air, maintaining the property is a constant challenge. As vigilant guardians of Malaparte’s legacy, Suckert and her husband have overseen a series of recent refurbishments, complicated by difficult access to the site, which requires airlifting in construction supplies by helicopter. To raise the large sums needed for ongoing upkeep, the Suckerts have begun renting out the property once a year for fashion shoots that are likely increasing its public profile beyond a hard core of architecture aficionados. Among other luxury brands, the house has been used as the setting for a Persol sunglasses campaign and most recently for an upcoming publicity drive for Ermenegildo Zegna’s new men’s fragrance.

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from Jean-Luc Godard, Contempt (1963)

Looking out towards unfettered sky and water, the peninsula of Sorrento, the coastline of Amalfi and the three gigantic rocks of the Faraglioni, it’s clear why Jean-Luc Godard chose this spot to film the movie Contempt in 1963, starring Bardot, Michel Piccoli and Fritz Lang. The jaw-dropping backdrop prompted Malaparte to tell the story in one of his books, The Skin, about a visit to the house by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in 1942. Hitler’s general asks whether Malaparte bought the house as it stood or whether he’d designed it himself. Malaparte replies that he bought it already finished but adds, slyly, “I designed the scenery.”

That tale, like much that Malaparte wrote, was apocryphal — Rommel never visited Capri. Malaparte delighted in mixing fact with fiction and was the most unreliable of narrators. “Curzio Malaparte would have given even Fellini pause,” the novelist Tom Wolfe observed about this literary mythomaniac, who practiced his own form of so-called New Journalism long before Wolfe made it popular. Born Kurt Erich Suckert, the son of a German Protestant father and an Italian mother, he envisioned a bad boy reputation for himself early on and so adopted the pseudonym Malaparte in 1925, seeing it as a pun on another infamous European, Bonaparte. “No man was ever better named: Malaparte — on the evil side,” wrote The New York Herald Tribune in 1946.

And his house, like Malaparte, has contradictory aspects. There is a modernist simplicity of form, but one that is simultaneously archaic. Entry is off axis through a plate glass door on the south side that, like the massive single pane glass windows that are original to the structure, was pioneering for its day. Though clean geometric lines and hard surfaces lend the house a spartan feel, Malaparte relished the good life, and departed from austerity by stocking the cellar with grand cru wines and hanging the walls with works by Dufy, Pascin, Kokoschka, Chagall and Morandi. Before the house was finished, he wrote out a 37-point directive to his housekeeper Maria, specifying which china to use when serving breakfast, how to wax the furniture, how she should dress including which apron to wear, since it was important to “remember that in an elegant house this is the way it is done.”

Malaparte first commissioned an overall design by Adalberto Libera, an innovative architect favored by the fascist regime for many official projects including the Palazzo dei Congressi in Rome, but the writer substantially reworked the plan so that he himself is considered the house’s true architect. The design is full of citations from his own life: a compact, wood-paneled dining room could be a Stube high in the Tyrolean Alps and recalls his paternal heritage. The skewed proportions of the exterior arose from Malaparte’s fascination with Surrealism. Bars on some of the smaller windows hark back to his incarceration. Tiles on the floor of his study are adorned with the image of a lyre, as if to summon the Muses.

He designed a second bedroom alongside his own and called it the chamber of the Favorita, reserved for a string of women he kept nearby yet still at a distance. (When he traveled as a war correspondent, Malaparte always carried a photo of his dog with him until the pet’s death left him bereft. In The Skin he writes: “I have never loved a woman, a brother, a friend, so much as I loved Febo.”)

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To spend time in this “house like me,” filled with much of Malaparte’s original furniture, his library, as well as recent editions of his work and the ever expanding new translations of them in over a dozen languages, is to slowly uncover, if not fully understand, its enigmas. Above all, there is a great luxury of spatial grandeur in this expansive bolt-hole intended primarily for the enjoyment of Malaparte himself rather than just another country house geared mainly toward impressing guests. The floor of the majestically simple grand salone, a vast rectangle 54 feet long by 30 feet wide, is covered in broken slabs. Asked why he chose this rough-hewn pavement, Malaparte — ever the contrarian — told a visitor it was to thwart anyone from dancing in the ballroom-size hall.

He also designed the room’s furniture, including massive sofas, lamps and a series of altar-like tables fashioned of poured concrete in the shape of classically fluted pillars, topped by heavy, polished pieces of raw-edged wood. A fireplace on one side has a glass panel at its rear, providing a view of the sea so that flames appear to dance in front of the rippling waves.

“It’s not the dwelling of a voluptuary, of a dilettante,” wrote the French author Raymond Guerin after a three-week stay at the house with Malaparte in 1950. “It’s that of a wanderer, an adventurer used to living in a tent. It’s that above all of a writer who fights and dares to say what needs to be said.”

Being so outspoken had its price. Although he was an early supporter of Mussolini, Malaparte wrote a book in 1931, The Technique of the Coup d’Etat, critical of both Il Duce and Hitler. Soon afterwards, he also dared to insult the aviation hero and fascist functionary Italo Balbo. This is what landed the author in prison, but his friendship with Mussolini’s son-in-law and foreign minister, Ciano, secured his release after six months, and Malaparte still enjoyed fascist patronage until Mussolini’s fall. It was, after all, his political connections that enabled him to obtain permission to build the house on such a spectacular site.

Once the house was complete, Malaparte spent years moving between his remote island retreat and scenes of stupefying brutality during World War II. Like Napoleon Bonaparte, he experienced war in Russia first hand, and his best-known book, Kaputt, is an autobiographical novel derived from his reporting from the Eastern Front as a correspondent for Corriere della Sera. Republished in English by New York Review Books Classics in 2005, Kaputt’s cover justly bills it as “an insider’s dispatch from the world of the enemy that is as hypnotically fascinating as it is disturbing.”

Delving into Malaparte’s wartime account today, a contemporary reader has the sense of being complicit in unspeakable horrors, but the writing is so compelling that it’s impossible to break off. There is a perpetual obsession with the uncanny and the grotesque as well as sheer power. In Kaputt, Malaparte dines in splendor with the commander of Nazi-occupied Poland, Governor-General Hans Frank, recalling in stylish prose how Frank played a Chopin prelude on the piano one moment and fired a rifle at a trapped Jewish child the next. Later in the book, Malaparte visits a German military brothel where the best-looking Bessarabian Jewish girls were enslaved before being murdered, and passes time with Gestapo and SS commander Heinrich Himmler nude in a sauna.

Through these repellant but indelible scenes, Kaputt has found resonance among more contemporary witnesses to evil — French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy took a copy with him while covering the Bosnian War in the 1990s, and in 2007 Lebanese leader Walid Jumblatt presented British war correspondent Robert Fisk with a signed volume, calling the book “horribly cruel and somehow beautiful.”

Just as the house is gaining a new prominence in the public eye, Malaparte too seems poised to reach a younger generation of readers. This spring NYRB will put out a new edition of another Malaparte book, The Skin, which deals with the liberation of Naples when Malaparte switched sides yet again and became a liaison officer for Allied troops.

“Today we're fascinated by an amoral figure who manages to split the ideological baby in half: there is brutality and kindness, beauty and absurdity, to be found on all sides,” said Stephen Twilley, assistant editor at New York Review Books Classics, about the new interest in Malaparte’s work. “It may also be the case that, while autofiction is no longer a novelty, it's bracing amidst the furor about fake memoirs to find such a strong vindication of the artist's right to be an unreliable witness, even when the stakes couldn't be higher.”

Milan Kundera also championed Malaparte’s writings in a book he wrote two years ago, a new biography of Malaparte has recently won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt, an English language biography of him is in the works, and Walter Murch translated a selection of Malaparte’s writings published by Counterpoint last fall. In yet another homage to Malaparte, an Italian restaurant named after him opened last year in New York City’s West Village.

This may seem a surprising turn of events for a near forgotten figure, but more notable perhaps is that Malaparte managed to fall so far from view in recent decades. In its 1946 review of Kaputt, The New York Times called it “brilliantly done” and “one of the most remarkable books yet to come out of the second World War.” “Malaparte is somebody who’s been airbrushed out of literary history for a long time,” said Michael McDonald, chief counsel for the National Endowment for the Humanities, who is working on the first English-language biography of him.

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Malaparte’s often chilling writing makes for uncomfortable reading, but reading it in the very house he designed, built, and inhabited between stints at the apocalyptic scenes that fascism wreaked upon Europe elicits its own sense of ambivalence, despite the undeniable glory of the locale.

The house contains a trove of Malaparte’s varied publications, among them the literary magazine that he founded and edited for a dozen years, Prospettive. The journal was initially subsidized by Mussolini’s government and the regime ordered up for distribution to its soldiers some 40,000 copies of a special issue on the Spanish Civil War with an editorial by Malaparte that he entitled “Viva la Muerte.” But despite this propaganda role, according to biographer Maurizio Serra, Malaparte never published Nazi racist writings, instead reserving space in the magazine for a rich array of talent including Federico Garcia Lorca, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Rainer Maria Rilke, W.B. Yeats, Archibald MacLeish, as well as translations of Surrealists like Paul Eluard and Louis Aragon.

At the Casa Malaparte, yellowing copies of Prospettive cover the top of a bookcase lined with a 12-volume set of Malaparte’s complete correspondence and other writings published in Italy in 1994. Sitting in the sun-splashed salone, I read Malaparte’s angry reaction to US reviews of Kaputt in 1946. Though The New York Times lauded it, it also called Kaputt:

a report on Axis Europe by a man who supped so often on horrors and who associated so intimately with monsters that he understandably speaks with more authority on such atrocious matters than any man who has yet testified in print. The only trouble is that Malaparte’s own record is such that one cannot be certain of his sincerity and one cannot know how much of “Kaputt” to believe.

The reviewer observed that Malaparte was a cultivated, sophisticated intellectual who had enjoyed the fruits of fascism, but could not own up to his own part in bringing about the abominations he so vividly described.

In response, Malaparte wrote to his New York publisher, E.P. Dutton & Co., protesting, “I am not a criminal.” A few years later, when Kaputt was translated into German, Malaparte felt the need to write a special preface for readers in the vanquished former Third Reich. Just five years after Hans Frank was executed following conviction at Nuremberg for war crimes, Malaparte made a point of telling Frank’s countrymen that he had risked his own life to save hundreds of Jews from a deadly 1941 pogrom in Jassy, Romania. “But the Jews are, I have to say,” he added in the preface, “unfortunately no less ungrateful and prejudiced than the majority of men of other races and religions."

Yet his choice of a chapter title, “The Rats of Jassy,” was an odd way to express sympathy for the victims. Even if his description of the Jassy pogrom constitutes one of the first treatments of the Holocaust in postwar literature, historians doubt whether Malaparte was even in the town on the day the massacre occurred. Serra, his most recent biographer, questions Malaparte’s pretense of anti-Nazi engagement, pointing out that he received red carpet treatment when visiting Poland and the Eastern Front, and that no anti-Nazi would have been included at Governor-General Frank’s dinner table.

Malaparte addressed his unreliability head-on in The Skin, published in 1952. In the book a US army colonel remarks about the first-person narrator: “It’s not important if what Malaparte recounts is true or false. What matters is the way he tells it.”

Regardless of whether that authorial sleight of hand was convincing, his Italian biographer Giordano Bruno Guerri has expressed little confidence that Malaparte can attract a wide, appreciative audience in the 21st century. “Malaparte is too rich an author,” Guerri told Serra, “too complex, often too disagreeable for the cult of political correctness that characterizes our age.”

But Malaparte in his later years seemed to be rapidly switching gears for the high tech media saturation and attendant personal self-promotion that also typifies our day. A passionate cyclist and fitness freak, he joined the Communist Party and wrote about plans to ride a bike from New York to San Francisco in 1956 to protest the excessive mechanization of modern life, hoping to meet up with Grace Kelley and Marilyn Monroe when he reached Hollywood. There was even talk of his trying to obtain sponsorship for the transcontinental bicycle trip from the Coca-Cola Corporation.

Instead, Malaparte headed east to Moscow on a Soviet-sponsored junket that coincided with Hungary’s aborted 1956 attempt to throw off the communist yoke, then continued on to Beijing where he was one of the first Western journalists to interview Mao. While in China, he fell fatally ill from lung cancer, probably the belated aftermath of injury suffered from chemical weapons in the trenches of World War I.

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How seriously can one take the ideological convictions of such a figure, perennially ready to change his spots and pay obeisance to malignant power? Ever against the grain, Malaparte’s many writings may lack coherence but retain value due to his keen powers of expression and observation. Alessia Rositani Suckert told me that were Malaparte alive today, he would donate his Capri house not to the Chinese Communists but to Afghans seeking refuge from their country’s ongoing torment. Now well restored and tantalizingly balanced on its rocky site, the house beckons still as an emblematic monument to one of history’s most inconstant witnesses.

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