(Glad to be with you again! Back from the road for the fall. (Recent offices: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.) Cranes, golden plovers, red-throated divers, parrot crossbills, willow tits, yellowhammers, eagle owls, and the bright wings of ospreys; cottongrass, cloudberries, cranberries, sundews and enormous ferns, spruce and birch and anoxic peat mires with pools of still, crimson water; pegmatites, smoky quartz, dolostone, fossil archipelagos, and the perfect vortices left by each oar-stroke across the silent lake.)
(The first of three linked stories, all pretty bleak, to alternate with notes about food, cooking, and other pleasures and joys.)
Curzio Malaparte was almost entirely self-invented, a new person designed from scratch for the new age he anticipated. Journalist, novelist, dandy, diplomat, Fascist gadfly, the boy born Kurt Erich Suckert dubbed himself the symmetrical opposite of Bonaparte, the bad version, ready always to be a player on the “wrong side.” Slick – from his gleaming shoes to his brilliantined hair – Malaparte was charismatic and effortlessly charming, an opportunist who could cozy himself among evil men while mocking them. He was colossally vain and self-involved: the author of a collection of autobiographical fantasies, Donna come me, A Woman Like Me (including “A Land Like Me,” “A Dog Like Me,” “A Saint Like Me”) who designed his own house down to the last detail to be casa come me, a house like me – and whose letterhead from that house was printed, in massive Futurist text, CASA COME ME. He would do his gymnastic exercises every morning on the rooftop terrace below the cliffs in hopes of being watched by admirers. In his hybrid fiction-journalism – grotesque books like Kaputt and The Skin – the whole scope of the Second World War in Europe sometimes seemed to exist as backdrop for his gothic sensibility and Byronic poses, mixing real events with eerie fantasies.
Yet the Casa Malaparte, on a promontory in Capri, really is an amazing house, unique and beautiful – seeming at once ancient, even prehistoric, and vividly modern: constructed like a runway, a launch system into the open, empty, blue space of the ocean and the sky. It was memorably used as the setting for Godard’s Contempt (go to about one hour and nineteen minutes in), a chunk of lost future stranded in the played-out, unraveling present like a boat beached on a reef. And in his writing Malaparte never lost his eye for the singular moment, the telling detail, amid all his self-celebration and arty nihilism. He had a feel for the ironies and ambiguities of history, how the present changes the past, and the sense of the future changes the present. (Proust was his lifelong idol and aspiration.) Visiting a collective farm in Ukraine – he was fascinated by communism, and had been a foreign correspondent in the Soviet Union – in the midst of the German invasion, he began: “This farm appears to me … as the sons of Atreus appeared for a brief moment, before they crumbled into dust, to Heinrich Schliemann, when he crossed the threshold of the tombs of Mycenae.” He wanted to find snapshots of what had once been, and what would not be for long, in a disintegrating world. He wrote as if he were witnessing the end of a human era, which he believed to be true.
After spells of imprisonment, house arrest, and exile – primarily for his public mockery of Hitler (and criticizing Mussolini’s taste in neckties) – he went as a journalist to cover the Eastern Front for the Corriere della Sera. (During his period of cushy exile on Lipari, the bored and permanently theatrical Malaparte took to irritating his wardens by trying to teach himself to speak canine, howling from balcony every night for hours to a chorus of local dogs with names like Eolo, Volcano, Apollo, and Stromboli.) He accompanied the German advance towards the USSR in an old Ford V–8 driven by his friend Lino Pellegrini, a photographer, diver, and scholar of octopi. His descriptions of social visits with the Nazi high command are extended nightmare comedies: dumb thugs and savvy monsters, droning on about their greatness in the echoing rooms of commandeered palaces and estates filled with looted art and furniture (with the corpses buried in a pit in the backyard), impressing toadying aristocrats eager to collaborate.
(One of the themes of Malaparte’s account is how the oligarchs and dynasties of Europe were primarily troubled by how to protect their assets and status, their holidays and way of life. The pre-war 1% could reach all sorts of comfortable accommodations with the new state of affairs – to paraphrase Leona Helmsley, only the little people died at war, or of its effects. Ernst Jünger, cultural administrator of Nazi-occupied Paris, was never at a loss for invites to salons and dinner parties filled with posh luxury goods and cultural capital, dining on “lobster and oysters” as the city rode the edge of outright starvation. (On May 27, 1944, as noted in his diary, he watched the English bombers blowing up the Seine bridges from the roof of his hotel with “a glass of burgundy with strawberries floating in it.”) The oligarchs could live with the ruin of the world and make room for the butchers if it meant they could still enjoy their privileges, manage their wealth, and receive the deference they felt was their due – to play some leisurely golf at Mar-a-Lago and augment the Koch family fortune, in other words, while the population went to the slaughterhouse.)
In his dispatches from the east, Malaparte wrote as if he knew the Germans were as good as defeated: the grind of an immense, human-devouring apparatus on a futile mission, already doomed. Even in the numbed, shallow present tense of wartime, he was reading the moment retrospectively from a future in which humans had become far more mechanized, for which this was the threshold-crossing event. He watched the culture of engine maintenance, the mechanics, technicians, and gunners, the affectless cruelty and random destruction, the way people interacted with their machines and built, dug, and arranged the landscape, prefiguring Agent Orange and drone warfare: the lines of trees felled, stripped, modified and re-planted as telephone poles while the treads and tires churned the fields into mud as they advanced. A clash of factories, driven by a morale operaia – the mechanized treatment of people, tools, landscapes, and horses alike – and lubricated by petroleum, blood, and the methamphetamine tablets the soldiers dubbed Panzerschokolade.
Goebbels was deeply unhappy with Malaparte’s descriptions of the war; the Corriere reassigned him to cover Finland. He flew to Stockholm and made his way out to the Karelian Isthmus, to a forward observer’s post to watch firsthand the siege of what was then called Leningrad, six months into the “900 days” of being under siege – cut off, frozen, bombed-out, and hungry. On the winter shore with his binoculars, he could see The Islands, the wooded park of the city where once sailors and workers and the smart set enjoyed the endless summer twilight walking between cafés through the “green maze” of trees. Malaparte himself spent his Sundays there as a foreign correspondent.
He realized with a start that a decade ago on one of those nights when it was “still sunset and already dawn” he had sat on a bench in very end of the park, at the edge of the sea – a spot that he could just make out now. Ten years ago he had sat there, overdressed for the warm summer air, eavesdropping on conversations and gazing across the stretch of water at the outpost from which he now watched the frozen city become an “enormous cage,” as he stood in “the plain, now a battlefield.”
That moment stayed with him from then on: he could not stop wondering about the future from which he one day again would catch a glimpse of his past self in the ashes and ruins that hadn’t happened yet. The tragedy, for which he was partially responsible, would be waiting patiently at the end of the long hallway to keep its appointment with him.
By the time he died, in 1957, the walls of his futuristic house, casa come me, were already saturated with corrosive salt and crumbling into the sea.
Kaki King is one of the greatest guitarists who’s ever lived, and “Doing the Wrong Thing” is one of her masterpieces: watching her perform it is like seeing a whole phase of life – a marriage, when you lived in that city, luck and failure, daring and fear, love and loss – a way things were once, or could have been – told in a few minutes. (To write one thing with that clarity, feeling, and brevity!)
The NIST Stone Test Wall, in operation since 1948
A one-time cipher pad concealed in a toy truck, and other tradecraft artifacts of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service
From Amy!: Hudební Atlas Hub – the Musical Atlas of Mushrooms
(Thanks for reading, as ever.)
You just read issue #34 of twelves. You can also browse the full archives of this newsletter.