The Kremlin Ball
by Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957)
Translated from the Italian by Jenny McPhee
223 pp. New York Review of Books. $15.95
I believe that because of our innate idealism (and our data regurgitation education system) we like to think of history as a long list of dates that act as little islands. We arrive at one island and then are catapulted to the next one without ever looking at the sandbars in between. Welcome to Xanadu, next stop Lost Generation Paris! The Kremlin Ball is a collection of scathing portraits of Soviet high society between the revolutions of 1917 and the purges of the 1930’s, a time that is so crucial to understanding the history of the Soviet Union, and is so well critiqued and presented by the acerbic prose of Malaparte.
Curzio Malaparte is perhaps best known for his other two books: Kaputt and The Skin. Kaputt focuses on the Axis campaign in Eastern Europe and The Skin is about the liberation of Italy. Both books are drenched in blood and criticism.
Malaparte, who was a supporter of Mussolini until he pissed him off by writing a few books and articles praising Soviet Russia because of which Mussolini threw him in jail, is a fresh voice to argue against the new interest in socialism ignited by the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and the rise to prominence of far right wing politics in America.
While the format and topic is distinctly Proustian–critiquing a society through its upper class citizens–the style is anything but Proustian; in fact, Malaparte’s style, with its lack of intellectual adornments and pomposity, is closest to that of George Orwell in his nonfiction.
The Kremlin Ball because it was never finished jumps around a lot in time and in style. The people Curzio Malaparte, the narrator, meets are ghosts. We meet former Russian nobility who are forced to sell their wares (and, in one depressing case, underwear) on the streets to diplomats. We also meet the Marxist nobility, a clan of bourquois that are Soviet in name only. And also the artists that hang around them. We know from the very start that they are going to die in the Purges of the 1930’s but that doesn’t mean Malaparte can’t have his fun with them first.
“All eyes were on Semyonova, and I noticed how she smiled as she glanced to her left and right without actually seeing anyone, as if she were smiling at ghosts.”
While Curzio’s direct slashes hit most of the time, they are often repeated and this reminds the reader that he is reading an unfinished work.
The book ends with a short essay by Malaparte about death, which it would be an understatement to say that death was only a recurring theme in The Kremlin Ball. Everyone dies, including authors before they finish their books. Malaparte’s argument is relatively straightforward but the essay itself reads like a collection of aphorisms.
“Art does not surprise nature but transforms it and helps to cover its face. Art is a mask that covers the face of nature. But photography surprises nature by releasing what is most exposed, blatant, obvious, visible, most spectral, and I would say, most dead.”
Although the book remains unfinished, what remains of Curzio Malaparte’s hard hitting critiques are more alive than ever.