THE KREMLIN BALL
by Curzio Malaparte
translated by Jenny McPhee
New York Review Books, 223 pages
reviewed by Ryan K. Strader
In his introductory comments for The Kremlin Ball, Curzio Malaparte claims that his novel is “a faithful portrait of the USSR’s Marxist nobility.” Such a thing should be anachronistic: a Marxist nobility? A communist high society?
But that is exactly what Malaparte, as the novel’s narrator, is describing. In the late 1920s, the years following the Bolshevik victory but prior to Stalin’s Great Terror, the “greedy, vicious […] profiteers of the Revolution” took up the old imperial aristocracy’s places as an haute société. Malaparte describes the actresses, ballerinas, writers, government officials, athletes, and diplomats, all busy with their “court intrigues” of infidelity, peculiar obsessions, jealousies, blackmail, and backstabbing. Far from being a class of revolutionaries that Malaparte had imagined when he traveled to Moscow, these are a class of people willing to exploit revolutionary ideals so that they can enact the same class disparities that existed under the Tsars.
Malaparte describes The Kremlin Ball as a “Proustian” novel, and it is in the sense that is largely an investigation of social class, with Malaparte as our “impartial” and critical observer. But the difference for this Marxist nobility is that they sense that their days are numbered. The Great Terror has not started but it is impending and seemingly inevitable as “Tsar Stalin” gathers power. These Marxist aristocrats enjoy a Kremlin ball the way escaped prisoners run from baying hounds.
While Malaparte was a prolific writer and journalist with many articles, books, and screenplays available in English, this is the first time that The Kremlin Ball has been translated for English readers. Translator Jenny McPhee describes Malaparte as a complex satirist who “foresaw our present political and cultural situation.” While I don’t know that Malaparte meant the novel to be predictive, it is certainly incisive and therefore rife with contemporary applications.
Born in 1898 as Kurt Eric Suckert, Malaparte adopted the pseudonym “Malaparte,” which means “evil/wrong side.” He regularly published work that was critical of governments and revolutions, and seemed to frequently find himself on the “wrong side” in the sense that he had offended someone, whether it was in the Italian Army, the Bolshevik government, the National Fascist Party, or Mussolini. While he was a supporter of Mussolini’s Fascist movement, under Mussolini’s regime he was arrested several times and sent into internal exile for a number of years. “The time for laughter is well-nigh over for the free men of our times,” he claims in the introduction to The Kremlin Ball. By “free men” he seems to mean people that think independently and are critical of those in power.
In her introduction to The Kremlin Ball, McPhee acknowledges that Malaparte “displays a disturbing fascination with violence and extreme rule—fascism, Nazism, communism,” but he saw these phenomena as “inevitable aspects of our collective suicide.” On the one hand, Malaparte was invested in Marxist ideals as possible solutions to issues of inequality and corruption. On the other hand, he was not ideologically blinded: he could see that Russia’s Marxist nobility “would exterminate not only communism’s adversaries and enemies of the proletariat, but all free men.”
Like George Orwell, Malaparte is not necessarily rejecting collectivist ideals outright, but as a keen observer of people he sees that human beings tend to be self-destructive, no matter what kind of government ideals they claim to be working toward. No one is innocent or idealized for Malaparte. This kind of even-handed criticism, combined with Malaparte’s journalistic style and his interactions with the most important people in Russia’s government and arts scene of the late 1920s, give The Kremlin Ball the feel of a salacious, courtly tell-all. Malaparte does not let anyone off the hook, and it seems that everyone who is anyone gets mentioned. Stalin and Alexis Karakhan sit in the same theater to watch the ballerina Marina Semyonova. Malaparte strolls down the Arbat with the great writer and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov. He is friends with the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, and visits Mayakovsky’s apartment the day after the poet commits suicide. He dances in the Kremlin with ambassadors’ wives and attends a banquet at the Union of Soviet Writers.
At the same time that Malaparte presents himself as an impartial guide to the machinations of Soviet society, his descriptions at times veer toward magical realism. Frankly, I enjoyed these moments in the narrative more because they were connected to real people, and because they reveal a less than impartial narrator. Dmitry Florinsky, one of the more famous Soviet functionaries among the diplomats, rides around Moscow in an old worm-eaten carriage (one of the last left in Moscow after being outlawed by the Communist Party) that becomes ghostly in Malaparte’s description: the carriage is black with dirt, the driver “had an unkempt beard, dark liquidy eyes, and a toothless mouth” and Malaparte shouts “There’s a ghost inside!” as the carriage pulls up next to him. When meeting with Olga Kamenev, the sister of Leon Trotsky, Malaparte claims that she is so terrified of death that she smells of it, that she is in fact “already dead,” her body starting to swell like a corpse. Malaparte says hello to the ghost of Scriabin, and while standing in a graveyard, a flower starts to bleed.
The use of magical realism emphasizes the grotesque hellishness of Marxist society as Malaparte encountered it. While the philosophical questions of the novel revolve around human nature and whether there is any capacity/potential for real revolution, the reader also wonders exactly which elements of Malaparte’s narrative are “real” and which are hyperbole. A sweating Prince Lvov carries a gilded armchair from his palace to the flea market in the hopes of selling it. While there in the market, Malaparte sees another aristocratic woman trying to sell her last pair of satin underwear. Did this all happen just as described? Are these stories collected in journalist fashion, or are these morality tales that underscore Malaparte’s disillusionment, another aspect of the Soviet grotesquerie? In her introduction to the English version of Malaparte’s 1949 novel The Skin, Rachel Kushner describes Malaparte’s tendency to move between journalist and storyteller: “It’s not quite clear if this is the real Malaparte. This Malaparte is always in the right place at the right time to witness a scandal and deliver a biting retort [….] The reader can’t help but wonder if Malaparte is inventing or reporting, but the question misses the point of his performance, which is to render the question unanswerable. He is making a joke of the fictions that hold reality together.”
I am not convinced that Malaparte is always joking about those fictions, but his ability to see them all simultaneously in play is what makes his writing intriguing and historically convincing.
I am not convinced that Malaparte is always joking about those fictions, but his ability to see them all simultaneously in play is what makes his writing intriguing and historically convincing. One of the seriously debated fictions that shows up again and again in the text is God: “Christ is by now a useless character in Russia. It’s useless to be Christians in Russia. We don’t need Christ anymore,” says a frightened Mikhail Bulkagov to Malaparte. “You are all afraid of Christ,” observes Malaparte, to which Bulgakov whispers, “Christ hates us.”
To Malaparte, the fiction of Christ correlates with the fiction of the Revolution in the sense that, again, the ideals are not necessarily at fault for human failure; but nevertheless, humanity is not able to make social reality correlate with the ideal. Bulgakov sees the tension between the ideal and the real and he lives in fear because of it; he knows that to point out the spiritual poverty of the “revolutionaries” will earn him a death sentence. Malaparte on the other hand, as a “free man” is simply emboldened in his criticism. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novella The Heart of a Dog, a satire on the idea of the “new Soviet man” in which a doctor implants human organs into a dog.
“A man who doesn’t feel God’s contempt, his abandonment, is not a free man, but a miserable slave,” comments Malaparte. In fact, he argues that Europe’s problem is that they are convinced God will save them, when in fact God is waiting for them to save themselves. In Russia it is the same, but the problem is described as one of suffering: the Russian people think they must suffer for someone, and therefore they exhibit a fatalistic apathy that allows for their continued abuse and misery.
Fittingly, when Malaparte is asked what has been most memorable about his time in Moscow, he says “Lenin’s mummy,” referring to Lenin’s embalmed corpse on display in Red Square. Lenin’s body has been displayed in Red Square since 1924, and it’s interesting to see what Malaparte writes of it at from his vantage point in history: “Lenin’s mummy, small and shrunken like the mummy of a child, was slowly rotting. Periodically, German specialists show up from Berlin to empty, scrape out, and disinfect the shell of that precious crustacean, that sacred mummy, the porcelain white face lit up by red freckles veiled by a greenish mold-like sweat.” For Malaparte, Lenin’s mummy epitomizes the strange paradox of the Revolution: that the communists who had deposed an out of touch tsar would give rise to “that new puritanical, cruel, hard, inflexible, monstrous class” and now, at a few years remove he notes that all of these “profiteers of the Revolution” would “succumb to the lead of firing squads in the courtyard of the Lubyanka,” the notorious KGB prison in Moscow. In the same way that the ideals of the revolution would rot and spoil under the weight of the incoming Soviet leaders, Lenin’s mummy “was decomposing, crumbling, becoming flaky, soft to the touch, damp and spoiled.”
Malaparte originally conceived of The Kremlin Ball to be part of The Skin, which describes the Allied army’s invasion of Italy. While several chapters devoted to the Marxist aristocracy might seem like they would have been out of place, in The Kremlin Ball Malaparte makes an argument that the fates of Europe and Russia are intertwined: “Since the Europe of tomorrow is to be found in the Russia of tomorrow, it is equally true that the Europe of today is to be found in the Russia of today,” he argues. The failure of the Russian Revolution was a mirror image of Europe’s failed revolutions and vice versa. The Kremlin Ball is told in flashback: Malaparte is describing his experiences in Soviet Russia of the late 1920s, but he is telling it from the perspective of the 1940s, post WWII. He knows that most of the people he met and describes were executed, and so the failures of the Russian Revolution to enact any real social revolution is already known. I could see how The Kremlin Ball would be meant as a complimentary set of observations to Malaparte’s other journalistic work in Europe.
Before publication, Malaparte decided that his reportage on Russia should be an autonomous work, so The Skin was published without its Kremlin Ball chapters. Malaparte died without completely finishing the work. The fact that the text is unfinished rarely detracts; in fact, I found it interesting to see where certain diatribes of Malaparte’s were repeating main ideas, because I felt I was seeing his process at working out his main themes in the text. In the finished product, some of these passages would probably have been streamlined or shortened, but I thought it was interesting to see where he was investing narrative weight during the writing process. Malaparte drops names, titles, and geography freely, and this version of the text has excellent notes that keep someone less familiar with Moscow and Soviet people well informed, while Jenny McPhee’s introduction helps to frame the book with Malaparte’s biography.
Malaparte claims that the greatest reason for the moral decline of the Soviets is that, instead of being lead to any “collective sentiment,” they have arrived at “a total dedication to fatality.” The fanatic belief and frenetic activity he encounters are, he believes, simply disguising this fatalism and lack of hope, a society that has become “indifferent to its own destiny.” I think that in this observation lies Malaparte’s greatest perspicuity, or the point most relevant to our contemporary cultural moment. Blind ideology has led the Soviet people to an unwillingness to acknowledge the failure of the Revolution. Malaparte claims that even non-Russian writers are failing to report accurately on the state of the “Marxist aristocracy”: “To read the writings of any one of them, it would seem that the USSR is an immense democratic and egalitarian society of workers.”
Blind ideology has led the Soviet people to an unwillingness to acknowledge the failure of the Revolution. Malaparte claims that even non-Russian writers are failing to report accurately on the state of the “Marxist aristocracy”: “To read the writings of any one of them, it would seem that the USSR is an immense democratic and egalitarian society of workers.”
Such blindness to the problems of a current government may well arrive out of hopelessness, out of the notion that there are not alternatives. While Malaparte himself seems to have a somewhat hopeless perspective on both the Soviets and humanity in general, arriving at “fatalistic” dead ends may also be the first impetus to ask questions about alternatives. In other words, perhaps the despair that Malaparte sees as having allowed for both the self-destruction of the Russian Revolutionaries and ushering in The Great Terror could also be a point of return: in moments of cultural destitution, the way out is hope in an alternative vision.
Ryan Strader earned a B.A. in Russian Literature from George Mason University, and an M.A.T. from Clayton State University. She is currently an instructional designer and researcher. Her most recent instructional design project is the development of a class in writing and qualitative research methods at Georgia State University, where she is also a doctoral student. Her most recent publication is an upcoming book chapter on populism in young adult novels. She lives and works in the Atlanta area.