Sunday, January 05, 2014

Curzio Malaparte's The Skin: Life during noir time

Commentators lapse into cliché or trivial vulgarity when discussing Curzio Malaparte's 1949 novel The Skin, and it's hard to blame them. Almost anything one can say about the book comes off as incomplete, as a stance, or an attitude.

 Milan Kundera comes closest to the mark among the comments attached to the new NYRB translation of the book with an assessment that reads, in part, "suddenly, good and evil have veiled their faces; the new world is still barely known." But even that brief excerpt, quoted on the back cover, does not take in the novel's dark humor.

The novel has a character named Curzio Malaparte accompanying American forces in and around Naples after Italy signed the Armistice of Cassibile and went over to the Allied side in World War II. This is no crime novel, but its scenes of desperation, self-laceration, pity, and squalor will make any crime reader think about what noir really means.

I'll post an excerpt or two in the coming days, and I hope it will be clear why I choose the excerpts I do:
"General Cork was a real gentleman—a real American gentleman, I mean. He had the naïveté, the artlessness and the moral transparency that make American gentlemen so lovable and so human. He was not a cultivated man, he did not possess that humanistic culture which gives such a noble and poetic tone to the manners of European gentlemen, but he was a `man,' he had that human quality which European men lack: he knew how to blush. ... Like all good Americans, he was convinced that America was the leading nation in the world, and that the Americans were the most civilized and the most honorable people on earth; and naturally he despised Europe....
"Then he had asked me which gods the Americans would have to respect in Europe if they were to be saved.
"`Our hunger, our misery, and our humiliation,' I had replied."
 I have suggested that The Skin might interest my Bouchercon WWII panel friends James Benn and Martin Limón. J. Robert Janes might be interested as well.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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