Hey, Moscow, let’s party tonight like it’s 1929!

I am currently re-reading Curzio Malaparte’s The Kremlin Ball.

There is no other book like it. A gossipy telling of the “Soviet proletariat aristocracy” of the late 1920s, which Malaparte witnessed firsthand. (“Curzio Malaparte” was his pen name, chosen because it kind of sounded like “Bonaparte” and he loved Napoleon. He was born “Kurt Erich Suckert,”) Sympathetic to the aims of the Russian Revolution (he eventually joined the Italian Communist Party, but don’t credit that too much because he also became a staunch Catholic. He was an admirer of Trotsky, and he was an ardent member of Mussolini’s initial movement. He was eventually imprisoned by Mussolini for his trouble. So. Grain of salt for ALL of Malaparte’s convictions. Did he just float from one extreme to the other? Or did he follow whomever gave him the best offer? I’m thinking it was the latter.). The 20s and 30s were a wild time, in general, for flip-flopping convictions and aligning yourself with some gruesome people in order to fight the powers that be. Malaparte was a big part of all of that. During his time in Moscow in the late 1920s, as a member of the diplomatic corps (or a guest of said corps? I can’t remember), he saw something extraordinary: he saw the rise of a Soviet elite, a petit bourgeois elite, no less, the biggest class enemy in the “Socialist” system. He felt betrayed at what he saw, although … his betrayal never seems quite genuine, because you don’t get the feeling he believed in much anyway. He was a cold and calculating outsider, so – unlike other true believers – he could actually see clearly. He witnessed bizarre things like Karakhan, a revered and famous revolutionary, arranging to import tennis balls from England because the Soviet tennis balls were no good. Details like this are so random they have the ring of truth.

Although you never know with Malaparte. Don’t trust him as far as you can throw him.

Kremlin Ball, along with Malaprte’s masterpiece Kaputt – a “travelogue” through the wartorn landscapes of Eastern Europe — and The Skin – a description of the “invasion” of Italy by Allied forces in WWII, Malaparte’s work is basically a tour of the Axis powers, written by someone so seemingly sympathetic that he can clink glasses with the grotesque inner circle, and then race home to make fun of all of them in print. Malaparte was a political flip-flopper, who rubbed shoulders with some of the most unsavory individuals of the 20th century. His amazing work comes from behind the front lines on the BAD side. We don’t have much of that.

Malaparte wasn’t ever on my radar. I’ve mentioned my “problem” many times before, a problem I’ve taken a lifetime to overcome: I have an education, okay, but my college years were dominated by theatre (it was my major). So I took acting classes, singing classes, movement classes, I designed sets, I ran costume crew, I acted in plays, etc. Alongside all of this, I would take the required amount of electives. Once I got through the requirements (a science class, a math class, whatever), I could take whatever I wanted. So I took a class on the Harlem Renaissance. I took a class on the Industrial Revolution. I took a class on the history of science. I took a class called African-American History. I just took classes in whatever interested me. You dig? They were all great and I learned a lot. But the problem, if you want to call it that, is that my formal and well-rounded education ended in high school. High school exposed me to the canon – the Great Gatsby/Scarlet Letter/Tale of Two Cities canon (no complaints). But after high school, all that stopped. In terms of reading, I was on my own. I wasn’t required to do anything. I could read or not read, whatever. And so, I had to DECIDE to read Tolstoy, since it hadn’t been on the high school curriculum. I just didn’t feel like I could properly or fully participate in anything called “culture” if I didn’t read the big Russians. So I read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Thank God I was already a voracious reader, but still: one can’t catch everything. In those post-college years, following my own whims, I read current fiction and discovered a lot of my favorite contemporary authors: AS Byatt, Jeanette Winterson, Nancy Lemann, Mary Gaitskill, Joy Williams (no surprise they’re all women. Only Emily Bronte was on the high school curriculum. It took my self-educating years to discover all the GIRLS). Therefore: to quote Rocky Balboa: I’ve got gaps. I am still filling gaps.

Before I make too much of a claim for my spotty literary education, I must point out that a BFA in theatre is a great education because it encompasses so many different fields: You learn history, philosophy, religion, cultural stuff … If you’re studying plays through history, then you are not just studying the text, you’re learning about the world surrounding the text. Because of my BFA, I know the timeline of theatrical history and could rattle it off with no notes. I have read all the major works. Greek. Roman. Restoration comedy. 1930s agitprop. Moliere. Shakespeare. Marlowe. Odets. Tennessee Williams. Vaclav Havel. August Wilson. Chekhov. Arthur Miller. Lanford Wilson. Lorraine Hansberry. Stanislavsky. Meyerhold. Experimental theatre of the 60s. Weirdo visionaries like Gordon Craig and Antonin Artaud and Peter Brook. Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre, his “Voodoo Macbeth” and Julius Caesar. I could go on and on. Also contemporary playwrights like Tina Howe and Edward Allen Baker and John Patrick Shanley. I know them all. My education is fine. When you read these plays and act in those plays you absorb the history of entire eras and places and times.

But I can actually feel the gaps I have in literature. So I have spent years “addressing” those gaps. I have no overall plan, just a desire to better myself and expand my mind. History has always been a major interest so over the years I’d get interested in the history of different countries – Yugoslavia (RIP), Russia, Iran, China – and so I’d read works by writers from those countries. Novels are a great way to deep dive. Last year I read Somali author Nuruddin Farah’s masterpiece, his trilogy called Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship. It blew me away. I’m just so glad I read it. I guess I’m an autodidact in a lot of ways.

Because I just wasn’t educated widely beyond a high school curriculum, Curzio Malaparte didn’t reach me at all (this was exacerbated by the fact that the majority of his works were not translated into English except recently. I think Kaputt was the only one widely available). My good friend Farran – who knows me very well and has never led me astray (she’s the one who encouraged me to read Balzac, another “gap”)- said to me, “Sheila. You of all people need to read Kremlin Ball.” (It was translated into English for the first time only a couple years ago. That was when it came on my radar because there was a review in the Times. I was like “how had I never heard of this before??” People mock you for statements like this. Well, as I explained, I was not a literature student or a global studies student. I was down the street, in the theatre department, learning how to juggle.) When Farran said “You, of all people …” I bought Kremlin Ball immediately.

Malaparte’s work is so up my alley. His books include wild mood-swings, from poetry to gossip and back. His tone is often heartless. He looks at people in a brutal unsparing way. He exposes them in print. In Kremlin Ball, his description of Moscow in the late 1920s, everyone in it is a real person. He names names. Many of the people we meet in the pages were executed in the following 8 years. (The book wasn’t published until the 1950s, for obvious reasons, but still … there are vested interests, not just in Russia, but in the post-modern lit-crit studies programs in the West, to keep the revelations made in Kremlin Ball out of circulation. The book suggests that nobody “betrayed” the Revolution. The Revolution WAS a betrayal. And remember: Malaparte was a Communist. His observations are even more brutal, then, since hw WANTED to see a happy glorious society and instead he saw rot and corruption, similar to the French court of Louis XVI, right before heads started to roll. Malaparte cruises from party to party, flirting with Soviet ballerinas and wives of generals, and revolutionary hangers-on, taking long walks with Mikhail Bulgakov … it feels like a Soviet version of Truman Capote’s La Cote Basque.

Malaparte demolishes the myth of the proletarian revolution. There’s not a “worker” in sight in this Moscow. Moscow is filled with glittering gleaming nouveau riche grotesques gliding from the ballet to the opera to ballrooms, kissing up to Stalin, gathering around to watch Karakhan play tennis with imported balls (but … I’m confused. Isn’t Russia supposed to be self-sufficient? Why do your tennis balls suck so bad? Can’t the “workers” figure it out? I’m confused.) Revolutionaries like Karakhan were celebrities – with all the privileges that that implies. (Karakhan was, of course, executed just a few years later. Hopefully he is playing tennis in an atheist heaven, where the tennis balls are to his liking.)

The book is a cutting portrait of how power corrupts. There are no exceptions. Farah’s books on African dictatorship show that too. Colonialism does massive damage. But human nature is more damaging. Nobody FORCES you to become a dictator. You can’t blame everything on somebody else. Power corrupts. Nobody can be trusted with power. This should be self-evident but it seems every generation has to learn it again.

Malaparte’s work is queasy-making. He’s a character in his books, cozying up to truly vile people, flirting and bantering and flattering grotesque hangers-on, leeches and wannabes, fascists and murderers – he parties with all of them, but then he trips home at dawn and scribbles down how disgusting everyone is. Like Truman Capote, Malaparte clearly was a good-time sort of guy who got people to trust him. These “corrupt ambitious parvenus” (Malaparte’s words) in the new Soviet aristocracy thought he was their friend. And … in a way … he was.

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1 Response to Hey, Moscow, let’s party tonight like it’s 1929!

  1. Shawn says:

    This sounds so juicy, thank you for the recommendation! I’m a slow reader, have a stack next to my bed. I read a dozen books a year, so not voracious, but at least I’m not on Tik Tok. Currently reading Salems Lot. Up next is Toni Tennille: a Memoir.

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