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Bad to the bone: John Gray on Italian fascist Curzio Malaparte’s lost masterpiece

The Skin, published now in the first ever complete English translation, captures the delirium and cruelty of Europe in the Second World War in surreal and amoral prose.


Image: Roibert Doisnea/Gamma-Rapho/Getty

As seen by the Italian writer Curzio Mala­parte, the liberation of Naples by Allied forces in 1943 was the blackest of comedies. Desperately short of food after years of bombing had destroyed the city’s infrastructure, Naples was a seething ruin in which everything was for sale. Priests stripped the churches of anything of value; prostitution was near universal and syphilis epidemic; and the population staged a frantic show of welcoming the liberating armies, “singing, clapping, jumping for joy amid the ruins of their houses, unfurling foreign flags which until the day before had been emblems of their foes”.

Presenting a version of an incident that may have occurred in real life, the narrator of The Skin (who is also called Malaparte) recounts how the American high command dined with local dignitaries on rare fishes taken from the city’s aquarium. Adding a Dalí-esque touch of horror, Malaparte has the last of the feasts feature a dead child, served up on a platter encircled with a wreath of coral. Corpses of children were a common sight at the time and there is more than a hint of cruelty in his account of the Americans turning “pale and horror-stricken” at the spectacle of one of these pitiful figures laid out on the table.

Malaparte’s fictional alter ego describes Colonel Jack Hamilton, the American officer to whom he has been assigned as a guide to the city, as “a Christian gentleman” who had “landed in Italy for the purpose of fighting the Italians and punishing them for their sins and crimes”. An innocent, magnanimous soul, he could not be expected to know that “without the existence of evil there can be no Christ; that capitalist society is founded on the conviction that in the absence of beings who suffer a man cannot enjoy to the full his possessions and his happiness; and that without the alibi of Christianity capitalism could not prevail”. Containing many such passages of savage invective, this book is a sustained assault on every kind of piety. It is hardly surprising that when it was published in 1944 The Skin was placed on the Vatican index of prohibited books.

Like his alter ego, Malaparte joined the US forces as a liaison officer when they entered Naples. It has been suggested he may have become an intelligence asset to the Americans around the same time. In any event, working for them was only one, and not the last, of many shifts in the loyalties of the mercurial Italian writer. Born Kurt Suckert in Tuscany in 1898, the son of an Italian mother and a German father, he adopted in 1925 the pen name of Malaparte – a punning reference to Napoleon Bonaparte (in Italian, buonaparte means “good side”). His new name may have been meant to suggest how contradictory the life of a writer in politics can be. If so, he was well equipped for the role.

Along with many in the European avant-garde, Malaparte embraced fascism not despite, but because of its celebration of violence. Serving as a volunteer in the Italian army for four years during the First World War, he suffered permanent damage to his health as a result of exposure to mustard gas. Yet, far from condemning war, he regarded it as an opportunity for a rare kind of experience in which death and destruction become in some way beautiful. He was not unusual in taking this view. A contemporary of his, the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, expressed similar sentiments, as did many of the futurists. Their perverse aestheticism proved to be one of the cultural omens of the rise of fascism.

Joining Mussolini’s march on Rome in 1922, urging a strategy of terror against anti-Fascists, travelling to the Eastern Front with Nazi forces when Hitler invaded Russia and accompanying pro-German forces in the forests of Finland, Malaparte was clearly attracted by fascism. Yet a certain refractoriness, coexisting with his slippery opportunism, led to repeated difficulties with his Fascist masters. Starting in 1933, when he seems to have displeased Mussolini – some say by describing Hitler as having a “feminine” nature, others suggesting that he mocked the Italian dictator’s taste in neckties – Malaparte suffered several years of banishment. However, these were passed mostly in pleasant holiday spots, where he lived a hedonistic life as the guest of rich and well-connected friends, so they were not exactly a fearful punishment.

It seems to have been during this period that he conceived the idea of designing and building “a house like me”, the Casa Malaparte, on the island of Capri. Showing no trace of the oppressive monumental style that was in favour in Mussolini’s Italy (Malaparte soon fell out with the prominent Fascist architect he had commissioned for the project), the house is recognised as one of the most remarkable examples of modern European architecture. In a characteristically convoluted conceit, he tells in The Skin of a visit by the German general Erwin Rommel, who asked if he had built the house himself. Malaparte replied that he had bought it, and then, with a sweeping gesture towards the magnificent landscape, declared: “I designed the scenery.” Perched on the cliff edge, a brilliant red structure with pyramidal stone steps and vast roof terrace, the building can be seen in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Le Mépris (1963), an adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s 1954 novel Il disprezzo (translated as Contempt), featuring Jack Palance and Brigitte Bardot.


On the edge: the Capri house bespoke the man. Image: Rex.

A talented and highly versatile survivor, Malaparte was a playwright, film-maker and novelist, the author of a treatise on the technique of the coup d’état and a slightly shady diplomat. But he saw himself above all as a writer creating a new type of fiction, a species of wilfully unreliable reportage in which the most gruesome episodes are recounted with terrifying gaiety. In Kaputt (1943), a hallucinatory version of his travels through Nazi-occupied Europe, he produced a dark masterpiece of magic realism. Ranking with the best of Céline as one of the most powerful expressions of European despair, The Skin tells of the horror of the everyday struggle for survival in a society destroyed by war.

“Our skin, this confounded skin,” Malaparte’s alter ego exclaims to a group of Allied officers. “You’ve no idea what a man will do, what deeds of heroism and infamy he can accomplish, to save his skin . . . They think they are fighting and suffering to save their souls, but in reality they are fighting and suffering to save their skins, and their skins alone.” As Malaparte had witnessed, the inhabitants of Naples were ready to sell themselves and their children for a crust of bread. This was not a pattern of behaviour peculiar to Neapolitans – he always stressed that he admired the city and its people – but a universal human trait, which he regarded as more destructive than war.

If Malaparte’s wartime novels have long been neglected, one reason is that they remind us how deeply many of Europe’s intellectuals were complicit in the rise of fascism. Paul de Man, Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot and a host of lesser-known worthies flirted shamelessly with fascism, surfacing safely after the war was over as respectable stalwarts of the radical left. Though he took more risks along the way, Malaparte followed a similar course, veering towards Maoism in the Fifties, meeting the Chairman and in some accounts bequeathing the house he built on Capri to the People’s Republic of China. The trajectory may sound surprising, but in fact it was quite commonplace.

Where Malaparte was distinctive was in his awareness of the contradictions inherent in the positions he adopted. Reporting in 1941 from the Russian front for the influential Corriere della Sera as the only front-line war correspondent in the entire USSR, he forecast correctly that the Russian forces would not collapse as a result of the German advance, but fight on regardless. Having breached the German propaganda line, he was ordered out of the war zone by Goebbels and sent back to Italy for another spell of house arrest.

Malaparte’s despatches were not inspired by any sympathy for the Soviet cause. Rather than seeing it as an Asiatic or Russian perversion of Marxist ideals, as do many disappointed leftists, he viewed Soviet communism as a distinctively European pathology. Equally, Nazism and fascism were not aberrations from an essentially sound civilisation. All these totalitarian movements reflected deep-seated disorders in European civilisation. Malaparte displayed many of these disorders, his late conversion to Maoism being one more expression of a European fascination with ideological violence.

Part of his power as a writer comes from these contradictions. The uncertainty that surrounds his narrator – is he a version of the author, or a fictional character? – not only is a literary technique but reflects his self-division. His writings are full of toxic stereotypes, sexist, racist and homophobic. Yet it is impossible to be sure whether these displays of prejudice were sincere, or rather – as he seems at times to intimate – whether they serve as cryptic expressions of solidarity with the people who are being stereotyped. He has an Allied officer in The Skin ask the narrator, “with an urbanely ironical air”: “How much truth there is in all that you relate in Kaputt?” I suspect that Malaparte, a self-mocking provocateur whose life was a succession of performances, did not know the answer. Paradoxically, it may have been his lack of any coherent self that enabled him to portray the chaos of wartime Europe with such authenticity.

It is well known that a great writer may be a repellent person – we need only think of Dostoevsky. We are less ready to accept that moral defects may be a necessary part of a writer’s art. Yet this seems to have been the case with Malaparte, whose feverish and fractured consciousness enabled him to be a mirror of his time. If you want a vividly realistic picture of the state of Naples when it was liberated, you should turn to Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44 – another blackly comic book that is also luminously sane. If you want to enter into the delirium and cruelty of the period, it is The Skin you must read.

For many years Malaparte was neglected as an embarrassing reminder of the ignominious accommodation that so many of the European intelligentsia reached with dictatorship. Though his political record was no worse than many of his generation, the flamboyance with which he had flaunted his fascism left him beyond the pale of polite society. If he resented this exclusion, he had his revenge when, not long before he died in 1957, he was admitted into the Catholic Church and the Italian Communist Party. Further recognition was slow in coming. Until it was renovated by his grand-nephew, the house in Capri was in disrepair for decades after the war. More recently, a restaurant in New York City was named after the writer.

Now the indispensable New York Review Books, which published Kaputt in 2005, has given us the first complete translation into English of The Skin. An embodiment of Europe’s bad conscience, Malaparte’s voice was one that right-thinking people of every denomination preferred not to hear. That is why this difficult book was so hated and condemned when it first appeared, and remains so well worth reading. 

The Skin by Curzio Malaparte, translated by David Moore and introduced by Rachel Kushner, is published by New York Review Books Classics, 368pp, £9.99

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book, “The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths”, is published by Allen Lane (£18.99)

 

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

MILES COLE
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The new Brexit economics

George Osborne’s austerity plan – now abandoned by the Tories – was the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s.

George Osborne is no longer chancellor, sacked by the post-Brexit Prime Minister, Theresa May. Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor, has yet to announce detailed plans but he has indicated that the real economy rather than the deficit is his priority. The senior Conservatives Sajid Javid and Stephen Crabb have advocated substantial increases in public-sector infrastructure investment, noting how cheap it is for the government to borrow. The argument that Osborne and the Conservatives had been making since 2010 – that the priority for macroeconomic policy had to be to reduce the government’s budget deficit – seems to have been brushed aside.

Is there a good economic reason why Brexit in particular should require abandoning austerity economics? I would argue that the Tory obsession with the budget deficit has had very little to do with economics for the past four or five years. Instead, it has been a political ruse with two intentions: to help win elections and to reduce the size of the state. That Britain’s macroeconomic policy was dictated by politics rather than economics was a precursor for the Brexit vote. However, austerity had already begun to reach its political sell-by date, and Brexit marks its end.

To understand why austerity today is opposed by nearly all economists, and to grasp the partial nature of any Conservative rethink, it is important to know why it began and how it evolved. By 2010 the biggest recession since the Second World War had led to rapid increases in government budget deficits around the world. It is inevitable that deficits (the difference between government spending and tax receipts) increase in a recession, because taxes fall as incomes fall, but government spending rises further because benefit payments increase with rising unemployment. We experienced record deficits in 2010 simply because the recession was unusually severe.

In 2009 governments had raised spending and cut taxes in an effort to moderate the recession. This was done because the macroeconomic stabilisation tool of choice, nominal short-term interest rates, had become impotent once these rates hit their lower bound near zero. Keynes described the same situation in the 1930s as a liquidity trap, but most economists today use a more straightforward description: the problem of the zero lower bound (ZLB). Cutting rates below this lower bound might not stimulate demand because people could avoid them by holding cash. The textbook response to the problem is to use fiscal policy to stimulate the economy, which involves raising spending and cutting taxes. Most studies suggest that the recession would have been even worse without this expansionary fiscal policy in 2009.

Fiscal stimulus changed to fiscal contraction, more popularly known as austerity, in most of the major economies in 2010, but the reasons for this change varied from country to country. George Osborne used three different arguments to justify substantial spending cuts and tax increases before and after the coalition government was formed. The first was that unconventional monetary policy (quantitative easing, or QE) could replace the role of lower interest rates in stimulating the economy. As QE was completely untested, this was wishful thinking: the Bank of England was bound to act cautiously, because it had no idea what impact QE would have. The second was that a fiscal policy contraction would in fact expand the economy because it would inspire consumer and business confidence. This idea, disputed by most economists at the time, has now lost all credibility.

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The third reason for trying to cut the deficit was that the financial markets would not buy government debt without it. At first, this rationale seemed to be confirmed by events as the eurozone crisis developed, and so it became the main justification for the policy. However, by 2012 it was becoming clear to many economists that the debt crisis in Ireland, Portugal and Spain was peculiar to the eurozone, and in particular to the failure of the European Central Bank (ECB) to act as a lender of last resort, buying government debt when the market failed to.

In September 2012 the ECB changed its policy and the eurozone crisis beyond Greece came to an end. This was the main reason why renewed problems in Greece last year did not lead to any contagion in the markets. Yet it is not something that the ECB will admit, because it places responsibility for the crisis at its door.

By 2012 two other things had also become clear to economists. First, governments outside the eurozone were having no problems selling their debt, as interest rates on this reached record lows. There was an obvious reason why this should be so: with central banks buying large quantities of government debt as a result of QE, there was absolutely no chance that governments would default. Nor have I ever seen any evidence that there was any likelihood of a UK debt funding crisis in 2010, beyond the irrelevant warnings of those “close to the markets”. Second, the austerity policy had done considerable harm. In macroeconomic terms the recovery from recession had been derailed. With the help of analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility, I calculated that the GDP lost as a result of austerity implied an average cost for each UK household of at least £4,000.

Following these events, the number of academic economists who supported austerity became very small (they had always been a minority). How much of the UK deficit was cyclical or structural was irrelevant: at the ZLB, fiscal policy should stimulate, and the deficit should be dealt with once the recession was over.

Yet you would not know this from the public debate. Osborne continued to insist that deficit reduction be a priority, and his belief seemed to have become hard-wired into nearly all media discussion. So perverse was this for standard macroeconomics that I christened it “mediamacro”: the reduction of macroeconomics to the logic of household finance. Even parts of the Labour Party seemed to be succumbing to a mediamacro view, until the fiscal credibility rule introduced in March by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. (This included an explicit knockout from the deficit target if interest rates hit the ZLB, allowing fiscal policy to focus on recovering from recession.)

It is obvious why a focus on the deficit was politically attractive for Osborne. After 2010 the coalition government adopted the mantra that the deficit had been caused by the previous Labour government’s profligacy, even though it was almost entirely a consequence of the recession. The Tories were “clearing up the mess Labour left”, and so austerity could be blamed on their predecessors. Labour foolishly decided not to challenge this myth, and so it became what could be termed a “politicised truth”. It allowed the media to say that Osborne was more competent at running the economy than his predecessors. Much of the public, hearing only mediamacro, agreed.

An obsession with cutting the deficit was attractive to the Tories, as it helped them to appear competent. It also enabled them to achieve their ideological goal of shrinking the state. I have described this elsewhere as “deficit deceit”: using manufactured fear about the deficit to achieve otherwise unpopular reductions in public spending.

The UK recovery from the 2008/2009 recession was the weakest on record. Although employment showed strong growth from 2013, this may have owed much to an unprecedented decline in real wages and stagnant productivity growth. By the main metrics by which economists judge the success of an economy, the period of the coalition government looked very poor. Many economists tried to point this out during the 2015 election but they were largely ignored. When a survey of macroeconomists showed that most thought austerity had been harmful, the broadcast media found letters from business leaders supporting the Conservative position more newsworthy.

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In my view, mediamacro and its focus on the deficit played an important role in winning the Conservatives the 2015 general election. I believe Osborne thought so, too, and so he ­decided to try to repeat his success. Although the level of government debt was close to being stabilised, he decided to embark on a further period of fiscal consolidation so that he could achieve a budget surplus.

Osborne’s austerity plans after 2015 were different from what happened in 2010 for a number of reasons. First, while 2010 austerity also occurred in the US and the eurozone, 2015 austerity was largely a UK affair. Second, by 2015 the Bank of England had decided that interest rates could go lower than their current level if need be. We are therefore no longer at the ZLB and, in theory, the impact of fiscal consolidation on demand could be offset by reducing interest rates, as long as no adverse shocks hit the economy. The argument against fiscal consolidation was rather that it increased the vulnerability of the economy if a negative shock occurred. As we have seen, Brexit is just this kind of shock.

In this respect, abandoning Osborne’s surplus target makes sense. However, there were many other strong arguments against going for surplus. The strongest of these was the case for additional public-sector investment at a time when interest rates were extremely low. Osborne loved appearing in the media wearing a hard hat and talked the talk on investment, but in reality his fiscal plans involved a steadily decreasing share of public investment in GDP. Labour’s fiscal rules, like those of the coalition government, have targeted the deficit excluding public investment, precisely so that investment could increase when the circumstances were right. In 2015 the circumstances were as right as they can be. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and pretty well every economist agreed.

Brexit only reinforces this argument. Yet Brexit will also almost certainly worsen the deficit. This is why the recent acceptance by the Tories that public-sector investment should rise is significant. They may have ­decided that they have got all they could hope to achieve from deficit deceit, and that now is the time to focus on the real needs of the economy, given the short- and medium-term drag on growth caused by Brexit.

It is also worth noting that although the Conservatives have, in effect, disowned Osborne’s 2015 austerity, they still insist their 2010 policy was correct. This partial change of heart is little comfort to those of us who have been arguing against austerity for the past six years. In 2015 the Conservatives persuaded voters that electing Ed Miliband as prime minister and Ed Balls as chancellor was taking a big risk with the economy. What it would have meant, in fact, is that we would already be getting the public investment the Conservatives are now calling for, and we would have avoided both the uncertainty before the EU referendum and Brexit itself.

Many economists before the 2015 election said the same thing, but they made no impact on mediamacro. The number of economists who supported Osborne’s new fiscal charter was vanishingly small but it seemed to matter not one bit. This suggests that if a leading political party wants to ignore mainstream economics and academic economists in favour of simplistic ideas, it can get away with doing so.

As I wrote in March, the failure of debate made me very concerned about the outcome of the EU referendum. Economists were as united as they ever are that Brexit would involve significant economic costs, and the scale of these costs is probably greater than the average loss due to austerity, simply because they are repeated year after year. Yet our warnings were easily deflected with the slogan “Project Fear”, borrowed from the SNP’s nickname for the No campaign in the 2014 Scottish referendum.

It remains unclear whether economists’ warnings were ignored because they were never heard fully or because they were not trusted, but in either case economics as a profession needs to think seriously about what it can do to make itself more relevant. We do not want economics in the UK to change from being called the dismal science to becoming the “I told you so” science.

Some things will not change following the Brexit vote. Mediamacro will go on obsessing about the deficit, and the Conservatives will go on wanting to cut many parts of government expenditure so that they can cut taxes. But the signs are that deficit deceit, creating an imperative that budget deficits must be cut as a pretext for reducing the size of the state, has come to an end in the UK. It will go down in history as probably the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s, causing a great deal of misery to many people’s lives.

Simon Wren-Lewis is a professor of economic policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He blogs at: mainlymacro.blogspot.com

 Simon Wren-Lewis is is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. He blogs at mainlymacro.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt