From the opening of Curzio Malaparte’s The Kremlin Ball, a section titled Moscow Society is the Mirror Image of European Society but Dominated by Fear. The novel was left unfinished at the time of the author’s death and this English translation from NYRB is the product of a recent Italian critical edition (that I don’t have access to, unfortunately). The premise – best summed up in the line I’ve used here for title, said to the narrator late in the novel – is fascinating but the novel itself generally feels too unfinished to pull through on it in more than a few moments.
In this novel, a faithful portrait of the USSR’s Marxist nobility, of Moscow’s communist high society, of their haute société, everything is true: the people, the events, the things, the places. The characters did not originate in the author’s imagination, but were drawn from life, each with his own name, face, words, and actions: Stalin, who watched the famous ballerina Semyonova prance about the stage every night at the Bolshoi Theater of Moscow; Karakhan (the same Karakhan Stalin later had killed), with whom Stalin was apparently competing for Semyonova; the celebrated beauties of the Marxist nobility, the Bs, Gs, and Ls with their lovers, intrigues, and scandals, their eager and restless faces basking in the ephemeral rose-tinted glow of glory, riches, and power; the extraordinary Florinsky, Chief of Protocol of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs, who paraded through the streets of Moscow in his horse-drawn carriage; the fearful and resigned Madame Kameneva, Trotsky’s sister; all of these merveilleuses, these lions, these parvenus, these ephebes are not invented but living people, real human creatures. What differentiates this novel, however, from a “court chronicle” catering to seventeenth-century French taste, or from a mémoire such as the one by Saint-Simon, or from a book of moralités like Montaigne’s, and makes it a novel in the Proustian sense (not so much in style, but in its keen sense of désintéressement, or disinterestedness, so essential to the novels and characters created by Marcel Proust), is the fact that the characters, events, and episodes in this “court chronicle” are bound by a fatality propelling them all toward one end, toward a novelistic denouement. The protagonist, the hero of this novel, is not an individual, not a man or woman, but a social entity: the communist aristocracy that replaced the Russian aristocracy of the ancien régime, and in many ways resembled the revolutionary nobility that arose after the French Revolution, those who gathered around Barras during the Directory regime. Similarly, the protagonist of Proust’s novels is no individual, no man or woman, not Baron Charlus or Swann, not Madame de Guermantes, Odette, or Langeron, but rather the French nobility, the Parisian nobility, the monde de Paris, in other words, a social entity, society itself. The author of this novel, however, has no intention of being a moralist—as in the “plan de désintéressement” or “framework of disinterestedness” Albert Thibaudet discusses in regard to Proust in which Proust infuses morality into his psychological analysis. This author emphatically declares that he is absolutely indifferent to the fate of his characters. As for their morality, whether they are on the side of the good or the bad, he’s interested only up to a point. This author, instead, addresses disinterestedness not in terms of psychological analysis but in terms of how disinterestedness is infused in the social drama of politics and political unrest of his protagonists, ranging from Stalin to the young Marika. The most striking aspect of a Marxist society is not that it is Marxistically organized like Hitler’s Germany (which the author defines as “feudal communism”), but how Marxist morality is dominated by fatalism. That historical materialism would lead to fatalism is odd. In reality, Marxism does not lead the individual to a collective sentiment but to the most absolute fatalism, to a total dedication to fatality—which is, of course, the sign of a society in decline. If the novel contains a moral it is this: Marxist society in the USSR is already in decline. And not only the Trotskyite nobility of 1929, but the Marxist nobility and the entire Marxist society are in decline. A distinct and dreadful sign of this decline is the fatalism that is the private rationale of every Russian man, even if disguised by activity and fanatic belief—these being characteristics of a Marxist society indifferent to its own destiny. Another factor is this: Russians suffer for others. The inducement to suffer for others is a form of fatalism. Only those who suffer for themselves take part in history, participate in the thrust of history, are the subject, not merely the object, of history. The destiny of any noble revolutionary is to wind up against the wall. This destiny is assured for a noble revolutionary in a Marxist society in which mankind, human life, has no value. A new Marxist nobility, which replaced the Trotskyite nobility exterminated in 1936, has been forming in these past few years around Stalin. It, too, will wind up against the wall if it doesn’t succeed in imposing its morality, corruption, and ambition upon the entire Russian population, if it doesn’t succeed in debasing all Russians.
Incidentally, Malaparte may be better known to the Anglo world for his villa on Capri, Casa Malaparte (dated but good photos are here and another below). There was an exhibit on the villa’s furniture in London a couple of years ago.