Serendipity: Soviet High Society

Stalin and Members of the Politburo 1925

I have just finished reading Italian writer Curzio Malaparte’s The Kremlin Ball (Material for a Novel), a book that attempts to cover the high society of the Soviet Union as if it were Marcel Proust’s fin de siècle Paris. It is a strange book, probably because Malaparte was never able to finish it after numerous visits to Russia up to 1957, when he died. It makes it a tricky read, as one is never sure exactly what period the author is talking about in a particular chapter. Still, I loved the following picture of all those figures whose lives depended on the whim of Joseph Stalin.

Of that era’s Soviet high society, corrupt, always thirsty for pleasure, greedy for money, glory, and power, proud and snobbish, capable of any infamy in order to maintain their ephemeral power, ready to betray the people, the Revolution, communism, Russia, to deny their own revolutionary past, in order not to have to renounce the honors and privileges of their position, of that Soviet nobility corrupted by Trotskyism and Bonapartism, almost no one was still alive. L’ancien régime of the Communist Revolution, the new nobility that had emerged from the communism of the war and NEP [the New Economic Plan], made up of men who believed themselves to be Marxists and were actually nothing but krasni burjui, red bourgeois, who believed that they were the guardians of Marxist and Leninist theory but were instead Bonapartists, who believed they were leaders of the proletariat but were really leaders of the Trotskyite counterrevolution, had by then given up their positions to the élites of the Stakhanovites and the Udarniks [shock workers], and to the Stalinist élites who were tough and lean but nevertheless more human and born of the Five Year Plans. Of all the merveilleuses of the communist ancien régime, of all those men corrupted by ambition, hatred, jealousy, comfort, pleasures, and privileges, all that remains is memory: the “snapshots” firing squads caught of them in their supreme, ultimate moment, their pale faces turned toward the rifle barrels, their hands clenched in fists, their eyes widened, their brows enraged, the great wind of death unobstructed in the cold, squalid, magnesium light of the camera flashes that lit up, from some invisible height, the scenes of execution in modern Europe.

NKVD Firing Squad

A Villa on Capri

Italian Writer Curzio Malaparte’s Villa on Capri

This is the story of a coincidence that I didn’t realize at the time (in the 1960s), but that I learned about much later as I became more well read. I will start with the film, Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (in French Le Mépris) filmed in 1963. Based on a 1954 novel by Alberto Moravia, known in the English world as either Contempt or A Ghost at Noon, the Godard film tells the tale of a marriage between a writer named Paul Javal (played by Michel Piccoli) whose marriage to his wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) falls apart as Camille is used as bait an American film producer named Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance). The second half of the film was shot at a beautiful villa in Capri (shown above).

In the late 1960s, I thought the film one of the greatest ever made, largely because I was so impressed by the nude body of Brigitte Bardot. Now, I no longer think of it even as Godard’s best film. For that, I would now select either Alphaville or Pierrot le Fou, both made in 1965.

Brigitte Bardot Sunbathing on the Roof of Malaparte’s Villa in Contempt

Only much later did I learn that the villa featured in Contempt was actually the villa of a great—albeit twisted—Italian writer who called himself Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957). Born Curt Erich Suckert of a German father and an Italian mother, he chose the pen name Malaparte because it was the opposite of Napoleon’s family name: Malaparte means “bad side,” whereas Buonaparte means “good side.” And he tried in his works to live up to his pen name. If you are interested in acquainting yourself with his works, I suggest you read Kaputt (1944) about the German Eastern Front and The Skin (1949) about the American invaders of Italy in Naples.

Curzio Malaparte

Oh, and I still think you should see Godard’s Contempt. Even after all these years, Bardot’s derrière is still capable of inspiring lofty thoughts.