The Blacker-Than-Black Comedy Of Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin Exposed The Suffering And Atrocity Of American-Occupied Naples, And Got The Novel Banned By The City And The Catholic Church Alike
Adapted from the introduction to a new edition of The Skin, to be released by New York Review Books Classics in September.
In the Capri sequence of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, a reluctant Brigitte Bardot is invited by the American film producer Jeremy Prokosch to accompany him alone up to his villa. Bardot, her platinum hair reflecting the brilliant sun, is on a boat with a film crew and her husband, a playwright who has compromised his work ethic and taken on a screenwriting job for the money. She looks to him to intervene, as the boat moves up and down in the gentle Tyrrhenian swell. Instead, her husband urges her to go up to the villa with Prokosch, a millionaire playboy. Violin strings from the film’s melancholy score merge and fuse with Bardot’s shattered reaction: it’s evident to her and viewer alike that she has just been bartered to the producer as part of the job her husband has taken on, a crass remake of the Odyssey. Bardot quietly complies. Her husband has traded her dignity, and his own, in the interest of historical farce, American-style. The boom operator moves to the front of the boat. Three women in bikinis playing the sirens are in the water, waiting for their scene; as Bardot is ferried away, the director can be heard commenting that he should have done a scene in which the gods discuss man’s fate.
The villa where the producer attempts to seduce Bardot is a cliff-top house shaped like a hammer and stained the color of dried blood. Perched on a windy precipice with panoramic views of the blue bay of Salerno, the house, with its sublime and barren beauty, belonged not to an American playboy but, famously, to the writer Curzio Malaparte, who designed it himself after an architect abandoned the project (its stucco walls, not constructed properly to withstand the salinity of the relentless spray of the Mediterranean, were apparently 42 percent salt by the time the villa was restored, in the 1980s). Malaparte’s friend Alberto Moravia wrote the novel on which Godard’s film is based, a story whose themes of the plunder of Europe by Hollywood are remarkable echoes of a far more profound debasement, the depravity and ruination of Naples under the American occupation, in 1943 and ’44, which is the subject, depicted with a certain voluptuous horror, of Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin, one of the finest if most perverse novels about World War II, and certainly the most viciously comic work of literature to address the war’s direct effect on Italians, as well as its immediate aftermath: the hegemonic rise of America.
“You wouldn’t sell your children,” repeated General Guillaume.
“Who knows?” I said. “If I had a child perhaps I would go and sell it so that I could go and buy some American cigarettes. One must be a child of one’s time.”
If Troy had Athena, Zeus, and Poseidon conniving and double-crossing one another in determining man’s fate, Naples had Mussolini, Hitler, and, finally, the Americans, whose status as either conquerors or liberators is a tension that seems to endlessly amuse and appall Malaparte in The Skin. In any case, from Mussolini to Hitler to the Americans, the fate of the men, women, and children of Naples is suffering, and after the Americans arrive, their suffering seems only to grow more extreme. They are living in a destroyed city, without water—much less food, gas, or electricity—and with rampant graft, looting, filth, vendettas, villainy, and prostitution. The city is ruled only by the most base commodity fetishism: the body in trade. Mothers selling children, and soldiers buying them.
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