Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Curzio Malaparte and James Ellroy: History, truth, and everything

A comment on Sunday's post about James Ellroy's "Underworld U.S.A." novels is pertinent to both the novels your humble blogkeeper is reading.

Dana King, that fine author, nice guy, and skilled horn blower, said Ellroy has:
"a keener understanding of American history, and of the true ethos that has driven American society and history, than do many others."
Not "grasp of the facts," but "keener understanding" of American history and the ethos behind it.  Were Ellroy's tycoons, FBI chiefs, and gangsters as deranged in real life as they are in his books? Do his killer protagonists have real-counterparts? Does this matter, as long as the fiction makes sense, or feels right? What truth must a historian serve? A writer of fiction? Is historical fiction the same as fiction that takes history as its theme?  Or is Ellroy just doing what all fiction arguably should do but so little does: portray real life, comment on real life, and entertain readers all at the same time?

Besides Ellroy's American Tabloid, the other novel that sparked these questions is Curzio Malaparte's The Skin. That shocking, dark, graphic, and very blackly funny 1949 novel, banned by the church, banned by the Neapolitans, tells the story of the American military and the misery of Naples toward the end of World War II. "The book caused a scandal," one commentator said, "because it was mistaken for a realistic work."

Here's a bit of The Skin:
"`We are the volunteers of Freedom, the soldiers of a new Italy, It is our duty to fight the Germans, to drive them out of our homeland ... It is our duty once more to hoist the flag that has fallen in the mire, to set an example to all in the midst of so much shame, to show ourselves worthy of the task that our country entrusts to us.' ... When I had finished speaking Colonel Palese said to the soldiers: `Now one of you will repeat what your commanding officer has said. I want to be sure you understand. You!' he said, pointing to a soldier. `Repeat what your commanding officer said.'
"The soldier looked at me; he was pale, he had the thin, bloodless lips of a dead man. Slowly, in a dreadful gurgling voice, he said: `It is our duty to show ourselves worthy of the shame of Italy."

"Colonel Palese came up close to me. `They understand,' he said in a low voice, and moved silently away."
I might not make American Tabloid the textbook for a course on twentieth-century American history or The Skin for a course on Italy during and after World War II. But both would make fine collateral reading.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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14 Comments:

Blogger John McFetridge said...

It's interesting that you mention the tycoons. A generation before Ellroy's. Ives are set American tycoons were quite involved in social engineering. Everyone from Henry Ford (have you seen the documentary that features his "melting pot" ceremony where immigrants left their 'native dress' and emerged 'Americans') to Carnegie and Kellogg and all the others who built company towns with some driving ideology were trying to shape America.

So it seems a natural transition to the tycoons of Ellroy's novels55528849 6A to also be trying to shape America. Maybe only Howard Hughes built a company town, though....

December 31, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I never made that connection, probably because I think of Ellroy's Howard Hughes as retreating ever deeper into his own obsessions rather than trying to engineer the outer world. That's exactly the same thing Ellroy's J. Edgar Hoover does.

December 31, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For those of your readers who "do" French or Italian, a must read Goncourt winning Malaparte biography by Maurizio Serra is available. Amazon.com has the Italian in a Kindle. Serra's verdict? Yes, the guy was a scoundrel, a liar and a chameleon but he sure could write.
Cover to cover the book was fascinating. Recommended highly!!!

January 01, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I might try the book myself. I can read non-fiction in French a lot better than I can read fiction.

Curzio Malaparte had to have led on of the twentieth century's most fascinating lives, and one that could force readers to question many comfortable assumptions. And his nom d plume is a terrific literary joke.

I wonder if NYRB publication of this new, unexpurgated edition of the Skin heralds a new interest in Malaparte in the Engoish-speaking world.

January 01, 2014  
Blogger Dana King said...

I view the relationship between fiction and history much the same as I view the relationship between a book and its movie adaptation. Each should capture the essential truths of its source without becoming a regurgitation of the material.

The key with historical fiction is not to try to fool the reader into thinking it's history. There should be some kind of disclaimer, in addition to the legal notice all books have in the beginning. Something along the lines of the opening to BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (paraphrasing): Much of what follows is true.

January 02, 2014  
Blogger R.T. said...

"Is historical fiction the same as fiction that takes history as its theme?"

You open a can of worms with that question. I know of all sorts of disagreement among critics and reviewers when it comes to defining the "historical novel."

There probably is no agreed upon definition. However, I would offer this tentative notion: the historical novel is one that could not have been written and could not stand on its own except that it used a certain specific point in history and certain specific historical personalities for context. Well, even as I write that sentence, I have my doubts about my "definition." Ah, well.

January 02, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, interesting you should state the point the way you did. Most historical fiction I have read (which is not much), and this includes good historical fiction, wants to tell a good story or indulge an author's love for a historical period, without worrying all that much about essential truth. Ellroy, on the other hand, does want to tell such truth in the Underworld U.S.A. novels, and Ronan Bennett gets at it in Havoc, In Its Third Year simply because he tells the story so well.

In re movies and Ellroy, he complimented the decision to have the men in the movie adaptation of L.A. Confidential not wear hats. Such men would all have worn hats in the period of the movie's setting, but hats would have distracted the audience, he said, and he may well have been right. That would constitute excessive fidelity-- trying to fool the viewer into thinking the movie was history.

January 02, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., that's a good definition. The question probably has more to do with the definition of history than it does with the definition of fiction. When did history become a science? Did Shakespeare's audience think they were seeing historically faithful portraits of Danish and Scottish princes? Even in the rationalistic eighteenth century, Gibbon was one of the most entertaining writers who ever set pencil to paper. And Herodotus distinguished between the verifiable and the unverifiable--but he included the unverifiable stuff in his histories nonetheless.

January 02, 2014  
Blogger R.T. said...

Ah, but even the sophisticates in Shakespeare's audiences (though probably not the groundlings) knew that his "history" plays were playing a bit fast-and-loose with the "facts." For example, Richard III gets a very bad rap from Shakespeare.

Novels, though, are another matter. I am now reading Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. It is difficult to notice where history ends and fiction begins. That is the artfulness of well-done historical fiction.

January 02, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You might like Havoc, In Its Third Year, then. It is set amid oppression of Catholics in seventeenth-century England, and it is one of the most impressive novels I have read.

Would the sophisticates in Shakespeare's time have had a discussion such as this, about history, truth, and fictional portrayal? And yep, I suppose the novel as a form is more closely bound up with issues of truth, and faithful depictions than is drama, No one expects a play to be true.

January 02, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In response to your comment about renewed interest in Malaparte:

I'm pushing 80 and have seen many waves of enthusiasmt about Malaparte. My age group read Kaputt and Le Pelle for the first time right after WWII. Imagine our reactions then. This book was not "A Bell for Adano." Over the 60 or so years since these incredible works appeared, I've read discussions of his personality flaws, sexual hang-ups, moral weaknesses, his persistent embroidery of the facts . . .with all critics retaining a continued respect for his skill as a writer. To accompany Malaparte's Naples, interesting reading is Norman Lewis "Naples '44" Compaare and contrast.

Malaparte lives.

January 03, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The introduction to this new NYRB edition of The Skin mentions both Kaputt and Naples 44 and picqued my interest in both. The introduction did more than its share of explaining that verged on apologizing: for Malaparte's politics, for the mistaking of his writing as realistic especially. But then, few writers can be served as well by a short explanatory and biographical footnote as Malaparte can.

I can well imagine the book shocking Americans right after World War II, not to mention resonating as recently as the downfall of Saddam Hussein.

I am enjoying the devastatingly funny comic pacing of the book's dialogue.

January 03, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have a bit of extra interest because I visited Naples sixteen years ago--a time of peace, of course, but enough to make me appreciate the near-incomprehensible gulf between the noisy, chaotic center, and the peaceful beauty of the Capodimonte. I expect I will have recourse to those memories from time to time as I read.

January 03, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I wish I had read the book a few months ago. I moderated a panel at September's Bouchercon crime fiction conference on fiction set in wartime and its aftermath. Malaparte would have spiced up the discussion, and I have recommended him to some of the authors who took part in the panel.

January 03, 2014  

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