Diary of a Foreigner in Paris

Image of Diary of a Foreigner in Paris (New York Review Books Classics)
Release Date: 
May 19, 2020
NYRB Classics
Reviewed by: 

Curzio Malaparte is pictured on the cover at his desk with official-looking papers wearing a satin mask and indeed, his many masks are (in)visible in A Foreigner in Paris, newly translated diaries. Are they actual diaries or is that a literary device after the fact? In equal measure, the “diaries” are full of frank, if suspect, disclosures; Malaparte’s cryptic politics are, whatever masques he adopts, admittedly cynical, and just as often humanitarian.

He was born Kurt Erich Suckert, in Prato, Italy, in 1898, the son of an Italian mother and German father. At age 16, he joined the French army and fought on the Western Front in WWI, and even though he saw the horrors of war, he had adopted a new country.

He left his heart in Paris, and returned to Italy in the early 1920s, a captain in the Italian army, and was a soldier in the French Foreign Legion. Later he became a noted war correspondent under the nom-de-plume Curzio Malaparte and eventually was in the diplomatic corps. In Italy, Suckert was Initially enthusiastic about the rise of Mussolini, but he became an early critic of Il Duce and was stripped of his membership in the Fascist party. Malaparte was repeatedly arrested and ended up in prison for five years.

After the fall of Mussolini, he was welcome in all of the salons and diplomatic homes of Europe. Mysteries swirled around him professionally and personally. Malaparte wrote two war novels Kaputt and The Skin are considered masterpieces of the era, and secured his literary fame outside of Italy. He was an avowed Marxist, an intellectual, a world traveler, and an unapologetic free thinker full of contradictions and dualities.

He returned to France in 1947, 14 years after he left, trying to reclaim his love for Paris, his diary is a real-time chronicle of his return to post-war France.

The secrets and mysteries are only partially unlocked with these diaries; there are long detailed entries full of vivid details, and in his introduction, Twilley makes the case that they were written for publication and were not penned in real-time (even though most of the text starts with a journal date from 1947–48). 

That aside, Malaparte was admired for his journalistic prose; his verite style diary entries are often a poetic portrait of a city trying to rebuild, even as they try to put years of loss, grief, and war trauma behind them and move on. As critical as he is about Italy, he doesn’t hold back his disillusionment about what he experiences in post-war France.

Malaparte describes a night at the French theater, the giddiness of the crowd, the wittiness classic French play, and authenticity of the period costumes. But such casual recording alternates to a moving observance:

“How the French people have changed. The men of my generation have harder and at the same time, more poignant faces. More manly features, more childlike eyes, and that trace of the timeworn, the weary, the decisive, the austere . . .”

How universal or subjective (or projective) this entry is reinforced and challenged by the author himself. The journalist in Malaparte even reports in his diary that he was not above suspicion himself of being a collaborator of the Vichy government, viewed by some as a double agent, or mercenary diplomat. Meanwhile, he doesn’t hold back his suspicions of French citizens who exalt their status as part of the resistance, when he knows differently. He breaks more than one code of conspiratorial silence that wafted through Paris after the war.

After his years as a political prisoner in his home country, Malaparte’s status as a repatriated émigré was a journey of hope and resignation; his enchantment with Paris was not to be rekindled so easily.

He worked the city among the journalist’s circle of artists, writers, and social circles of the privileged and louche post-war societies in Paris. Among them, famed writer Albert Camus, who, the diary reveals, was openly hostile to the Curzio.

Was Malaparte part of the resistance? Or does he reveal himself—through the suspicions of post-Vichy French colleagues and old chums—as a defector to the cause? Was he a German spy? This gossip was perhaps circulated by his enemies because his father was German and his mother was Italian.

It is challenging to get into the rhythm of the book, but once you are on the same page as Malaparte, daily on the streets, salons, theaters, hovels, hotels, bars, gardens and grottos it is well worth the trip. Many of the author’s diary entries are written with a singularly objective eye and poetic heart. The verite style imagery sees the stark realities of daily life for a concussed French population of a haunted Paris.

Stephen Twilley translates the book with admirable precision for English readers from Malaparte’s Italian and French text. In his Notes section at the end of the diary Twilley further annotates many of Malaparte’s entries for context and clarifications with precise analysis.