Introduction to Malaparte’s “Woman Like Me”

Today I live on an island, in a house that his sad, hard, severe, that I built for myself, solitary on a sheer rock over the sea, a house that is the spectre, the secret image of prison. The image of my nostalgia. Maybe I never wanted, not even then, to escape from jail. Man is not made to live freely in freedom, but to be free inside a prison.

Curzio Malaparte, 1943.

Between biographical short story and fiction, between magical realism and surrealism, Woman Like Me can be considered Malaparte’s highest stylistic achievement in prose writing. Whether through the descriptions of nature, of animals or of people, the Italian landscape of Malaparte’s Tuscan childhood and of the solitary times spent on the islands of Lipari, Ischia and Capri is a recurring motif that permeates the descriptive prose of this book.

Kurt Erich Suckert, later known as Curzio Malaparte, was born in Prato, Tuscany, in 1898 to a German father and an Italian mother. He was a political essayist, journalist and director of several Italian newspapers, war correspondent, poet, novelist, playwright, film director and architect of his celebrated house on the island of Capri.

A volunteer in the First World War, Malaparte later became an exponent of the Strapaese artistic and literary movement. The writers and artists of Strapaese (Extra-country), through the pages of the literary magazine Il Selvaggio (The Savage), privileged the ideal of country living over city life, and many of Malaparte’s early short stories focus on specific aspects of rural living, which he had experienced first hand throughout his youth in Tuscany. However, the territorialism of Strapaese was a natural ally to Fascism, and Malaparte became involved with the political movement.

In 1926 Malaparte and Massimo Bontempelli founded their own literary magazine called “900”. Bontempelli, in defining his writing as “magical realist”, claimed that the Novecentieri intended to “dress the most painful things with a smile and the most common ones with wonder; make a miracle instead of a tedium out of art, an act of magic instead of the carrying through of a task, […] to change the angle on the surface of reality in order to show a deeper truth”[i]. By publishing the magazine in French, Malaparte and Bontempelli sought a wider European readership than the regionally based one of Il Selvaggio; “900” became known as the magazine of the Stracittá movement, the Paris and Europe oriented counter-argument to the Tuscan Strapaese. “900” subsequently became the first Italian magazine to publish the writings of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and the first short stories of Alberto Moravia.

After his experience with “900”, in 1937 Malaparte founded his own literary magazine called Prospettive, dedicating the entire first issue of 1940 to Surrealism, one of the first Italian literary journals to open a wide debate on the subject. In the same year Malaparte published Donna Come Me (Woman Like Me), introducing the book with a quote from Lautrémont, further reinforcing the link between his work and that of the literary father of the French Surrealists.

Four years prior to Donna Come Me, Malaparte had published a book of short stories entitled Fughe in Prigione (Escapes in the Prison). The time preceding the publication of this book had been a difficult one for Malaparte: he had suffered prison and confinement and had recently been fired from the position of Director of the Turin based newspaper La Stampa. Fughe in Prigione was written during and shortly after his time spent in prison; in 1933 Malaparte had been arrested for having strongly criticised Italo Balbo, Minister of Aeronautics in Mussolini’s government. He was subsequently sentenced to the maximum penalty of five years in confinement for libel against a government minister. He was later pardoned after having spent two and a half years on the islands of Lipari, Ischia and the seaside resort of Forte dei Marmi. The title of the book Fughe in Prigione (Escapes in Prison) as opposed to Fuga dalla Prigione (Escape from Prison) presents Malaparte’s short stories as forms of mental escape, suggesting that one can imprison the body but the mind of a writer cannot be restrained.

In Woman Like Me the short story format finds a more autobiographical thread, the Like Me suffix linking together disparate times and loves in Malaparte’s life, a reassertion and reassembly of his carefully constructed identity in literary format. This results in a more defined work than his previous books of short stories, a partially real partially fictional account of his internal world. A parallel can be drawn with another of his works which was to bear the Like Me suffix, his famous house on the island of Capri, Casa Come Me (House Like Me). The two works, the book and the house, were in fact carried out contemporarily. The book was published in 1940, and the house, began in 1938, is nearing completion in the same year. It is in many ways a writer’s house, isolated, a place from where Malaparte envisaged himself in literary escapes into his past experiences and potential futures, a place where nature is dominant, like it was in his youth in Tuscany and in his confinement on the islands of Lipari and Ischia. A house in which to become his own voluntary prisoner for the sake of producing literature, in close proximity with the rocks, the trees, the sea, and the sky. These elements of nature then become reflections and mirrors of his solitary state of mind throughout the captivating prose of the short stories of Woman Like Me. Malaparte invites the reader of this book into his own prison by the sea, into his own solitude amidst the Mediterranean landscape.

Robin Monotti Graziadei

The book is available on Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Woman-Donna-Troubador-Italian-Studies/dp/1905237847

[i] See Luciano Troisio, Strapaese e Stracittá, Le Riviste dell’Italia moderna e contemporanea, (Treviso: Canova, 1975), p. 28.