Malaparte's talents as a writer include his acid wit and an eye for detail. In his hands, the higher levels of Soviet society prove just as ridiculous and corrupt as the aristocratic societies of Europe. The tennis matches, affairs, scandals and society gossip that define court life in Europe are conducted in Moscow, however, in a pervasive atmosphere of fear ... Malaparte's sense of humor is pitiless, memorably referring to Lenin's embalmed corpse as a 'precious crustacean.' Kremlin Ball is a terrifically funny and entertaining portrait of a seemingly powerful group of people dancing on the brink of destruction.
Like George Orwell, Malaparte is not necessarily rejecting collectivist ideals outright, but as a keen observer of people he sees that human beings tend to be self-destructive, no matter what kind of government ideals they claim to be working toward. No one is innocent or idealized for Malaparte. This kind of even-handed criticism, combined with Malaparte’s journalistic style and his interactions with the most important people in Russia’s government and arts scene of the late 1920s, give The Kremlin Ball the feel of a salacious, courtly tell-all. Malaparte does not let anyone off the hook, and it seems that everyone who is anyone gets mentioned ... The use of magical realism emphasizes the grotesque hellishness of Marxist society as Malaparte encountered it. While the philosophical questions of the novel revolve around human nature and whether there is any capacity/potential for real revolution, the reader also wonders exactly which elements of Malaparte’s narrative are 'real' and which are hyperbole ... I am not convinced that Malaparte is always joking about those fictions, but his ability to see them all simultaneously in play is what makes his writing intriguing and historically convincing ... in moments of cultural destitution, the way out is hope in an alternative vision.
A Dantean account of a young Marxist visiting Stalinist Russia, it is, like his previous novels, surreal and quasi-journalistic ... Malaparte’s acerbic worldview, captured in his dark observations about the Soviet elite, make any claim to optimism seem suspect. There are Goncourt-style accounts of embassy balls and rides with grotesque dignitaries in decrepit carriages. When he is not documenting the anemic characters that populate this world, our hero walks the streets of the city ... There is certainly less shock value in The Kremlin Ball than in Malaparte’s other works (no cannibalism, pedophilia, or orgies). Instead, the novel invokes Dostoevsky in its attention to the fatalism at the heart of Russian society. In communism, Malaparte sees a system that obliges Russians to suffer for others while disempowering the people. This turns the populace into something like zombies, and makes Moscow society 'the mirror image of European society but dominated by fear.'
Alternately, this is work that blends fiction and nonfiction, and its observations about life place fiction and nonfiction on an equal footing. In the span of one paragraph late in the book, describing a dead body, Malaparte evokes archetypes found in the fiction of Nikolai Gogol and Leo Tolstoy—and then, a dozen or so pages later, he contradicts himself, debunking '[t]hose who imagine Russians as the characters depicted by Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or Gogol.' There’s a fine line between the implicit self-criticism here and an almost comedic level of lack of self-awareness—though I’m tempted to believe that Malaparte is subtly implicating himself in this tendency to any readers careful enough to notice the dissonance ... There is little room for idealism in this view of the world. Literally every saint and miracle (holy or secular) encountered in the book is debunked in some way ... Malaparte’s persona can be most difficult to take: the smartest man in the room, detached from everything, quipping endlessly ... That the realms of absurdism and exaggeration can, under the right conditions, become realism in the face of totalitarian regimes is but one of the reasons why Malaparte’s work endures even as it unnerves.
The Kremlin Ball is unfinished. The parts published here are polished, but the novel peters out a bit, and ultimately feels more like a series of sketches than a coherent whole—though one gets a sense of what Malaparte was trying to shape it into. Certainly, what there is—even if slightly disordered, and with a bit of repetition—is fascinating, and an insightful glimpse of a peculiar time and place—and class. The writing is very good too, Malaparte nicely expressive about what he experiences— but the parenthetical subtitle does describe what this is: 'Material for a Novel,' which hasn't quite been shaped into a novel yet.
As an observer—or imaginer—of Soviet Russia and its elite, Malaparte sees things few else did ... one reads The Kremlin Ball more for its unique and off-kilter vision of the Soviet Union and the beauty of its writing than for any serious analysis of the collapsing revolution ... Translator Jenny McPhee gets Malaparte exactly right ... This is precisely how Malaparte should be read. Nothing he reports should be taken at face value, but in his death-and-decay-obsessed vision, it all could and should be true.
The Kremlin Ball is a collection of scathing portraits of Soviet high society between the revolutions of 1917 and the purges of the 1930’s, a time that is so crucial to understanding the history of the Soviet Union, and is so well critiqued and presented by the acerbic prose of Malaparte ... While the format and topic is distinctly Proustian—critiquing a society through its upper class citizens—the style is anything but Proustian; in fact, Malaparte’s style, with its lack of intellectual adornments and pomposity, is closest to that of George Orwell in his nonfiction ... Although the book remains unfinished, what remains of Curzio Malaparte’s hard hitting critiques are more alive than ever.
While Malaparte’s morbid glee in describing Lenin’s preserved body as a 'precious crustacean' or the revolutionary hero Karakhan as little more than 'a fabulous tennis player' is infectious, the numerous French bon mots from Russian party functionaries and German newspaper correspondents mean little to a contemporary reader. Malaparte described this work as 'a novel in the Proustian sense' ... He is halfway successful; the tragedy of a utopian ideal betrayed by human foible and vanity is certainly timeless, but, unlike Proust’s work, this one doesn’t quite recapture a lost time.
Malaparte may just be the original postmodernist, at least as far as genre-crossing is concerned: his journalism reads like fiction, and his fiction like journalism ... Within a few dozen pages he has evolved into a political philosopher, noting—and worth considering for our own time—that the downtrodden masses will support tyrants beyond all reason ... A head-swirling kaleidoscope that, though fictional, is never for a moment fictitious.