Navigating the first half of Italy’s twentieth century took elasticity. There were few more elastic than Curzio Malaparte (1898–1957), author of The Skin (La Pelle, 1949), a novel of which the first English-language “unexpurgated” version is being released by New York Review Books this autumn. Malaparte was a fascist, and then he was not. He flirted with Communism, and then he did not. A protestant by baptism, an atheist by choice, he converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, but in his will left the house he had built on Capri, the most beautiful in the world some said—his “Casa Come Me”—to the Chinese Communist Party. He was a writer of great, if unreliable, talent. He was a soldier, diplomat, moviemaker, duelist, agitator, provocateur, and dandy. A famously successful Romeo, his only true loves were his dog Febo and, above all, himself.

The Skin is a strange, uneven, and baroque creation, a fabulist memoir, a surrealist fiction based on fact and anything but. It is a terrifying, occasionally hallucinatory and weirdly arch depiction of an Italy devastated by war and moral catastrophe. Added by the Vatican—no mean judge of a good read—to its Index Librorum Prohibitorum, The Skin works well enough on its own merits, but to accept it at face value is to be beguiled by a mask.

To hazard a guess at what lies beneath involves peering into the evasive Malaparte’s bewildering, and frequently rewritten, career, and being prepared to risk being led hopelessly astray. Bear with me, this is going to take a while.

Born Kurt Erich Suckert, to a German father and Italian mother, he changed his name in 1925 to something more in keeping with Mussolini-era Italianizzazione. It was one of the more straightforward maneuvers in a life of transformation and disguise, but it came with a characteristically perverse wrinkle, with Malaparte (“bad side”) a spin on the Bonaparte already taken by another, more illustrious, narcissist.

We catch our first glimpses of him: a precocious schoolboy, some early writings, and what the British once called a “good war,” enlisting with the French in 1914 and then, after Italy signed up for Armageddon, joining his (maternal) home team. Next came stints as a diplomat, at the Versailles Conference and in Warsaw. But it was his first book, La Rivolta dei Santi Maledetti (1921), a sympathetic account of the mutiny that followed the Italian defeat at Caporetto (1917), that, in its rage at the old order, paved the way for what was to come. While Malaparte was—to the extent that any ideological labels apply (“anarcho-fascist” has been one brave shot)—a man of the “right,” it was the drama of revolution that appealed to him more.

And that’s what Mussolini appeared to offer. With the help of some fiery books, energetic journalism, and a spot of more sinister activity, Malaparte worked his way into a leading role among Italy’s fascist intelligentsia. Then the story starts to cloud. Malaparte was drawn to power, but he was too restless, too self-involved to play its games with the discipline that they require. Frustrated by Mussolini’s failure to unleash the social upheaval that had once seemed possible (and making no secret of that frustration), Malaparte drifted away from the regime’s center, but not too far: He was appointed editor-in-chief of La Stampa in 1929, only to lose the job a year or so later, for reasons that remain unclear. But the myth—assiduously promoted by Malaparte in the postwar years—that he was already slipping into outright opposition to fascism is nonsense, brutally debunked by Maurizio Serra, author of the invaluable and sternly forensic Malaparte, Vies et Légendes (2011), the finest biography of the writer to date.

Nor did Malaparte’s 1933 conviction for defaming one of the fascist leadership represent a definitive break with Mussolini. The offending letters were a clumsy power play gone wrong, nothing more. Malaparte’s punishment—five years’ confino on an island just off Sicily—turned out to be rather less than he would subsequently maintain. Thanks to Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law, another of his useful friends, the sentence was eased, reduced, and, after some eighteen months, commuted. Throughout it, Malaparte wrote for the Corriere della Sera, albeit under a pseudonym—some proprieties had to be observed. A Yevtushenko (if even that) rather than a Solzhenitsyn, he resumed his career on his release. In addition to journalism, there were a number of books, and in 1937 he founded Prospettive, an initially propagandist publication that evolved into a magazine of the arts offering a modernist, outward-looking reminder that there remained some room in fascist Italy for more than jackboots and bombast. Breton, Eliot, Éluard, Garcia Lorca, Joyce, MacLeish, and Pound were amongst those who made their appearances in pages that, as Serra notes, almost never featured contemporary German writers, one of the many rebellions with which this revealingly incomplete opportunist punctuated his career.

When Europe caught fire, Malaparte was recalled to his old Alpine Division and appointed a war correspondent, in the catbird seat to view the inferno that fueled his best work. Il Sole è Cieco (1947), the first, in terms of the period it covered, of his books on World War II, is an unexpectedly lyrical piece based loosely—of course—on a couple of weeks in the mountains spent with the Alpini as they half-heartedly campaigned against the French in June 1940. Twelve months later, after travels that included a grubby detour in Athens writing articles intended to help prepare the Italian public for the invasion of Greece, Malaparte was tacking along with the Germans, reporting for the Corriere della Sera as the Wehrmacht swept out of Romania and into the Soviet Union.

Presciently—and unfashionably—enough, Malaparte described the Soviets as tough opponents, even in retreat, something that he claimed (later) had led to him being expelled from the war zone in September 1941 “by order of Goebbels” (no less!), a tale that, like so many of his confections, crumbles under closer inspection. After a break in Italy (no, not “house arrest”), he returned to what he thought would be a more congenial sector of the Eastern Front, the stretch controlled by Germany’s Finnish allies. After some rewriting to restore what had (supposedly) been lost to the censor, a selection of his dispatches from the Eastern Front were first published in book form in 1943—after the fall of Mussolini—as The Volga Rises in Europe (Il Volga nasce in Europa), a volume that is, much more so than the far better-known Kaputt (1944), his greatest work.

Vivid, haunting, and elegiac, the book ranges from descriptions of the summer Blitzkrieg pouring into the Ukraine, to the snow and silence of Karelian forests from which isolated Finnish outposts overlook besieged Leningrad, and skirmishes evoke the “primitive ferocity” of ancient war: “wholly physical, wholly instinctive, wholly ruthless.” There are also stirrings here—visiting remnants of the Czarist bourgeoisie clinging onto shreds of the old ways in Moldavia, an excursion to the deserted house in Kuokkala where the Russian painter Ilya Repin had lived—of the lament for a broken European civilization that emerged as a major theme in Kaputt and The Skin, and, difficult as it is to reconcile with his past enthusiasm for an upending of the social order, became another twist in this writer’s labyrinth of contradiction and ambiguity.

Malaparte may—true to form—have spent considerably less time at the front than he implied, but a good part of what makes The Volga Rises in Europe more compelling than Kaputt or The Skin is the debt it owes to the discipline of journalism. The prose is spare, the stories brief, telling snapshots of moments that may once have even been real. By contrast Kaputt and The Skin, bestsellers both, are sprawling, fragmented, astounding epics of hideous accuracy, exaggeration, and deception, “novels” where fact merges with fiction, and where lies tell a truth that Europe was just beginning to grasp. Recounted in the first person by a “Malaparte” who is both fictional and not, they were also designed to distance their author from his fascist past (a pressing necessity by 1944) whilst (in Kaputt) also trumpeting his presence—witty, sardonic, superior—in the center of the Axis’ nightmare world. This was a tricky maneuver, but unavoidable if he was to be able to demonstrate that he—his best, his only hero—mattered: Malaparte had peered into the abyss and found it filled with mirrors.

His “horribly gay and gruesome” Kaputt is—as Malaparte recognized—a far stronger work than The Skin. He spent 1941–43 close enough to the heart of darkness to recognize it for what it was. Based however remotely on his experiences during this time, Kaputt is savage, sensual, and brilliant, decadent, revolting, and beautiful. It is filled with black humor, narcissism, self-conscious erudition, and embarrassing snobbery. There is champagne as well as carnage, Proust as well as Goya, a jarring mix that sometimes reinforces the sense of cataclysm or is sometimes just crass. Horrors are layered upon horrors, but in a way that not infrequently suggests that they are being deployed to showcase his formidable descriptive powers, an aestheticization of barbarity that underlines Malaparte’s icy detachment, a detachment that this most flawed of chameleons does not always bother to conceal.

Asked by a delegation of Jews in the Rumanian city of Jassy (Iasi) if he can intercede with the military to head off the pogrom that they rightly fear is imminent, Malaparte (no anti-Semite in fact or fiction) starts off well into the next afternoon on what he believes to be a hopeless trudge to see the relevant officers, only to pause to inspect a statue, and then head in the direction of the local bigwigs’ club to discuss poetry. He never even manages that, but instead takes a turn towards a cemetery for a nap. He awakes at sunset, woken by the sound of a Soviet bombing raid, and heads off to see a sixteen-year old waitress, Marioara, for whom he feels, well, it’s hard to say. A few hours later the pogrom begins.

In reality, Malaparte arrived in Jassy shortly after the slaughter. That didn’t stop him painting a sickening picture of the pogrom and of an aftermath that pointed to the hecatombs to come. A writer looking to walk away from an Axis-tainted past might have been expected to take the opportunity to present himself in a nobler light. And yet Malaparte does not. It says something too that, while living in France in the, for him, not uncomplicated late 1940s, Malaparte sent a portion of his royalties from Kaputt to Céline, the collaborationist French author, and notorious anti-Semite, then living in uncomfortable exile in Denmark. Whatever one might think of that gesture, it was not the act of the shape-shifter that Malaparte was so often said to be. According to Serra the two had never even met.

Kaputt ends with Malaparte’s arrival in Naples after the fall of Mussolini in July 1943, and his own brief detention by Italy’s new government. The Skin opens some time later, with Malaparte installed (as indeed, in another impressive twist to his resume, eventually he was) as a liaison officer with the U.S. army in that same occupied, liberated, humiliated, degraded, and anarchic city. Most of the book describes “Malaparte’s” stay there before a coda tracking his journey north with the Allies to Rome and beyond.

To its detriment, The Skin is more didactic than Kaputt. Its portrait of Italy’s moral, political, and physical ruin is bloated by a blend of pacifism and high school nihilism that is crude stuff after the detachment and elegant disenchantment of the earlier book. It concludes with the muttered observation that “it is a shameful thing to win a war,” an observation that is as wrong-headed (it rather depends on who is doing the winning) as it is overwrought.

And the latter adjective will do quite well to describe much of The Skin. The bizarre, sometimes surreal, interludes dotted through Kaputt work because they are interludes, whereas in The Skin (in which the freak show includes an outlandish “Uranian” rite, talking fetuses, dead soldiers on parade, and a feast with cannibalistic and mythic elements) they come close to overwhelming the book, and somehow undercut the sense of apocalypse that the British writer Norman Lewis, who was in the same city at the same time, conveyed so calmly and so effectively in Naples ’44. Worse, they fuel the suspicion—this is a book with longueurs unimaginable in Kaputt—that Malaparte was either running out of new things to say or, more cynically, that he had not much interest in doing so. Kaputt’s sales had not been hurt, to put it mildly, by its author’s emphasis on the cruel, the macabre, and the grotesque, so why not repeat the trick, only more so? But too often more turns out to be less, too rococo, too much. That’s not to argue that The Skin is without sequences of remarkable power and extraordinary beauty. It has those, but it is telling that one of its most memorable passages (a characteristic Malaparte set-piece) describes his discovery of a Ukrainian road lined with trees on which Jews have been crucified, an out-of-place digression that, even allowing for the herky-jerky chronology of both books, reads as if it was left over from a draft of Kaputt—an atrocity surplus to requirements.

As with Kaputt, it is what The Skin adds to the understanding of its elusive author that make for some of its most intriguing moments, whether it be the mocking condescension with which he views African-American GIs, or the peculiar obsession with homosexuality, something found elsewhere in his writing, which may suggest that Malaparte wore at least one mask that he was never prepared to recognize, let alone remove.

Above all, there is a delightful scene—as so often in these books revolving around a meal (well, he was Italian)—in which the trickster plays games with his own reputation. He is eating couscous with a group of French officers just before the final advance on Rome, one of whom teasingly comments that “judging by Kaputt, Malaparte eats nothing but nightingales’ hearts . . . at the tables of Royal Highnesses, duchesses, and ambassadors.” If their “humble camp meal” is to make it into Malaparte’s next book, it will have to be reinvented into an infinitely grander occasion. That leads to a more general discussion as to the truth or otherwise of what is found in Kaputt, to which Malaparte’s American colleague, Jack, eventually responds that “It is of no importance whether what Malaparte relates is true or false . . . the question is whether or not his work is art.” Malaparte then discloses that, unwilling to break up “such a pleasant luncheon,” he had “nibbled” his way through the hand of one of the French goumiers, blown off by an earlier grenade, only to end up, he had discovered, in the couscous. The French are appalled. Malaparte subsequently explains to a delighted Jack how he had arranged some ram’s bones on his plate to look like the remnants of a hand. It was left to readers more observant than me to work out that Kaputt did not appear until several months after the liberation of Rome. Malaparte’s story about his lying could never have been other than a lie. How the ghost of Laurence Sterne must have laughed.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Malaparte’s later peacetime years were, with his war books behind him (Mamma Marcia, arguably a fifth, unfinished, was published after his death), creatively something of an anti-climax, distinguished mainly, and tellingly, by an examination of the aftermath of that conflict, Il Cristo Proibito (1951), a well-received movie that he both wrote and directed. He was, for the most part, rehabilitated, but never entirely trusted, and the perception that his charlatanry extended into his art as well as his politics meant that he was never able to regain quite the prominence he had once enjoyed. In 1956, still, despite everything, tempted by the hard men, he traveled to the China of Chairman Mao, and decided that he liked what he saw, but his Chinese doctors did not like what they saw in him: Malaparte was diagnosed with lung cancer. They did what they could (leaving his house to the Chinese Communist Party was partly Malaparte’s thanks for the care he had received), but there was nothing to be done.

He returned to Italy to choreograph the death-bed drama that was, writes Serra, his last masterpiece, wooed by right, left, and the Vatican alike, each eager to claim his scalp for its own. The Communists sent him a party card, but he neither acknowledged nor repudiated it, preferring instead to reaffirm his membership of the centrist Republican Party. And yes, he did indeed, finally, convert to Roman Catholicism, if I had to guess, a Malapartian hedge, gaming God on the basis of a hint from Pascal, but a dramatic switch nevertheless, the last, critics might jeer, in a long turncoat career.

But that’s too simplistic: The only colors he really wore were his own.