Monday, January 31, 2011

Craft: Clive James Study #8: In Munich

The movement of Clive James' "Postcard from Munich" (available for free here) involves a brilliant series of transitions, from James’ sensory perceptions of the city, to illustrations of two of its histories (the Nazi history and the influence of the Wittelbachs), to the authors’ personal response to Munich (as a culture-conscious Australian, and as an Australian, recall, who travels with a keen sense of history as series of debt-creating relationships). Running gags about Wagner, opera, Ludwig II, bad hats, and beer, and sustained visual allegories based on the presence of light and water in the city further help to unify what might otherwise be a piece straining under the density of its content.

A list of quotes from the piece helps to illustrate what I mean, and also, I think, something of the point that Clive James makes about style and content in Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore, mentioned in the last post before this one. Like Hughes, James doesn't put content ahead of form. The two must go hand-in-hand, because their combination creates the basis for James' particular mode of analysis:
  • “Narrowly personal though it might sound to say so, the Nazis have always got on my nerves."
  • “Ludwig II, as well as his demented castles in the environs, built a winter garden on the roof of the Residenz and in full regalia looked like Oliver Hardy wearing a Gobelins tapestry topped off with a dead polar bear.”
  • Of Nymphenburg: “The landscape flows through the main building like a lake, lakes glitter in the landscape like mirrored floors, and there are pavilions full of mirrors like frozen waterfalls.”
The last of these three quotes reminds us that, for James, landscape and history are almost the same thing:
  • “In the winter sunlight the lakes around the city shone like silver paint. Ludwig II of Bavaria drowned himself in one of them, impelled by a potent cocktail of schizophrenia and undiluted Wagner.”
  • I left Nymphenburg walking on air, which was bad training for where I was going next. The Amalienburg epitomises 1,000 years of Munich’s history. The concentration camp at Dachau does the same for the Thousand Year Reich, which luckily didn’t last the advertised distance, although it contrived to express itself memorably during the short time available. Dachau is a whole district, so the answer to the question why they didn’t change the name is that it would be like changing the name of Clapham. But Clapham never had a concentration camp in it.”
  • After visiting Dachau: “Hitler’s sole lasting positive achievement was to cure the old Right of its opposition to democracy.”
And that reading landscape as history is one way of better understanding culture:
  • “What haunts Munich, as it haunts all Germany, is the presence of an absence. There is continual talk of Kultur."
  • “The Allied air raids reduced it to a sea of rubble, but much of it has been rebuilt with the special care lavished on the past by those who have been injured by the present.”
  • “The strange feeling that you’ve seen it all before is not quite accurate, since even the Tsarist summer palaces outside Leningrad aren’t as exuberant as this. You haven’t seen it all before, you’ve heard it all later – in the music of Mozart, two of whose operas were premièred in Munich, one of them in the Cuvilliés theatre attached to the Residenz.”
  • At a portrait gallery: “Carolina Countess von Holstein aus Bayern, we may now note, had a waist the size of a wedding ring and shoulders like a Green Bay Packers linebacker, but her breakfast television pout still rings bells.” [Here, James showing off that, culturally, he knows how to slum it.]
As I discussed in my post about James' poem "Occupation: Housewife", he travels as the indebted Australian, and I think one of the reasons his travel writing is so densely packed with history and culture is that he is always accumulating, his learning and breadth of experience a part-payment for his parents' sacrifice:
  • Having worked out which of the Führerbau’s windows must belong to Hitler’s corner office, I tried to look like a music student, walked confidently up the monumental interior staircase, and pushed open the door of room 105, in which the Munich treaty was signed. There was nobody in there except a Canadian girl called Monica practising the piano. Once the room had contained Mussolini along with Goering: a tight fit. Born in 1959 (‘that’s the year when all the stars were right’), Monica was ready to suspend her studies while I fossicked in the distant past. I stood on the balcony and reviewed a big parade of strutting spooks all wearing the same sort of hat. The door to the left must lead to Hitler’s office. I eased it open and found a string quartet playing Schubert.”
  • “But the important lesson has already been learned: once power has been seized, it is too late to protest, even for the heroic – and most people are not that. Most people are not imaginative either, and can’t be blamed for it. How much atonement is enough?”