Saturday, September 11, 2010

Craft: A Clive James Piece (in Rome)

Here is a breakdown of one of Clive James' travel pieces, his 1979 "Postcard from Rome", which is available in full on James' website here. My idea is simply to show how he structures the "Postcard", as I think the structure is a very workable one. More specific observations are given in bullet points between each of (what I perceive as) James' section breaks.

1) Get the reader there (5 paragraphs): The flight; the author's previous visits to Rome; and arriving (the airport, the luxurious hotel).
  • Note the transition sentence at the end of paragraph 5-it moves the piece to the next section while signalling the theme of the piece, that is, not being able to see Rome without seeing its history: "My waiting readers were subsidising this luxury. Could I justify their confidence? What can you say about so old a city in so short a space?"
2) The first morning (3 paragraphs): An icy Rome; a re-visit to St Peter's; the Aspian Way, which is "as cold as Caligula's heart".
  • The now-and-then device (here I am now, this is what happened then) is kept running through the "Caligula's heart" line. But paragraph 8 comes alive when James adds one of his asides: "Hilarius Fuscus has a tomb out there somewhere. Apart from his name he is of no historical interest, but with a name like Hilarious Fuscus how interesting do you have to be?"
3) Meeting a local (2 paragraphs): A guided tour of the Catacombs; other tourists.
  • The next transition sentence, once again joining travel and movement back in time, is at the end of paragraph 10: "The people buried here all died at once, on March, 1944. For the whole story you have to go to Anzio, about thirty-five miles down the coast."
4) Anzio/World War 2 (4 paragraphs): The Allied landing; German retributions for local resistance; the layers of Anzio's troubled past; the Volsci (which serves as the transition from this section).
  • Note how the change to the present tense in paragraph 13 allows James to cast back even further, and quickly deliver an entire history of Anzio.
5) A second case study (3 paragraphs): Sophia Loren; money exchange charges; Loren's latest film.
  • The focus on Sophia Loren's latest film gives the piece more current content, at the same as giving James the opportunity to bring theme more explicitly to the fore: "Everything in and around Rome is saturated with time."
6) Roman problems (3 paragraphs): The Opera; corruption charges; the murder of ex-Prime Minister Moro.
  • In paragraph 17, the desciption of the opera concentrates on the audience, because the piece is keeping to its focus on social (rather than artistic) issues, and the further development of the socio-political life of Rome that we are about to get.
7) Back again (6 paragraphs): The Middle Ages; the Renaissance; the Church; Rome as a consumer city; Rome as Empire/Mussolini.
  • In this section, James doesn't try to do much more than fill out the history lesson that he's hinted at earlier. It is saved from being over-expositional by two techniques: sharp, analytical one-liners punctuating the lesson (e.g. "Italy's besetting weakness is government without authority"; "When Rome ceased to be the capital city of an international empire, it reverted to being a provincial town"; "Rome is a good place for madmen to dream of building empires. It is a bad place from which to govern Italy") and an effect of forward momentum that James creates - mainly through the way the lesson pulses back and forward in time - and the feeling in the reader that this is all leading towards something (and that the various pulses will form to a single point).
8) The point of all this, then (1 paragraph): "...the city of Rome is left with nothing but its heritage".
  • The problem for Rome turns out to be James' problem in writing the piece: there is just too much past, and it is building up. "Outside the portico when I arrived, the body of a man was being hauled out of an abandoned car and loaded into a grey plastic bag. He was a tramp who had frozen to death in the night. A policeman signed for the corpse. Dirt, litter, decay. Raffaello Sanzio of Urbino was here once."
9) James tries (a little) to cheer us up in the final two paragraphs, but concludes that history has been too much, and "the thing to do when you feel like that is to pack up and catch a plane to London."

(A second Clive James study is available here.)