In Practice, Production on December 27, 2010 at 2:34 pm

A puzzle.

K and her mother busy themselves with it by the Christmas tree. A thousand pieces; not the largest you have heard of I’m sure but when the image is Gustav Klimt‘s “Mrs Adele Bloch-Bauer” the challenge is considerable.

It can be difficult fitting all the pieces of a picture together when it is so complex. We are not long in and are warming ourselves after an expedition to a nearby hill for some sledding. Standing at the top at dusk and watching three or four families race down the slope and drag their sleds back up – windows twinkling in the distance as lights and fires are lit – I am reminded of the simpler jigsaws I would receive at Christmas when I was a child.

A week in OberfrankenBavaria isn’t easy to slot into the year we have had, but here we are. We are wrapped up in heavy coats; hands in gloves, heads in woolly hats. The world here is covered in snow that sparkles as it is caught by the last of the failing light. Rooftops hold heavy loads of it and homes resemble iced cakes.

It isn’t the first Christmas I have spent with K and her family, and I do things here that I haven’t for years; Mass on Christmas Eve, for example, at the pretty 12th century village church with its painted wooden roof. Chamber music is always an element of the Mass, or something loosely resembling it.

On my first visit it was provided by the Familie Büttner – a memorable performance. I’m not one for idle speculation but it seemed to me at the time that the family might well have been done away with and the killers – caught in posession of their victims’ instruments – forced into the charade of going ahead with the Midnight Mass recital.

I couldn’t see them from where  I was sitting but I had visions of four burly, unshaven men with cauliflower ears and broken noses plucking cluelessly at unfamiliar strings, one furtive eye each on the church door. If this was indeed the case I’d have to give the criminal gang some credit – under the circumstances they made a decent fist of it. On the other hand the Büttners, children included it would seem, may just have been hitting the schnapps a little hard that Christmas.

Either way, somebody launched into Pachelbel’s Canon in D and seven excruciating minutes later the 17th century composer’s mutilated corpse was left to rot in a puddle of its own blood…

The Büttners or their imposters have been dismissed at some point in the interim and this year several short instrumentals get the living shit beaten out of them by a brass ensemble up in the choir stall.

Anyway the point is that one way or the other you get your music. Never mind that it’s terrible – it’s beautiful; without it the picture would be incomplete.

Gifts are swapped and a festive meal shared on Christmas Eve here, which frees us up on the 25th to drive out into the country to see K’s grandmother and the rest of her family. K is a little mysterious about her past and here I can at least begin to assemble it; the pieces her parents, her Oma and aunt, her cousins and uncle and her Opa who although long gone is still the spirit of this house. The walls are covered – every inch of them – with jigsaw pieces of the man; photographs and gamekeeping certificates, hunting memorabilia and, well, dead animals.

We sit down to duck, venison, blaukraut and dumplings, overlooked by a woodpecker, an owl, a weasel and the skulls of any number of deer. A herd of them in this dining room.

“Bit over the top isn’t it”, I ask K later, “shooting an owl?”

“Oh he didn’t”, her deadpan response. “He found it in the woods, frozen to death. Bad winter. So he had it stuffed.”

Her other Opa is still in posession of his late wife’s identity card, hurriedly produced during the Heim Ins Reich, the mass repatriation of Germans from Poland in 1944. The photo is of a pretty young woman who looks vital, cheeky. According to K it is not the older woman that she knew later, unfulfilled and disappointed. Who knows precisely when – if there was a moment – she gave up on life?  That piece is missing.

K wants the  identity card for herself, a piece of her own puzzle. It is the earliest known picture of her Oma; everything of her pre-war life is lost. With half a lifetime of pieces missing K is eager to gather up what is left and preserve the corrupted image. Something is better than nothing.

We will return to Tarifa and to 2011 in a few days. We too are fitting pieces together but without a final image to reference. We are creating our own Bloch-Bauer swirls as we go along. Definitely not the orthodox way to go about completing a jigsaw puzzle, but we aren’t ready to give up just yet…

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  1. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t get much further than the Klimt. My absolute favorite painter of all times! I need to get my hands on that puzzle. In fact there is a small museum in New York, dedicated mostly to Klimt and I can’t tear myself away. Sorry again, if I missed the point of your post, but you made my day.

  2. You are far too young to give up.. Who knows what happened to the “other Opa” during her lifetime, we can never know that….
    Merry Christmas! Hopefully it’s snowing in Spain too…

    • People do though don’t they? Give up that is, even when they are young. Then they spend the rest of their time going through the motions. Not us, not yet…

  3. Great composition Robin. Made me go back and read through again to fit all the pieces together.

  4. Ahh Robin, you never fail to amaze me. I just absolutely love the way you write. Thanks for this piece, it made me tear up, it made me feel appreciative.. it reminded me of the things I needed to remember.

  5. Beautifully written, as always, Robin! A picturesque Christmas, to say the least. I wouldn’t worry too much about completing the puzzle. All the fun lies in adding new pieces to it.

    • Thanks so much. I was keen to comment on your Art is a picture of the Spirit aphorism but I couldn’t for some reason – error message. Like many of my thoroughly profound thoughts I’ve forgotten what I was going to say now…

  6. I love everything about this post! Such an enjoyable picture it paints of your Christmas experience with the family.

    Like Inka, I was also very excited about the Klimt puzzle! I’ve got one that my husband and I put together several years ago – Der Kub (The Kiss). It’s a very difficult, but beautiful puzzle. Maybe someday we’ll give it a try again.

  7. Just sounds like the perfect setting for the family Christmas, here’s to bad recitals and hearty dumplings. I hope K gets the pieces she needs for her family jigsaw.

    • It’s actually ridiculous Jools,if we’re being honest. Ludicrously Christmassy scenes wherever you look. Enough to induce a migraine in the Christmas-averse. Luckily I’m a sappy sucker for festive tradition…Have a fabulous Hogmanay!

  8. I know what it is like to have family puzzle pieces missing. The way you wrote about it here is beautiful. One of life’s many mysteries…maybe sometimes we aren’t meant to have all the information.

  9. Thanks so much Andrea and what a great and hopeful way of looking at it! You are right of course.

  10. Beautiful imagery. I can’t believe you could be in such a beautiful setting and have such badly-played music. Maybe having beautiful music would have been too much.
    Would you believe Klimt is HUGE in Vietnam? In the backpacker district in Ho Chi Minh City it seems like every second shop sells knockoff Klimt paintings or lacquerware, with The Kiss one of the most popular. It’s a crazy old world, isn’t it?

  11. I think the fact that K’s background is a little mysterious makes her sound even more appealing and I also think that’s very German – they don’t like to reveal too much too soon, and I like that. Your Christmas in Bavaria sounds much different than life in Tarifa.

  12. Yes different alright. Cold and dry to Tarifa’s warm and wet!

  13. I love the way you write!! Just off to the beach for 10 days and hope to get some writing inspiration there!! Cheers.

  14. Great post! I envy you your snowy, cozy Christmas. It never really feels like the holidays to me in warmer climates.

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