This beautiful boy is August Macke – or at least this is how he painted himself in 1906, at the age of nineteen. He looks a little bit like one of my sons, and though August lived a century ahead of him, both boys began their careers as costume designers. Boys any mother would be proud of, for their sparkling talent, their diligence, their abilities at adorable pouting.
By 1910, barely out of art school, August had become a rising star among the avant-garde, an insatiably curious and studious member of Der Blaue Reiter, a group of expressionist painters that formed in Germany just as August decided he’d give it a proper go.
He was demonstrably averse to boundaries, his style slipping through periods of impressionism, fauvism and cubism in rapid succession, his colours bold and deeply emotional. The sort of young man who would have walked into any room with his brain in gear, wondering with some excitement: Who am I going to meet here tonight? A young man constantly in love – he’d married his childhood sweetheart, Elisabeth, at twenty-two.
His mates Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc and Paul Klee would go on to become great names in the art world. But August would not.
At the outbreak of war in 1914, August was perfectly ripe for conscription, and he was dead within a month, erased on a battlefield in France, where the front ran through Champagne.
Just another German soldier. And just another reason I don’t do bad guys in my stories.
We love to hate the enemy, or so we’re told. Storytelling 101 says the hero needs bad guys in order to be the very best of the good, in order to gain and sustain our sympathy, to keep us turning the pages.
But I can’t do it. And not only because my own German heritage has played havoc with the standard all my life.
The only truly bad guys I know are psychopaths, incurably destructive people who need to be removed from the rest of us. I made one of them in Paper Daisies, a nasty character a little too close to my own experience of encountering such, except that in real life I’m not permitted to kill the like. I’ve written a similar character in my latest manuscript, Walking – a sadist, a creep, someone ruled by jealousy and the monsters that can be unleashed when ambitions outweigh talents, perhaps a little like a certain German führer who could never help overplaying his pathetic hand. I didn’t kill that one, though: I took the realer road and had him more or less get away with it.
Bad guys, by their deliberate, calculated cruelties, don’t deserve to be among us. They don’t deserve equal billing with those of us who strive to make and give and love. They don’t deserve to be remembered.
But where’s dramatic tension in a tale without a full-bodied, slavering and ever-menacing nemesis? I can hear some writers ask, and I can only answer that the nemesis I want to explore most of all is the trickiest and most powerful one: the enemy that sits within the hero. The best battle that’s ever fought and won: with the self. Yeah okay, it’s not an approach that’s worked its way to the top of the sales charts for me. Yet – heh.
Graduation from bestseller school isn’t why I’m in this game, though. I want to use what’s left of the blink in time that’s mine to say things about the best of us, about the most of us who just want to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday.
To say that boys like August were heroes too.
Just as the world descended into madness, he painted this picture called ‘Farewell’. It’s incalculably sad: the colours dull, the faces rubbed out.
The heart of a boy who didn’t want to go to war. A boy who didn’t need to meet a bad guy to prove his worth.