One Beautiful Sentence

“Men who share the same rooms, soldiers or prisoners, develop a strange allegiance as if, having cast off their armour with their clothing, they fraternize every evening, over and above their differences, in the ancient community of dream and fatigue.” – Albert Camus, The Guest, from The Exile and the Kingdom, a collection of short stories.

Having been unable to write as of late [and I am not going to discuss that state of affairs yet once again] I have been spending a great deal of time reading. I acquired recently a collected work by the great philosopher/novelist Albert Camus. Along with Exile and the Kingdom, the collection includes The Plague, The Fall and some of his essays like The Myth of Sisyphus, and Reflections on the Guillotine. Existential crises not withstanding, the work of Camus is most beautifully written.

Born to French parents in [French colonial] Algeria in 1913, Camus spent his childhood and early adult years in that country. As a French citizen, though of the poorer class, he was witness to the treatment of the native population by their French counterparts and many of his works are set in Algeria and concern the two cohabiting cultures of the country. His descriptions of the landscape and the people can be breathtaking. See if you don’t agree:

“She had dreamed too, of palm trees and soft sand. Now that she saw that the desert was not that at all, but merely stone, stone everywhere, in the sky full of nothing but stone dust, rasping and cold, as on the ground, where nothing grew among the stones but dry grasses.” The Adulterous Woman.

“The silent city was no more than an assemblage of huge, inert cubes, between which only the mute effigies of great men, carapaced in bronze, with their blank stone or metal faces, conjured up a sorry semblance of what man had been. In lifeless squares and avenues these tawdry idols lorded it under the lowering sky; stolid monsters that might have personified the rule of immobility imposed upon us, or, anyhow, its final aspect, that of a defunct city in which plague, stone and darkness had effectively silenced every voice.” The Plague

Seems eerily prophetic, reading that passage now… Anyway, I am in awe of this ability to paint such vivid word pictures, to evoke the spirit of a place and a time. So that while I am not writing, at least I am continuing to think about it and to learn from a master like Albert Camus.

Image via Wikipedia

Research Notes – The Great War : Kaiser Wilhelm II

“Good heavens, whatever will happen if Prince Wilhelm becomes Kaiser as early as this? … “He thinks he understands everything, even shipbuilding.” A senior general talking about the future Kaiser a year before his ascension to the throne. And regarding Wilhelm’s short attention span, Otto von Bismarck said, “[Wilhelm] would take a little peek … learn nothing and end up believing he knew everything.”

Kaiser Wilhelm II was one of three royal cousins embroiled in the First World War. George V of Great Britain and Nicholas II of Russia stood against their cousin on the opposite side of the conflict. Of the three, Wilhelm’s story is by far the most interesting (at least to me). His behaviour is infuriating but perhaps some of it can be excused (or at least explained) when examining his childhood. As the first of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren, the eldest son of Princess Victoria and Frederick, King of Prussia and Kaiser of the German Empire, he should have had a special place in the ageing empress’s heart but he managed even to alienate his Grandmama. Wilhelm got off to a bad start from day one…

Wilhelm’s birth was difficult and resulted in an injury to his left arm. The damaged arm never fully developed, remaining six inches shorter than his right one. He managed to disguise it well by strategically posing with it bent or in a pocket or fold of his coat. [If you look closely, you can see the difference in the header image photo.] Despite numerous experimental and painfully torturous treatments inflicted on the young prince, the condition was permanent. His mother, Vicky, blamed herself and overcompensated by pushing him to excel at riding. But because the boy had only one arm strong enough to hold on, the results were predictably disastrous. Over and over he fell, weeping, from the back of his pony and over and over he was put back on to try again. It must have been a miserable existence.

As a child, he was prone to temper tantrums, much to the horror of his mother and their extended royal family. At the age of four, while in attendance of his uncle Edward’s wedding, he grew bored. To get the attention of his uncles Leopold and Arthur, he scratched their legs and when that didn’t work, he threw part of his clothing into the choir. When finally disciplined, he bit one of the uncles in the leg. On another occasion, during a visit to his British relatives on The Isle of Wight when he was seven years old, he tried to kick another member of the party —a former secretary of Prince Albert’s— and was given a spanking by the intended victim.

His emerging personality was certainly influenced by the high expectations placed on him as the future king of Prussia and Kaiser of the German Empire. In addition, the Prussian court, the servants, really everyone else, treated him like a little god. In a letter to Wilhelm’s father, Friedrich, his mother wrote: “He is very arrogant, extremely smug and quite taken with himself. [He] is offended at the slightest comment, plays the injured party, and more than occasionally gives an impudent answer; furthermore he is unbelievably lazy and slovenly.”

To add insult to injury, his education, unlike other royal princes at the time was unconventional yet harsh and humiliating. His tutor worked him from 5 AM to 8 PM six days a week —way beyond the normal school day— and at the same time reported to everyone including Wilhelm himself, that he did not believe he was up to it. Nevertheless, Wilhelm was a good student and after completing his education, he joined the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards, the grandest and most aristocratic regiment in Germany. The army, eventually would become his obsession.

Despite this love and admiration of the military, Wilhelm developed none of the discipline or mental habits of a military officer. He looked and played the part but that is where the application of his army experience ended. He loved the ‘appearance’ of the army: the parade and performance, the display of medals and the clicking of heels and most of all the uniform. In fact the uniform became his only attire after about the age of twenty. The Kaiser even went so far as to design the army uniform himself.

It was his aim upon ascension to the throne of German Emperor, to be a charismatic, soldier-king. He adopted mannerisms to accentuate this persona: a fierce expression, staccato vocal delivery, rigid posture and stance. Nevertheless, his own overconfidence and his tendency to think he knew more than anyone else in the room, to change his mind from one position to another in quick succession and to surround himself with people who only agreed with him [he was easily offended and prone to outbursts of rage when he was questioned or proven wrong] made governance under the Kaiser’s lead a near impossible task. His ministers were constantly frustrated by him and spent a great deal of time undoing the Kaiser’s mistakes while keeping him in the dark.

In analysing the Kaiser through the microscope of a hundred years of time and with the application of all we have discovered in the field of psychology, many believe that Kaiser Wilhelm II displayed many symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. These include: arrogance, inflated self importance, an enormous sense of entitlement, the delusion of unlimited power and success, confidence in his own brilliance, a constant need for flattery and a rejection of criticism, and a regard for other people only as instruments of his will.

One has to ask the question whether this was a result of nature: the prevalence of intermarriage within the noble families of Europe gave the royals a very narrow gene pool, the difficult birth and resulting injury —or of nurture: the torturous treatment implemented to correct the birth injury, or the rigorous, atypical education, isolation, and simultaneous humiliation by some and exaggerated veneration as heir to the throne by others. What an awful list of ingredients contributed to the formation of the man who would lead the German Empire during the Great War. It would not be an easy choice to either pity or despise Kaiser Wilhelm II. 

Write Like Someone Else

One of the best parts of writing is creating characters, telling their stories and in doing so, pretending to be someone else. It’s like having a second life, completely in your control. One of the worst things about it is everyone who knows you assumes that in some respect, you are revealing aspects of your persona that you cover up in public. When you write melancholy, disfunction or even downright malice into your characters, does that mean that inside you feel that way on some level as well? And why is it that it’s only those darker qualities that people question? Why would someone assume that if I write about a serial killer, that I have murderous tendencies myself? Or in a more realistic scenario, if a write about a character suffering from depression or anxiety, does that mean I am revealing my inner issues too?

The short answer is: of course not! The beauty of writing is being able to step outside yourself and into someone else’s life. To use your imagination in a more than superficial way to feel what it’s like to be another person with a unique perspective and a completely different set of circumstances. When we do that we have to be prepared to go to the dark side. To find those regions of human experience that aren’t pretty or comfortable. Because really that is life these days.

I’ve said this previously: being able to shine a light in dark places in our writing is a good thing. It creates the drama a novel needs. It makes our characters believable and relatable. It gives them depth, dimension. It makes the reader invest in the character, either in hoping for their salvation or their demise. But it doesn’t make the writing a confession. It just makes us better writers.

Image via John Haim