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War and Turpentine (2013)

by Stefan Hertmans

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
6974023,561 (3.98)93
"An international best seller: a vivid, masterly novel about a Flemish man who reconstructs his grandfather's story--his hopes, loves, and art, all disrupted by the First World War--from the unflinching notebooks he filled with pieces of his life. The life of Urbain Martien--artist, soldier, survivor of World War I--lies contained in two notebooks he left behind when he died in 1981. His grandson, a writer, retells his story, the notebooks giving him the impetus to imagine his way into the locked chambers of Urbain's memory. He vividly recounts a whole life: Urbain as the child of a lowly church painter, retouching his father's work; dodging death in a foundry; fighting in the war that altered the course of history; marrying the sister of the woman he truly loved; haunted by an ever-present reminder of the artist he had hoped to be and the soldier he was forced to become. Wrestling with this story, Urbain's grandson straddles past and present, searching for a way to understand his own part in both. As artfully rendered as a Renaissance fresco, War and Turpentine paints an extraordinary portrait of one man's life and reveals how that life echoed down through the generations. (With black-and-white illustrations throughout.)"-- "In this vivid and masterful novel, a Flemish man reconstructs his grandfather's story--his life, loves, and art, all disrupted by the first World War--from the unflinching notebooks he left behind. Short Description War and Turpentine centers on two men distanced by time: a religious painter whose life is changed forever by World War One; and his grandson, a writer reckoning with his grandfather's story. The life of Urbain Martien--artist, soldier, survivor of the incomprehensible--lies contained in two notebooks written before his death in 1981. His grandson, a writer, imagines his way into the locked chambers of Urbain's memory: retouching church paintings as a boy, dodging death in an iron foundry, and, ultimately, fighting the war that altered the course of human history. There is Urbain's father, the lowly church painter; Urbain's wife, Gabrielle, his true love's sister; and Urbain's canvas, the ever-present reminder of the artist he wanted to be and the soldier he was forced to become. Wrestling with this story, the narrator straddles past and present, searching for a place in both. As artfully rendered as a Renaissance fresco, War and Turpentine paints the extraordinary story of one man's life and the echo of its impact resounding through the generations. Translated from the Dutch by David McKay"--… (more)
  1. 00
    All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (aileverte)
    aileverte: Remarque's book was another source of inspiration for Hertmans, and the descriptions of life at the front are evocative of Remarque's masterpiece.
  2. 00
    Vertigo by W. G. Sebald (aileverte)
    aileverte: Part III of War and Turpentine has an epigraph from Sebald's Vertigo, and the book itself is very much inspired by Sebald's writing style.
  3. 00
    Dood van een soldaat by Johanna Spaey (TomCat14)
  4. 00
    The First World War by John Keegan (WiJiWiJi)
  5. 00
    Fall of Giants by Ken Follett (Anonymous user)
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» See also 93 mentions

English (19)  Dutch (17)  Spanish (2)  Norwegian (1)  French (1)  All languages (40)
Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
War and Turpentine is separated into three parts: the first about Urbain's childhood and family; the second recounts his experiences during World War I; the third focuses on his life after the war.

The writing is elegant, if a bit too alliterative at times, but quite beautiful are the author's descriptions of his great-grandparents' love and the tenderness with which great-grandmother Celine treats her husband, Franciscus, despite their poverty, cramped quarters, five children, and Franciscus's fragile health. Hertmans presents his grandfather's impoverished childhood in terms that show how the beautiful, the ugly, and the mundane intertwined to create the man Urbain would grow to be. Hertmans captures the great love Urbain had for his mother, Celine, and the tenderness of her love toward both her husband and her son.

Before he was even old enough to shave, Urbain had already seen a great deal of the painful side of life. He was barely a teenager when he witnessed a horrific accident at an iron smith/mechanic's shop, and, as was the custom at the time, nobody talked about what happened; everyone kept to himself while things and people fell apart. Urbain also spent time working in a foundry at the age of thirteen, and the reader can feel the intense heat of liquid metal and see young Urbain's muscles tremble as he struggles to steady the basin of molten iron.

I was also particularly moved by a scene from the Great War, describing animals swimming across a river in a flood during a lull between battles, "fleeing an unimaginable Armageddon . . . fleeing blindly like lemmings." One can only begin to imagine how tempting it must have been to want to flee with them, to swim away to a distant shore, to a place where one can look in any given direction and not see insurmountable death and destruction. Urbain describes war as being "like the wrath of God, minus God." Powerful and poignant.

My only real point of contention with the novel is that I felt the author's presence more than I wanted to. At times, images and sounds flowed over me in cascades; at other times, I was only too aware of the author's presence. Outside of that, I really enjoyed reading War and Turpentine and found the prose both fluid-like and soothing, even when describing some of the darkest moments of Urbain's difficult life. ( )
  MadMaudie | Sep 5, 2020 |
A beautifully written book about one man's hellish coming-of-age. ( )
  uncleflannery | May 16, 2020 |
Na de talrijke goede recensies ben ik een beetje teleurgesteld. Hertmans' stijl is me iets te literair en te gezocht. Ook de symboliek vind ik soms wat vergezocht en sentimenteel.

Het oorlogsdagboek is het mooiste en eerlijkste stuk van de roman. De verhalen uit de oorlog zijn geschreven in een eenvoudiger taal, en toch is dit hoofdstuk levendiger dan de rest van de roman. Ik heb soms de wenkbrauwen gefronst bij het feit dat Urbain Martien in elk van zijn oorlogsverhalen als de grote held naar voren komt, maar eigenlijk zou dit niet mogen storen. Het is en blijft tenslotte een roman.

Nu ik achtereenvolgens 'Het puttertje' van Donna Tart en deze 'Oorlog en terpentijn' gelezen heb, kan ik wel concluderen dat gedetailleerde beschrijvingen van schilderijen niet aan mij besteed zijn.
( )
  damngoodsoffie | Feb 19, 2020 |
Samenvatting:
Het verhaal van een kleine held in de Grote Oorlog die ervan droomde kunstenaar te worden.

Vlak voor zijn dood in de jaren tachtig van de vorige eeuw gaf de grootvader van Stefan Hertmans zijn kleinzoon een paar volgeschreven oude cahiers. Jarenlang durfde Hertmans de schriften niet te openen – tot hij het wél deed en onvermoede geheimen vond. Het leven van zijn grootvader bleek getekend door zijn armoedige kinderjaren in het Gent van voor 1900, door gruwelijke ervaringen als frontsoldaat in de Eerste Wereldoorlog en door een jonggestorven grote liefde. In zijn verdere leven zette hij zijn verdriet om in stille schilderkunst. Stefan Hertmans’ jarenlange fascinatie voor zijn grootvaders leven bracht hem uiteindelijk tot het schrijven van deze aangrijpende roman.
‘De verste herinnering die ik aan mijn grootvader heb, is die aan het strand van Oostende.
Recensie(s):
Aan de hand van hem nagelaten memoires van zijn grootvader Urbain reconstrueert de Vlaamse schrijver (1951) in beeldrijke taal het leven van zijn grootvader, die rond 1900 in armoede opgroeide in Gent. Hertmans verbindt op indrukwekkende wijze vroege jeugdervaringen van zijn grootvader met de latere, toen Urbain als jong soldaat hachelijke dagen en nachten in de loopgraven overleefde. Zo worden de gruwelen van de Eerste Wereldoorlog aangekondigd met de beschrijving van een argeloze Urbain, die terecht komt in een oude gelatinefabriek, waar dierenkoppen worden gekookt. "Een zwarte stierenkop rolde tot tegen een tafelpoot. Meteen kropen de witte maden ertegenaan als een onstuitbaar leger dat uit een andere wereld naar hier was gestuurd om alles te bedekken en zich loos te vreten (...)'. Ook beschrijft Hertmans de transformatie van tijdgeest en stadslandschap, waarbij de schone natuur in vredestijd niets verraadt van het bloed en lijden dat de vruchtbare aarde opslorpte. Tegelijkertijd definieert de kleinzoon de afstand en de verwantschap met zijn grootvader.

Drs. H. Griffioen
  Langshan | Dec 17, 2019 |
Part documentary. Part art documentary woven into a war story. Some parts interesting and detailed and then rather a rough draft. ( )
  kakadoo202 | Sep 26, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
Before this exciting, candid, at times verbose first-person narrative from the trenches begins, there is a slight problem. Part one proves a pedestrian affair in which Hertmans attempts to reconstruct the earlier life of his grandfather, whom he knew only as an old man.

The opening sequence is interesting, often touching but the methodology which also includes the author’s present day life intermingled with his boyhood memories and the more distant days of his grandfather’s youth, is dutiful, self conscious and somewhat tentative as the influence of the great W.G. Sebald occasionally overpowers the writing.

Admirers of Sebald may decide War and Turpentine is a pale imitation and look elsewhere. That would be a pity. Hertmans does lack the laconic tone of wry melancholy which Sebald mastered and his inspired translator Anthea Bell conveys so brilliantly.
 
In the final section, Hertmans reappears to narrate the six decades of Urbain’s postwar life. There is a sad secret at the heart of his loveless marriage to Gabrielle that it wouldn’t do to give away; it provides much of the pathos in this heartbreaking section. The only consolation left to Urbain in the long tail of his life appears to have been painting, and Hertmans writes about this with both passion and delicacy. The book has such convincing density of detail, with the quiddities of a particular life so truthfully rendered, that I was reminded of a phrase from Middlemarch: “an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects”. Hertmans’ achievement is exactly that.
 

» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Hertmans, Stefanprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
McKay, DavidTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rosselin, IsabelleTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Epigraph
Het is alsof de dagen, als engelen in goud
en blauw, onvatbaar boven de cirkelgang van
de vernietiging staan.
E.M. Remarque
The days are like angels in blue and gold, rising up untouchable above the circle of destruction. - Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
Dedication
Voor mijn vader
For my father
First words
De verste herinnering die ik aan mijn grootvader heb, is die aan het strand van Oostende - een man van zesenzestig, keurig in het nachtblauwe pak, heeft met de blauwe strandschep van zijn kleinzoon een ondiepe put gegraven waarvan hij de opgeworpen rand heeft afgeplat, zodat hij en zijn vrouw daar enigszins gerieflijk kunnen gaan zitten.
In my most distant memory of my grandfather, he is on the beach at Ostend: a man of sixty-six in a neat midnight-blue suit, he has dug a shallow pit with his grandson's blue shovel and leveled off the heaped sand around it so that he and his wife can sit in relative comfort.
Quotations
Places are not just space, they are also time. I look at the city differently now that I carry his memories with me.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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"An international best seller: a vivid, masterly novel about a Flemish man who reconstructs his grandfather's story--his hopes, loves, and art, all disrupted by the First World War--from the unflinching notebooks he filled with pieces of his life. The life of Urbain Martien--artist, soldier, survivor of World War I--lies contained in two notebooks he left behind when he died in 1981. His grandson, a writer, retells his story, the notebooks giving him the impetus to imagine his way into the locked chambers of Urbain's memory. He vividly recounts a whole life: Urbain as the child of a lowly church painter, retouching his father's work; dodging death in a foundry; fighting in the war that altered the course of history; marrying the sister of the woman he truly loved; haunted by an ever-present reminder of the artist he had hoped to be and the soldier he was forced to become. Wrestling with this story, Urbain's grandson straddles past and present, searching for a way to understand his own part in both. As artfully rendered as a Renaissance fresco, War and Turpentine paints an extraordinary portrait of one man's life and reveals how that life echoed down through the generations. (With black-and-white illustrations throughout.)"-- "In this vivid and masterful novel, a Flemish man reconstructs his grandfather's story--his life, loves, and art, all disrupted by the first World War--from the unflinching notebooks he left behind. Short Description War and Turpentine centers on two men distanced by time: a religious painter whose life is changed forever by World War One; and his grandson, a writer reckoning with his grandfather's story. The life of Urbain Martien--artist, soldier, survivor of the incomprehensible--lies contained in two notebooks written before his death in 1981. His grandson, a writer, imagines his way into the locked chambers of Urbain's memory: retouching church paintings as a boy, dodging death in an iron foundry, and, ultimately, fighting the war that altered the course of human history. There is Urbain's father, the lowly church painter; Urbain's wife, Gabrielle, his true love's sister; and Urbain's canvas, the ever-present reminder of the artist he wanted to be and the soldier he was forced to become. Wrestling with this story, the narrator straddles past and present, searching for a place in both. As artfully rendered as a Renaissance fresco, War and Turpentine paints the extraordinary story of one man's life and the echo of its impact resounding through the generations. Translated from the Dutch by David McKay"--

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