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War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans

War and Turpentine (2013)

by Stefan Hertmans

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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4883121,022 (4.06)67
  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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Dutch (18)  English (12)  Norwegian (1)  All (31)
Showing 1-5 of 12 (next | show all)
Although classified as fiction, Hertman's account of the life of his grandfather, painter Urbain Martien, reads more like a well-crafted biography. It is based on his grandfather's diaries, focusing largely on the build-up to World War I and the conflict itself. One section also deals with the artist's life after the war. The most engaging portion, and probably the portion relying most heavily upon the diaries, was the part dealing with the war itself. His grandfather was wounded three times and sent to convalesce in various facilities. Although it works fairly well in English, I suspect something was lost in the translation in a few portions. ( )
1 vote thornton37814 | Jul 3, 2017 |
Belgian poet Stefan Hertmans was given his grandfather's diaries but it took him several years to get around to reading them. With War and Turpentine he has taken his memories, his family's memories and the diaries and written a novel about his grandfathers' life. The book is divided into two themes, that of painting (turpentine) and WWI (war). His grandfather, Urbain, was a keen amateur painter, carefully copying various classical paintings. His own father had been a church painter, restoring paintings and frescos in religious buildings around Ghent and further afield. A love of art in general and of classical painting in particular bookended his life.

Urbain was a young man when WWI started and Belgium was a battlefield. This part of the book is taken directly from Urbain's diaries, which he wrote some years after the war had ended. This part of the book has a very different feel than the rest. Urbain was either a brilliant and prescient soldier, surrounded by less able men, or he thought he was a brilliant soldier surrounded by idiots. In any case, he was injured numerous times and spent one convalescence in England, before returning to the battlefield.

War and Turpentine is a picture of Belgium that no longer exists, and is a character study of a man who was both ordinary and unique. I found the parts about his childhood and what being poor meant at a time before government assistance and social safety nets to be both fascinating and sobering. ( )
  RidgewayGirl | Jun 13, 2017 |
It is difficult to describe this book. Classified as fiction, it reads more like a memoir. The author is the grandson of Urbain Martien, a gifted painter, unsung Flemish war hero in WWI, and author of the three dense notebooks which form the basis of this family saga. Urbain grew up in a different world in Ghent, Belgium, on the cusp of the twentieth century. His life was one of poverty, dependent on soup kitchens and work in an iron foundry at age 13 to help keep the family going. Before he started working, he spent time with his father the "church painter" as he restored the magnificent frescoes that fade with time. No wonder he developed such a passion for art which unfortunately was cut short after he was conscripted into the Belgium army to deflect Germany's march toward France.

The tone of the book changes abruptly in Part II from background information about the author and his grandfather to Private Martien's war diary. Wow. This part was spellbinding and difficult to read because of the graphic nature of a war that was like "the wrath of God without God". (190) Urbain had lived with his memories so long they were as clear as the "blue sky with tall white clouds drifting like a dream" over the country he was trying to protect. The troops went from boredom to bloody assault in the blink of an eye…over and over. The poor food (when they had any) and lack of hygiene wore on the troops as did the way they were treated by the French-speaking officers who carefuly maintained the social heirarchy. Life was hell, but somehow Sergeant Martien (about as high-ranking as a Flemish soldier could go) survived three severe injuries and was able to return to the two loves of his life, art and a beautiful girl.

This book has totally earned its place on the New York Times' Ten Best Books of 2016 and recent nomination for the Booker International Prize. It is my first (rounded-up) 5-star book of the year and deserves a close look by discerning readers. I particularly recommend it to lovers of art and historical fiction. ( )
3 vote Donna828 | Mar 24, 2017 |
I hadn't heard of Stefan Hertmans' memoir-fiction about his amateur artist grandfather Urbain Martien (1891-1981) until it showed up on the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2016 year-end list. The description there of "a masterly book about memory, art, love and war," intrigued me immediately.

I have to say honestly that the Part I Pre-1914 Section didn't really grab me and I found myself plodding through it for a long time. I mention this as I suspect there may be others with the same experience who may be tempted to give up on the book due to this seemingly rambling first half where often it is the story of Hertmans' great-grandfather that is being told. Don't give up on the book early.

The Part II 1914-1918 Section plunges you along with the young Urbain Martien into the face of the German Army's August 1914 "blitzkrieg" (the word apparently wasn't invented until 1935, but Hertmans uses it here on pg. 144 to describe the "shock and awe" tactics used) on Belgium in its roundabout path to attacking France. Suddenly I was totally swept up in the story as now it is being delivered as a first-person account as if in the voice of Urbain himself. The sheer terrors faced by the Flemish speaking Walloon soldiers in the middle between the ruthless German advance and their own contemptuous French-speaking officers. This is among the best on-the-ground description of war that I've ever read, certainly as good as, if not better than, Hemingway's "The Retreat from Caporetto" section in A Farewell to Arms.

The final Part III is a post-1918 section where we return to Hertmans' point-of-view as he describes his grandfather's post-war years and the copies that the elderly Urbain made of classic paintings as his hobby. But now the seemingly rambling style of Part I feels completely engrossing as Hertmans tries to piece together the story of his grandfather's life from the few clues that he has. I should probably re-read Part I with this hindsight as it wasn't until the Part II Section that I suddenly totally identified with Urbain and his life.

Still I don't hesitate to call this a 5 out of 5 based on the 2nd half alone. ( )
1 vote alanteder | Mar 20, 2017 |
Prachtig geschreven boek over het leven van de grootvader van de auteur. Het tweede deel met de letterlijke(?) beschrijving van zijn WO1 ervaringen is imposant, gruwelijk en aangrijpend. Het naschrift van de schrijver in deel 3 voegt daar nog een laag aan toe. Jammer genoeg wijdt hij in deel 1, de eerste helft van het boek, te veel uit en springt hij veel heen en weer in de tijd en wisselt van gezichtspunten. Vertellen hoe je tot dit boek in deze vorm gekomen bent, hoort hier niet thuis, niet als je het een roman noemt. Bovendien zitten er dubbelingen in met het tweede deel. Verwarrend. Dus deel 1 drie en de rest vijf sterren. ( )
  stef7sa | Jan 5, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 12 (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
Stefan Hertmansprimary authorall editionscalculated
McKay, DavidTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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
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.
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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