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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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6333623,587 (4.02)81
"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 81 mentions

Dutch (17)  English (15)  Spanish (2)  Norwegian (1)  French (1)  All languages (36)
Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
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 |
Writing this book was obviously highly therapeutic for the author. The atmosphere of the times during which his grandfather lived is etched finely and with care. Further, the writing style is beautiful and caring. Unfortunately, for me as a reader, the subject matter was so unrelentlessly grim that I found it very difficult to read more than a page or two at a time. Eventually, I just realized the book was meant for readers that didn't include me. Have put it aside, unfinished. ( )
  abycats | May 11, 2018 |

It's a very moving memoir by Hertmans of his grandfather's experiences before, during and after the first world war in Belgium. The first and last parts are presented as factual narrative, but the large middle section is a fictional reconstruction of what happened to his grandfather (though no doubt based on such documentation as is available).

The first part on impoverished Flemish life pre-war is heartfelt, the general portrayal in the second part of how Flemish soldiers were treated by francophone officers during the horrible events of the war gives one some understanding of how the war experience led to the growth of a Flemish consciousness (the officers consistently mispronounce Urbain's surname, Martien, to end "-shan" rather than "-teen"), and the third part recounting Urbain's subsequent love life (he becomes entangled sequentially with two sisters, and basically marries the wrong one) is very moving as well.

There's also food for thought in the close Belgian relationship with England, Liverpool figuring particularly strongly - a reservoir of historic goodwill which has been stupidly squandered by the current British government. ( )
  nwhyte | Mar 11, 2018 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 15 (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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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
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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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