A New York Times Top 10 Best Book of the Year
An Economist Best Book of the Year
Longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award
The story of Urbain Martien lies contained in two notebooks he left behind when he died. In War and Turpentine, his grandson, a writer, retells his grandfather’s story, the notebooks providing a key to the locked chambers of Urbain’s memory.
But who is he, really? There is Urbain the child of a lowly church painter; Urbain the young man, who narrowly escapes death in an iron foundry; Urbain the soldier; and Urbain the man, married to his true love's sister, haunted by the war and his interrupted dreams of life as an artist. Wrestling with this tale, the 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 a man, revealing how a single life can echo through the ages.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Translated from the Dutch by David McKay.
Read an Excerpt
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. He has slightly raised the sandbank behind them for shelter from the August wind, which blows over the receding line of waves and out to sea under high wisps of haze. They have removed their shoes and socks and are gently wiggling their toes as they sit, enjoying the cool damp of the deeper sand—an activity that struck me, at the age of six, as uncharacteristically frivolous for this couple always dressed in gray, dark blue or black. Even on the beach and despite the heat, my grandfather keeps his black fedora on his nearly bald head; he is wearing his spotless white shirt and, as always, a black bow tie, a large one, larger than bow ties normally are, with two ends dangling over his chest, making it look from a distance as though his neck were adorned with the silhouette of a black angel spreading its wings. My mother made his peculiar bow ties according to his instructions, and in all his long life I never saw him without one of those black ties with tails like a dress coat; he must have owned dozens. There’s one here somewhere among my books, a relic of a far, forgotten age.
After half an hour, he made up his mind to take off his jacket. Then he removed his gold cufflinks and put them in his left pocket. Next, he went so far as to roll up his shirtsleeves, or rather, he carefully folded them over, twice, to a point just under his elbow, each fold exactly the width of the starched cuff, and now he sits with his neatly folded jacket draped over his arm, its silk lining gleaming in the afternoon light, as if he is posing for an Impressionist portrait. His gaze seems to wander over the distant crowd, losing its way among the shrieking, splashing children, the shouting, laughing day-trippers chasing after each other as if they were children again. What he sees is something like a James Ensor painting set in motion, although he despises the work of that Ostend blasphemer with the English name. Ensor is a “dauber,” and along with “tosspot” and “riff-raff,” “dauber” is the worst accusation he can make. They’re all daubers, today’s painters; they’ve completely lost touch with the classical tradition, the subtle, noble craft of the old masters. They muddle along with no respect for the laws of anatomy, don’t even know how to glaze, never mix their own paint, use turpentine like water, and are ignorant of the secrets of grinding your own pigments, of fine linseed oil and the blowing of siccatives— no wonder there are no more great painters.
The wind is growing colder now. He retrieves his cufflinks from his pocket, rolls down his sleeves, neatly fastens his cuffs, puts on his jacket, and tenderly drapes his wife’s black lace mantilla over her shoulders and over the lustrous knot in her dark gray hair. Come, Gabrielle, he says, and they stand, pick up their shoes, and with some effort begin the ascent to the promenade, he with the legs of his trousers rolled up six inches or so, she with her long black socks stuffed into her shoes. Under their dark forms, I see their four white calves swinging, slow and measured, over the sand. They make their way to the bluestone steps that lead to the promenade, where they will sit down on the nearest bench, brush and pat off the sand until their feet are thoroughly clean, pull their black socks over their alabaster feet, and tie their shoes with what they call drawstrings instead of laces.
As for me, after the collapse of the warren of tunnels that I dug for my large stone marbles—my treasured “taws”—I run shivering to my mother. The tide is rising again, she says, rubbing the warmth back into me as the first puffy clouds form over the dunes behind us. The wind sweeps over the dune tops, as if to muss their grassy hair, and those large, sand-colored creatures brace themselves for the night ahead.
My grandfather, his gleaming cane of varnished elm wood already in his hand, is waiting restlessly for us to reach the promenade. Then he takes the lead; he is not a tall man—five foot six, I often hear him say—but wherever he goes, people make way. With his head erect, his black boots polished to perfection, a sharp crease in his trousers, arm in arm with his unspeaking wife and his cane in the other hand, he strides out ahead of us with slight impatience, glancing back now and then and calling out that we’ll miss our train if we don’t pick up the pace. He walks like a retired soldier, which is to say not pounding his heels oafishly into the ground, but always landing on the ball of the foot, as a soldier should, the habit of more than half a century. Then he somehow slips out of view in my memory, and overcome by the sudden radiant clarity of this scene from all those years ago, I’m so tired I could fall asleep on the spot.
Without any transition, the next image I have of him is that of a man silently weeping. He is seated at the small table where he painted and wrote, in his gray smock, his black hat on his head. The yellow light of morning shines through the small, vine-framed window; in his hands I see one of the many reproductions he tore out of art books and used to practice copying (pinning the reproduction to a board that he attached to his palette with two wooden pegs). He holds the picture in his hands; I cannot see what it is, but I see that tears are running down his cheeks and he is silently mouthing words. I climbed the three stairs to my grandfather’s room to tell him about the rat skeleton I’d found; now I quickly, quietly back away, my steps muffled by the carpet on the stairs, and close his door behind me. But later, while he’s downstairs having coffee, I slip back up to the room and find the picture on his table. It is a painting of a nude woman with her back to the viewer, a slender woman with dark hair, lying on some kind of sofa or bed in front of a red curtain. Her serene, dreamy expression is visible in a mirror held up for her by a cherub with a blue ribbon over his shoulder; her bare, slender back and round buttocks are prominent. My eyes drift to her frail shoulders, the delicate hair curling around her neck, and then back to her derriere, which is thrust almost obscenely toward the viewer. Shocked, I put down the reproduction, I go downstairs, there is my grandfather in the kitchen, beside my mother, singing a French tune he remembers from the war.
My childhood years were overrun with his tales of the First World War, always the war and nothing but the war, vague heroics in muddy fields under a rain of bombs, the rat-a-tat of gunfire, phantoms screaming in the dark, orders roared in French—all conjured up from his rocking chair with great feeling for spectacle—and always barbed wire, shrapnel whizzing past our ears, submachine guns rattling, flares tracing high arcs across the dark heavens, mortars and howitzers firing, billions of blistering bombs in ten thousand thundering trenches, while the tea-sipping aunties nodded beatifically and about the only thing that stuck with me was that my grandfather must have been a hero in days as distant as the Middle Ages I’d heard about in school. To me, he was still a hero; he gave me fencing lessons, sharpened my pocketknife, taught me how to draw clouds by rubbing an eraser over shapes sketched with a piece of charred wood from the fireplace, and how to render the myriad leaves of a tree without drawing each one separately—the true secret of art, as he called it.
Stories were meant to be forgotten, since after all, they always came back again, even the strangest stories of art and artists. I knew that old Beethoven had worked on his ninth symphony like a man possessed because he was deaf, but one day a disturbing detail was added: he didn’t even go to the trouble of visiting the toilet while he was working, instead he did “his business” by the piano. Consequently—and I quote—“the man who wrote that lovely song about all men becoming brothers did his composing next to a heap of dung.” I imagined the great composer, deaf as a post, seated in a Viennese interior with the capitals of the columns painted gold, wearing his luxuriant wig, gaiters, and galoshes, next to a towering pyramid of excrement, and whenever the miraculous adagio from the Pastoral Symphony drifted through the house on one of those long dreary Sunday afternoons, while my parents and grandparents nodded off on the brown floral sofa by the radio, I would picture a mountain of crap next to a glossy lacquered spinet as a cuckoo from the Wienerwald warbled along with the woodwinds and violins and my grandfather kept his eyes tightly closed. He was a firm believer in romantic genius; his reverence for it ran so deep that he could not face the mundane world of his home and family at such exalted moments. Not until many years later did it dawn on me that he himself had spent about a year and a half next to a real dung heap in the miserable trenches, where as soon as you put your head above the parapet in search of a better place to do your business, you were punished with a bullet through the brain. Thus the things he wished to forget kept coming back, in shards of stories or absurd details, and whether hell or heaven was the subject, shards and details like these were the puzzle pieces I had to fit together before I could begin to understand what had gone on inside him all his life: the battle between the transcendent, which he yearned for, and the memory of death and destruction, which held him in its clutches.
At home, my grandfather invariably wore a smock—always the same short white or light gray garment, the length of an old-fashioned dressing gown—over his white shirt and bow tie. No matter how my mother and her mother washed and boiled those old cotton smocks, which he wore with a certain flair, they remained mottled with stains: scattered swipes of oil paint in all the colors of the rainbow, criss-crossing fingerprints, a composition of careless, intriguing smears, the raffish graffiti left there after the real work.
That real work, which he had carried out uninterrupted since his early retirement as a disabled veteran at the age of forty-five, was painting for pleasure. The small room where he stood in front of the small window day in and day out smelled of linseed oil, turpentine, linen, oil paint. Yes, even the odor of the large erasers, cut down to size with a knife, could be detected in the irreproducible mixture that gave the room its ambience, the glamour of the endless hours he passed in silence, zealously yet fruitlessly emulating the great masters. He was a superb copyist and knew all the secrets of the old materials and recipes that painters had used and passed down since the Renaissance. After the war he had taken evening classes in drawing and painting in his home city of Ghent, despite all the times his late father, a painter of frescoes in churches and chapels, had warned him against it. Although he was still doing heavy manual labor at the time, he pressed on, and just after reaching the usual marrying age, he earned a “certificate of competence in fine-art painting and anatomical drawing.”
From his window he could see a bend in the Scheldt River, the slow cows in their pastures, the heavily laden barges chugging past low in the water in the morning, the faster-moving empty riverboats leaving the city with a shallow draft at day’s end. Countless times he painted that view, each time in a different light with a new set of hues; another time of day, another season, another mood. He painted each leaf of the red creeper from nature—apparently, art sometimes demanded exceptions to its great law of illusion—and when he copied a detail of a Titian or Rubens, he knew himself to be practiced in patience, in sketching accurately with charcoal or graphite, in the secrets of mixing colors and thinning pigments, and in waiting just long enough for the first layer to dry before adding a second, which gave the impression of depth and transparency—another of the many great secrets of art.
His grand passions were treetops, clouds, and folds in fabric. In these formless forms he could let go, lose himself in a dream world of light and dark, in clouds congealed in oil paint, chiaroscuro, a world where nobody else could intrude, because something—it was hard to say what—had broken inside him. His warmth and generosity were always tinged with shyness, as if he were afraid that people would come too close because he had been too friendly. At the same time, he exuded a higher, nobler strain of friendly guilelessness, and that naïveté was at the core of his good humor. His marriage to Gabrielle seemed idyllic, if you didn’t know better. Intertwined like two old trees forced to extend their branches through each other’s crowns for decades in their struggle for scarce sunlight, they passed their simple days, which were punctuated solely by the frivolous-seeming gaiety of their daughter, their only child. Days vanished into the folds of distracted time. He painted.
The room that served as his studio, three steps up from the small landing, was also their bedroom; it is hard to believe how unremarkable it once was to live in cramped quarters. The bed was by the wall behind his small, makeshift desk, so that his wife would have something to lean against in her sleep—she slept far away from him despite their narrow bed. Clouds and folds in fabric; treetops and water. The finest paintings in his staunchly traditional body of work each contain a few shapeless smudges, strange abstract masses that he regarded as tokens of fidelity to nature, as if he were painting from the model that God laid out before his eyes and bade him unfurl in the meticulous patience of his daily work as a lowly copyist. But it was also a tribute he dutifully paid, his way of mourning the untimely death of his father, the lowly church painter Franciscus.
Excerpted from War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans. Copyright © 2016 by Stefan Hertmans. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans. In this novel, a Flemish man reconstructs his grandfather’s story—his hopes, loves, and art, all disrupted by the First World War—from the notebooks he filled with pieces of his life. The grandson straddles past and present as he searches for a way to understand his grandfather’s part as both the artist he hoped to be and the soldier he was forced to become.
1. In The Great War and Modern Memory, literary scholar and critic Paul Fussell discusses how the collective experience and horrors of the First World War gave way to a disillusioned modern sensibility. The Romantic period was over. How does this connect to War and Turpentine? Discuss this in connection with the passage about the Belgian soldiers being raised “with exalted nineteenth-century values, with pride and honor and naive idealism. Their military ethics were based on the virtues of courage, self-discipline, honor, the love of the daily march, respect for nature and their fellow men, honesty, and the willingness to fight man to man. . . . The atrocities and massacres changed the morals, the worldview, the mentality, and the manners of that generation forever” (pp. 226–27).
2. How does War and Turpentine compare and contrast to other war novels that you’ve read? How is this book particularly about the First World War and the time directly before and after, and how are the themes and stories universal?
3. Discuss how the story of Urbain unfolds. The novel is not told in typical chronological order and it shifts between various first-person and third-person narratives. How does the way the story is told affect your reading of it? Why has Hertmans written it in this way?
4. Why this title? Play around with some other possible titles. What would you have named this novel?
5. What is the effect of the various photos and paintings interspersed among the text of the novel? Do they add to your reading and understanding of the novel?
6. Discuss the repeated imagery of frescos—“A fresco is a painting executed on freshly plastered walls. The colors are applied to the wet plaster and combine with it as it dries. The art lies in anticipating how the colors will look after they dry” (p. 94)—the painting of which was Urbain’s father’s job in the novel. Why does Urbain’s father paint his own and Urbain’s faces in one of the church frescos? What is the importance for Urbain when he sees it? And how does it connect to the painting Urbain’s grandson finds at the end of the novel?
7. What is the importance of art for Urbain, for his grandson, and for this novel in general?
8. Why does the narrator, Urbain’s grandson, say that at first he “didn’t even dare to open the first page [of his grandfather’s notebooks], in the knowledge that this story would be a farewell to a piece of my childhood” (pp. 10–11)? Do you remember when you first realized that your parents or grandparents were more than simply your parents or grandparents, that they had/have a rich life filled with love, disappointments, fears, joys, et cetera?
9. Discuss the following line from the novel, “Without money or a degree, there are only two paths out of slavery: soldier or priest” (p. 116). Which would you have chosen and why?
10. On seeing a naked girl for the first time, Urbain “cannot believe [it] is real, a figure that opens the door to a whole new world inside him, a door he had taken great pains to keep shut, out of Christian piety and the repression it entails” (p. 125). When his grandson goes to visit the spot he thinks, “Never before have I been so deeply struck by the transience of human life” (p. 131). Why is this such a pivotal moment in the novel?
11. What is the importance of Catholicism and religion in general in the novel? How was it tied to almost all facets of the grandfather’s prewar life?
12. During the war, Urbain’s troops arrive in the countryside and he writes, “It reminded me of the seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painters, of their peaceful pictures, of treetops painted by the English artist Constable, dappled with patches of light and shadow, of the tranquil existence he had captured on canvas” (p. 154). How is nature imitating art imitating nature?
13. There are no paintings, photos, or images interwoven into the war sections. Why?
14. Discuss some of the war descriptions, such as the passages “lads with degrees who should be establishing households and having children—and here they lie, their scabrous bodies reeking in the tepid rain, with no hope of any change” (p. 198). and “To think that this remote, eerily silent place could become the setting for such horrors—it shows once again how any logic of war is utterly opposed to every natural fact, to ordinary time, to the usual course of things, which has no ultimate aim and retains very little of what human beings do” (p. 275). What do you think the book ultimately says about war?
15. Why is there not more about the grandmother, Urbain’s wife? What were the differences between Urbain and his wife? Do you believe the narrator’s depictions of Gabrielle? Is she a real, three-dimensional character or has she become a foil to the romanticized Maria Emelia?
16. Marrying his beloved’s sister, “should he have avoided the situation at all costs” (p. 236)? “How did he make the shift from his early infatuation with the flamboyant Maria Emelia to his deep personal bond with the restrained Gabrielle” (p. 236)? How would you answer these questions the narrator asks himself about his grandfather?
17. What is the import of the grandson finding Urbain’s painting of Velázquez’s Venus with Maria Emelia’s face? “What appeared to be a mere imitation concealed the original of his passion, and the charade of painting thus became the allegory of the hidden love he could never forget” (p. 270). When do you think he painted it and why has he kept the painting hidden all of these years?
18. What do you think the author is saying about love and life by the end of the novel?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A good read. Quite an interesting story.
WONDERFUL! This book is beautifully written and truly speaks to the heart! I hated to put it down. The author's crossing of current, past, memories, and emotions is remarkable. He also handled the subject of LOVE with tender care. Thank you, Mr. Hertmans
This novel is a big ol’ WOW from me. Using his grandfather’s written memoirs, historical facts, stories from family, and his grandfather’s paintings, Hertmans recreates his grandfather’s life and in doing so, attempts to find his own place in his family’s history. We learn of Urbain’s early childhood, growing up poor in Ghent, and what leads him to become a soldier in the first World War. We follow Urbain through the utter horrors of the war, to falling in love, and finally marriage and settling down. Hertmans’ technique is nothing less than masterful. He deftly switches between telling his grandfather’s story in his own voice to having Urbain live his story during the war and throughout the entire telling, it reads like a novel. It draws you into the story of this seemingly ordinary man who is, in actuality, a complex, talented, romantic, war hero. This is the first novel I’ve read, to my knowledge, that has been translated to English. The lyrical prose, the poetic descriptions, they are so brilliantly written that you can see the war-torn countryside, smell the nightmares of the trenches, and feel the heartache and loss experienced by Urbain. I have to wonder how much of that is McKay and how much is Hertmans or does it translate perfectly?
I found this a beautifully moving memoir of a grandson trying to remember and understand his grandfather and his grandfather's story. What I found most moving about this book was the middle section dealing with his grandfather's time in WWI on the Yser front. This was a perspective on the war that I had not experienced as much. You really feel the grittiness of what this type of warfare was and the separation of the men in the trenches from the higher ranking officers. This is no romanticized notion of war, but an honest look at a brutal episode in our history. This telling of Urbain's time at the front lines is framed by the telling of his life before and after the war. These sections have a very different romanticized feel to them. They move between Urbain's voice and the voice of his grandson trying to put together his narrative as he tells a piece of his grandfather's story, tells of visiting or trying to visit the locales of his grandfather's life to try to understand his grandfather, and explores the art that meant so much to his grandfather. To me, the strength of these sections is the artwork and how it really evokes a mood and helps the reader develop a better understanding of the mental and emotional spaces in which the grandfather moved.
The idea behind this novel is quite beautiful: to examine through living memory and written memoirs the life of a soul-strong, loving, artistic man in the midst of poverty, war, and change. Stefan Hertmans’ War and Turpentine takes the WWI recollections of Urbain Martien, his grandfather, and uses them to create a larger panorama of Flemish society and culture in the early 20th century. As is often the case when a person or event is historical, the author needs to craft some passages to bridge and contextualize events and people, which is true here, so, purely speaking this is a novel and not a straight biography. Hertmans anguishes over having taken so long to do something with the memoirs but feels he must go beyond their parameters to give the fullest truth. The author places himself in the story through his own recollections and suppositions and includes Urbain’s artwork and other relevant pictures and pieces. The result is a historical and personal tapestry sewn with many well-written passages of visceral beauty, laced with interesting pictures of evocative pensiveness, and spun from the journals of Urbain, a man of Arnoldian sweetness and light. The authorial essays, which structurally serve as bookends to Urbain’s life, connect his experiences from past to present, providing multi-generational moments from Franciscus, the author’s great-grandfather, to author’s own son. Even the most horrific incidents of war can bring the beauty of unlikely friendships and caring; the sublime feeling of love shares memory space with desolation and loss. Urbain’s heroism goes well beyond his war time bravery. At all times he has worked stoically to be accepting while finding some level of self-determination and pride. In a way, this is a very modern story.