War and turpentine

Stefan Hertmans

Book - 2016

"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 incomprehensibl...e--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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Subjects
Genres
Historical fiction
Published
New York : Pantheon Books [2016]
Edition
First American edition
Language
English
Dutch
Item Description
Previously published in Dutch as Oorlog en terpentijn (Amsterdam : De Bezige Bij, 2013); English translation originally published by Harvill Secker in 2016, in London.
Physical Description
290 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
ISBN
9781101874028
1101874023
Main Author
Stefan Hertmans (author)
Other Authors
David McKay, 1973- (translator)
Review by Booklist Reviews

*Starred Review* On medical leave from the hellish violence of WWI, Urbain Martien wanders into a small chapel where he unexpectedly finds the face of his own father incorporated into the altar mural. In this minor episode, Hertmans distills the larger dynamic governing a novel in which the mysteries of art illuminate the complexities of life. Complemented by photos and reproduced paintings, the poignantly nuanced narrative unfolds Urbain's life through the eyes of a grandson poring over his grandfather's candidly autobiographical notebooks and his more cryptically autobiographical paintings. Clue by clue, notebooks and paintings reveal that alongside his visible war wounds, Urbain carries the invisible wounds of an artist forced to exchange paint and canvas for helmet and rifle. Subtly hinted at in his postwar paintings, another lacerating exchange scars his soul when the love of his life suddenly dies, leaving him to marry her frigid older sister. Retracing the private pilgrimage his grandfather sustained through religious devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows and imaginative devotion to Schubert and Beethoven, van Dyck and Velázquez, the grandson finally reaches the peace that accompanies hard-won understanding. Appreciative readers will thank an exceptional novelist (and a skilled translator) for their share of that peace, that understanding. Copyright 2014 Booklist Reviews.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

A multi-award winner in Europe that sold 200,000 copies in the Netherlands and Belgium alone, this broad-canvas work features a Flemish man reconstructing the life of his grandfather. From modest retoucher of church paintings to worker in a dangerous foundry to drafted soldier who married his beloved's sister, Urbain Martien has seen his life and dreams flattened. For readers of good literature and war stories, too. [Page 80]. (c) Copyright 2016 Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

Acclaimed Flemish novelist, poet, and playwright Hertmans won the 2014 AKO Literature Prize for this work, an often poetic account of an author's attempt to reconstruct his grandfather's life based on journals that the grandfather left behind. Covering Urbain Martien's life up to World War I, Part 1 reads more like memoir than fiction, as the author ruminates on his ancestor's early life in Ghent, Belgium, while reflecting upon his own. Some readers will find Part 2 more compelling, as it deals especially with Urbain's experiences as a solder during World War I. Related in the present tense, the narrative is conveyed through its subject's eyes and ends in 1919. In these pages you'll find some of the most graphic accounts of war: "[T]he rumbling of heavy guns…was like the growl of some gargantuan animal…on the horizon, opening its hungry jaws to devour us. We were headed back to hell." Photographs throughout help illustrate the text, and McKay's translation leaves nothing to be desired. VERDICT This work will be especially enjoyed by readers with an interest in recent European culture and history. [See Prepub Alert, 3/1/16.]—Edward B. Cone, New York [Page 82]. (c) Copyright 2016 Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

In this autobiographical novel, Flemish essayist, novelist, poet, and playwright Hertmans draws on his extensive fine arts background in a stirring remembrance of his grandfather Urbain Martien—World War I hero and devoted painter—to create a masterly treatise on the interconnections of life, art, memory, and heartbreaking love. Shortly before his grandfather's death in 1981, the narrator inherits the notebooks that Martien wrote in the last two decades of his life. "I wasted precious years diligently working on countless other projects and keeping a safe distance from his notebooks: those silent, patient witnesses that enclosed his painstaking, graceful pre-war handwriting like a humble shrine," Hertmans writes of his reticence to retell his grandfather's extraordinary life. But the notebooks provide insight into Martien's many facets, not least his childhood as the son of Franciscus, a talented but poor church painter, his heroism, and a lifetime paying obeisance to the capricious gods of art. In the two bookend sections, Hertmans demonstrates a painter's eye for the smallest detail, gracefully melding art criticism and philosophy. The book's middle section focuses on the war. Variously chaotic, horrifying, and hauntingly beautiful, Martien's war experience ends with his declaration of love for Maria Emilia, a woman from the neighborhood he watched from his bedroom while he convalesced, physically and mentally, from the war that shattered his life. Hertmans's prose, with a deft translation from McKay, works with the same full palette as Urbain Martien's paintings: vivid, passionate—and in the end, life-affirming. (Aug.) [Page ]. Copyright 2016 PWxyz LLC

Review by Publisher Summary 1

A Flemish man draws on his grandfather's journals to piece together the story of the elder's experiences as an artist, soldier, disappointed lover, family man and survivor of World War I. Reading-group guide available.

Review by Publisher Summary 2

"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 mendistanced 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 twonotebooks 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"--

Review by Publisher Summary 3

A Flemish man draws on his grandfather's journals to piece together the story of the elder's experiences as an artist, soldier, disappointed lover, family man, and survivor of World War I.

Review by Publisher Summary 4

Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017A New York Times Top 10 Best Book of the YearAn Economist Best Book of the YearThe life of Urbain Martien'artist, soldier, survivor of World War I'lies contained in two notebooks he left behind when he died in 1981. 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.With vivid detail, the grandson 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; being 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 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 one man's life and reveals how that life echoed down through the generations.(With black-and-white illustrations throughout)