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War and Turpentine

Cover of War and Turpentine

War and Turpentine

A Novel
Borrow Borrow Borrow
Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017
A New York Times Top 10 Best Book of the Year
An Economist Best Book of the Year

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. 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)
Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017
A New York Times Top 10 Best Book of the Year
An Economist Best Book of the Year

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. 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)
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Excerpts-
  • From the book ***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
    Copyright © 2016 Stefan Hertmans

    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...

About the Author-
  • STEFAN HERTMANS is an internationally acclaimed Flemish author. For more than twenty years he was a professor at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Ghent, where he wrote novels, poems, essays, and plays. War and Turpentine was awarded the prestigious AKO Literature Prize in 2014.
    Translated from the Dutch by David McKay.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    June 27, 2016
    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.

  • Booklist (Starred Review) "Poignantly nuanced . . . readers will thank an exceptional novelist (and a skilled translator)."
  • Sunday Times (UK) "Wonderful, full of astonishingly vivid moments of powerful imagery. . . . moving moments of mysterious beauty. . . . Hertmans. . .brilliantly captures the intractable reality of a complex man."
  • Sunday Express (UK) "Hertmans follows in his grandfather's footsteps in this brilliant and moving imagined reconstruction, his imagination beautifully filling the gaps as he describes 'the battle between the transcendent, which he yearned for, and the memory of death and destruction, which held him in its clutches.'"
  • Herald (UK) "A mesmerising portrait of an artist as a young man, a significant contribution to First World War literature and a brilliant evocation of a vanished world."
  • De Standaard "With War and Turpentine, Stefan Hertmans has written one of the most moving books of the year."
  • Stavanger Aftenblad "An exceptionally rich and rewarding piece of writing. It is hard to imagine a wiser and more important book at this point of time."
  • Nederlands Dagblad "A gem of a novel, full of history, full of life, full of wisdom."
  • Espresso "Recalls the great W. G. Sebald."
  • NRC Handelsblad "War and Turpentine is a masterfully written story of a dramatic life, a piece of Ghent family history, and a tribute to Hertmans' mysterious grandfather. . . . Beautiful."
  • Humo "A masterpiece."
  • De Groene Amsterdammer "An unvarnished and moving tribute to [Hertmans'] grandfather."
  • Alias "A wide domestic fresco which retraces Flanders' spiritual geography, straddling between two worlds: the world of honor and innocence and the world of the horrors of war."
  • Dagblad De Limburger "War and Turpentine is literature at its best: giving voice to the voiceless."
  • Noordhollands Dagblad "A loving memorial. Hertmans paints in words, each one carefully weighed, with sublime composition and stylistic ingenuity."
  • Il Manifesto "A successful mix of memoir and fiction."
  • Kirkus "Using the methods of narrative collage. . . and affectionate detective work--the writer evokes his grandfather's life in full: his impecunious childhood, early work at a relative's smithy and then at a foundry that left his back scarred by red-hot tailings, his asthmatic painter-father's early death, his grotesque experiences in the trenches interspersed with hospital stays during the war. . . . The book is especially eloquent and persuasive about the role that art--especially painting but also music and, by extension, narrative--played in Urbain's life and in the life of the grandson who is his visitant and scribe and portraitist. And Ghent as setting is beautifully portrayed, too. Hertmans provides a richly detailed excavation of a life and a thoughtful exploration of familial memory."
  • Library Journal "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."
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    Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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A Novel
Stefan Hertmans
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