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War and Turpentine

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  9,764 ratings  ·  1,017 reviews
Shortly before his death in 1981, Stefan Hertmans' grandfather gave him a couple of filled exercise books. Stories he’d heard as a child had led Hertmans to suspect that their contents might be disturbing, and for years he didn’t dare to open them.

When he finally did, he discovered unexpected secrets. His grandfather’s life was marked by years of childhood poverty in late-
Paperback, 304 pages
Published July 18th 2016 by Text Publishing (first published September 2nd 2013)
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Edward Irons Like so much writing, it is a mixture. I read it as a memoire where the author recreated the gaps. I assumed he actually did receive his grandfather's…moreLike so much writing, it is a mixture. I read it as a memoire where the author recreated the gaps. I assumed he actually did receive his grandfather's journal. Was that not the case?(less)
Jazz I think a literal translation of the sentence might read something like this:

“It is in itself a not so interesting, rather anecdotal work, but it is…more
I think a literal translation of the sentence might read something like this:

“It is in itself a not so interesting, rather anecdotal work, but it is (painterly) virtuosic.”

In the first American edition, the same sentence, in David McKay’s translation, appears as:

“It’s not an especially gripping piece, but despite its anecdotal, sentimental quality, it shows the hand of a master painter.” (p. 260)

Now here’s the sentence in context:

“He also made successful copies of other well-known works around that time — such as an odd portrait of a boy with two leashed hounds by Jan Erasmus Quellinus II. The child poses in a showy, girlish outfit: a frilly, shimmering blue and pink dress. It’s not an especially gripping piece, but despite its anecdotal, sentimental quality, it shows the hand of a master painter. My grandfather may have chosen this typical product of the Antwerp Baroque simply because of the technical challenge involved in painting the iridescent fabric (and perhaps because of his own girlishness as a little boy, which he sometimes joked about; in the nineteenth century, boys were often dressed as girls until they were toilet trained, because a dress saved some dirty laundry). . . .”

If the question is whether this sentence describes the novel “War and Turpentine” in microcosm, then I don’t agree because it doesn’t quite make sense to me.(less)

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Average rating 3.91  · 
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Une Beauté Douloureux en Flandres

The more time passes from reading this book, the more I appreciate its dolorous beauty as a reflection on art and war, and memory and love. While I saw this as a decent 4 four years ago, I now see five stars in an iridescent visual collage of captivating and haunting splendour.

In 1981, the Belgian author Stefan Hertmans' 90-year-old Flemish maternal grandfather, Urbain Martien, gave him two large notebooks he had written in the prior
Non-chronological story set for the most part in Ghent, Belgium, and jumping to selected periods between the birth of the narrator's grandfather in the late 1890s up to the recent past. The unnamed narrator loves his grandfather, whose impoverished childhood and time in the trenches of World War 1 have marked his 90 years on earth irrevocably. A painter, he took his grandson, with whom he was close, everywhere.

The novel reminds me in the early going of Thomas Bernhard's phenomenal Gathering Evi
Roger Brunyate
May 28, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: art, ww1, bildungsroman
A War Fresco in a Fractured Frame

War and Turpentine is the author's ostensible* attempt to write a life of his grandfather, a Belgian soldier in the First World War and an amateur painter all his life, "tossed back and forth between the soldier he had to be and the artist he'd wished to become" [emphasis mine]. But Stefan Hertmans never succeeds in defining that "and" connecting the two. In round numbers, we have Turpentine (150 pages), then War (100), then Turpentine again (50). Though intermi
Oct 15, 2013 rated it liked it
I'm always sceptic when I start reading a much acclaimed book, because the high expectations usually turn out to be counterproductive. In this case I have to say that it is not too bad, although the book is certainly not the masterpiece that one makes of it.

"War and turpentine" is limping on different legs, and that is where my problem lies. In the first place it's a portrait of the author's grandfather, Urbain Martien, and a family chronicle. Hertmans reconstructs the life of his grandfather on
Jul 08, 2016 rated it liked it
The author, Stefan Hertmans, is a well-known Flemish poet. Apparently there is some debate over how much of his book, “War and Turpentine”, is fictional and how much is true. Indeed, the main character in the book, Urbain Martien, is the author’s grandson and he did bequeath his memoirs to him, which took Hertmans 30 years before reading. When questioned, the author has said that he only lightly edited his grandfather’s memoir. And yet it isn’t advertised as a memoir.

The book starts out with Tur
Joy D
This work of historical fiction is based on the life of the author’s grandfather, Belgian artist Urbain Martien (1891 – 1981). Martien, the son of an artist, grew up in Ghent in a poor family, fought at the battlefront in the Great War, suffered the loss of loved ones, and turned to art for healing. He meticulously copied the masters and wrote in his journals. He exhibited the values and traditions of the nineteenth century while dealing with tumultuous changes of the twentieth. He struggled wit ...more
Bob Brinkmeyer
Jan 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is a fabulous book--complex, rich, wise, and beautifully written and translated. It's not a page turner in terms of plot and pacing; it's more like a single malt that one savors and later calls to mind in quiet, thoughtful moments. Put simply, War and Turpentine is the real deal, a masterpiece. ...more
Dec 18, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: translations
I know many of us have family members who went to war and lost parts of themselves there, leaving us only with letters or journals to try to piece those years together.
While sections of the book are disjointed and didn't flow well, overall it was an interesting & touching tribute to the author' grandfather and his great grandparents.
The WW1 section written in the first person was vivid and powerful. Urbain's relationships with his parents and the role of art & music in their lives was also bea
Paul Fulcher
Apr 08, 2017 rated it it was ok
In my most distant memory of my grandfather, he is on the beach at Ostend
What he sees is something like a James Ensor painting set in motion, although he despises true work of that Ostend blasphemer with the English name. Ensor is a 'dauber', and along with 'toss-pot' and 'riff-raff', 'dauber' is the worst accusation he can make. They're all daubers today painters; they've completely lost touch with the classical tradition, the subtle, novel craft of the old masters. They muddle along with
Jul 05, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The "battle between the transcendent" and the "memory of death and destruction" is eloquently shared through the life of Urbain Martien, the author's grandfather, in War and Turpentine, a book called a "future classic" by the Guardian.

Thirty years after inheriting his grandfather's papers Stefan Hertmans finally read the memoirs. Urbain's early life in poverty drove him into the Ghent steel mills as a teenager. Then came the sudden epiphany that he, like his father who restored church murals, mu
Shawn Mooney (Shawn The Book Maniac)
Bailed a fifth of the way in. This is not really a novel at all – it's a rather dry memoir with sections that go on and on that are more like essayistic musings on Belgian history and culture with little about the main characters at all. What little there was of an actual story was moderately interesting, about a grandfather who'd been a painter of sorts. What I couldn't endure was the feeling of watching paint dry while reading this. ...more
Kasa Cotugno
Nearing his death in 1981, Urbain Martien presented his grandson with two notebooks about his early life in Belgium. It took Stefan Hertmans 30 years before he could address the material contained therein, resulting in this magnificent book. The first third deals with growing up in Ghent in extreme poverty, son of a restorer of frescos, a beloved father afflicted with asthma, who dies young, leaving the legacy of a love of art. When still in his teens, Martien attends four years of military scho ...more
Leo Walsh
Jun 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans is wonderful secondhand "memoir," with the grandson sharing his own grandfather's handwritten memoirs of his life in Belgium from the turn of the 20th century through WW I. Parts verge on "novelisation" of the source material, which engages readers. Like Michael Chabon in Moonglow, Hertmans often tries to live-through his great grandfather, grandfather and father.

I found the most remarkable parts of War and Turpentine were his laying bare the disruptive inf
Jan 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
War and Turpentine is simply one of the finest books to come out this decade, and I want to be an evangelist for this beautifully translated memoir/novel hybrid. It's the story of the author's grandfather, who was born in 1890, was a soldier in World War I (which provides the centerpiece for the novel), and lived into his 90s. The book is both a tribute to a now fully-expired generation that many of us remember and a meditation on exactly how we know what we know about the people who have left u ...more
War and Turpentine is superlative. The final section with its discoveries and emotion is powerful and even stupendous. The middle forms the heart of the story, and the whole thing —minding a few awkward moments— is wonderfully written and imagined and imparted.

To write the book the author, a Flemish poet, relied on journals entrusted to him by his grandfather, an amateur painter whose life was upended by war and the illnesses that took his father and his betrothed. I was interested in War and T
Every so often, I find myself profoundly affected by a novel. This is one of those instances.
The imagery Stefan Hertmans conjures up in War and Turpentine left an indelible impression upon me.

When I read of the grandson dropping the gold watch, I cried aloud in dismay; when reading of the heartless, severe treatment, the grandfather received at the hands of French officers, I was at once reminded of Cobb’s Paths of Glory.
The tradition, respect and altruism of a bygone age struck a chord with
Sotiris Karaiskos
A different book, something between historical novel, biography and memoirs. The author tries to combine different sources to write his grandfather's story that has had a great impact on his life. Two notebooks filled with memories in the last decades of his life become the basis for this work, his grandfather writes about life in Belgium before the First World War, his difficult childhood years in conditions of great poverty, his loving parents, his attempt to help his family, his participation ...more
Apr 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
"Franciscus bought everything he needed, sending an errand boy . . . to fetch an order of expensive pigment. He measured, sifted, dosed, blended, diluted, experimented, and refined until he had the right mixture. He made trial brushstrokes on some boards he had sawn for that purpose and compared, deliberated, started over. . . . Lying on his back, he painted the ceiling: a jumble of clouds and windblown robes, of streamers and vague faces, a divine epiphany that brought heavenly music to mind, t ...more
Aug 28, 2016 rated it really liked it
Although my edition of War and Turpentine is published by Text Publishing right here in Melbourne, its release had somehow passed me by and it was listening to a Radio National interview with its Flemish author Stefan Hertmans which piqued my interest in the book. As the author, explaining his delay in dealing with his grandfather’s memoirs, says himself…

the hundredth anniversary of the cataclysm would release a flood of books – a new barrage alongside the almost unscaleable mountain of existing
Feb 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It is a fine book. So many emotions evoked across these various lives and experiences. While the scenes of Aubain's youth and war service are stomach-turning at times, there is just as much beauty. I especially liked the depictions of various kinds of love, between parent and child, disappointed lover and wife, intense romantic love, and between grandparent and grandchild.

If you read The Guns of August and wondered what it would have been like as a soldier or civilian as the German army invaded
Dec 08, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Translated from the Dutch by David McKay (2016); named one of New York Times 10 Best Books of 2016.
Flemish author Hertmans was repeatedly exposed to his grandfather’s WWI battle stories in his youth, so was ‘less than excited’ to inherit the 600 pages of these memoirs, jammed into two large notebooks, upon his grandfather’s death. Born in 1891, Urbain Martien miraculously lived for 90 years. But it took Hertmans 30 years before he opened these notebooks and appreciated just what they contained.
Sep 21, 2016 rated it it was ok
I was in this sort of a bookshop-slash-giftshop place when I saw something both very familiar and very uncanny. It was a history book on "The Great War", such as I've seen many times before, but there was something wrong about it. Instead of a group of smiling ANZACs doing it tough for King and Country in their khaki collarless shirts and misshapen slouch hats, posing in a trench for the camera, it was a group of unsmiling men looking very serious in blue uniforms and weird helmets, posing in a ...more
Following the excellent example of The Sorrow of Belgium Stefan Hertmans successfully combines the political and the personal in this 3-part work; the first and third parts being purely nonfictional renderings of his search into the biography of his grandfather, whereas the middle part is a fictionalized account of the life of a Belgian combat soldier in the trenches of WW I, roughly based on the detailed diary of the same grandfather. The appendix explains which true events and persons have bee ...more
Jan 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
A historical fiction novel about WWI based heavily on the found journals of the author's grandfather (Urbain), describing his life growing up in Holland, fighting in WWI, and his lifelong love of painting. He followed in his own father's footsteps, who was a "lowly" church painter, touching up frescos as Urbain was growing up and sitting with him, watching and helping.

There were some grindingly boring passages where the author is slowly sifting through piles of his grandfather's belongings, and
I have not read such a gorgeously written book in a long time. The images which Stefan Hertmans paint for us, brilliantly translated by David McKay, are as clear in my mind as if I had watched them on film. From my mind, though, they become seared on my heart until I must put down the book for a brief respite.

This story is a vivid re-imagining of the narrator’s grandfather, a man with the birth and death dates exactly matching those of my maternal grandfather: (1891-1981) “as though the numbers
James Murphy
Dec 27, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I suppose War and Turpentine will be the last novel I finish this year. It's fitting that such a fine novel will be one of the ways I'll probably come to define my experiencing 2016.

War and Turpentine has been compared to the novels of W. G. Sebald. It looks like a Sebald novel on the page, the scattering of photographs, the blocky paragraphs building page on page without dialogue so that they serve as meditation and memory. Stefan Hertmans has written the life of his grandfather Urbain Martien
Apr 02, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2017, 2017-mbi
This book is a loving tribute from a grandson to his grandfather. I read that the grandfather left his notebooks to his grandson who left them untouched for 30 years until the upcoming centenary of the First World War reminded him of his grandfather's stories and prompted him to look at the books.

I'm not generally good with books about war. I find the suffering in them hard to read. This book is no exception to that. It has some horrendous scenes. One of the things I liked about this particular
Apr 09, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, translation
we turn tough and get sentimental; we laugh as we cry; our life's a waking slumber, a slumberous wake; we quarrel with our arms around each other; we lash out at each other while shrugging our shoulders; no part of our bodies or minds remains intact; we breathe as long as we live, and live merely because we are breathing, as long as it lasts.
stefan hertmans's war and turpentine (oorlog en terpentijn) is a tale inspired by the life of the flemish author's grandfather. while much of this melan
Jul 04, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: first-reads, fiction
I received this book through First Readers program.
It's a memoir intertwined with another memoir. A silent dialogue between grandfather and his grandson. A journey that starts at the end of 19th century and goes until our days. A journey through art, family affairs and war.
Mar 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
A beautiful memoir that seamlessly blends non-fiction with fiction to create and retell the experience of one man who was a true survivor of WW1 on the western front. This is a gentle heartfelt tribute acknowledging the tragedy of lost youth.
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Stefan Hertmans is a Flemish Belgian author, poet and essayist. He is the author of a literary and essayistic oeuvre - including poetry, novels, essays, plays, short stories. His poetry has been translated into various languages and he has taught at the Ghent Secondary Art Institute and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent. He has given lectures at the Sorbonne University, the universities of V ...more

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