Author(s): Stefan Hertmans
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-nineteenth-century Belgium, by horrific experiences on the frontlines during the First World War and by the loss of the young love of his life. He sublimated his grief in the silence of painting.
Drawing on these diary entries, his childhood memories and the stories told within Urbain’s paintings, Hertmans has produced a poetic novelisation of his grandfather’s story, brought to life with great imaginative power and vivid detail.
War and Turpentine is an enthralling search for a life that coincided with the tragedy of a century—and a posthumous, almost mythical attempt to give that life a voice at last.
Stefan Hertmans has published novels, short-story collections, essays and poetry. In 1995 he was awarded the three-yearly Flemish poetry prize. He has also received two nominations for the VSB Poetry Prize. His most recent novel, The Hidden Tissue, received unanimous praise.
‘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.’ Sunday Express
‘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.’ Herald
‘A masterly treatise on the interconnections of life, art, memory, and heartbreaking love...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.’ Publishers Weekly
‘Wonderful, full of astonishingly vivid moments of powerful imagery...[Hertmans] brilliantly captures the intractable reality of a complex man...I thought I’d had enough of books about the First World War; I couldn’t have been more wrong.’ Sunday Times
‘Every detail has the heightened luminosity of poetry...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...War and Turpentine has all the markings of a future classic.’ Guardian
‘A gritty yet melancholy account of war and memory and art that may remind some readers of the work of the German writer W. G. Sebald...Urbain Martien was a man of another time. This serious and dignified book is old-fashioned, too, in the pleasant sense that it seems built to last.’ New York Times
‘[Hertmans] recreates the lives and losses of the deceased with enormous empathy and skill... Like many family dramas, this is a work that veers between sense and sentimentality. It is in many ways an old-fashioned book, and pleasingly so... It is sympathetic remembrance, shaped into lasting elegy.’ Australian
‘A lovingly reimagined life of an ordinary man whose life was forever marked by the first world war. Fine prose from a Flemish-Belgian poet and essayist.’ Best Books of 2016, Australian Financial Review
‘‘Reminiscent of WG Sebald, this intoxicating hybrid of a book combines memoir with fiction...This beautiful and cunning book is the result of that transformation.’ Dominic Smith, Best Books of 2016, Australian
‘A lovingly reimagined life of an ordinary man whose life was for ever marked by the first world war.’ Best Books of 2016, Economist
‘A thought-provoking novel...He comes at the subject in ways that acknowledge the difficulties of remembering.’ NZ Listener