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 live and live merely because we are breathing, as long as it lasts.
Before the Booker International long-list came out earlier this year I hadn’t heard of Stefan Hertmans but I immediately added some of the finalists, including this novel, to my ever growing to-read list as soon as the news came out. I heard so many positive things about it in the months that followed but resisted getting myself a copy until I went to the library to collect Silkworm a week or two ago and it just happened to be prominently displayed on the neighbouring shelf. Obviously it was destiny.
It took me a little while to get through War & Turpentine; not because it’s a particularly dense book but because it soon became clear that this was one worth taking my time over. It’s a strange novel that seems to straddle a couple of genres but essentially it’s based on the memories of the writer’s grandfather, Urbain Martein, which were written down in three notebooks in the later years of his life. The notebooks were passed to Hertmans on Martein’s death but not read until three decades later. In the first and last parts of the novel Hertmans combs over his grandfather’s life and work pre- and post-war: a poor childhood in Ghent, his father’s career restoring frescoes in churches, his early training in an iron foundry, art school, love, marriage and eventual death. Cutting through Hertman’s story is Urbain’s personal account of his experiences in the Great War, as they were written down in painstaking detail many years later. This is the backbone of the novel and its looming presence colours everything you read before and after.
It’s a little difficult to tell where the line between fiction and memoir really lies here, particularly because Hertmans illustrates his story with images of his grandfather’s sketches, paintings by the great masters he loved and photographs of the places he knew. I think this might be one of the things I liked most about this novel though. It’s almost like Hertmans deliberately allows the edges between art and real life to become a bit blurred because, for his grandfather, they were part of the same story. It occasionally makes for some quite painful reading but in amongst the poverty of Urbain’s childhood and the grim horror of the trenches Hertmans shines a light on moments that have the power to both devastate you and uplift you at the same time. One short scene, which takes place in a small dockyard church while Urbain is in Liverpool recovering from wounds received at the front, made me quite emotional and I found myself blinking back tears and swearing at myself to keep it together at least until I was in a less public place. Hertman really touchingly shows all the brutal inhumanity of the world (a description of a gelatine factory will make your eyes water) alongside the wondrous and the beautiful: Urbain’s paintings, his mother, his short love affair, the Liverpool church, the beautiful landscape surrounding the battlefields, the sight of animals escaping the warefare… It’s a sad novel really but the contrasts give it a kind of hopefulness.
Hertman’s skill as a poet is evident here in the touchingly lyrical language. It’s so finely crafted it feels almost like a delicate work of art in itself. I really enjoyed this.