War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans (translated by David McKay): Man Booker Long List 2017

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 played leapfrog with each other.” From two notebooks of handwritten memoirs he  reconstructs his grandfather’s life, and thus creates a more complete understanding of his own.

When his grandfather comes down the stairs to present him with a gold pocket watch, the grandson has no way of knowing what a precious gift it is. The story of this watch, passed from generation to generation before it was passed to him, was yet unknown. When it slipped from his grasp, and broke into bits minutes within receiving it, he had no way of knowing the places it had been in his grandfather’s pocket. Or, in his grandfather’s life.

And I broke it, an heirloom that was nearly an antique when he was young. What could he have done with the shattered pieces? A man walks by with a panting Doberman straining at the leash; I hear pigeons cooing. It’s too late now for the remorse that holds me helpless in its grip.

(How well I remember my grandmother giving me the pearl earrings she wore for her own wedding day, and several months later asking me how I liked them. I had to tell her that I had felt my ears one day, to find that one was missing. She looked at me for awhile, but never once scolded me, before she said, “These things happen.” What memories of hers were lost with my carelessness?)

War and Turpentine tells of his grandfather’s life, from these small experiences as a young boy, to an adolescent who works a grown man’s job in an iron foundry, to his enlistment in World War I, to seeing the woman he wants to marry in an upstairs window behind his house. Before he can marry her she dies of pneumonia, and he bravely marries her elder sister, for he is a man who

…seemed to possess no egotism, conceit, or self-importance, but only an instinctive eagerness to be of service, a quality that made him both a hero and a first-class chump.

The narrative of this man, who was “tossed back and forth between the soldier he had to be and the artist he’d wished to become” became a tool for me to think back on my own family, my own history, and the hunger I often feel for time gone by.

Consider this snippet of a quote:

“…if you praise a simple fellow like that, it’ll only go to his head, and he’ll stop applying himself.”

How heartily my teachers, and even some members of my family, adhered to that sentiment! It has caused me to work unceasingly for praise, and when I became a mother, to render it too easily to my own son.

And now, perhaps you’re wondering about the inclusion of the painting by the cover of the book? It is Velazquez’s Venus at Her Mirror, known as the Rokeby Venus. But, Urbain Martien has repainted it, and unbeknownst to him is discovered by his grandson crying over the portrait. For the face which he has painted on the Venus is that of Maria Emelia, the one woman whom he truly loved, the one woman with whom the life he desired was denied. She brackets the beginning of the story, as well as the end, and lies in the shadows of all the pages in between.

Find more reviews at Tony’s Reading List, Messenger’s Booker, and ANZ Litlovers Lit Blog.

War and Turpentine by Sefan Hertmans
Translated from the Dutch by David McKay
Published August 9, 2016
304 pages

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16 comments

    1. That is a small part of the story, but I wrote of two personal connections I had to this book. It has hard to convey the beauty and strength of Hertmans’ writing. I’m sure if you read it yourself you will find many places to which you connect as well.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It is not a long book by any means, and yet I took at least three days with it. (How does Stu read so fast?!) Each day was worth it, though, it was not a book I wanted to rush through. I had to hold each sentence for awhile before moving on. I hope you feel a similar respect for it, that you enjoy it as I did.

      Now I am on to The Unseen. It, too, has beautiful writing, but of a different kind. What a good long list this year!

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  1. This sounds beautiful.
    It must have been so sad fir you to have list that earring. Because I’m afraid of things like that I don’t use or wear my mother’s things and that’s sad as well. I think we fear to lose the memory with the things.

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    1. I can surely understand not wearing or using those precious heirlooms. Now I am much more careful, and not so afraid of losing something. But, still there is the fear that it might break! However, what good is it being in the drawer?

      With your passion for war and literature, I know you would love this novel, Caroline. The war bits are not as graphic as some I’ve read in other books, but they are still searing and masterfully written. As is the whole work.

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  2. I am beginning to believe it is not the object (watch or pea l earrings) that really matters but the cherished memory you are handed and entrusted with, when you receive it from a special someone. Things no matter how cherished remain things, but the story in your heart is preserved for life.

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    1. You have a good way of placing the emphasis on where it belongs, and surely the memory is the greatest treasure (along with the gift of sharing one’s life with one’s descendants). How blessed I have been to be a part of this family. The treasure of my lifetime.

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  3. How very odd that you mention the painting on your cover, one that plays an important part in the book, as the Australian published edition (Text Publishers) does not include that painting on the cover, it simply has the Warburg photograph.

    My thoughts on the book are a little different, I think very much because I had no grandfathers (they both died in WW2!!), therefore lacked the relationships that the author & yourself enjoyed.

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    1. Maybe the publishers didn’t want to give away as much as I did in my post. Did it bother you to see the painting and later read its explanation?

      I can see where some readers might be bored by the subject matter, or at the very least not connect, but to me it was also the spectacular writing which caught me up.

      I’m sorry you didn’t like it very much.

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      1. Not at all bothered, I think it’s a great story to tell as it is the bookends to the work. I think the writing is superb and the subject matter very interesting indeed, but being a very personal book it does rely on the reader having similar relationships or memories, having none myself diminished its power somewhat. I didn’t dislike it, it just didn’t “wow” me.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I can completely see that, and actually now that I’m on with another from the long list, I am absolutely entranced with it; War and Turpentine begins to fade. What a stack of books we have! Each one interesting in its own right, and hard to read quickly one after another as they differ so greatly. One does not have the time to dwell in a certain mood the author created for long.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the mention of my review, and in such *smile* distinguished company!
    Re losing a treasured gift: sometimes it seems to me that the loss of something forges the memory with more potency. I received many thoughtful gifts from my parents over the years, but the one I remember best is a ring that my father gave me, because I lost it. I took it off to do the washing up at a friend’s place and forgot about it till the next day, and it wasn’t there. I think it’s the emotion attached to the loss that makes the memory so powerful.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I can absolutely identify with the loss of your ring! Some of the fellow jury panelists felt that this part of the story was trite? Exaggerated? I’m not sure of the correct word to put in here, but they did not seem to understand it as we do.

      Distinguished company, you make me smile. I’m the one in distinguished company! 🙂

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