WAR AND TURPENTINE
By Stefan Hertmans
Translated by David McKay
Not since reading W. G. Sebald’s “The Rings of Saturn” have I been so taken with a demonstration of the storytelling confluence of fiction and nonfiction. I say “confluence” because Stefan Hertmans, like Sebald, is interested in the places where narrative authority, invention and speculation flow together. “War and Turpentine” affords the sensory pleasures of a good novel while also conveying the restlessness of memoir through its probing, uncertain narrator, who raids the family pantry in search of existential meaning.
Hertmans has no shortage of material to pluck from his ancestral cupboards. In 1981, his maternal grandfather, Urbain Martien, a painter who served in the Belgian Army in World War I, gave him 600 pages of notebooks, a chronicle of growing up in Ghent, of his experiences as a soldier, an artist and a husband. Martien was 90 when he entrusted these reminiscences to his grandson; he died a few months later. For 30 years, Hertmans resisted reading the notebooks, sensing that transforming them into a coherent narrative would require an unusual degree of devotion and responsibility. “But time pressed harder than ever,” he confesses, “and somewhere in my head the idea had lodged that I must finish the job before the centennial of the Great War, his war. My struggle with his memories.”
The result of this struggle is a masterly book about memory, art, love and war. Hertmans is a Belgian novelist, poet and essayist who writes in Dutch, and in “War and Turpentine” he has found a way to meld the various strands of his professional prowess into a unified whole. David McKay, meanwhile, provides an artful translation of the book into English.
Dividing his work into three parts, Hertmans floats through the first and third sections as an essayist and imagist, interpreting the notebooks and visiting the sites that shaped his grandfather’s development as a man and an artist. He grapples, conjectures, chronicles and evokes. But in the middle section, he sets this machinery aside and writes in an immersive, first-person voice, channeling his grandfather from the trenches of World War I. Where Hertmans’s narrative style is precise, speculative and philosophical, the manner he adopts for his grandfather’s voice is immediate, earnest and colloquial. To his credit, Hertmans never makes Urbain sound like a writer pretending to be a soldier.
Seeing a man’s life unfold and hover from these different vantage points — across time, from within and from without — yields a tender, many-sided portrait. We encounter Urbain as the son of a church muralist, observing his father as he plies his painterly trade, working from his pearwood box of pigments, knives and brushes, and we feel the boy’s slow-kindling desire to make art for himself. We watch Urbain go to work in a foundry in Ghent, then head off to military school before being conscripted in the early days of the German invasion of Belgium in the summer of 1914.
Hertmans is particularly adept at rendering the olfactory world of Urbain’s boyhood, of Flanders at the cusp of the 20th century, giving us a tannery with its “tenacious stench,” the “penetrating odor of old wood and damp sackcloth” in the shops, a “closed courtyard” that “smelled of brussels sprout trimmings, horse manure scraped off the streets and drying tobacco leaves.” Urbain’s sensibility, beautifully captured and imagined, is never far from these evocations: “Describing his own grandmother, born in the first quarter of the 19th century, he said that her black apron — he called it a pinafore — smelled like the offal of young rabbits.”
Hertmans’s own interpretive and descriptive powers are also never far away. He stands in front of a building where his grandfather might have worked as a tailor’s delivery boy, coaxing the past to life. Elsewhere, he absorbs a painting in a London gallery, retracing the passages in one of Urbain’s copies of a masterwork. Hertmans also knows when to pull back and enlarge the frame, when to provide an astute portrait of the aging painter as the survivor of wartime horrors: “His grand passions were treetops, clouds and folds in fabric. In these formless forms he could let go, lose himself in a dream world of light and dark, in clouds congealed in oil paint, chiaroscuro, a world where nobody else could intrude, because something — it was hard to say what — had broken inside him.”
Although “War and Turpentine” includes the publisher’s vouchsafe “This is a work of fiction,” we’re beguiled into a sense of its utter truthfulness. Whether that truth is documentary or dramatic (and carefully constructed) is a question this reader occasionally wrestled with, but mostly set aside. I experienced Hertmans’s book in the crosscurrents of rendered image, historical fact and narrative design, aware that some aspects of it were being curated and invented but feeling incapable of assessing the relative proportions. I was powerless to resist their combined spell.
Arranged throughout these pages are black-and-white photographs of paintings (like Rembrandt’s “The Slaughtered Ox”), objects (like a dead relative’s headstone) and people (like Urbain Martien and his wife sitting on a hillside). Some of these images have a corresponding credit at the end of the book, but many are uncredited. “All other images,” we are simply told, are “from the author’s personal collection.”
Images and diagrams don’t often work in fiction or memoir because they can seem forced and unenlightening, as if the author needed to deploy a set of visuals to make up for a lack of evocative writing. But here, as with Sebald, these pictures rush at the reader like spectral images of a lost world, a world that’s being constructed for us in the act of telling, as the narrator presides and conjures. I often had the sense of Hertmans pacing across a floor with a sheaf of family photographs in hand, laying out one at a time as he wrestled with his ancestral demons.
One of the triumphs of “War and Turpentine” is that the style of delivery is perfectly suited to its central concerns — the flux of memory and the unspooling of a human life. The telling is mostly episodic and fragmentary, imbued with startling images and powerful associative leaps. Objects loom as they become talismans and ciphers. The tenses flow into one another, the distant past into the pounding present, the declarations of known history with the floating inscrutability of human emotions. Why did that headstone end up in a crawl space under the family home? What is that expression on Urbain’s face as he stares beyond the lens of the camera in a particular photograph? The proposed answers, as well as the elegant way we arrive at them, are at the heart of what keeps us reading.
At one point, Hertmans writes, “Places are not just space, they are also time.” The same is true of novels. In the course of reading them, time uncoils and folds back on itself, revealing patterns and motifs when we look at them in a certain light. It’s this confluence of forces that moves the reader forward. In a world of novels with overdetermined, linear plotlines — their chapters like so many boxcars on a freight train — “War and Turpentine” delivers a blast of narrative fresh air.