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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Sunday, June 11, 2017

A novel whose every sentence is worthy of our attention: War & Turpentine

I'm impressed and captivated by the opening pages of Stefan Hertmans's novel War & Turpentine - suspect it's recent not sure of it's pub date in the Netherlands but the David McKay translation English-language v. published 2016. The novel is a portrait of the 90-year-life of a World War (I) veteran and devoted amateur artist (hence, the title), as seen through one remove, as the narrator is the artist's grandson, who, in the 1980s, is trying to tell the story of his grandfather's life through his own recollections and through documents, including a draft of a memoir, his grandfather left behind. So we get a blend of Proustian narrative recollections - notably, for one example, the opening segment in which the narrator recalls his childhood image of his grandfather on the beach, dressed in black, with an old-fashioned black bow tie, in a chair, feet immersed in the wet sand - I know this doesn't sound like much, but it's such a precise and vivid recollection that we know from the outset we're in the hands of a fine writer (and translator, for that matter). There are some beautiful (and informative) passages on his grandfather's work in oils (and of his great-grandfather's work as a restorer on church frescoes - is this an homage to Carr's A Month in the Country?), as well as one short tour-de-force section in which the narrator reflects on the changes in the world from his grandfather's birth till his death. The heart of the matter seems to be the grandfather's service in the World War; there are hints and includes about the trauma of that time, but we have not yet (50 pp.) truly opened that section of the grandfather's life; there also are hints about an early marriage that left him a widow - I don't quite have a handle yet on the chronology or the players - and I believe part of the beauty of this novel will be that as we learn of the grandfather's life we also will learn more about the life of the narrator (who may be a representation of the author at a younger life stage?). It's by no means a novel of action and fast pace (the war scenes may change that), but it's a novel in which every sentence is graceful - like an artist's brush-strokes, if you will - and worthy or our attention.

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