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

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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Part II of Hertmans's War and Turpentine and the Tolstoy theory of warfare

Part II, the second half, of Stefan Hertman's War and Turpentine is centered on the war years, in this case 1914-18 - and a smart decision that is. The first half, much of which was about the art of painting, was the "turpentine" of the title, obviously. Turpentine is a great metaphor, by the way - a thinning and cleansing agent - as if the act of writing a biography of his grandfather in some way cleans the soul of the narrator/author. By using the first half of the novel to tell the grandfather's back story - the struggles of his childhood, the early death of his father, his difficult work in an iron foundry, his initial interest in painting, his rather severe personality as an old man, at least as seen from the grandson's perspective - all make us care more deeply and understand more fully the war experiences. He's in one sense just a typical, ordinary soldier conscripted to fight on the first World War - an everyman - but because of the extraordinary first section of the novel we know the full arc of his life, he's a vivid and vital character for us as we enter into the war years. As expected, the scenes of battle are precise and terrifying: the 20-year-old Urbain is conscripted, ordered to report for duty in the town square along with other conscripts on about 10 minutes' notice - and then they are transported to the front, somewhere in Belgium, and then, after interminable waits typical of military movements, sent directly to the front. Hertmans captures the terror of battle as well as any writer - the scents, the lack of information, the smashing sound of guns bigger than any they'd ever seen or heard of, the dead and wounded being carted back to the base camp as the soldiers advance toward the front and probable death. Hertmans is in the Tolstoy tradition when it comes to warfare: battles aren't won by brilliant leadership and strategy, as warfare is chaotic and unpredictable, but rather by the personal strength and valor of individual soldiers - war as seen from the combatants point of view. We will also see how the experience of warfare shaped (or distorted) the surviving soldier's view of life - and by extension, how the war affected an entire generation and culture - and truly ambitious novel that is sharp and poignant in every scene.

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