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

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Powerful concluding section to War and Turpentine

The concluding section (III) in Stefan Hertmans's War and Turpentine resolves the mysteries and uncertainties that SH established at the outset, beginning with the opening scene in which the narrator/author (this novel seems more and more like a memoir or bio of his grandfather, as we read through it - though I appreciate that SH probably took many stylistic and factual liberties and is careful to call this work a novel - it definitely has the major components of a novel - plot, character, literary style, arc of story, design, cultural reference points) introduces his grandfather as an old man, taciturn, austere, rigid, dressed in black w/ a formal old-fashioned bow tie, on a beach beside his wife, feet resting in wet sand. From that first section, in which we learn about the grandfather (Urbain) in his youth, in particular his relationship w/ his father, Frans, an artist, we wonder about a # of things: the mystery of his two marriages, of the two marriages of his mother, of the nature of his own artwork, of his obsession w/ one particular image (a portrait of a half-naked Venus gazing in a mirror). The last section not only resolves and clarifies these issues, but also provides a sorrowful portrait of the grandfather in his post-war years: we see the tragedy he faced, the half-life he settled for in a resigned and obedient manner; the  varied aspects of his personality - heroic at times, at other times the fool - as SH notes; the prejudice against the Flemish and his complete mistreatment by the authorities who provide him w/ a meager pension as a disabled veteran; as well as a final mystery about his painting. The final section is also the most "Sebaldian" in this novel, as the narrator, whom we might as well call SH, visits some of the battlefields where his grandfather fought and the military cemeteries - and is struck by how history has vanished from these sights - construction all around them, new housing, schools, hard to locate on GPS.

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