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

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Monday, June 12, 2017

The surprisingly powerful War and Turpentine worth reading for many reasons and on many levels

Stefan Hertmans's 2013 novel (Engl-lang v from David McKay 2016), War and Turpentine, continues to be a terrific literary work. It seems like it may be a memoir or a personal biography - in which the (unnamed?)_ narrator tells the life story of his grandfather Urbain, based on his own recollections and on a manuscript that the grandfather left behind. This could just as easily be a fictional memoir about his actual grandfather - or it may be entirely fictional (it is published as a novel), and it really doesn't matter how we take it because it's not precisely a story about a single man but about an entire culture and an epoch. We learn early on that the grandfather served in the first World War and that the trench warfare and his various war wounds and periods of recovery were the formative events in his life - but  1/3 through the novel we are not at those events yet, they are like a dark hole around which all of the energy and materials of the novel swirl, eventually to be sucked in and consumed, I believe. What Hertmans focuses on so far is his grandfather's work as a painter, a copyist of world masterpieces, a passion that for him is a pasttime when his is declared a disabled war invalid; Urbain's father, however (narrator's great-grandfather) was a painter who restored church frescoes, who died in his late 30s leaving the family of six in extreme poverty. Among many other topics in this novel we see  the indifference of the church to a highly skilled craftsmen - eager to hire him at what must be low wages while he's healthy, and once he's gone they wash their hands of him. There are some truly amazing and outstanding passages throughout this surprisingly engaging novel, of particular note the grandfather's visit to the gelatin works (unforgettable images of the piles of animal heads swarming with blue flies and maggots), the great-grandfather's strange return to the village after months spent working on a church in Liverpool; the painful and lonely death of the great-grandfather and his widow's ensuing depression; the breaking of the family heirloom timepiece; and, on a much lighter note, the account of the grandfather's art lessons and his obsession and frustration with drawing lines. For the technical knowledge (especially about painting and restoration) alone this novel is worth reading, but there's so much more - a cultural critique, a family drama, a meditation on the nature of memoir and biography, an evocation of time and place - Proustian, but even more so in the tradition of Sebald (use of personal photos, albeit not as mysterious as the junk-shop photos that Sebald uses to work in concert with this writing) - and we haven't yet gotten to the material on service in the war.

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