Stefan Hertmans’ latest novel, War and Turpentine, published August 2013, is a huge success wordlwide. It is based on some notebooks of his grandfather, containing memoirs of the First World War, written down when he was a man of over seventy. They also contain a breathtaking account of a youth in Ghent in the industrial era before 1900, and show a boy growing up in poverty, with a father who was a fresco painter, and an awe-inspiring mother who had a deep influence on his outlook on life. He works in the iron foundry from his 13th on, enrolls in the Military Academy in 1908, and is sent to war in August 1914. What follows is a minute account of these terrible years, seen through the eyes of a Flemish, catholic, sensitive young man. He gets wounded five times, recovers in Liverpool (where he discovers a secret about his father, who died young from pneumonia), and gets back to the trenches time and again.
After the war he meets his great passion, a proud young woman, who dies of the Spanish Flu in 1919. It is the moment of total catastrophe to him. He is asked to marry her frigid, eldest sister. Again he obeys and does what appears to be his duty.
From then on, he leads the life of a silent painter, copying the great painters such as Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Velazquez.
His grandson, Stefan Hertmans, not only tells the story of this amazing life in a fantastic style and rhythm, but also discovers some amorous secrets hidden in paintings which at first sight seemed to be mere copies.
War and Turpentine is a unique acocunt of a disappeared but rich history of Flanders, a novel about a hidden passion, but also a novel about what war could do with the soul of a humble, fascinating man.
Simon Schama in The New York Times:
“ staggering richness of language; brutal, deep, haunting. Mesmerising from page one, which has the painter-grandfather formally dressed complete with billowing bow tie, sitting on a Belgian beach; later a descent into the hell of World War I. If you think you’ve had enough of the muddy gore of Flanders Fields, believe me you haven’t, not until you’ve read this book”.
‘The perceptive Hertmans has given voice not only to his
grandfather but to an entire generation.’ **** – de volkskrant
‘With War and Turpentine Stefan Hertmans has written
one of the most moving books of the year.’ ***** – de standaard
‘It’s a masterpiece.’ **** – Humo
Stefan Hertmans (1951) was born in Ghent, one of the three main towns in Flanders, the northern, Dutch speaking part of Belgium.
He was professor of art criticism, aesthetics and text analysis at University College Ghent (Ph. D. on Hölderlin and Greek Tragedy) till 2010. His course has been published as ‘Waarover men niet spreken kan’, Academia Press 2010³. Visiting professor Ghent University 2012-2013, Arts & Philosophy (Theatre studies).
He has published six novels, two volumes of short stories, eight volumes of essays on literature and philosophy, an autobiographical book on contemporary urban problems, and some fourteen volumes of poetry. He received numerous prizes and nominations for his work.