War and Turpentine, Stefan Hertmans trans. David McKay, Harvill Secker, 2016, £8.99 (paperback)
‘People from the age of Europe’s great catastrophes – how much sense can we make of them today?’This is the rhetorical question posed by the Flemish Belgian writer Stefan Hertmans in War and Turpentine, an affectionate and distinctly Sebaldian biography of his grandfather, Urbain Joseph Emile Martien, who served with distinction in the First World War. Towards the end of his life, Urbain entrusted his grandson with the notebooks containing his memoirs, and Hertmans – already, by this point, a prizewinning literary author – undertook to turn them into a book. War and Turpentine effectively turns ghost-writing on its head: the second of the book’s three parts – the section covering the First World War – is told entirely in Urbain’s first- person voice, while the rest is narrated by Hertmans, drawing heavily from the memoirs but interspersing the biographical narrative with his own reflections and recollections. The book’s title signposts its twin narrative strands: Urbain’s lifelong passion for painting, and the spectre of war that overshadowed his entire life. These comprised, respectively, ‘the battle between the transcendent, which he yearned for, and the memory of death and destruction, which held him in its clutches.’
The chronology begins with Urbain’s earliest recollections of his father, Franciscus, a humble church painter who married a middle-class girl called Céline. Franciscus’s advice to his son was: ‘Do whatever you like with your life, but for God’s sake, don’t start drawing and painting.’ But the boy idolised his father, and when Franciscus returns from a six-month stay in Liverpool – where he had been commissioned to paint church murals – to find his young son has produced a series of impressive sketches, he is reduced to tears. ‘And I miss him more than ever now that I myself am nearing the end,’ writes the elderly Urbain.
The catacysm of the Great War is presaged by a potentous squabble over the Ghent World’s Fair of 1913, which almost falls apart amid Franco-German quarrelling, with the Flemish bourgeoisie and their French counterparts at odds over the running of the show. A year later, Europe was at war. Urbain’s recollections of his time in the trenches are candid and harrowing: he and his men are reduced to a ‘mob of emaciated ghouls’; a German attack is ‘a moving wall of metal, smoke and gunfire’; an enemy regiment hidden in a field is ‘an advancing meadow, noiseless and treacherous.’ ‘It is like the wrath of God, minus God,’ he writes of the arbitrary cruelty of warfare: ‘the hellish pain, the formless horrors that bulge out of the body, the unbearable wailing of the lads in their final moments, their hands on their torn-up bodies as they clutch at their own entrails and moan for their mothers.’
In these pages we get a sense of the old moral order collapsing into bleak, nihilistic savagery. Urbain exemplified an old-fashioned military ethics based on courage, self-discipline, honour and respect, a value system that was jarringly exposed by the brutality of twentieth-century warfare. His account includes instances of base treachery on the part of the Germans: lulling Belgian soldiers out of their trenches by feigning to surrender and then mowing them down; and on one occasion even using a crying little boy to lure a Belgian solider into harm’s way. This kind of thing, together with the collective punishment of mass executions, was unprecedented in modern European warfare: ‘The atrocities and massacres changed the morals, the worldview, the mentality and the manners of that generation for ever.’
Hertmans’s grandfather acquits himself heroically and earns a number of medals and honours. He is wounded so many times that the medical officer at the field hospital quips: ‘You have a subscription, ou quoi?’ He is sent to England three times to convalesce – to Liverpool, Windemere and Port Talbot. Remarkably, during the course of his stay on Merseyside he happens across a painting of St Francis on a church mural in a run-down part of the city: the face of the saint is none other than his father’s; he is certain the mural had been painted by his father, Franciscus, during his stint in Liverpool all those years ago.
As a painter Urbain had a particularly keen eye for nature, and one of the most arresting aspects of his wartime account is the jarring juxtaposition of the everyday normality of the natural world serenely going about its business while man-made carnage was visited upon the landscape. Idyllic rural scenes provide ‘the startling memory of another, improbable life, when a thrush bursts into a song in a mulberry bush or a spring breeze carries the smell of grassy fields from far behind the front line…’ He recalls being amazed, late one night, by the sight of a legion of tiny eels moving, en masse, from a spawning ground in a nearby swamp, ’wriggling through the grass in the silvery light, twisting and glistening, an opaline army in the vast silence of the night.’
The portrait of Urbain that emerges from these pages is of a stolid character, dutiful and determined if instinctively conservative and somewhat prudish. His scathing remarks about Belgian socialists give us a flavour of the schism between the respectable, Catholic working class and the newly emergent scourge of the early twentieth-century, the Reds, whom Urbain disparaged as ‘the rabble’ – envious, vulgar people, many of whom were alcoholics or thugs. (Hertmans reminds us that this was not long after Pope Leo XIII had issued his Rerum Novarum – Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour – encyclical of 1891, which was designed to undercut the socialist movement by co-opting some of its ideas within a framework of religious morality and obedience.) Urbain’s sexual prudery was of a piece with his instinctive conservatism. He recalls an incident during the halcyon pre-war days when, while out walking in the woods, he saw a naked girl emerge from a lake. She looks at him in a friendly way; he legs it. He is out of sorts for days afterwards, telling himself ‘I must be pure, I must be pure.’ Even amid the privations of wartime, he is extremely reluctant to give in to the urge to masturbate, fighting his desires with admirable determination until eventually nature takes matters into her own hands and puts him out of his misery with a wet dream. Many years later, we learn from Hertmans that Urbain will box his daughter on the ear for announcing that she has had her first period: the ‘shamelessness’ of her matter-of-factness is apparently too much for his delicate sensibilities.
After the war comes the singular tragedy of Urbain’s life: the premature death of the love of his life, Maria Emelia, at the hands of tuberculosis. Bizarrely, he elects to marry her dowdy, unprepossessing sister, Gabrielle, out of a sense of obligation to their family. This guileless selflessness is what Hertmans has in mind when he observes that his grandfather ‘seemed to possess no egotism, conceit or self-importance, but only an instinctive eagerness to be of service, a quality that made him both a hero and a first- class chump.’ The couple will have a child together – Hertmans’s mother – but the marriage, which will last for over four decades, is passionless and almost entirely sexless. Hertmans believes that Urbain’s paintings were his great, heartbroken homage to his one true love: ‘an immense, silent, devoted labour of grief, to put the word’s weeping to rest in the most everyday things.’
Noting that his subject was born in 1891 and died in 1981, Hertmans remarks: ‘It was as if his life were not more than two digits playing leapfrog.’ Such moments of gentle playfulness help offset the book’s often grave and melancholy themes. Hertmans is self-deprecating when he contrasts the long-haired dishevelment of his own youth – as a child of the permissive 1960s – with his grandfather’s stiff propriety, flitting between affectionate condescension and a respectful if counterintuitive nostalgia for a lost era of defined moral certainties. His handling of the question of his grandfather’s marriage is, similarly, governed by contradictory impulses: a teasing incredulity at the meekness with which Urbain consigned himself to a life of loveless near-celibacy, alongside a recognition that the author owes his entire existence to said arrangement.
Towards the end of War and Turpentine, Hertmans visits the sites of various battles and skirmishes refers to the memoir, and finds himself exalting in the wonderful banality of peace: ‘A grocery, a bakery, an empty parking space, a small supermarket, an obnoxiously trendy boutique pharmacy, a rusty traffic sign…’ There is a sense in which this book is just as much about Hertmans as his grandfather – his yearning to reach back through time, and the inevitable futility of that endeavour. When he visits the Alsemberg Vorst cemetry, south of Brussels, he observes that ‘Nothing here seems to be grieving; everything exudes calm, detached impermanence.’ Elsewhere, he bemoans the ‘mindlessness with which modern technology has flattened memories everywhere.’ This, too, is ineluctable: the elusive texture of historical memory, its vast mosaic of hearsay, is embodied in the split authorship of this curiously composite text; it is here, and not in physical space, that our history exists.
Houman Barekat is a book critic based in London. His reviews have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the Spectator, Literary Review, the Irish Times and elsewhere. He is co- editor (with Robert Barry and David Winters) of The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online, forthcoming from O/R Books.