Using illusion to depict truth: Stefan Hertmans, War and Turpentine

Stefan Hertmans, War and Turpentine. Translated from the Dutch by David McKay. Vintage paperback, 2017. First published in the Netherlands, 2013. Long listed for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017

It was the two excellent translations from the Dutch by David McKay that I read earlier this year that inspired me to take up this Flemish novel: they were Max Havelaar by Multatuli, and Adrift in the Middle Kingdom by J. Slauerhoff.

The subject matter could hardly be more different across the three novels. War and Turpentine is an interesting, largely successful blend of autofiction and the highly traditional device of using a ‘found MS’ as the basis of the narrative.

The Flemish poet and novelist Stefan Hertmans writes that he was given a set of handwritten notebooks by his much-loved, deeply devout Catholic maternal grandfather, Urbain Martien, shortly before the old man’s death in 1981 at the age of ninety. He’d started writing them in 1963 when he was seventy-two, and spent the next seventeen years on them.

But it’s not that simple. We learn that his marriage had not been idyllic, and that there was a ‘personal tragedy’ during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1919, after which his handwriting – like his life – became ‘deformed’. The first notebook is full of ‘copious detail’ about the ‘humiliating poverty’ of his childhood, with ‘too many personal anecdotes’. The reader is likely to disagree with this harsh personal criticism.

Stefan Hertmans, War and Turpentine cover We learn about the hunger, deprivation and squalor in which Urbain and his siblings grew up in Ghent. Franciscus was a ‘lowly’ painter of religious frescoes and murals in churches and chapels. Urbain’s mother, Céline, is in some ways the true heroine of the novel. There’s a stirring scene when she walks for days to intercept Urbain’s army unit and browbeats his commander into letting her spend some time with her son; even the bullies of officers grudgingly respect her bravery and devotion.

Born into a wealthy bourgeois family, she married the penniless artist in defiance of her family’s disapproval. It was a true love match, and the marriage gave Urbain a model of marital harmony and contentment that he was sadly unable to replicate.

Urbain learned from his father Franciscus a love of art, painting and copying. He was ‘staunchly traditional’ in his approach, and deprecated modern ‘daubers’ like Van Gogh and Ensor. It’s notable that he specialised in copying the old masters; his own original work was accomplished, but of limited scope and ability.

This diffidence about creating something original out of others’ handiwork is seen also in the author’s metafictional approach to producing this novel. How far should he adapt Urbain’s error-strewn blend of ‘old-fashioned grace and awkwardness and authenticity without falling into mannerism?’ Adapting ‘his long-winded narrative into modern idiom’ was like ‘betraying him.’ He has to ‘rediscover’ the ‘authentic story’ in his own way: the basis of any ‘literary work.’

Like Franciscus with his fresco restorations, or the less talented Urbain copying the Rokeby Venus.

The novel is full of vivid set piece anecdotes that would work very well as film. There’s a gut-wrenching, infernal scene where Urbain is taken to see a gelatine factory at work. Also memorable are Urbain’s painful experiences as a lad working in another hellish location: an iron foundry. He sees some terrible things, and is physically scarred by the boiling hot molten iron.

But these scenes are eclipsed by his searing account of combat in Flanders. In the second notebook Urbain set out to:

write only about the war, truly and sincerely, not to glorify it. So help me God. Only my experiences. My horror. [Author’s emphasis]

This included his ‘traumatic scenes on the Yser’, how he was wounded three times and sent to convalesce in France and England. In Liverpool there’s one of the most transcendent and moving scenes in the novel, when he finally discovers the murals that his father had been commissioned to paint in a chapel there. Urbain recognises in the faces of some of the religious figures members of the artist’s family; Franciscus evidently felt able to indulge this loving impulse, believing that no-one who knew him would ever see them.

Later, the Hertmans-narrator has a similar, equally poignant epiphany when he recognises a familiar face in one of his grandfather’s meticulous copies of an old master’s famous painting.

There are the terrible descriptions we’ve become too familiar with from other accounts of WWI. The squalor, rats, filth, disease, slaughter, and constant fear of sudden death, witnessing the ‘torn-up limbs’ and desecrated corpses of comrades who’d moments earlier had been vibrantly alive.

There’s an astonishing scene when Urbain is startled by the sight of countless terrified wild animals swimming across a body of water in the polder to flee the carnage in their habitat. (Hertmans throughout the narrative has a poet’s and artist’s eye for nature, like the skeins of wild geese that fly overhead at several key moments.)

What distinguishes this long middle wartime section of the novel from most other accounts of WWI combat is that Urbain is recounting the decimation and defeat of a culturally/ethnically divided Belgian army fighting to defend its homeland. The rank and file like Urbain are Flemish-speakers; the Walloon officer class are francophone, who treat their men – these ‘cons de flamands’ says one commander – with patronising disdain.

Instilled with the values of the 19C, the soldiers are trained in outmoded military techniques like fencing. Knowing he’d spent four years in the military before the war, Urbain’s commanders exploit his combat skill and ingrained sense of discipline to send him on suicidal missions the others shrink from – this is what gets him wounded. Yet his restrained response to his incompetent, scornful officers’ incompetent commands is to salute and say, in the language they arrogantly insist on, “à vos ordres.”

They are outnumbered by a vastly better equipped, ruthless 20C enemy that uses the latest, most deadly machine-guns, heavy artillery and tactics, without ‘moral scruples’. They employ dirty psychological tricks and hideous new technology, like mustard gas. The Belgians are doomed from the start.

There’s a Sebaldian quality in Hertmans’ approach: the focus on history haunting the present day. He even incorporates, like Sebald, grainy monochrome photographs of characters, scenes and paintings featured in the narrative.

Near the end is one of many ecphrastic accounts of a painting by Hertmans’ grandfather, but the old man ‘couldn’t expel the soldier from his first self-portrait, and thus failed to do himself justice’. Hertmans goes on with another such account, about one of Urbain’s copies – of a Rembrandt portrait of a helmeted soldier (also reproduced on the page). There’s another epiphany-recognition by the narrator about the distracted, wistful expression in the eyes of this soldier. This expressive substitution enabled his grandfather to achieve ‘an extraordinary victory of the painter over the soldier’. The conclusion the narrator draws has a Sebaldian resonance:

The truth in life often lies buried in places we do not associate with authenticity. Life is more subtle, in this respect, than linear human morality. It goes to work like a painter-copyist, using illusion to depict the truth.

It’s a powerful, original and affecting novel, less richly nuanced and psychologically complex than Sebald’s fiction – but that’s true of most other novels.

There’s an interesting pair of essays by David McKay at his own website, Open Book Translation, on his methods and problems in translating this novel; he discusses how he struggled to reproduce authentically, for example, the Edwardian and military slang of the characters without traducing the original. Another layer of metafictional commentary on the literary arts of copying, verisimilitude and originality.

 

Disciplined even in death. Erwin Mortier, While the Gods Were Sleeping

Erwin Mortier, While the Gods Were Sleeping. Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent. Pushkin Press, 2015. First published in Dutch, 2008. It forms the first part of a trilogy; the second has already appeared in Dutch.

Despite some initial misgivings, I was not immune to the poetic and emotional power of this novel. It comprises the vivid, fragmented memories of Helena, a very old lady of French-Belgian origin, from her life before, during and after WWI, in which she lost the people she loved most. But like some of those whose reviews I give links to at the end I also found the ornate, image-laden style a little too dense and indigestible at times. The translator, Paul Vincent, has done a good job with what must have been a difficult task.

Mortier While the Gods coverI find as I flick through its pages again, reminding myself of its textures and resonances, that the novel is not so much a story about recollections of things past as a congeries of stories, memories and images that swirl through the narrator’s mind as her body fails her and she lives increasingly in her head.

The prose therefore works better when dipped into and savoured. Mortier, the Belgian author of several other novels, is also a poet. This novel reads like a prose poem, a non-linear anthology, in which chronology is regularly telescoped, focused back and forth, time’s strata exposed and disclosed by Helena’s mining memory.

Take for example the second paragraph on the opening page. Helena is setting out her approach – writing down in notebooks the recollections of her lengthy past as they crop up irregularly in her mind, and breaking off occasionally to apostrophise her kind Moroccan carer, Rachida:

I’d give a lot to be able to descend into the subterranean heart of our stories, to be lowered on ropes into their dark shafts and see stratum after stratum glide by in the lamplight. Everything the earth has salvaged: foundations, fence rails, tree roots, soup plates, soldiers’ helmets, the skeletons of animals and people in hushed chaos, the maelstrom congealed to a terrestrial crust that has swallowed us up.

Wow. That’s a hefty accumulation of the kinds of images and objects that form the ‘heart of our stories’. It fuses mighty abstractions with highly visual, painterly details: the detritus of time’s encounter with human warfare. It’s the verbal equivalent of the scattered contents of an occupied wartime trench after being hit by a shell; the narrator comes by afterwards and inspects, like an archaeologist poet, or a photographer-artists, the fragments out of which we’ve ‘salvaged’ our savage ruins.

I came to this novel shortly after the very different, much more conventional Not So Quiet…by Helen Zenna Smith. That fictional autobiography of a woman ambulance driver’s traumatic experiences in the same war is more direct, consciously unpoetic, and thus more immediately accessible. After my initial struggle to come to terms with the slow-burning, meditative approach of Mortier I’m finding While the Gods is more moving in many ways.

Like Smith, Mortier is good at conveying the horrific experiences of women who lived through WWI. Although, unlike Helen in Smith’s novel, Belgian Helena lived behind the front line, ostensibly away from the action, many of her memories involve the sense-impressions of that war of attrition: she could see the flashes of the huge guns in the distance, hear the thunderous booms they made, and feel in her very entrails the vibrations they made. She tells how a little village girl was killed by a random shard of shrapnel as she ran to play. There was no front line when artillery shells could travel miles.

She also gives vivid descriptions of journeys to the front with her English lover, Matthew, a photo-journalist. These sections indicate that she too has the sensibility and artistic eye of an artist-photographer. One of the most powerful sections in the novel is her description of her snapshot of her lover, taken from behind as he inspected the site of trench years after the war, and as the photographic plate looms into focus with the action of the chemicals on the plate, she starts to see details that had eluded her vision at the time: the jagged, scattered limbs of long-dead soldiers reaching out of the frozen mud, like images from Picasso’s Guernica.

Similar scenes recur, indelibly printed (or congealed) on her memory. For example when Matthew takes her to other such battle-scarred sites long after the war’s end, when he:

meticulously documented what I call the congealing, the great levelling, in all respects after the ravages and the euphoria of peace. The smoothing-over of the tormented earth.

She’s appalled by the ‘cemeteries where the fallen were gradually put in straighter and straighter ranks, disciplined even in death’. She bitterly reflects on the ‘wry euphemism’ of these ‘charming cemeteries’ that cover up cosmetically with ‘solemn temples, carved mourning statues, lit eternal flames…the bones and the corpses and the countless shattered lives’ in ‘an arcadia stretched out.’

She also evokes with heart-breaking pathos the ways that the women in her world, excluded from the infernal horrors of front-line action, had to bear a terrible burden of their own: it’s also the women who ‘take the blows’. Another memorable vignette from this montage of such images is that of her otherwise bohemian uncle, who’s taken on the responsibility of travelling from house to house in his small town, conveying the dreaded news of the latest casualties at the front. More women with lost sons, brothers, husbands, lovers. Lives smashed and frozen as graphically as those exposed limbs in Helena’s photo.

This novel was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2015, the year it was won by Jenny Erpenbeck for her novel The End of Days. I agree with Tony: it would have made a worthy winner itself.

But it takes perseverance, and perhaps a second reading to reveal, like the images in Helena’s stark photo, the shards of war that penetrate and wound a person’s memory like shrapnel.

Other bloggers who have posted on this novel find echoes in its themes and style, quite justifiably, of Proust and Sebald, among others. Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong also portrays vividly and poetically the connections between passion, love, loss and death in that terrible war:

Rough Ghosts

Dolce Belleza

David’s Book World

Tony’s Reading List

The Book Binder’s Daughter