By Stefan Hertmans, Vintage, August 9, 2016, 110187211X
My father was an artist and a soldier so this book was personal. When I read that Urbain’s (main character’s) father mixed paint with saliva, I thought of my dad. Turpentine is a carcinogen. My dad died of cancer. Urbain’s father (an artist) died of consumption, but he also had lead poisoning. Not particularly germane to the novel, but still, the book brought back many memories, both good and bad.
Urbain was the soldier, not his father. He became an artist, but that was not his profession. Urbain was man who did what asked of him. Again, that was my father, but while he went to war, he was more of a soldier at home. Urbain was a soldier in war and at home.
Stefan Hertmans writes in an interesting style. I read in the NY Times book review that “Whether that truth is documentary or dramatic (and carefully constructed) is a question this reader occasionally wrestled with, but mostly set aside.” I felt exactly this way. It’s an intriguing story full of emotion and excellent prose.
Urbain’s first financee dies of the Flu in 1919. I write this during the COVID-19 pandemic, 100 years later. Fortunately, I don’t know anybody who has died from COVID-19. It’s scary, though, to think that 100,000 people have died in the last couple of months. Not tens of millions, like in 1919. I can’t imagine how it was back then, but I have a sense of it, along with the death and destruction of World War I, thanks to War and Turpentine.
[k156] For more than thirty years I kept, and never opened, the notebooks in which he had set down his memories in his matchless prewar handwriting; he had given them to me a few months before his death in 1981, at the age of ninety. He was born in 1891. It was as if his life were no more than two digits playing leapfrog. Between those two dates lay two world wars, catastrophic genocides, the most ruthless century in all human history, the emergence and decline of modern art, the global expansion of the automotive industry, the Cold War, the rise and fall of the great ideologies, the popularization of the telephone and saxophone, the synthesis of Bakelite, industrialization, the film industry, jazz, the aviation industry, the moon landing, the extinction of countless species of animals, the first major environmental disasters, the development of penicillin and antibiotics, May ‘, the first Club of Rome report, rock ‘n’ roll, the invention of the Pill, women’s lib, the rise of television, and the first computers–and his long life as a forgotten war hero. This is the life he asked me to describe by entrusting his notebooks to me.
[k381] When it was explained to him as a seven-year-old in catechism classes that you simply could not see God–not even on a cloudless day–because God was invisible, and on top of that, even on clear nights you couldn’t look past the stars to the place where He reportedly dwelled, and accordingly, faith could not be verified, because then it would no longer be faith, he broke in: “Yes, but, Reverend Father, then you might just as well say that there are millions of sea horses floating around in Heaven, since nobody can see it anyway.” The astonished priest’s jaw dropped open as if the hinge had snapped.
[k387] Yet Urbain Martien was a man of faith, and more than that; after returning from the Great War, he began to show signs of religious mania.
[k2986] Not that this makes death trivial, but dying does seem more absurd than ever–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. They are children, countless wasted boys of barely twenty, who should be out in the sun, living their lives, but have sunk into the muck here instead.
[k3860] He gave away many of these drawings as gifts to family members, friends, and acquaintances. I never knew him to accept a single Belgian franc for a drawing or painting; I believe the very idea was unthinkable to him, an insult to the sense of the sublime that he had sought in painting his whole life long. It might also have constituted a betrayal of his father, Franciscus the fresco painter, who had always remained poor.
This was my father: he gave away all his paintings. I don’t think he sold one. He worked as a commercial artist, for which he got paid, but he remained lower middle class is whole life. He wasn’t poor, of course, but he was a great painter who could have made much more money than he did.
[k3916] On my car radio, Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments: dramatic, drifting music that perfectly complements the nameless suburbia drifting past.
[k3921] Flanders, 2012. Nothingness. Absolute nothingness. Safe and meaningless, thank God for that, I suppose. I take a few more photos and have another look on Google when I get home–it all seems so much more interesting there than in reality.