Skip to main content
Memorial to a grandfather

War and Turpentine

Stefan Hertmans

Right before his death in the 1980s, Stefan Hertmans’ grandfather gave his grandson a few notebooks. For years, Hertmans was too afraid to open them – until he finally did and laid bare some unexpected secrets. The life of his grandfather turned out to be marked by his impoverished childhood in late nineteenth-century Ghent, by horrible experiences as a front soldier during the First World War and by his great love who died young; the rest of his life he spent turning his grief into silent paintings.

A staggering richness of language; brutal, deep, haunting. Mesmerising from page one. 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.
Simon Schama

In an attempt to fathom that life, Hertmans wrote down his memories of his grandfather. He quotes from his diaries and looks at his paintings. Hertmans tells the story with an imagination that only great writers possess, and does it in a form that leaves an indelible impression. ‘War and Turpentine’ is a gripping search for a life that paralleled the tragedy of a century, and is a posthumous, almost mythical attempt to offer that life a voice at last.

‘War and Turpentine’ is one of those rare direct accounts by a front-line soldier and can be seen as the Flemish answer to Erich Maria Remarque’s famous ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’.

One of the 10 best books of 2016
The New York Times
Has all the markings of a future classic
The Guardian
‘A quintessentially European book’
Karsten Kredel, publisher Hanser Berlin (Germany)

''War and Turpentine' is a quintessentially European book. It touches on common (though painful and at the times highly divisive) experiences, and it reflects how we are dealing with our respective histories – which, for many of us, is inextricably intertwined with our families’ stories. This novel is a quest for meaning that is both personal and collective, specific and universal.

It is also a ‘Künstlerroman’, a family saga, a story of love and intergenerational inheritance as well as a reflection on how we deal with our past. It is an amazing piece of literature, reflective, intellectual and imbued with a deep sense of humanity.

As with all great authors, Stefan Hertmans’ voice is highly original. Much like Sebald, he asks questions about the meaning of history, and the exploration of our own historical context, for us as human beings. Hertmans is one of the strongest voices in contemporary European literature.’

Stefan Hertmans on 'War and Turpentine'