Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 14, 2019

The Convert (2019), by Stefan Hertmans, translated by David McKay

I am fascinated by the choices cover designers have made for this most interesting book. The French translation of Stefan Hartmans’ new book The Convert (published by Gallimard) is titled Le Coeur Converti (The Converted Heart) and the image alludes to passion. I harvested it from the the author’s website, so I don’t know the credits, but it’s obviously a photo, and it features a girl in an historic building of some prestige.  This interior is not medieval or Gothic, (which have dark interiors), but it could just be the paintwork that’s anachronistic.   She is wearing only her underclothing, and she has dishevelled hair and what appears to be reddened lips. From what we can see of her face and body, we sense that she is coming from or going to a lover.

The Australian edition—so far the only available English translation like the Harvill Secker edition—features the striking ‘Portrait of a Young Girl’ by Petrus Christus, an early Netherlandish painter.  Wikipedia has a lot to say about the significance of this portrait, but what makes it the perfect choice for Stefan Hertmans’ new book The Convert is this:

She looks out of the canvas in an oblique but self-aware and penetrating manner that some art historians have described as unnerving. Joanna Woods-Marsden remarks that a sitter acknowledging her audience in this way was virtually unprecedented even in Italian portrait painting. Her acknowledgment is accentuated by the painting’s crop, which focuses the viewer’s gaze in a near-invasive manner that seems to question the relationship between artist, model, patron and viewer.

Likewise Hertmans’ book plays with the relationship between the subject real and imagined, the author and the reader.  I am shying away from calling the book a ‘novel’ although the author calls it that, and so does the blurb.  Dominic Smith in his review of War and Turpentine explains Hertmans’ approach well:

Not since reading W. G. Sebald’s “The Rings of Saturn” have I been so taken with a demonstration of the storytelling confluence of fiction and nonfiction. I say ‘confluence’ because Stefan Hertmans, like Sebald, is interested in the places where narrative authority, invention and speculation flow together. War and Turpentine affords the sensory pleasures of a good novel while also conveying the restlessness of memoir through its probing, uncertain narrator, who raids the family pantry in search of existential meaning.  (Stefan Hertmans’ website, quoted on the Home page)

I am also shying away from calling The Convert an ‘historical novel’, because I suspect that readers of genre fiction would be a bit disconcerted by that tag.  It’s true that the book features the tragic story of a fateful love affair between a teenage Christian noblewoman and a young Jewish man studying to be a rabbi.  It does have an historical setting: the story unfolds at the turn of the first millenium, thus predating the better-known 12th century tragedy of Héloïse d’Argenteuil and Peter Abelard (most recently brought to life in fiction in Mandy Hager’s Heloise, see my review).  Hertmans’ book is rich in historical detail, and is vivid with visceral images from Vigdis Adelaïs’ disastrous journey.  But this book is IMO more of a memoir than War and Turpentine was, which I tagged a ‘novelised memoir’.

What connects the author with the story of Vigdis and her lover David, is not like his intimate relationship with his grandfather and his WW1 memoir.  Hertmans, now living in the small French village in the valley of Monieux, becomes intrigued by its history.  It was where Vigdis and David fled to from Rouen, to avoid her father’s rage; it was also where she fled from, after a pogrom caused by drunken knights of the Crusades.  Hertmans’ memoir retraces their journey together, and then her journey, alone but for just one of her remaining children, to Egypt.

Though there is, by extraordinary chance, documentary evidence of this story, there are few clues in the landscape that Hertmans explores.  Over a thousand years, everything has changed, of course, though many readers will share Hertmans’ nostalgia about the decline of village life in Europe.  But these changes also mean that he must rely more on imagination to tell the story of Vigdis, and he does not, IMO, always succeed in showing her interior life.  Of course he can imagine her labouring as a peasant woman, and he can depict her love of her children as any parent might.  But he gets it badly wrong, IMO, in the scene where she is raped.  (The book makes this seem inevitable, for a woman journeying alone in an era of chaotic violence. It probably was).  Hartmans is actually better at conveying the frantic anxiety of the men who try to help her when she has lost her wits, than he is at depicting her emotions.

This is not a minor quibble.  I liked this book and I found its ‘confluence’ intriguing.  But for some readers, what happens to Vigdis, as distinct from what she feels, may not be enough, especially if they are already frustrated by the fractured chronology and the foreshadowing of later events which sabotages what there is of narrative tension.

Author: Stefan Hertmans
Title: The Convert (De bekeerlinge)
Translated by David McKay
Publisher: Text Publishing Melbourne, 2019, 304 pages
ISBN: 9781925773576
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available direct from Text (where it is also available as an eBook) or from Fishpond: The Convert


  1. Oh great see another book by him translated I liked war and turpentine yes agree with cover art can be of putting at times and just generic at other


    • Cover art, is an art in itself, and publishers who think anyone can do it are wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

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