William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central | A Short Riff on a Long Book

Kilian Eng

Kilian Eng

1. William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central,  811 pages in my Penguin trade paperback edition (including end notes), is a virtuoso attempt to describe or measure or assess or explain or analyze the Eastern front of WWII, a part of the war that in my American ignorance I know, or knew (no, know) so little about.

2. The book covers 1914-1975, most of the composer Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich’s life. If Europe Central has a hero, it is Shostakovich.

From the book’s last end note, “An Imaginary Love Triangle: Shostakovich, Karmen, Konstantinovaskya”:

When I think of Shostakovich, and when I listen to his music, I imagine a person consumed by fear and regret, a person who (like Kurt Gerstein) did what little he could to uphold the good—in this case, freedom of artistic creation, and the mitigation of other people’s emergencies. He became progressively more beaten down, and certainly experienced difficulty saying no—a character trait which may well have kept him alive in the Stalinist years. In spite of the fact that he joined the Party near the end, to me he is a great hero—a tragic hero, naturally.

That’s Vollmann’s own authorial voice, of course, and there we have perhaps the most concise condensation of Europe Central.

3. Maybe a clarification though: Europe Central is not (just) a fictional biography of Shostakovich: There are many, many other characters that Vollmann uses to power his beast: the Soviet director Roman Karmen and the translator Elena Konstantinovskaya, those other points in the book’s central love triangle; German artist Käthe Kollwitz; Samizdat poet Anna Akhmatova; Generals Paulus (German) and Vlasov (Soviet)—similarly disgraced; SS man Kurt Gerstein, who oversees death camps; there’s Lenin, there’s Stalin. There’s “the Sleepwalker,” one Adolf Hitler. And many, many more.

4. Is Europe Central too big?

No. I don’t think so.

5. I lazily suggested that the book uses Shostakovich as an organizing principle. We could also argue for Operation Barbarossa (Germany’s disastrous invasion of the USSR) as the book’s main thrust. Or, we might say that the book reframes Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Or that it somehow restages Shostakovich’s Opus 40 and Opus 110. (Back to Shostakovich!).

6. Or the telephone! Yes, that totem of modernity, communication, power—the telephone!—the telephone is the central image of Europe Central. Indeed, it initiates the novel: “A squat black telephone, I mean an octopus, the god of our Signal Corps…” That octopus, those tendrils, those lines of communication snake throughout Europe Central.

7. Another description of Europe Central, perhaps, from one of its earliest chapters—

Most literary critics agree that fiction cannot be reduced to mere falsehood. Well-crafted protagonists come to life, pornography causes orgasms, and the pretense that life is what we want it to be may conceivably bring about the desired condition. Hence religious parables, socialist realism, Nazi propaganda. And if this story likewise crawls with reactionary supernaturalism, that might be because its author longs to see letters scuttling across ceilings, cautiously beginning to reify themselves into angels. For if they could only do that, then why not us?

8. Was that enough of Vollmann’s language for this short riff?

No?

I shared various citations from Europe Central on Biblioklept as I read it, even riffing a bit now and then. Check out some of Vollmann’s strange, wonderful prose—it’s far more convincing than anything I can write about his book.

So:

On parables and their value

On Käthe Kollwitz, who kept painting poor people.

On the assurance of a sleepwalker.

On the musicality of a weeping son.

On the more-than-real reality of representations of reality.

On monarchs, murderers, martyrs, lunatics, perverts, etc.

On abjection.

On lending books as one of the purest expressions of love.

10. I left off from the list above one of the finest passages in the book, a section where the unnamed “I” narrator of some of the Soviet sections of Europe Central shifts into Shostakovich’s consciousness, and then, perhaps, into Vollmann’s own authorial voice—and then back. The narratological dimensions here are too big to suss out in my lazy riff, but I find the passage’s main thrust one of the most compelling issues of modern art (or Modern Art, if you prefer): Can art use irony to conceal its true feelings? Can love be self-ironic? And if so, how does this complicate the truth of the expression?

I think this matters because Vollmann thinks this matters—put another way, Vollmann believes in Art and Truth and, significantly, in Love, and the power of love against the backdrop of totalitarianism, despotism, murder, privation, starvation, rape, maiming, gas chambers, mass graves, infanticide, total war…

11. What Vollmann achieves in Europe Central, through the reality and fictionality (and reality of the fictionality of the reality) of his characters, is a language of love. Vollmann posits love, or the possibility of love, or the possibility of imagining the possibility of love, as a response to despair.

12. Point 11 is maybe a way of saying that Europe Central is about so much more than central Europe during WWII—but if you’re at all familiar with Vollmann, gentle reader, of course you’d expect that. Still, I learned a lot about a subject which I thought I knew something about.

Whether or not Vollmann is a generous writer depends on your perspective—you’re swimming in the deep end here, and many of the connections between the different sections don’t cohere until you’ve got the hang of the book. But once you get the hang of it—once you learn to read it—Vollmann’s generosity is almost overbearing in its profundity. How did he research it, do all the reading that went into it, and still make all the voices sing? How? 

13. Europe Central is probably not the best starting place for Vollmann, but I think it will appeal to fans of certain giant polyglossic postmodern novels. I’ll admit to a predilection for WWII metafictions, too, but I can’t really anticipate how readers of historical fiction might regard what Vollmann does here. Can I end by writing Highly recommended? I don’t know. I’m not sure who this book is for… but I loved it.

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5 comments

  1. Garrett · June 5

    So, in your opinion, where would be the best place to start with Vollmann for someone who has only a cursory knowledge of his work? I’ve really enjoyed all that you’ve posted from/about this book!

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    • Biblioklept · June 5

      If you dig the excerpts then by all means, dig in. There’s a book called Expelled from Eden—it anthologizes a lot of his work into digestible pieces, and I think it’s excellent, although I know of Vollmann “purists” who disagree. Butterfly Stories is fairly short and offers a good entry point to his common themes (poverty, prostitution, travel writing, thinly-disguised autobiographical stuff). The Rifles is excellent. Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs is also a good starting place, although I don’t think it’s as good as the other stuff I’ve mentioned.

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  2. Will C. · June 5

    Great post, man. The book flies off at the start and doesn’t cease. If any book could have a “This is like ‘Gravity’s Rainbow'” moniker, I think this is the book mostly because of such resonant things shared between the two (telephone in this, V2 in “Gravity’s Rainbow”); hate when people say that about “Gravity’s Rainbow,” though (mostly, I assume, because X-book is the same size as “Gravity’s Rainbow”). Anyways, this is a great book. I think the point about Love being an ideal in the book, an anti-propagator of sin, is a good point. Thumbs-up.

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  3. Tom B. · June 5

    Thanks for writing this and your other entries on Vollmann. I rarely come across anyone who has read his work, but your entries and some of the comments assure me there are a few of us out there — and we’re pretty enthusiastic. I’ve read most of the books — I’m particularly fond of Fathers and Crows, which is a relatively easy read despite the length. As you mentioned above about Europe Central, Vollmann’s novels teach you how to read them, which requires great patience, because you can only learn how to read them by reading them.

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  4. Pingback: Reviews in Chronological Order | Biblioklept

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