…this is Wallace’s big insight in Infinite Jest, right?—that our consciousnesses, mapped in the muck, are framed in desire and reward, and we are conditioned/subjected into that system of desire/reward, so that we desire the desire, even as our consciousnesses…can sneer at something we love, can dismiss the muck that helped shape us even as we plunge into it, the muck. And—too, part of Wallace’s insight in Infinite Jest—too, the consciousness of the consciousness of the desire of desire—that that’s, like, the contemporary condition. And what Wallace…seems to want to point to is some way out of the muck of pop consciousness, a reconciliation toward a pure consciousness that doesn’t sneer—right?
What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?
I often reread certain parts of my Oxford Revised Standard Bible, which I recommend for the maps and footnotes. The parables of Jesus are haunting in the fashion of certain Zen koans. And the story of Jacob, Leah and Rachel, and the way it leads to young Joseph’s conceit and fall, is of gripping psychological interest. When she was very young I used to tell my daughter about the coat of many colors, and she would say: “But, why, Daddy? Why did they throw Joseph underground?” — “Because they were jealous.” — “Why were they jealous?” — “Because his father loved him more than the others.” She and I would follow the story backward and forward; its elegance was so perfect that my little child could understand it.
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg always inspires me to try to be myself. Here is one of his powerful aphorisms: “I believe that man is in the last resort so free a being that his right to be whatever he believes himself to be cannot be contested.”
I love that fountainhead of Norse myth and saga, the Elder Edda. It is, after all, part of my ethnocultural heritage. Its glorification of ruthless and often pointless cruelty troubles me, and I refuse to identify with that. But I can enjoy the delicate eeriness of other ghost stories without reveling in gruesome murders and wailing horrors, so why can’t I drink in the strangeness of Skirnir’s ride down to Hel on his quest to win the giant maiden? Moreover, the Norse ethos privileges steadfast endurance in the face of pain, bravery in the face of inevitable doom, and loyalty. These qualities would well become all of us mortals, and may grow more relevant once climate change really kicks in.
William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion, newish from University of Delaware Press, collects academic essays and memoir-vignettes by a range of critics and authors to make the case that Vollmann is, as the blurb claims, the “most ambitious, productive, and important living author in the US.” I interviewed the book’s editors, Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, over a series of emails in a two-part interview. You can read the first part here. A few days after the first part of the interview posted, Lukes and Coffman hosted a book launch party in NYC for WTV: ACC; the pics in this interview are from that event (check out the Facebook page for more, including Jonathan Franzen reading from his piece on Vollmann).
Biblioklept: Let’s talk about the formal elements of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion. The collection seems to balance essays of a more academic flavor with memoir-vignettes, personal accounts, and riffs.
Christopher K. Coffman: We decided early on to intersperse among the academic essays pieces by non-scholars, or by scholars writing in a non-scholarly mode. The goal here was at least two-fold. We wanted to offer something a bit more accessible to WTV readers who were not in academia (although I think the average WTV fan can follow scholarly arguments as well as many of us in academia can). Also, we realized that some people with a privileged view on WTV’s work–such as those of WTV’s book designers who contributed (Bolte and Speaker Austin)–could add something of interest and great value to audiences in and out of academia, and we wanted to make space for that. I would have to look back through the e-mail log to be sure, but I think Daniel first came up with the idea of soliciting shorter pieces from non-scholars, and that I then conceived the structural component. I am a huge fan of Hemingway’s In Our Time, and the contrapuntal play between the stories and the very short inter-chapters in that book served for me as a paradigm of what Daniel and I have tried to do in this regard. Of course, as soon as we brought up the example of Hemingway, we recalled that WTV does something similar in Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs, so he beat us to the punch even there. At any rate, my hope is that our readers find in the short chapterlets material that serves as a response to or as an extension of ideas presented in the more properly scholarly readings that surround those shorter pieces.
The second question of arrangement was the placement of essays and interchapters, and we here grouped according to subject matter as well as we could, without merely replicating what McCaffery and Hemmingson had done for Expelled from Eden. We also, obviously, made space for both Larry and Michael as the authors of the Preface and Afterword. Our intention there, insofar as I can speak for both of us, is to make it clear that we are trying to situate our contribution to scholarship on WTV in relation to the work that Larry and Michael have already done. Finally, I wrote the Introduction not only because one of us had to, but also because Daniel was spoken for in the sense that he already had material that formed the basis for the really great chapter that he contributed. Also, I found the chance to frame the book’s material via an introduction that dealt with WTV’s place in the landscape of post-1945 American fiction appealing. That said, while the introduction bears my byline, my ongoing conversation with Daniel during the past few years shaped my thinking about WTV as much as any original ideas of my own, so he deserves a lot of credit for the introduction as well.
Daniel Lukes: I’ve been going back over the timeline to see if Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou’s edited volume The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, which also features some shorter pieces, was an influence on that, but it looks like we took our approach independently. Though I will say their book did serve as a model in some ways of what ours could be. Dealing with the “non-scholarly” pieces has been for me one of the most exciting parts of putting this book together (the distinction between “scholarlies” and “non-scholarlies” itself being one of the various amusing frameworks that Chris and I have been carrying around throughout the process). From the beginning I thought it would be very helpful to have some of Vollmann’s literary peers chime in: you just don’t hear too much from them about him. So we reached out to writers we thought might be Vollmann readers: some just weren’t (I’d love to know if Cormac McCarthy reads Vollmann: the letter I mailed to a presumed representative of his returned unopened). Some were Vollmann fans/friends, but couldn’t make it for another reason; when Jonathan Franzen came through and expressed his enthusiasm for the project and willingness to contribute a piece, I felt some relief. And James Franco was a pleasure to work with. That said I think the primary value of the non-scholarlies is in the insights they offer into Vollmann’s world and writing practices, from those who have worked closely with him, in particular Carla Bolte, Mary Austin Speaker, and Mariya Gusev’s excellent and vivid pieces.Continue reading “An Interview with Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, Editors of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion (Part 2)”→
William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion, new from University of Delaware Press, collects academic essays and memoir-vignettes by a range of critics and authors to make the case that Vollmann is, as the blurb claims, the “most ambitious, productive, and important living author in the US.” I interviewed the book’s editors, Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, over a series of emails.
If you live in NYC (or feel like traveling), you can check out the book launch for William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion this weekend, hosted by Coffman and Lukes (4:30pm at the 11th Street Bar).
This is the first part of a two-part interview.
Biblioklept: How did William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion come about?
Daniel Lukes: The starting point would be the MLA panel I put together in January 2011, called “William T. Vollmann: Methodologies and Morals.” Chris’s was the first abstract I received and I remember being impressed with its confidence of vision. Michael Hemmingson also gave a paper, and Larry McCaffery was kind enough to act as respondent. Joshua Jensen was also a panelist. I kept in touch with Chris and we very soon decided that there was a hole in the market, so to speak, so we put out a call for papers and took it from there.
One of my favorite things about putting together this book has been connecting with – and being exposed to – such a range of perspectives on Vollmann: people seem to come at him from – and find in his works – so many different angles. It’s bewildering and thrilling to talk about the same author with someone and not quite believe you are doing so. And I think this started for me, in a way, at least as far as this book is concerned, with reading Chris’ MLA abstract.
Biblioklept: I first heard about Vollmann in connection to David Foster Wallace (Wallace namechecks him in his essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”). A friend “loaned” me his copy of The Ice-Shirt and I never gave it back. When was the first time you read Vollmann?
Christopher K. Coffman: I first encountered William T. Vollmann’s work about ten years ago. At the time, I had just finished grad school, and as my dissertation work had been focused on aspects of modern and contemporary poetry, I had let my attention to contemporary prose slip a bit. When I realized this had happened, I starting reading a lot of recent fiction. Of course David Foster Wallace’s books were part of this effort, and I, like so many others, really developed a love for Infinite Jest and some of the stories in Girl with Curious Hair. My memory’s a bit fuzzy on the timeline, but my best guess, given what I know I was reading and thinking about at the time, is that in my reading around DFW I discovered the Summer 1993 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction with which Larry McCaffery had been involved, and that the interview with DFW in that issue–along with the WTV materials themselves–woke me up to WTV and his work. I can’t say enough about how important Larry’s championing of WTV has been, and continues to be. Of course, one could say that about his support for so many of the interesting things that have happened in fiction during the past three or four decades. His interviews, his editorial work, the part he played with the Fiction Collective …. the list of the ways that he identifies and promotes some of the best work out there could go on for a while, and no one else that I know of has done it as well as Larry has for as long as he has. Anyway, as I was pretty much broke at the time, my reading choices were governed in large part by what I could find at libraries or local used bookstores, and The Ice-Shirt was the first volume I came across in one of these venues. I was already a huge fan of The Sot-Weed Factor and Mason & Dixon, and the entire Seven Dreams project very much struck me as a next step forward along the trajectory those books described. As a consequence, I immediately started tracking down and reading not only the rest of the Dreams, but also everything else I could find by WTV.
What about The Ice-Shirt that really won me over, aside from my impression that this was another brilliant reinterpretation of the historical novel, is that WTV was clearly bringing together and pushing to their limits some of my favorite characteristics of post-1945 American fiction (structural hijinks of a sort familiar from works by figures like Barth and Barthelme, a fearlessness in terms of subject matter and the occasional emergence of a vatic tone that reminded me of Burroughs, an autofictional element of the sort you see in Hunter S. Thompson). Furthermore, as a literary critic, I was really intrigued by two additional aspects of the text: the degree to which The Ice-Shirt foregrounds the many ways that it is itself an extended interpretation of earlier texts (the sagas on which he draws for many of the novel’s characters and much of its action), and the inclusion of extensive paratexts–the notes, glossaries, timelines, and so forth. In short, this seemed like a book that united my favorite characteristics of contemporary literary fiction with a dedication to the sort of work that I, as a scholar, spend a lot of my time doing. How could I resist? It took my readings of a few more of WTV’s books for me to be able to recognize what I would argue are his other most significant characteristics: his global scope and his deep moral vision.
As for your also having begun reading WTV with The Ice-Shirt: It’s an interesting coincidence to me that we both started with that book. I have always assumed that most people start into WTV via either the prostitute writings (which have a sort of underground cachet by virtue of subject matter) or Europe Central (which is of course the book that got the most mainstream attention), but here we both are with The Ice-Shirt. WTV has indicated he sees it as under-realized in certain ways, but I am still quite fond of it, even in comparison to some of the later books. Continue reading “An Interview with Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, Editors of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion (Part I)”→
I don’t know why it was so strange to hear William T. Vollmann’s voice on NPR as I drove into work this morning. Maybe because I have Vollmann on the brain (I’ve been in the middle of a long email interview with the editors of the recent volume William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion). Or maybe it’s just that it seems so rare these days to hear the opinions of a novelist given a platform on popular media. Still weird though (even though I heard Vollmann on the radio last year too). Anyway, he was on NPR this morning, speaking to David Greene about his forthcoming article on the aftermath of the Fukushima meltdown in next month’s Harper’s. From their disucssion:
David Greene: William Vollmann, I’m just curious. The last time we spoke we talked about how the FBI thought you might be the Unabomber. You’ve traveled with mujahideen, you’ve smoked crack with prostitutes in California. I mean you have a certain style your reporting where you want to be in the middle of something so to speak and here you’re exposing yourself to radiation. What drives you?
William Vollmann: Well, one time read an E.O. Wilson book about the ants—
DG: E.O. Wilson—you’re talking about the famous Harvard naturalist and professor right?
WV: That’s right, yeah. He says that it’s common in ant colonies for the older female ants to take more and more risks. They’ve already reproduced, and if they don’t come back it’s no real loss to the ant colony. And I’m an older person, I’m 55, I’ve reproduced, I’m going to die in any event, so I have less to fear. And I would really like to try to do some good in the world before I die, and you know, if I get cancer as a result it’s no real loss. The more I see of the disasters that nuclear power can cause, the more I think, I would really like to describe this and help people share my alarm.
After a few false starts over the last decade, I finally submerged myself in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon in those bourbon-soaked weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year. I read the book as a sort of sequel to the book Pynchon wrote after it, Against the Day—simply because I read Against the Day in 2013, before M&D. Both books are excellent, and seem to me more achieved in their vision than Inherent Vice or V or Vineland. The obvious comparison point for the pair though is Pynchon’s other big book (and, by reputation, his Big Book) Gravity’s Rainbow which I haven’t read since my freshman year of college—which is almost the same as not having read it at all. I intend to read it later this year (or maybe earlier?), but I also haven’t read The Crying of Lot 49 since my undergrad days either (which is to say, like, coming up on twenty years jesus). I’m about half way through and not zapped by it really—there are some funny jokes, but it’s just not as rich as Mason & Dixon or Against the Day (which is not meant to be a complaint, just an observation. And while I’m observing stuff parenthetically: What most bothers my attention most as I read are the reminders of David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System, which I have reread more recently than TCoL49).
Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles (collected in My Sister’s Hand in Mine)
What to say about Jane Bowles’s only novel? It goes: Propelled on its own sinister energy it goes, its vignettes flowing (or jerking or shifting or pitching wildly or dipping or soaring or sneaking) into each other with wonderfully dark comic force. I’ve sketched a full review I hope to be able to write, but for now let me excerpt a paragraph from Negar Azimi’s essay “The Madness of Queen Jane” from last summer in The New Yorker:
When it was first published, in 1943, “Two Serious Ladies” received lukewarm, even baffled, reviews. Edith Walton, writing in the Times Book Review, called the book senseless and silly: “To attempt to unravel the plot of ‘Two Serious Ladies’ would be to risk, I am sure, one’s own sanity.” Another reviewer said, simply, “The book is about nothing.” Jane’s family, in the meantime, found it unseemly in its stark depiction of lesbianism. Its characters, who have goals and motivations that are hard to grasp, were difficult to relate to. Yet another critic wrote, “The only shocking thing about this novel is that it ever managed to find its way to print.” Jane was only twenty-four.
Wharton’s line should intrigue, not repel readers. And: “The book is about nothing” — well, okay, that’s completely untrue—the book is about women searching for something, but something they can’t name, can’t conceive in language but can perhaps imagine. These women are on the brink of all those things one can be brinked upon: abysses, madness, abysses of madness, etc. But: “The book is about nothing” — well, okay, Two Serious Ladies resists unfolding in the way in which we expect narratives to be about something—Bowles withholds exposition, clarification, and motivation—well, okay, not withholds, but rather hides, or obscures, or enshadows.
I don’t have the verbs for this book.
But I loved reading it, feeling estranged from it while simultaneously invited into its darkness, bewildered by its transpositions, as Jane Bowles moves her verbal camera from one character to another—Wait, what? Okay, I guess we’re going over here now?!—its picaresque energy a strange dark joy. More to come.
William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion, a collection of essays edited by Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes
I’ve been dipping into this kind of at random, but it’s very rewarding, and I think it would make a surprisingly good introduction to Vollmann. To be clear, academic criticism is never a substitute for, y’know, reading the author’s actual texts, the range here covers voluminous Vollmann. And look, I’ll be honest, I’ll probably never read Argall, so I very much appreciated Buell Wisner situating it for me in his essay. One of the treats of this book is how an academic essay like Wisner’s—a well-researched close reading with 64 reference notes—is followed by a reflective and informal piece by Carla Bolte on designing Vollmann’s books (“Bill’s books are not for everyone. We all know that,” she offers at one point). Good stuff, more to come.
Dockwood by Jon McNaught
I owe this marvelous book a proper review. Dockwood is a kind of visual prose-poem, tranquil, meditative, autumnal. The book is its own total aesthetic; McNaught uses color and form to evoke feeling here, with minimal, unobtrusive dialogue that functions more as ambiance than exposition. Lovely.
William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion is new from University of Delaware Press and editors Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes. Their blurb:
The essays in this collection make a case for regarding William T. Vollmann as the most ambitious, productive, and important living author in the US. His oeuvre includes not only outstanding work in numerous literary genres, but also global reportage, ethical treatises, paintings, photographs, and many other productions. His reputation as a daring traveler and his fascination with life on the margins have earned him an extra-literary renown unequaled in our time. Perhaps most importantly, his work is exceptional in relation to the literary moment. Vollmann is a member of a group of authors who are responding to the skeptical ironies of postmodernism with a reinvigoration of fiction’s affective possibilities and moral sensibilities, but he stands out even among this cohort for his prioritization of moral engagement, historical awareness, and geopolitical scope. Included in this book in addition to twelve scholarly critical essays are reflections on Vollmann by many of his peers, confidantes, and collaborators, including Jonathan Franzen, James Franco, and Michael Glawogger. With a preface by Larry McCaffery and an afterword by Michael Hemmingson, this book offers readings of most of Vollmann’s works, includes the first critical engagements with several key titles, and introduces a range of voices from international Vollmann scholarship.
The book (it’s beautiful, by the way) intersperses the more “academic” essays that comprise its bulk with shorter riffs, memoirs, and vignettes about Vollmann, or reading Vollmann (I wish Franzen would’ve devoted a few more lines in his piece “A Friendship” to describing the time he got to shoot Vollmann’s Tec 9, but it’s still a fascinating little piece). I read a few of these (Franco refers to our author as “Volhman” and then ends his “essay” with this parenthetical aside: “(Shit, I went back online, and I see that there is no ‘h’ in his name. Sorry, Billy.”)
I haven’t gotten into any of the the critical essays yet, but a scan over the book’s index and bibliography indicates a serious work of scholarship, while a cursory scan of a few of the more intriguing titles (“‘Strange Hungers’: William T. Vollmann’s Literary Performances of Abject Masculinity”; “The Ethics of the Archive and the William T. Vollmann Collection”; “Imperial Photography”) suggests a unified work with a tone decidedly divorced from stale academic language. More to come.
Tried to write about it for a few hours—did write something, mostly complaining about how hard it is to write, etc. etc. etc. Deleted it. Slim Bernhard—not the best starting place for anyone interested in Tommy B, but not a particularly bad one either. (Correction, which also features a Wittgenstein (in disguise) is probably the best I’ve read by Bernhard so far).
Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being and Mystery and Manners
These books are essential.
Anyone who wants to write fiction must read Mystery and Manners, a collection of O’Connor’s lectures and essays on her craft. The Habit of Being, which collects her letters, is fascinating–of particular interest are her letters to A., a younger woman who liked O’Connor’s stories and wrote to her until the end of her life.
I sort of graze on these books.
Emmanuelle Guattari’s memoir I, Little Asylum
Did you know that Felix Guattari had a pet monkey? Boubou was her name. She died in a tree. Full review forthcoming.
Alain Badiou’s The Age of the Poets
Don’t know if I’ll ever work up the courage to write about this one, but what I’ve read so far—the first four essays in the collection—is really compelling. Badiou tackles Plato’s rejection of the poets from his ideal state—Badiou reckons that “no truth can ever deliver the meaning of meaning, or the sense of sense”:
Plato banned the poem because he suspected that poetic thought could not be the thought of thought. We once again welcome the poem in our midst, because it keeps us from supposing that the singularity of a thought can be replaced by the thought of this thought.
By which I take this to mean: The spirit of the spirit.
Dmitry Samarov’s Where To? A Hack Memoir
Been enjoying the vignettes here—Samarov has a direct and descriptive but wry style. His stories spill over into rants, comic asides, lovely ugly grotesque anecdotes, and tales of warmth and friendship. Love the illustrations too. Great stuff.
William T. Vollmann’s Last Stories and Other Stories
I like Vollmann, but this one is hard to get into. Wonderful dark moments, great little fragments of stories, but 150 pages in and I feel like I’m reading the scraps left out of some other, better, tighter novel.
“The Grave of Lost Stories” by William T. Vollmann—
. . .for the terrible agony which I have so lately endured — an agony known only to my God and to myself — seems to have passed my soul through fire and purified it from all that is weak. Henceforth I am strong: — this those who love me shall see — as well as those who have so relentlessly endeavored to ruin me.
POE, to Mrs. Helen Whitman (1848)
IN THE GRAVE OF LOST STORIES there is neither day nor night, but a stupendous blackness shot through with corpuscles of fluorescence, like droplets of oil in water — an inalienable fact, of which the vulgar minds around him could not conceive. They were too busy writing anonymous articles about him (he knew that Griswold was behind most of it, but not all; there were so many envious scoundrels!) to ever comprehend that the light and dark of Plato’s cave might, indeed must mingle at the bottom of the universe, as they could see for themselves if they’d but look through a telescope whose power penetrated into the depths of the earth, beyond the graves that honeycombed the clay like the shafts of mines, so far beyond them as to leave them seeming shallow indeed, and the deeper shot the beams of that telescope, the more violently surged the gloom-rays through the eye-piece, staining the world black like bad old memories; but if it were possible to see through these swirling atoms, and the cosmos of Ether under them, then at last the darkness would seem to thicken and narrow into a gorge whose cliffs and stones were darkness coagulated into obsidian. Into this chasm no telescope could pierce. This was the center of the majestic circle of planets and suns — so extreme its gravitational attraction that light was swallowed in it forever. There was a stifling horror about the place, about which hovered the most vile and pestilential fumes; somewhere in this pit was Death itself unfolded. But in what form it revealed itself was unknown, because the gulf was roofed with the foliage of night-trees that leaned toward each other on all sides, gripping each other’s soft and flabby trunks with branches that terminated in claws, so that every tree gashed every tree to the heart, growing deeper and deeper into each other’s wounds until their agony could never end; from their pallid mushroom flesh bled drops of black sap that rained down into the darkness below, and their velvety leaves vibrated in pain, with a sound like a cloud of midges. –A narrow Path of Dead Tales passed through an arch of these leaves and branches, and then spiraled downward into the pit. At first the moistly disagreeable presence of the charnel vegetation polluted every breath, and icy droplets of tree-blood plashed down upon hands and shoulders, but then the descent steepened, so that it was necessary to hug the wall of the pit and feel one’s way sideways, and in the course of many downward revolutions the air became ever cooler and drier, like the stale atmosphere of mummy-caves. Meanwhile, however, the smell of mortality had increased, according to the cube of proximity to that concentrated vortex of corruption, the Grave of Lost Stories. –How pitiably foolish he had been, to imagine that his victims would have been reduced to marble-white skulls, to tibiae as clean as tusk- ivory, to ribs like bleached harps! –No, that would hardly be the Demon’s modus operandi. –So be it. He had looked upon such sights before. –Still, the foulness… which is why he concluded in his final poem that matter was a means, not an end. At that time he was working feverishly by lamplight, intoxicated with the solution of ciphers that unlocked his pages of darkness with great clicks, so that he did not have to think about how everything he had written would disgust him the next morning; and he went out to the dark black garden to walk to and fro, wearing a deep and narrow path in the snow as he worked out precisely how deep the Grave would have to be to hold those millions and millions of Stories whose white souls had risen upward like a snowstorm of dreamy unhappiness; well, of course the volume of the bodies would flatten with decomposition; therefore the required depth must be the quotient, but the full quotient, not the square root of the quotient; as to how tightly they could be packed into that death-house, their structure had to be considered; it was distinctly stated by all the authorities that Stories have skeletons, except for the very early embryos and abortions from those times when you wail in the night knowing that something has just been lost forever but not what, you will never know what because it is gone. Let us conceive these skeletons, then, to be composed of variegated vertebrae the hue and sheen of black crystal. Mrs. Osgood was moved by his white-skinned sadness and said ah, Mr. Poe, this country affords no arena for those who live to dream and he said do you dream? I mean sleeping dream? and she smiled and said oh yes Mr. Poe I am a perfect Joseph at dreaming, except that my dreams are of the Unknown and Spiritual and he said I knew it; I knew it by your eyes and for the first time he embraced her and she held his hand in hers so tenderly but all at once it seemed to him as if something black, steely- cold, cutting, had closed around his wrist and were pinching it to the bone, the frozen ache of it poisoned him, and the veins stood out on his white wrist; as his phalanxes and metacarpi shattered into chessmen he uttered a cry of agony so that she pulled her hand away and said you are ill, are you not, Mr. Poe? at which she became so beautiful to him, and he fell on his knees before her saying is the idea fixed in your head to leave me? as his little wife sat by obediently. Later he was seized with inspiration, and sat down hastily to write, but before he had gotten any farther than that weirdly metallic phrase the Grave of Lost Stories, it had already left him, and he sat groaning. Somewhere the Story was struggling desperately to breathe; she was smothering, and he could do nothing. In his life he had committed so many murders … Maybe he could save her. He wrote very quickly there is no day or night and heard the Story draw in a deep gasp of breath and begin sobbing with hysteria and weariness.
From the profile, details of a visit to Vollmann’s studio:
Half of Vollmann’s studio felt like a proper gallery, with finished pieces handsomely framed and displayed. The other half was split into what looked like a used bookstore on one side and a struggling industrial arts business on the other. I imagined Vollmann had a gallery somewhere that showed his stuff, yes? Actually, no. “I’ve had a couple of photographer friends who have shows,” Vollmann said. “Every time, they always end up impoverished.” He employs “a couple dealers” who sell his work to various institutions, but he considers his studio a “perpetual gallery.” Vollmann gets additional income from Ohio State, which has been buying Vollmann’s work and manuscripts for several years. Vollmann has no idea why Ohio State has shown such interest in his work, but he’s grateful to the institution, which has been paying the mortgage on his studio for the last decade.
He began our tour proper while a dinging train from the city’s light-rail line rumbled by, just feet from his curtained windows. Woodcuts, watercolors, ink sketches, silver-gelatin black-and-white photographs, portraits. “Gum-printing is a nineteenth-century technique,” he told me. “It’s the most permanent coloring process. But it’s slow, and toxic. … I also have this device here, which is based in dental technology. … It’s like a non-vibrating, very high-speed Dremel tool. … This was originally drawn with pen and ink, and then I had a magnesium block made with a photo resist.” Some of the pieces he showed me were complete; most were not. He estimated that he has “dozens and dozens” of pieces going at any one time.
Vollmann’s most important artistic influences are Gauguin and what he described as the “power colors” of Native American art. His other inescapable influence is the female body. The majority of Vollmann’s visual art centers upon women generally and geishas, sex workers, and those he calls “goddesses” specifically. Usually they are nude. From where I was standing I counted at least two dozen vaginas, their fleshy machinery painstakingly drawn and then painted over with a delicate red slash. Vollmann uses live models, so every vagina within sight is currently out there right now, wandering the world.
Russia’s tales clang from the tongues of bells; and her cannons point outward. Ghosts guard the tall red notches of the Kremlin Wall. In Petersburg, the ice-clad trees of the Summer Garden aim at the stars; if necessary, every branch can be converted into an antiaircraft gun.
The largest cannon in the world frightens off Germans with its lion-face. A red star upon a tapering greenish pedestal shines ready to detonate invaders.
Below the fourteen escalators of the Congress of Nationalities, snow howls through vast, shining squares, but stills when golden domes like helmets of soldiers begin to nod and clang. (In Russia they add gold and silver to their bronze for finer sound.)
Onion-domes bristle with crosses, and within each gilded church, haloed saints stand ready to leap off the golden walls and fight. Napoleon once burned the Yellow Arsenal, but saints rushed forth from their metal-topped tombs; and afterward the arsenal’s white arched windows grew back. Then the girls decorated everything with green and yellow tiles; and electric-colored light striped the Moskva River, which is lined with regular snow-walls and tapering towers.
After my father died, I began to wonder whether my turn might come sooner rather than later. What a pity! Later would have been so much more convenient! And what if my time might be even sooner than soon? Before I knew it, I would recognize death by its cold shining as of brass. Hence in those days, I do confess, I felt sometimes angry that the treasures of sunlight escaped my hands no matter how tightly I clenched them. I loved life so perfectly, at least in my own estimation, that it seemed I deserved to live forever, or at least until later rather than sooner. But just in case death disregarded my all-important judgments, I decided to seek out a ghost, in order to gain expert advice about being dead. The living learn to weigh the merits of preparation against those of spontaneity, which is why they hire investment counselors and other fortune-tellers. And since I had been born an American, I naturally believed myself entitled to any destiny I could pay for. Why shouldn’t my postmortem years stretch on like a lovely procession of stone lamps?
If you believe, as H.P. Lovecraft asserted, that all cemeteries are subterraneously connected, then it scarcely matters which one you visit; so I put one foot before the other, and within a half-hour found myself allured by the bright green moss on the pointed tops of those ancient stone columns of the third Shogun’s loyally suicided retainers. Next I found, glowing brighter than the daylight, more green moss upon the stone railings and torii enclosing these square plots whose tombstones strained upward like trees, each stone engraved with its undertenant’s postmortem Buddhist name.
The smell of moss consists of new and old together. Dead matter having decayed into clean dirt, the dirt now freshens into green. It is this becoming-alive that one smells. I remember how when my parents got old, they used to like to walk with me in a certain quiet marsh. The mud there smelled clean and chocolate-bitter. I now stood breathing this same mossy odor, and fallen cryptomeria-needles darkened their shades of green and orange while a cloud slid over the sun. Have you ever seen a lizard’s eyelid close over his yellow orb? If so, then you have entered ghostly regions, which is where I found myself upon the sun’s darkening. All the same, I had not gone perilously far: On the other side of the wall, tiny cars buzzed sweetly, bearing living skeletons to any number of premortem destinations. Reassured by the shallowness of my commitment, I approached the nearest grave.
The instant I touched the wet moss on the railing, I fell into communication with the stern occupant, upon whose wet dark hearthstone lay so many dead cryptomeria-tips. To say he declined to come out would be less than an understatement. It was enough to make a fellow spurn the afterlife! I experienced his anger as an electric shock. To him I was nothing, a rootless alien who lacked a lord to die for. Why should he teach me?
Humiliated, I turned away, and let myself into the lower courtyard behind the temple. Here grew the more diminutive ovoid and phallic tombs of priests. Some were incised with lotus wave-patterns. One resembled a mirror or hairbrush stood on end. I considered inviting myself in, but then I thought: If that lord up there was so cross, wouldn’t a priest have even less use for me?
So I pulled myself up to the temple’s narrow porch and sat there with my feet dangling over, watching cherry blossoms raining down on the tombs. The gnarled arms of that tree pointed toward every grave, and afternoon fell almost into dusk.
A single white blossom sped down like a spider parachuting down his newest thread. Then my ears began to ring—death’s call.
So I ran away. I sat down in my room and hid. Looking out my window, I spied death up boards and pouring vinegar on nails. Death killed a dog. What if I were next?
William T. Vollmann’s Last Stories and Other Stories is new in hardback from Penguin this July. I’ll have a review then, but for now, publisher’s blurb:
Supernaturally tinged stories from William T. Vollmann, author of the National Book Award winner Europe Central
In this magnificent new work of fiction, his first in nine years, celebrated author William T. Vollmann offers a collection of ghost stories linked by themes of love, death, and the erotic.
A Bohemian farmer’s dead wife returns to him, and their love endures, but at a gruesome price. A geisha prolongs her life by turning into a cherry tree. A journalist, haunted by the half-forgotten killing of a Bosnian couple, watches their story, and his own wartime tragedy, slip away from him. A dying American romances the ghost of his high school sweetheart while a homeless salaryman in Tokyo animates paper cutouts of ancient heroes.
Are ghosts memories, fantasies, or monsters? Is there life in death? Vollmann has always operated in the shadowy borderland between categories, and these eerie tales, however far-flung their settings, all focus on the attempts of the living to avoid, control, or even seduce death. Vollmann’s stories will transport readers to a fantastical world where love and lust make anything possible.
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?
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.
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.