We should never write without feeling (William T. Vollmann)

20140727-150921-54561555.jpg 20140727-150921-54561934.jpg From “American Writing Today: A Diagnosis of the Disease,” a manifesto William T. Vollmann published in the Spring ’90 issue of Conjunctions. The image here, along with the image of Vollmann in his press flak jacket (1992), are from the anthology Expelled from Eden.

Vollmann in His Studio

There’s a great big fat long profile of William T. Vollmann by Tom Bissell at The New Republic—it’s one of the better pieces I’ve read on an author who is more widely read about than, you know, read.

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.

“Absinthe” — William T. Vollmann

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.

Read the rest of William T. Vollmann’s “Absinthe” at VICE.

“Supernatural Axioms” — William T. Vollmann


From William T. Vollmann’s forthcoming collection, Last Stories and Other Stories.

“The Forgetful Ghost,” A Supernatural Tale by William T. Vollmann

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?

Read the rest of “The Forgetful Ghost” at VICE.

The tale is collected in Vollmann’s forthcoming book, Last Stories and Other Stories.

Vollmann’s Last Stories and Other Stories (Book Acquired, 6.09.2014)


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.

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?


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.


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.

My critique of American society remains fundamentally incoherent (William T. Vollmann)

My critique of American society remains fundamentally incoherent. Would I really have preferred my grandfather’s time, when Pinkertons were cracking Wobblies over the head, or my father’s, when Joe McCarthy could ruin anyone by calling him Red? All I know is that although I live a freer life than many people, I want to be freer still; I’m sometimes positively dazzled with longing for a better way of being. What is it that I need?

From William T. Vollmann’s essay-memoir Riding Toward Everywhere.

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About


“I penetrated beneath the Curtain through a disused S-Bahn tunnel which led to the center of the earth” (William Vollmann)

As soon as I’d rested, I penetrated beneath the Curtain through a disused S-Bahn tunnel which led to the center of the earth, which I can now assure you is a hemispherical room whose pattern of blue and white tiles have been chessboarded, staired and umbrella’d for centuries. Here I discovered rows of listening devices like pictures in a gallery, each machine affixed to reality by its two wires, each one labeled: ZOYA, VLASOV, GEHLEN . . . They went on and on, infinitely. Where was SHOSTAKOVICH? But after all, I had to see him; I had to face him! In a crypt in Berlin I’ve spied the effigy of an infant whose hand reaches innocently out at the world which he has been denied, while a stone eagle guards him. I was the child within the tomb! I had nothing, not even an eagle, because he hated me.

But I found resurrection in the delicious moonlight of Berlin-East. And like a champagne cork I popped up into the air, speeding into Europe Central! It was quite gusty; I would have enjoyed carrying my Variometer, to check variations in barometric pressure. But my Variometer was another item I’ve lost over the years. Prague’s hills crowded with trees and towers were all dark; Riga was buried under autumn leaves; and in an empty snowy park in Moscow I found Shostakovich walking round and round.

Smeared with iron-colored grime I interrupted his circles; I blocked his way; I snivelled and insisted: Herr Schostakowitsch, I’m sorry—

Indignantly he interrupted: I must tell you this, my dear German friend: I feel it’s the worst cynicism to, to, to besmirch yourself with ugly behavior and then speak beautiful words. I, do you know, I think it’s preferable to say ugly words and not commit illegal acts . . . But nothing could take me away from him now! He was everything to me. He—and Elena, of course. (Where was Elena?)

Oh, how cold it was! I had to get down and grovel in the snow. But it paid off; I fulfilled my objective. People rarely choose to accept my apologies. But in the end, Shostakovich did. He’s a very nice man.

What I dreamed of by then was inventing a method to bring about a reconciliation between him and Elena (who was codenamed LINA); was I supposed to shoot him before or after that? How about not at all? You see, I’d come to adore the man, and I valued his happiness more than my own. Many’s the time I’ve peeped in on him as he’s composing. When he closed his eyes, I saw how happy he truly was; with my Zeiss lenses I was able to obtain a magnified view of the veins in his eyelids, which pulsed in time with what must have been his Fifth Symphony, described by R. Taruskin as a series of components, gestures or events that are immediately recognizable as signs or symbols whose referents are not specified by any universally recognized and stable code. Now he was smiling! His fingers spread out on the table and he seemed to be playing a complex chord on the piano, or perhaps milking Elena’s left breast—how I loved him for his happiness!

On one of those assassination visits, which now numbered more than the total number of Allied bombing raids on Berlin, he’d confided to me that there was a certain other world he sometimes lived in, a world beneath the piano keys; not caring to hurt his feelings by revealing that I already knew that, I calculated the sum instead: Let me keep this all straight; first there’s Berlin itself, divided into East and West just as Europe is; second of all, there are the four sectors of Germany; meanwhile, within the Soviet zone, there’s this other zone, this place where everything is beautiful and pure (this is why I loved him; this is in fact an extremely Germanic conception); but who can go there? Only Shostakovich himself? Can Elena go there, too? She left him because she didn’t want to go there; but what if she’d actually left him because he believed her capable of entering that world and she knew that she couldn’t? Whenever I listen to Opus 40 I believe that she can, but if that’s the case, where did the operation break down? He’d told me that toward the end she was really trying; she framed the first page of the score to Opus 40, a composition which was truly her as he knew her; and she hung it up on the wall of her little flat on Kirovsky Prospekt in Leningrad, to show him that she, that she, you know (these last six words come verbatim from Shostakovich). All right, but could he ever bring her there? Please God, why not?

He’d also told me of a nightmare which had attacked him for years: He tries to make love with Elena but every time he takes her into his arms the telephone rings.

I begged him for the password. I wanted admission to that world east of East, the world beneath the piano keys. If I only had that, I’d be free; I wouldn’t need to worry about which list the Gehlen Organization kept me on.

He said: But that’s sad, because you’re not my, how should I say, I mean, your name’s not Lyalka! What’s the basis of our relationship? I mean, frankly, you really haven’t been very, you know. Moreover, it’s not your world.

Where is my world then, Herr Schostakowitsch? Build one, my dear friend . . .

From William T. Vollmann’s novel Europe Central.

The passage comes from the section “Airlift Idylls,” near the end of the novel. “Airlift Idylls” is told by an unnamed narrator who claims

The section reads like Kafka, or Philip K. Dick, or Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, a Cold War tale of assassination as an endless loop, where our narrator dreams himself into another existence.

“There were many towers, just as in this world there are many perfect books” (William T. Vollmann)

So he lent her books. After all, one of life’s best pleasures is reading a book of perfect beauty; more pleasurable still is rereading that book; most pleasurable of all is lending it to the person one loves: Now she is reading or has just read the scene with the mirrors; she who is so lovely is drinking in that loveliness I’ve drunk.

Amidst the other grey, red, greenish, black and orange volumes of various heights, this white book with the black lettering was perfectly proportioned in every way, neither showy nor insignificant. It was one of his favorite books (we can’t say his favorite since his life wasn’t over yet). He mentioned it, and she was willing to accept it; she was that kind, to read the book which he loved.

At the moment that it actually passed from his hand to hers they were sitting across from each other in one of the three or four restaurants where they usually met; and she, having gazed into his face with her usual richly intelligent seriousness, studied the book she now held with the same air of happy possession which he would have hoped to find had she been looking over his body before making love with him, which she would never, ever do no matter how long they both lived, a fact which made him want to utter a sound much softer and more leaden than any scream; and then, sitting within touching distance of her beautiful hands which he could not touch, he watched her open the book to the title page with its half-calligraphic brush-rendering by an unknown artist of a Buddhist pongmalai garland, probably of jasmine flowers, which was draped across a woman’s naked thigh. This was the most intimate moment that he and she would ever have (unless of course his one percent became a hundred, and she accepted him forever). He would not be at her side when she began to actually read the book; but from their frequent conversations he thought he could keep abreast of where she’d arrived each day. She’d promised to begin it that very night, when she was home with the other man, which meant that she would at least cross the frontier of the half-title page, followed by the dramatic double plant-stalks (connected by a leaf ), of the initial letter E. And now she saw before her those wide white margins and those generous white lines-between-the-lines which encouraged every word to preen itself like the treasure that it truly was.

I should mention that this beautiful volume, which was such a pleasure to hold, began its tale with a dazzling abruptness, as if the reader had just emerged from a dark tunnel into another world, a perfect world whose ground was a hot white plain of salt upon which the words lived their eternal lives.

I need say nothing about the plot, whose involutions (it’s a tale of obsessive love) progressed like the nested terraces on a Buddha-studded tower which narrows perfectly into nothingness. Once I visited a certain wat in Bangkok where although the day was exhaustingly hot and bright I grew enthralled by the sensation of wandering on a high place somewhere in the mist, a plateau exploding with ornately weathered crags. There were many towers, just as in this world there are many perfect books.

From William T. Vollmann’s novel Europe Central.

To put it aphoristically, a human skeleton is not human (William T. Vollmann)

And now, a note for those of you who consider this a vulgarly supernatural tale: It may well be that ambitious people of any stripe find themselves compelled to schematize the subjects of their solicitude into, say, Jews to be liquidated, or Jews to be saved. There might not be might not be time to learn the name of every Esther or Isaac who falls within Operation Reinhard’s purview. And the further those subjects (I mean objects) get altered in accordance with the purpose, the more problematic it becomes to perceive their irrelevantly human qualities. I quote the testimony of Michal Chilczuk, Polish People’s Army (he’d participated in the liberation of Sachsenhausen): But what I saw were people I call humans, but it was difficult to grasp that they were humans. What did Chilczuk mean by this? To put it aphoristically, a human skeleton is not human. It frightens us because it proves the truth of that gravestone epitaph so common in the age of Holbein: What I once was, so you are. What I am now, so you will be. The gaze of those dark, sharp-edged eye-sockets seems implacable, and the many teeth, which haunted Edgar Allan Poe, snarl much too nakedly, bereft of those festive pink ribbons of flesh we call “lips,” whose convolutions and involutions can express mirth, friendliness, even tenderness. A human skull’s smile is as menacing as a crocodile’s. Since death itself is nothing, the best our minds can do to represent it is through that expressionless face of bone which one day will be ours, and to which we cannot help imparting an expression. Under such circumstances, how can that expression be reassuring?

From William T. Vollmann’s novel Europe Central.

Monarchists, murderers, martyrs, lunatics, perverts (William T. Vollmann)

And now, when it was once again too late for anything, his troops became ever more various, even fabulous: Great Russians, Ukrainians, Mensheviks, monarchists, murderers, martyrs, lunatics, perverts, democrats, escaped slaves from the underground chemical factories, racists, dreamers, patriots, Italians, Serbian Chetniks, turncoat Partisans who’d realized that Comrade Stalin might not reward them after all, peasants who’d naively welcomed the German troops in 1941, and now rightly feared that the returning Communists might remember this against them, dispossessed Tartars, Hiwis from Stalingrad, pickpockets from Kiev, brigands from the Caucasus who raped every woman they could catch, militant monks, groping skeletons, Polish Army men whose cousins had been murdered by the NKVD in 1940, NKVD infiltrators recording names in preparation for the postwar reckoning (they themselves would get arrested first), men from Smolensk who’d never read the Smolensk Declaration and accordingly believed that Vlasov was fighting especially for them, men who knew nothing of Vlasov except his name, and used that name as an excuse—a primal horde, in short, gathered concentrically like trembling distorted ripples around its ostensible leader, breaking outward in expanding, disintegrating circles across the map of war. When the British Thirty-sixth Infantry Brigade entered Forni Avoltri at the Austro-Italian border, they accepted the surrender of a flock of Georgian officers, no less than ten of whom were hereditary princes “in glittering uniforms,” runs the brigade’s war diary. Suddenly pistol-shots were heard. The Englishmen suspected ambush, but it turned out to be two of the princes duelling over an affair of honor. The victors’ bemusement was increased by the arrival of the commander, a beautiful, high-cheeked lady in buckskin leggings who came galloping up to berate her men for having yielded to the enemy without permission. Leaping from the saddle, she introduced herself as the daughter of the King of Georgia. (Needless to say, no kings remain in our Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, which happens to be the birthplace of Comrade Stalin.) All these worthies considered themselves to be members in good standing of Vlasov’s army. Vlasov, the Princess explained, had guaranteed the independence of Georgia . . .

From William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central. 

I’m a big fan of the list passage, which Vollmann rarely uses, perhaps understanding and valuing its rhetorical force.

I just finished the section on Andrey Vlasov, the Russian general who collaborated with the Nazis. The section was fascinating—strangely sympathetic, balanced, personal—Vollmann explores just how unsure and troubled Vlasov was. Anyway. Reading Europe Central, I’ve come to see just how little I know about the Eastern front of WWII, especially in comparison to the Western front (in particular American involvement).


“The representation of reality can be more real than reality itself” (William T. Vollmann)

He photographed Lenin’s corpse lying in state, and captured many emotion-laden scenes, but the full power of images first impressed itself upon the young Roman Karmen later on in that same year, 1924, when he passed by an exhibition of German art arranged by Otto Nagel. Amidst the other flotsam hung “The Sacrifice” by Käthe Kollwitz. How can I describe this woodcut? The mother’s black cloak is open to reveal her breasts as she offers up her baby to death.

In the same folio, which was called “War,” Karmen, stunned and riveted, saw “The Parents,” a black woodcut of a man mourning, supporting the hand in which his face is buried upon the back of his wife, who mourns in his lap; this couple comprise a dark mass of mourning, silhouetted against a white background and their outlines printed negatively in white.

These two prints moved him to tears. But when, now scanning the walls almost ferociously in his determination to find every scrap of paper by this artist, he discovered “Hunger,” which would become leaf number two of most versions of her great “Proletariat” folio of 1925, the emotion which overcame him was anger—anger against an order which made people suffer in this way. And how strange it was that he was moved! For he had known hunger himself; and his father had suffered at the hands of the White Guards. This was the moment when he understood that the representation of reality can be more real than reality itself.

From William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central.

The woodcuts here are of course the Kollwitz pieces that inspire young Karmen Roman, who would go on to become one of the most prolific filmmakers of the Soviet era.



With the assurance of a sleepwalker (William T. Vollmann)

Their slave-sister Guthrún, marriage-chained to Huns on the other side of the dark wood, sent Gunnar and Hogni a ring wound around with wolf’s hair to warn them not to come; but such devices cannot be guaranteed even in dreams. As the two brothers gazed across the hall-fire at the emissary who sat expectantly or ironically silent in the high-seat, Hogni murmured: Our way’d be fairly fanged, if we rode to claim the gifts he promises us! . . .—And then, raising golden mead-horns in the toasts which kingship requires, they accepted the Hunnish invitation. They could do nothing else, being trapped, as I said, in a fatal dream. While their vassals wept, they sleepwalked down the wooden hall, helmed themselves, mounted horses, and galloped through Myrkvith Forest to their foemen’s castle where Guthrún likewise wept to see them, crying: Betrayed!—Gunnar replied: Too late, sister . . .—for when dreams become nightmares it is ever too late.

When on Z-Day 1936 the Chancellor of Germany, a certain Adolf Hitler, orders twenty-five thousand soldiers across six bridges into the Rhineland Zone, he too fears the future. Unlike Gunnar, he appears pale. Frowning, he grips his left wrist in his right. He’s forsworn mead. He eats only fruits, vegetables and little Viennese cakes. Clenching his teeth, he strides anxiously to and fro. But slowly his voice deepens, becomes a snarling shout. He swallows. His voice sinks. In a monotone he announces: At this moment, German troops are on the march.

What will the English answer? Nothing, for it’s Saturday, when every lord sits on his country estate, counting money, drinking champagne with Jews. The French are more inclined than they to prove his banesmen . . .

Here comes an ultimatum! His head twitches like a gun recoiling on its carriage. He grips the limp forelock which perpetually falls across his face. But then the English tell the French: The Germans, after all, are only going into their own back garden.—By then it’s too late, too late.

I know what I should have done, if I’d been the French, laughs Hitler. I should have struck! And I should not have allowed a single German soldier to cross the Rhine!

To his vassals and henchmen in Munich he chants: I go the way that Providence dictates, with the assurance of a sleepwalker.—They applaud him. The white-armed Hunnish maidens scream with joy.

From William Vollmann’s Europe Central. 

For the past 100 pages or so, Vollmann has referred to Hitler as the sleepwalker (I’m almost positive that the word Hitler hasn’t been used in the text up until now), and while context has made it clear that this sleepwalker is Hitler, the source of the moniker is only clarified at this point.

Anna Akhmatova, née Gorenko, is best known for two poems (William T. Vollmann)

Anna Akhmatova, née Gorenko, is best known for two poems, first and foremost the nasty “Requiem,” which attacks the “organs” of state security, and incidentally slanders our prison system. Shostakovich was among that literary effort’s admirers; I wish I had enough space to tell you a few things about that cocksucker. (On the other hand, he did make us laugh from time to time; I don’t mind telling you that my job has its compensations. In 1953 Akhmatova was trying to impress him with some drivel she’d written about his Seventh Symphony, and he thanked her in his usual insincere fashion, then went to the Hotel Sovietskaya and said to his then mistress, G. I. Ustvolskaya, ingenuously assuming the walls don’t have ears: Basically, I can’t bear having poetry written about my music.) Our line on that so-called “work of art” was this: Since she had the good sense not to make a cause out of it, why not let her live out her pathetic little life? We’d already isolated her. Shooting her might have lost us hard currency in the West. Since “Requiem” accuses us, and we already know ourselves, it’s of zero investigative interest.

That leaves the “Poem Without a Hero,” whose publication I for my part have always welcomed. Do you remember when Hitler staged that exhibition of degenerate art? Don’t get me wrong; every time I see a German I want to string him up by the balls; nonetheless, I’m man enough to say this straight: Hitler wasn’t incorrect in that instance. Now, “Poem Without a Hero” is as degenerate as anything the Nazis banned. It portrays the so-called “life” of a clique of a parasites and intellectuals in Leningrad before our Revolution. This was the Symbolist epoch, whose atmosphere N. Berdayev aptly characterized as the putrefied air of a hothouse. My children even studied it in school (I had the teacher arrested). To me the main interest of the poem is this: All the characters are real, in which case have we identified all those bastards and sent them where they belong?

From William Vollmann’s novel Euorpe Central.

You can read “Requiem” here and “Poem without a Hero” here.

How can love be self-ironic? (William T. Vollmann)

I promise you that from the first time she took his hand—the very first time!—he actually believed; she was ready, lonely, beautiful; she wanted someone to love with all her heart and he was the man; she longed to take care of him, knowing even better than he how much he needed to be taken care of—he still couldn’t knot his necktie by himself, and, well, you know. He believed, because an artist must believe as easily and deeply as a child cries. What’s creation but self-enacted belief? —Now for a cautionary note from E. Mravinsky: Shostakovich’s music is self-ironic, which to me implies insincerity. This masquerade imparts the spurious impression that Shostakovich is being emotional. In reality, his music conceals extremely deep lyric feelings which are carefully protected from the outside world. In other words, is Shostakovich emotional or not? Feelings conceal—feelings! Could it be that this languishing longing I hear in Opus 40 actually masks something else? But didn’t he promise Elena that she was the one for him? And how can love be self-ironic? All right, I do remember the rocking-horse sequence, but isn’t that self-mockery simply self-abnegation, the old lover’s trick? Elena believes in me, I know she does! How ticklishly wonderful! Even Glikman can see it, although perhaps I shouldn’t have told Glikman, because . . . What can love be if not faith? We look into each other’s faces and believe : Here’s the one for me! Lyalya, never forget this, no matter how long you live and whatever happens between us: You will always be the one for me. And in my life I’ll prove it. You’ll see. Sollertinsky claims that Elena’s simply lonely. What if Elena’s simply twenty? Well, I’m lonely, too. Oh, this Moscow-Baku train is so boring. I can’t forgive myself for not kidnapping my golden Elenochka and bringing her to Baku with me. Or does she, how shall I put this, want too much from destiny? My God, destiny is such a ridiculous word. I’ll try not to be too, I mean, why not? It’s still early in my life. That nightmare of the whirling red spot won’t stop me! I could start over with Elena and . . . She loves me. Ninusha loves me, but Elena, oh, my God, she stares at me with hope and longing; her love remains unimpaired, like a child’s. I love children. I want to be a father. I’ll tell Nina it’s because she can’t have children. That won’t hurt her as much as, you know. Actually, it’s true, because Nina . . . Maybe I can inform her by letter, so I don’t have to . . . Ashkenazi will do that for me if I beg him. He’s very kind, very kind. Then it will be over! As soon as I’m back in my Lyalka’s arms I’ll have the strength to resolve everything. If I could only protect that love of hers from ever falling down and skinning its knee, much less from growing up, growing wise and bitter! Then when she’s old she’ll still look at me like that; I’ll still be the one for her.

From William T. Vollmann’s big fat historical novel Europe Central, which is so big and fat that I think a comprehensive review of it will be just maybe beyond me by the time I get to the end of it, so maybe some citation, a bit of riffing, yes?

The novel recounts (a version) of the Eastern front of WWII. Polyglossic, discontinuous, musical, mythic, often discordant, Vollmann shifts through a series of narrators, his turns oblique, jarring. And while Vollmann includes political and military leaders, his analsyis/diagnosis focuses on artists, musicians, and writers.  The above passage—which struck me especially for its discussion of the feeling of feeling, the aesthetics of feeling—this passage offers a neat encapsulation of Vollmann’s narrative digressions.

The “I” at the beginning of the citation is one of the “Shostakovich” sections narrators. Although unnamed (as of yet), he seems to be a high-ranking officer in Stalin’s secret police. At times though, this narrator—all of the narrators!—seem to merge consciousness with Vollmann, the novel’s architect, who interposes his own research and readings (or are they the narrators?). We see this in the dash introducing some lines from the conductor Evegny Mravinsky—key lines that I find fascinating—which Vollmann (or Vollmann’s narrator) uses to critique/question the relationship between art, emotion, intention, and authenticity (current subjects of deep fascination for me). Then—then!—without warning, Vollmann enters the consciousness of another “I,” Shostakovich himself, whose elliptical thoughts, muddied and warbling, illustrate, illuminate, and complicate Mravinsky’s critique.

Feelings conceal—feelings!—yes, yes, yes I think so: Here Vollmann (through several layers of complicating narrators, which lets just set aside for a second, or perhaps altogether, at least for now)—here Vollmann offers a fascinating description followed by its problem: If earnest expression can be couched in irony—if we use feelings to hide other feelings in art (etc.)—then what does that mean for love, which I think Vollmann (here, elsewhere) believes to be A Big Important Thing? Is a self-ironic love possible? Likely even?

I’m tempted here to deflect, move to another piece of art, like say, It’s A Wonderful Life, a film that I understand anew every year, a film I found baffling, frightening as a child; a film that bored me as teen; a film that I resented as a young man; a film that I appreciated with a winking ironic cheer a few years later—and then, now, or nowish, as an adult, a film I feel I understand, that its sentiment, raw, affects me more deeply than ever. (I was right as a child to be baffled and frightened). (What if anything self-ironic love?).

So I deflected. And am ranting, trying to set out a few thoughts for Something Bigger—something on Authenticity and Inauthenticity, The Con-Artist vs. The Poseur, the Aesthetics of Feeling the Feeling, of Anesthetizing the Feeling (of Feeling the Feeling). Look at me, I capitalized some of my words. Sorry.