Europe Central (英語) ペーパーバック – 2005/11/14
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A daring literary masterpiece and winner of the National Book Award
In this magnificent work of fiction, acclaimed author William T. Vollmann turns his trenchant eye on the authoritarian cultures of Germany and the USSR in the twentieth century to render a mesmerizing perspective on human experience during wartime. Through interwoven narratives that paint a composite portrait of these two battling leviathans and the monstrous age they defined, Europe Central captures a chorus of voices both real and fictional— a young German who joins the SS to fight its crimes, two generals who collaborate with the enemy for different reasons, the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the Stalinist assaults upon his work and life.
"His most welcoming work, possibly his best book . . . part novel and part stories, virtuoso historical remembrance and focused study of violence."
- The New York Times Book Review
"A jarring, haunting, absurdly ambitious symphony of a book . . . It has an emotional force capable of ripping almost any reader from his moorings. . . . Vollmann has done as much as anyone in recent memory to return moral seriousness to American fiction."
- Steve Kettmann, San Francisco Chronicle
"Resembles War and Peace not merely in its scope, but in its perception of history as a determining force that individual lives merely illustrate . . . Aspires to the highest possible potential of literature."
- Melvin Jules Bukiet, Los Angeles Times
"A grimly magnificent dramatization of the impossible moral choices forced on individuals by these totalitarian regimes . . . if you have been following Vollmann's extraordinary career, Europe Central may be his best novel ever."
- Steven Moore, The Washington Post
"Profound . . . Vollmann asks us to put aside what we think we know of history and immerse ourselves in it once again."
- John Freeman, The Boston Globe
As many have said here, the story is told through pairs of "stories" about people, mostly historical, beginning just before and after World War I and continuing essentially up until the mid 70's. Most of these "pincer movements" are in some way "opposites," often Germany v. the Soviet Union. Thus two of the longest stories are about Russian General Andrey Vlasov and German General Friedrich Paulus. Both were captured after their armies were surrounded and both essentially were turned to the other side. On the other hand, early in the book, we get stories about Lenin's wife on one hand and the woman who attempted to assassinate Lenin. These stories are connected in various ways and are essentially chronological but do not add up to a "plot" as such. Rather this is a look at what life and culture were like in Europe Central. The backbone of the book is a fictionalized life of Dmitri Shostakovich in terms of his reception by Stalin and his Communist cronies and his presence in Leningrad during much of the siege by the Nazis.
I've read criticism that as "historical fiction," Europe Central is hard to read for someone not well versed in the history of WW II and the Soviet Union under Stalin. Because these subjects are of general interest to me, I did not have this problem but I also don't feel that it has to be a problem in this age of the internet. Wikipedia contains more than sufficient background for Vollmann's subjects. A quick read of the entries about Kathe Kollwitz or the Battle of Stalingrad, or Kurt Gerstein or any of the other subjects will tell a reader of Europe Central all they need to know to understand Vollmann's book. I knew nothing about Vlasov's Army but when I got to that part of Europe Central, it was a 10 minute side trip to learn how conventional historians viewed the general. Even Shostakovich's music is readily available online, particularly Op. 40 and 110 which are so central to Europe Central
The book is long and has been criticized as such. I disgree with the criticism. I found nothing that I though should have been edited out. My only problem with it is that the death, destruction and moral ambiguity I mentioned above are relentless and made Europe Central hard for me to read emotionally. It was rare when I could tolerate much more than 25 pages or so in a sitting and it therefore took me a while to get through its 750 pages of text (not including another 70 or so pages of source notes). Still I did not find the book particularly hard to read, unlike some new literature. Vollmann's structure and style are very original but not anywhere near as dense and incomprehensible as I feared. On the contrary, his syntax and grammar should be easily accessible to any moderately educated reader.
I'm not sure how I managed to miss this when it was first published and awarded the National Book Award, nor am I sure how I got this far into my life without having even heard of William Vollmann but I'm awful glad I did. I am looking forward to Seven Dreams. In the meantime, I recommend Europe Central highly as one of the best works I've read in a very long time.
The novel is not organized round a plot that points at any conclusion; rather, it is a sequence of vignettes that contribute to a Gestalt of the times it covers. Certain characters, especially the composer Dmitri Shostakovich and his love interest Elena Konstantinovskaya, have a presence throughout the novel, but the vignettes are in only a loose chronological order. I found this presentation extremely effective. Readers who find themselves adrift without the presence of a plot may not enjoy 'Europe Central' as much as I did, but I urge anyone who appreciates good literature, or who is interested in the Second World War, the Cold War, and the history of European totalitarianism, to give it a good long try.
I am not sure myself, if I fully "like" the novel, apart from the fact that I read it like a crime novel. Interesting, fascinating, yes. But: does it mean something or is it just pretentious?
Does he have to play around with the narrator so much? One moment it sounds like WTV himself, including cocquetish apologies for interfering with the story, then, next line, it is somebody else, not always quite clear who. It seems arbitrary, not following a need of the story, nor of history. Sometimes it seems to be clear that the narrators are Russian or German police agents. Do they have to sound so vulgar and so anachronistically modern?
There is also a problem with the editing of this book. The explanation on sources mentions a chronology: where is it? Deleted? The contents list gives data for the chapters, which seem totally off. The story follows some chronological pattern, but the individual chapters overlap and interfere with each other. The data given in the contents are useless. There are also far too many typos, mainly in the German words.
The book is about the German/Russian conflicts in the 20th century. It uses real historical people to transport us through time, mainly Shostakovich, but also others like Krupskaya, Kollwitz, Akhmatova etc. It is strongly based in art history. You could say that the novel is about music and war. You also need to know the communist party history quite well.
If you do not already have fairly broad knowledge of these historical subjects, the book will be meaningless to you. There is not much explanation. Some of the stories are "parables", i.e. they assume the reader can help himself as far as backgrounds are concerned. In the age of the internet, that is largely true, but relies on a lot of motivation. How many readers can a writer have that way?
I do not think he handles the Germanic mythology well in relation to the German elements of the story/history. Interpreting Nazi ideology in the light of the Nibelungen or of Parzival does not go very far. It would have pleased them too much, let's not give them the honor.
I am also not happy with the cosy nicknames that WTV finds for the evil guys: sleepwalker, Uncle Wolf, the realist ... why are they, Hitler and Stalin, depicted in such cute terms? Sarcasm?
After all these complaints, why still 4 stars?
The core of the book consists of strong historical "stories", like the "biographies" of Shostakovich's 7th symphony, in the chapter called "The Palm Tree of Deborah". Like the mini-bio of Roman Karmen, or the one of the tragic General Vlasov, or the one of poor Paulus, or the deeply sad story of "holy fool" Gerstein.
If only he had kept his scope to the mini-bios and staid out of the realm of mythology and of meaningful parables.