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
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Vollmann's 750-page novel moves back and forth between the two central antagonists in the war, Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia, presenting fictionalized accounts of real historical individuals and events. I initially found the style difficult, and it took me months to finally finish, setting it down periodically before returning. There were two things that compelled me to pick it up and to persevere -- first, my annual trips to Berlin for the past several years, which have led to a fascination with German history, and second, my love for the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who is the central fictionalized character in the novel.
Most of the characters are closely based on real life, and Vollmann did impressively extensive research -- the sources are presented at the back of the book. But he created an imaginary lover for Shostakovich, and a love triangle also featuring a Soviet filmmaker is the most developed set of characters in the novel. Other than the composer, I found the accounts of two generals, General Vlasov, who was captured by the Germans, and General Paulus, who was captured by the Russians after his defeat at Stalingrad, to be the most gripping and impressive, with Vollmann demonstrating his ability to inhabit the thinking of his characters.
Europe Central won the National Book Award. I recommend it to anyone interested in modern literary insight into the most brutal, consequential event of the 20th Century.
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.
I particularly enjoy the author’s vivid image of those old black rotary telephones having ten eyes, “that octopus whose ten round eyes, each inscribed with a number, glare through you at the world.” and then linking the telephone with sleepwalker Hitler: “The sleepwalker in the Reich Chancellery could tell you (not that he would) they’re his eyes, lidless, oval, which imparts to them a monotonously idiotic or hysterical appearance . . . “. It’s that fluid yet deadly interplay of objects with the human, as if Hitler is so omnipresent he is looking at all Nazis under his command as well as the entire population of Europe through the ten eyes of each and every black telephone, 1930s-1940s ubiquitous device par excellence. “The sleepwalker’s all eyes” And in terms of using his eyes, let's not forget Hitler spent many years dedicated to the visual arts, drawing and painting as a near-starving artist in Vienna.
Reading the first section ‘Steel in Motion’ I catch initial glimpses of the novel’s stunning historical references, for example: “Barrage balloons swim in the air, finned and fat like children’s renderings” Bulls-eye, WTV! Perfect simile; that’s exactly what those barrage balloons looked like, balloon used by the British to defend against air attacks – the cables holding up the balloon would damage enemy aircraft.
“Steel imbued with the sleepwalker’s magic sight, illuminates itself as it comes murdering." Again, 'Europe Central' shares much with the photomontage of artists like Hannah Höch and John Heartfield, a steely emphasis on the intertwining of humans with technologies, for example, another image of the octopus-telephone: “From the anus-mouth behind the dial.” Vollmann soaks the black gadget for all its worth, telephone as the eyes and anus of Hitler. Yet again, another striking quote: “Don’t trust any technicians who assure you that this brain is “neutral” – soon you’ll hear how angrily the receiver jitters in its cradle.” The author picks up on Marshall McLuhan -- the media is the message. It’s as if in Europe Central the gadgets and all that steel exude a life of their own and are manipulating humans as their flesh-and-blood pawns. “Behind the wall, rubberized black tentacles spread across Europe.” Ominous, ominous – 20th century technology as the strangling octopus, throttling, choking and crushing humans as if they are a school of helpless little fish in an ocean of steely, unforgiving tentacles.
Then, in the section entitled “The Saviors: A Kabbalistic Tale” The author uses Aristotelian compare and contrast in presenting Fanya Kaplan with N.K.Krupskaya,, two women who saw themselves as good Marxist comrades marching shoulder to shoulder with other likeminded comrades toward the land of final synthesis as in Hegel-turned-on-his-head thesis-antithesis-synthesis. And age 28 special for both Ks, Kaplan and Krupskaya, since Krupskaya at age 28 married Lenin and Kaplan at age 28 shot him. And each woman, as per vintage photos, were stunning as a 20-year-old, but, oh my goodness, did women age quickly back then, especially when sent to prison or Siberia for years of hard labor.
Anyway, Vollmann packs in historical facts and lyrical images as if he were stuffing 25 pounds of potatoes into a 10 pound sack, for example, we read the following of the last 4 days in Fanya Kaplan’s life after she shot Lenin: “a huddle of twenty-four grey subterranean hours like orphaned mice; and in the flesh of every hour a swarm of useless moments like ants whose queen has perished; and within each moment an uncountable multitude of instants resembling starpointed syllables shaken out of words . . . “ If you were counting, that’s three similes tightly packed in. I read a Paris Review interview where Vollmann relates how at one time in his life he was writing 16 hours a day. Now that’s a writer on fire! . . . and perhaps on cocaine, speed, or, at least, caffeine.
For the narrator of Europe Central, people stand tall like a certain letter of the alphabet, ideas glow like a letter, words hum like a letter, which reminds me of that Georges Perec quote: “Is the aleph that place in Borges from which the entire world is visible simultaneously, anything other than an alphabet?” And these Europe Central times are times for men and women of action, as in the action-packed words of Comrade N. V. Krylenko “We must execute not only the guilty. Execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more.” Ironically, Comrade Krylenko would himself be shot – I wonder if the masses were impressed.
However, nobody could ever doubt Comrade Krylenko was a revolutionary who took his revolution seriously. And equally ironic, through all the revolutionary slaughter, one of N. K. Krepskaya’s very favorite books was Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women.’ And there’s a scene of N. K. Krepskaya meeting Fanya Kaplan in a prison cell that provides a stroke of Latin American-style magical realism: "Then the letters disappeared into the woman's mouth. Krupskaya was speechless. The woman began to glow more and more, until the light from her was as white and pure as a page of the Torah."
One of my favorite parts of the novel was all the references to Dimitri Shostakovich and his music. For example: “Best listened to in a windowless room, better than best an airless room – correctly speaking a bunker sealed forever and enwrapped in tree-roots – the Eighth String Quartet of Shostakovich (Opus 110) is the living corpse of music, perfect in its horror. Call it the simultaneous asphyxiation and bleeding of melody.” To gain a keener insight and feeling for this novel, I listened to this and other Shostakovich string quartets repeatedly during my reading. All in all, I great novel, but I must say not a novel exactly to my taste since I found, for one thing, the shifting first-person narrator at a distance from the other characters. I contrast this with another 800 page novel set in Europe and Russia during WWII: “The Kindly Ones” by Jonathan Littell, a novel where the first-person narrator was a member of the Nazi SS. The evil of Littell's novel was so real, so immediate, so powerful, I had to listen to the audiobook while taking my walks and let the evil run down my legs and out the bottom of my feet. Europe Central is an encyclopedic literary monument to an incredible time in 20th century European history but, for me, Vollmann’s novel lacks the power of Littell’s.
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.
You cannot read one without the other.
It is that rare book that one finishes and takes a breath and then begins again.