whitehorseblackraven, September 20, 2011 (view all comments by whitehorseblackraven)
I am typically a HUGE fan of William T. Vollmann. I absolutely adored his other novels, particularly Ice-Shirt and Fathers & Crows. So when I saw that Europe Central won the National Book Award, and I noted critics saying things like this was "his most accessible book," I was quite excited! But, after attempting to slog through it, I really am befuddled by those positive and glowing reviews. In fact, I am finding it wholly inaccessible. Well-written, yes, but overly dense and strangely packed. It's a mystery to me why a book like Fathers & Crows didn't win a similar award. That book had me riveted for its 800-plus pages.
h2oetry, January 2, 2011 (view all comments by h2oetry)
How many dense 800+ page novels can I get through without hitting my head against a wall? Not sure, but here's another. Vollmann reigns supreme among living writers. I can't think of another American literature writer more prolific than Vollmann, and I'm going all the way back to the country's founding.
A historic novel set in early 20th century central Europe, EC depicts the mindset of many people (most are historically famous) put in moralistic binds during warfare. A modern War and Peace, essentially.
His treatment of composer Dmitri Shostakovich is standout. I've never read such beautiful prose describing music anywhere. If it were any more beautiful, it would actually be the music he is describing. Shostakovich was easily my favorite "character" in the novel.
The book makes use of plenty of source material, so it is essentially true history, only Vollmann employs artistic characterization to put a compelling narrative at work. A book of this magnitude seems like it would take decades upon decades upon decades to put together. Vollmann must have access to some of the best stimulants around.
At times it's difficult connecting the characters - some are brief and have seemingly no connection to others - but that's the thing. Each portion is meant to stand on its own, offering the worldview of that particular German/Russian person. I preferred the Russian parts of the book more than the German (which surprised me).
Europe Central succeeds in showing what it was like to live in a tumultuous time, and the difficulties humans have in trying to connect or disconnect with one another. I'd like to read this book again at some point, and think you'd be well to do the same.
Tallulah Hepburn, January 1, 2011 (view all comments by Tallulah Hepburn)
2010 was a great "year of reading" for me. I caught up on some classics (Madame Bovary) and favorite authors (Paul Auster), and discovered new favorites (Marilynne Robinson). Vollmann's Europe Central, however, was so much more than just another read. The man is a word wizard. I found myself reading passages over and over again for the sheer pleasure of their arrangement and projected atmosphere, and thought more than once, "wow, this is what they mean when they say 'literature'". If you like history you'll love this book. Vollmann fictionalizes real people (Hitler, Shostakovich, etc.) in an effort to explore love, war, violence, death, poverty, and fear in World War II Europe, and he does it with a flourish of trance-like language that seems to snare you in its web (a web you're pretty content to be stuck in). My goodness, just read how he describes a telephone: "From the receiver, now clattering like a dispatch rider's motorcycle across the cobblestones of Prague, to the black cold body, runs a coil whose elasticity draws out the process of strangulation." I'll never think of language the same after reading this book.
Apdirtybird, January 1, 2010 (view all comments by Apdirtybird)
The most embraceable and readable book from an incredible author. Differing viewpoints throughout, ranging from Russian and German Generals/Field-Marshals that switch sides, "doctors" working in concentration camps, everyday soldiers, prolific and historic painters, composers, and muses.
A truly great work that deserves all the acclaim it received and even more.
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"Review A Day"
by Daniel Lukes, the Times Literary Supplement,
"Vollmann intends the reading of his works to be an emotionally traumatic experience, and Europe Central is harrowing, in part because of its depressing subject, but also because of the raw and often sadistically insightful way the material is treated. To portray the novel as a thoroughly ominous and doom-laden affair would be unfair, however; Vollmann is still a master storyteller and bravura stylist, and he sustains and constantly reignites interest over the course of this lengthy book." (read the entire Times Literary Supplement)
by Washington Post,
"I've reviewed nearly all of Vollmann's books over the years and am running out of superlatives; suffice it to say, if you've been following his extraordinary career, Europe Central may be his best novel yet."
by Booklist (Starred Review),
"Vollmann [is] a master of synthesis and an intense and compassionate writer....[A] work of compelling intimacy....Vollmann opens new portals onto a genocidal war never to be forgotten, and illuminates both the misery and beauty human beings engender."
by Los Angeles Times,
"[T]he only book of fiction I know that includes 50-plus pages of endnotes — yet it justifies such notes as it justifies every single fiery page that precedes them....Europe Central is more than physically enormous; it is morally significant."
by Minneapolis Star Tribune,
"Europe Central is easily Vollmann's greatest work, and it deserves a central place in what must be our continuous imagining of the horrors we are all too capable of reliving."
by Kirkus Reviews,
"He contains multitudes, this remarkable prodigy....[P]art hubristic overkill, part unruly masterpiece, this startling fever dream is another accomplishment from one of the world's maddest, most commanding and necessary writers."
In his newest work, Vollmann presents a mesmerizing series of intertwined paired stories that compare and contrast the moral decisions made by various figures associated with the warring authoritarian cultures of Germany and the USSR in the 20th century.
In this magnificent work of fiction, William T. Vollmann turns his trenchant eye to the authoritarian cultures of Germany and the USSR in the twentieth century. Assembling a composite portrait of these two warring leviathans and the terrible age they defined, the narrative intertwines experiences both real and fictionalÂ—a young German who joins the SS to expose its crimes, two generals who collaborate with the enemy for different reasons, the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich laboring under Stalinist oppression. Through these and other lives, Vollmann offers a daring and mesmerizing perspective on human actions during wartime.
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