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Europe Centralby William T. Vollmann
"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." Daniel Lukes, the Times Literary Supplement (read the entire Times Literary Supplement)
Synopses & Reviews
"What once impelled millions of manned and unmanned bullets into motion? You say Germany. They say Russia. It certainly couldn't have been Europe herself, much less Europe Central, who's always such a good docile girl."
In his magnificent new work of fiction, Europe Central, acclaimed author William T. Vollmann turns his trenchant eye to the warring authoritarian cultures of Germany and the USSR in the twentieth century. The result is a daring and mesmerizing perspective on human actions during wartime.
In these intertwined paired stories, Vollmann compares and contrasts the moral decisions made by various figures from this period — some famous, some infamous, some unknown. In "The Last Field-Marshal" and "Breakout" he conjures up two generals, Friedrich Paulus, commander of Germany's Sixth Army, and Russian general A. A. Vlasov, who collaborate with the enemy for different reasons and with different results. Another pairing, "Zoya" and "Clean Hands," tells of two heroes — a female Russian partisan named Zoya who achieves martyrdom at the beginning of the war, and Kurt Gerstein, a young German who joins the SS in order to reveal its secrets and halt its crimes. Also explored in this book are the fates of artists and poets ranging from Käthe Kollwitz and Anna Akhmatova to Marina Tsvetaeva and Van Cliburn.
Perhaps Vollmann's signature accomplishment in Europe Central is a series of stories that examine the complex and elusive Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the constant Stalinist assaults upon his work and life. Here also Vollmann explores an imaginary love triangle between Shostakovich, the documentary filmmaker Roman Karmen, and Elena Konstantinovskaya, a translator who was intimate with Shostakovich for a year in the mid-1930s and thereafter married to Karmen for a brief time. In the novel, Shostakovich is a man consumed by fear and regret who does what little he can to uphold the freedom of artistic creation, and whose brief relationship with Elena dominates his life until its end. As Vollmann writes in this book, "Above all, Europa is Elena."
"In the small set of America's best contemporary novelists, Vollmann is the perpetual comet. Every two years or so he flashes across the sky with another incredibly learned, incredibly written, incredibly long novel. Two years ago, with Argall, he easily bested John Barth in the writing of 17th-century prose while taking up the tired story of the settlement of Jamestown and making it absolutely riveting. His latest departs from his usual themes — the borders between natives and Westerners, or prostitutes and johns — to take on Central Europe in the 20th century. 'The winged figures on the bridges of Berlin are now mostly flown, for certain things went wrong in Europe...' What went wrong is captured in profiles of real persons (Kathe Kollwitz, Kurt Gerstein, Dmitri Shostakovich, General Paulus and General Vlasov) as well as mythic personages (a shape-shifting Nazi communications officer and creatures from the German mythology Wagner incorporated into his operas). Operation Barbarossa — the German advance into Russia in 1941, and the subsequent German defeat at Stalingrad and Kursk — is central here, with the prewar and postwar scenes radiating out from it, as though the war were primary, not the nations engaged in it. The strongest chapter is a retelling of Kurt Gerstein's life; Gerstein was the SS officer who tried to warn the world about the concentration camps while working as the SS supply agent for the gas chambers. The weakest sections of the book are devoted to the love triangle between Shostakovich, Elena Konstantinovskaya and film director Roman Karmen. Throughout, Vollman develops counternarratives to memorialize those millions who paid the penalties of history. Few American writers infuse their writing with similar urgency. Agent, Susan Golomb. 5-city author tour. (Apr.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"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." Booklist (Starred Review)
"He contains multitudes, this remarkable prodigy....
"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." Minneapolis Star Tribune
"[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." Los Angeles Times
Audacious. Wildly ambitious. Prolific. All describe William T. Vollmann, author of the seven-volume nonfiction work Rising Up and Rising Down and the Seven Dreams sequence of novels, which the Chicago Tribune hailed as "likely to become one of the masterpieces of the century."
In Europe Central, Vollmann presents a mesmerizing series of intertwined paired stories that compare and contrast the moral decisions made by various figures — some famous, some infamous, some unknown — associated with the warring authoritarian cultures of Germany and the USSR in the twentieth century. He conjures up two generals, one Russian and one German, who collaborate with the enemy for different reasons and with different results. Another pairing tells of two heroes — a female Russian partisan martyred at the beginning of World War II and a young German man who joins the SS in order to reveal its secrets and halt its crimes. Several stories concern the complex and elusive Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the Stalinist assaults against his work and life; also explored are the fates of artists and poets such as Käthe Kollwitz, Anna Akhmatova, and the documentary filmmaker Roman Karmen. Europe Central is another high-wire act of fiction by a writer of prodigious talent.
In his newest work, Vollmann presents a mesmerizing series of intertwined paired stories that compare and contrast the moral decisions made by various figures — some famous, some infamous, some unknown — associated with the warring authoritarian cultures of Germany and the USSR in the 20th century.
About the Author
William T. Vollmann is the author of eight novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and Rising Up and Rising Down, which was a finalist for the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction. His 1996 story collection, The Atlas, won the PEN Center USA/West Award for best fiction and he was the recipient of a 1988 Whiting Writers Award. Vollmann's journalism has been published in The New Yorker, Esquire, Harpers, Granta, Grand Street, and Outside magazine.
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