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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, April 17th, 2005


Europe Central

by William T. Vollmann

From the old old world

A review by Daniel Lukes

"We prefer our personal tragedies, because we're all cowards and bastards", notes one of many narrators in this long novel, thus providing the key to its thirty-six intertwined fictionalized historical narratives. As a tireless investigator of such diverse topics as the underworld of San Francisco prostitution (in The Royal Family, 2000), the first American settlers (in the continuing Seven Dreams cycle), the Mujahadeen (in An Afghanistan Picture Show, 1992) and the history of human violence (in the seven-volume Rising Up and Rising Down, 2003), the high priest of contemporary underground American fiction, William T. Vollmann, now turns his voracious eye to the Old World, ravaged by the Second World War, and presents us with his latest novelistic expanse, Europe Central.

Wide-reaching and hugely ambitious, this work tells the stories of major and minor figures on the German and Russian Fronts. They include people such as the Sixth Army commander, Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, who led the Germans at the siege of Stalingrad, the Russian General A. A. Vlasov, who crossed over to the Reich after his capture and formed a German-collaborationist Russian army, and Kurt Gerstein, an SS officer who risked his life in an attempt to inform the world about the Holocaust as it took place. There are also portraits of artists, poets and film-makers: Kathe Kollwitz, Anna Akhmatova and Roman Karmen. The novel's piece de resistance, however, is the life of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, his ambivalent relationship with the Stalin regime and, especially, his doomed love affair with a translator called Elena Konstantinovskaya, who plays the role here of eternal femme fatale: "Europe is Europa: Europe is a woman . . . above all, Europe is Elena".

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. He is well served by his acute eye for emotional impact and the now trademark literary cubism of his style -- first-person "collective" narrators, dispassionate reportage, see saw chronology, biographical music criticism, prismic Faulkneresque interior monologue, and more. Overkill is still largely Vollmann's preferred method of literary construction. "Can music attack evil?", Shostakovich asks one of his lovers, while grappling with what will become one of the struggles of his life: how to avoid capitulation to the regime. "Certainly not", she answers. "All it can do is scream." And there is a lot of screaming here.

Thankfully, there are passages of beauty and intensity amid the wintry corpse-laden gloom in Europe Central. The composer's brief but ardent love affair with Elena, which will then blossom into a slow-burning self-destructive lifelong obsession, allows Vollmann to exchange his usual dizzying pornographic overload for strokes of sensuous elegance, rich in symbolist grace:

"She was the only one he ever found who could have dwelled with him in that four-roomed house within his chest, which they were fully capable of connecting, by means of trumpetlike passageways, with the four chambers of her own heart, so that then they would have had quite the castle together, oh, my, sharing refuges and secrets."

If this whimsicality recalls the Vladimir Nabokov of Ada or Ardor, elsewhere, the spectres of Danilo Kis's gloomy mystical rationalism, and Milan Kundera's bitter- sweet love-among-the-ruins exuberance, loom heavily.

William T. Vollmann is at his best when conveying a sensual immediacy in prose, as in the impressionistic works such as Butterfly Stories (1993) and The Atlas (1996), which made his reputation as one of America's most compelling chroniclers of the self. That he has turned to the historical novel and made it his own, fashioning a work which is cinematic in scope, epic in ambition and continuously engaging, shows that he is one of the most important and fascinating writers of our time.

Daniel Lukes is a freelance journalist living in New York.

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