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Europe Central [Paperback]

William T. Vollmann
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Nov. 18 2005
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 fictional—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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From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

"We have a Motherland and they have a Fatherland. Their child is Europe Central," muses one of the many sly narrators in this grand matrix of paired stories about moments of truth during the most brutal conflict of World War II, the war between Russia and Germany. Following his landmark opus on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down (2003), Vollmann, a master of synthesis and an intense and compassionate writer, presents an epic inquiry into the nature of conscience and survival in catastrophic times. His guiding light is the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who managed to create works of profound elegiac beauty under the murderous censorship of Stalin's regime, and not only does Vollmann empathetically portray this controversial figure, he also emulates the rich drama of his music. In spite of the massiveness of this zealously researched creation (replete with 50 pages of notes), Europe Central is a work of compelling intimacy as Vollmann imagines the inner lives of individuals caught up in an orgy of hate, fear, and apocalyptic violence. Here are provocative portraits of the German artist Kathe Kollwitz; the revered Russian poet Anna Akhmatova; translator Elena Konstantinovskaya, whom Vollmann casts as the love of Shostakovich's tormented life; and the "spy for God," Kurt Gerstein, an SS officer who tries to tell the disbelieving world the truth about the Holocaust. Working, as is his wont, on a monumental scale that embodies the full complexity of the dilemmas and horrors he grapples with, Vollmann opens new portals onto a genocidal war never to be forgotten, and illuminates both the misery and beauty human beings engender. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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A squat black telephone, I mean an octopus, the god of our Signal Corps, owns a recess in Berlin (more probably Moscow, which one German general has named the core of the enemy's whole being). Read the first page
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deciphering history on the grandest scale April 15 2007
By Ian Gordon Malcomson HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
In typical Vollman fashion, "Europe Central" turned out to be a massively brilliant historical re-assessment of how the forces of history can shape and be shaped by people's lives. In this very complex story, the reader gets to see both the heroic and craven actions of a number of epic personalities like General Paulus, Dmitri Shostakovich, Kurt Gerstein, and others play out during World War II. To make this book really momentous, Vollman introduces the idea that history writ large is really a dynamic interplay between the forces of impersonal demagoguery and personal choice. Seen in this light, history is not one mighty tidal wave threatening to wipe out whole civilizations in war but a series of interconnected battles where people struggle to stand up to evil and tyranny. Vollman's description of the intricacies of Gerstein's and Shostakovich's lives shows how hard this challenge really is. He continually makes the point that this concept of a strong Europe throughout history is the direct result of an ongoing titanic battle between the power of the state and the freedoms of the individual. Well worth the read.
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Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  48 reviews
113 of 130 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Symphonies & tombstones July 17 2005
By John L Murphy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Having finished the book a few minutes ago, I must record my reactions. I spent the last few weeks in its passages--on and off, necessarily--it's an overwhelming monolith as forbidding as its 1935 "Deutschland, das Land der Musik" stylized eagle cover image. Yet, like the somber image, it attracts a certain reader curious to part the curtain and enter. This mythic structure towers over the individual, whether in the storylines or ourselves, wandering into a great labyrinth.

The blurbs summarize the plots, but a few overall reactions may let you know if this book may be worth the considerable effort and investment of time. I was pleased to see that in the sources appended to the text, Guy Sajer's outstanding memoir (which I've also reviewed for Amazon) The Forgotten Soldier is cited first of all. This account (which has been asserted by some to take liberties with fact) of an Alsatian fighting for the Germans on the Ostfront came often to mind as I read Vollmann. The author's scope and research simply is not the type we expect to find so evidently scaffolding even "historical fiction," and this involved me more in the result even as it distanced me from the conceit that I was listening to fully-realized narrators rather than, as Vollmann gives away in one footnote, a "fabulist."

The musical themes I found appropriate, but lacking knowledge of Shostakovich's ouevre, the exacting attention given to them left me floundering for long stretches of an already nearly endless work. (My wife was reading Anna Karenina simultaneously, and we kept pace with each other!) Unlike the earlier Russian writers, Vollmann's epic does not unfold so easily. Even with background knowledge of the conflicts (in no small part thanks to Sajer), the panoramas, like the Ostfront serving as the focus for so many scenes, astonish but diminish you as a reader, struggling to keep up with the events. Perhaps this reaction is intended by Vollmann as the appropriate response?

My favorite parts were those of Kurt Gerstein, Van Cliburn, Vlasov and Paulus, and Hilde Benjamin, the GDR's "Red Guillotine." Vollmann takes on a very intriguing narrative style imitating the leaden justifications of Soviet propagandists well for many vignettes, and his energy often seems more expended on the side of the USSR rather than the "German Fascist" entries, leaving the book a bit more lopsided than the design of paired stories would suggest. This probably, given the determinism of the Soviets as well as actual events, nonetheless may convey the force--in so many ways--of the Russian over the German ideology in the struggle for Europe Central--which tends to get overlooked, actually, in the novel in favor of the Russian steppes.

If you're somewhat familiar with the contexts already, this is in my opinion a fitting and challenging work that will force you to enter into the minds of people that you may have only glimpsed at a distance in grainy documentaries--this itself serves as one of many motifs--the humanity is less directly perceived than in more accessible, sentimentalized, or tidy novels.

Yes, the work needed an editor. A lesser author would have ironically earned another star! But a writer as intelligent as Vollmann should know that he needs to keep his reader in mind, and not expect us to labor for so long on what his labor needs to compress into a more comprehensible form. The Shostakovich-Elena-Karman triangle makes its point and encapsulates the question of "can art fight evil" well. But it goes on three times longer than needed in an already stuffed narrative that needed more concentration upon, say Zoya. The ties with the Nibelungenlied, Tristan, and the Germanic myth are excellent, but I think these could have been tightened and honed. You also sense that Stalingrad, Dresden, the gulags and lagers all are filtered through book-learning. Vollmann for all his impressive research tends to let it sit on the page as "facts that need to be made into fiction to make it a WWII story" rather than to incorporate what's been published as memoirs and first-hand interviews, say, into vividly rendered experiences transferred into the plight of his imagined protagonists.

For many authors, this would have been the work of a lifetime. For this prolific if admittedly prolix writer, (most of whose books I've gone on to review in late 2013/first half of 2014) it's an immersion that seems to have been, more or less effectively in parts rather than the whole--within who knows what shorter time. And what's Vollmann getting at in blaming "wartime paper shortages" for the lack of the supplement's chronology? Perhaps a sly relevance for us today?
121 of 140 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Timely, Insightful, and Pynchon-esque May 18 2005
By Guy Rittger - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
First, "Europe Central" is not a work for those who need linear narrative structure - "plot" in the conventional sense - unambiguous authorial "voice", and all the trappings of popular, realist fiction. Vollmann writes in a stylistic mode that is simultaneously impressionistic and expressionistic - jarring "realist" imagery juxtaposed against swirling emotions that flow around, between and through the multitude of characterizations (not "characters") that populate the work. Readers unaccustomed to the styles of high modernist and post-modernist fiction such as the works of Thomas Pynchon, Antonio Lobos Antunes or Juan Goytisolo will find themselves struggling continually and probably find the novel impenetrable.

For the rest of us, "Europe Central" is a much-needed antidote to the American exceptionalist, "Good War" nostalgia that informs so many American accounts of the 20th century. The corollary of this perspective is to simultaneously anthropomorphize "Europe" and dehumanize "Europeans" in an attempt to contrast them unfavorably to "America" and "Americans". Indeed, this is precisely the discourse that we currently hear so frequently from various corners of our much-benighted country.

In this respect, "Europe Central" succeeds in many of the same ways that the recent film "Downfall" succeeds: i.e., by humanizing the protoganists of some of the world's most catastrophic events and forcing the reader / viewer to ask the question, "In similar circumstances would I have felt or acted any differently?"

What dismays many readers is precisely the discomfort of having to "read" through the authorial perspective of narrators whose moral positions are not clear-cut, who are compromised by their proximity to or intimate involvement in actions that "history" has labeled attrocities or war crimes. The present response of denial and disbelief of many Americans to U.S. military attrocities in Afghanistan and Iraq underscores this quite strongly.

Apart from the politics of "Europe Central" - which should not be construed in knee-jerk fashion as "leftist" or "fascist" (though it is interesting how the work will no doubt attract both epithets) - the novel is stylistically rich and exhibits the kind of virtuosity that is rarely encountered these days, at least in terms of the scope of Vollmann's intent.

I personally found the book both very difficult and very exhilirating to read. You may be an experienced reader but the unfamiliarity of the narrative terrain, the twists and turns, the strange background and place names, the polymorphous characterizations, the polysynchronic narrative structure, will all contribute to a challenging read.

I strongly recommend the book to readers who like to work hard at their reading. I also recommend it to those, like me, who find the current "America" / "American" realities disorienting and depressing.
28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Some riveting, some super-boring Nov. 29 2005
By Schmerguls - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Since I try to read all the National Book Award winning fiction, I read this. Much of it is a chore to read: unless you have an interest in music or in Shostakovich's love life there are pages and pages which are dull and pointless. But there are sections which cannot help but excite one's interest. The account of the battle for Stalingrad, told mostly from Marshal Paulus' viewpoint, is vivid and easy reading. This is also true of the account of the SS officer who took risks trying to get word of the incredible events being perpetrated by the Nazis in the land under their domination, and of the account of the Russian general who was captured and then worked for the Germans. In other words, when Vollmann is relating things which maybe are true, the book holds one's interest. But when he talks endlessly about musical compositions by Shostokovich and his muings about his loves the effect is glazingly boring. I will admit I was mighty glad to get to the last page of this book. (The 59 pages of notes should be perused as one finishes each corresponding chapter--the notes are of some help, but there is no bibliography as such, and there should be.)
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterpiece, but with reservations June 18 2006
By R L B - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
William T Vollmann follows in a long and almost uniquely American tradition - including dos Passos, Pynchon, Barth, de Lillo, Gass and Gaddis - of writers of big, slightly impersonal, self-consciously literary novels attempting to document a significant slab of history, usually involving some element of the formal innovations of modernism. Like many of its predecessors, this is not a true novel, but a fantasia on historical themes, veering in and out of biography, history, fiction and musicology.

As a work of history and biography, Vollmann's erudition is impressive. This is evident not merely from the text of the book but from the extensive bibliography, which while interesting is unnecessary for a novel unless, as I suspect is the case, Vollmann puts this forward to demonstrate the moral and historiographic case for his book.

The novel consists of the dramatisation of the roles of many of the key players in the great ideological struggles of the 1940s, both between Russia and Germany, but also within those countries. In portraying these historical figures as fictional characters - Shostakovich, General Vlasov, Field Marshall Paulus, Kurt Gerstein, Anna Akhmatova and others - Vollmann privileges us with an insight into the dilemmas and ambiguities that characterised their existence under totalitarian regimes in which personal resistance - however seemingly passive - could be fatal.

Despite some of the comments from other reviewers, I found the novel a relatively "easy" read - that is, it was engrossing and fascinating. But at the same time it took a long time - several weeks - to read it, not merely because of its size, but because it so often required me to put the book down to reflect on what I had been reading. Many of the scenes are harrowing and disturbing. Many others throw a new light on historical events I had thought I was familiar with, and in that sense the novel is a great success.

However, to appreciate this book it is necessary to be familiar with and interested in this period of history, and a working knowledge of the Stalingrad campaign, the music of Shostakovich and the Stalinist period are useful or, as others have noted, the novel may not mean very much to you.

Some sections of the novel are more convincing than others. Vollmann's fictional analysis of military detail is more convincing than his musicological knowledge - the discussion of Shostakovich's work, such as the "Leningrad" symphony or the 8th string quartet strike me as the comments of an enthusiastic amateur; someone with technical musical training would describe these works and their gestation in quite different terms. (Compare the way Thomas Mann described Beethoven's last piano sonata in "Doktor Faustus", for example.)

As other reviewers have pointed out, the identity of the various perspectives from which the novel is written are not always clear. We do not often know who is speaking - sometimes the character, sometimes an unnamed KGB(?) officer or German equivalent, sometimes an impersonal narrator. Perhaps this is intentional. There is also very little variation in tone between the voices of the different characters.

A serious reservation is whether the histories of many of these figures and events are appropriate subject matter for fiction at all. There is an argument along the lines that any fictionalisation of these events and characters somehow diminishes their sense of "reality", especially if the purpose of fiction is, amongst other things, entertainment. I do not think there is (or can ever be) a clear resolution of this issue, and while I believe that nothing is outside the scope of art, I think artists who deal in issues such as this have a much greater responsibility in the way they treat these events. (As examples, the film "Schindler's List" raises difficult questions, while novels such as DM Thomas' "The White Hotel" and Martin Amis' "Time's Arrow" in my opinion clearly cross the line and represent the grossly irresponsible treatment of their subject matter, which ultimately has the effect of trivialising these events.)While I think that Vollmann has treated these subjects responsibly, I am still occasionally troubled by the fictionalisation of some of these events.

Overall, I found "Europe Central" to be a compelling book and, genuinely, a great one. Vollmann has tackled an extremely difficult subject, and reproduced the interior lives of these characters effectively, with intelligence and a sense (if not the actuality) of authenticity. The scope of the novel is incredibly ambitious, and the fact that there are some reservations about its complete success does not in any way diminish the undoubted greatness of the novel. Like most masterpieces, it is flawed, but I nevertheless believe that "Europe Central" is a genuine masterpiece. Highly recommended.
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An infuriating masterpiece Sept. 17 2006
By Roger Brunyate - Published on Amazon.com
Verified Purchase
I don't think I've read a book for which all the Amazon readers' reviews, whether positive or negative, are so perceptive in penetrating at least some aspects of what is an incredibly complex structure. That says much about the power of what Vollmann undertakes, whether or not he suceeds with every reader.

For myself, I am heartily glad to have finished with the book, which has been hanging around my neck for a long time. And yet I could not simply give up on it. For one thing, it told me a lot about aspects of 20th-century history that I barely knew, such as the early years of Stalinism and the Nazi war on the eastern front, as well as touching on things that I thought I knew pretty well, such as the long struggle of the composer Shostakovich with the Soviet authorities. For another, several of its huge central chapters offered gripping portraits of real people caught in situations of moral ambiguity: the captured Russian General Vlasov who allowed himself to be used to recruit an army of expatriates to fight against Stalin; Field-Marshal Paulus, holding precariously to his honor through the debacle at Stalingrad; Kurt Gerstein, who became a functionary of the Final Solution even as he tried to blow the whistle on it; and the "Red Guillotine" Hilde Benjamin, the hanging judge of the DDR, who too late comes to question her own rigidity.

As a musician, I ordered the book because its main character, Dmitri Shostakovich, is one of my favorite composers. He is indeed treated at length, but I found these sections only intermittently satisfactory, and ultimately infuriating. His music -- primarily the cello sonata, the fifth and seventh symphonies, the eighth quartet, and the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk -- is cited as a repository for far more sound impressions, political reactions, and extreme emotions than the notes can possibly bear. The composer's story is interwoven with a plethora of romantic liasons, real or increasingly fantasized, which soon become tedious. These chapters in particular are dotted with throwaway references to other characters, mentioned in Soviet style by surname and initials only, which even a specialist might fail to identify completely. And the narrative voice, which elsewhere has the stylistic neutrality of political propaganda, takes on a curious vagueness when dealing with Shostakovich, in which thoughts are, as it were, started, and, so to speak, never quite.... The composer might not have dared to declare himself except through the ambiguous medium of music, but it is risky for an author to assume the same privilege.

Undoubtedly, the strongest chapters deal with the War itself. I could recommend pages 260-471 to anyone, even if read on their own, and there are strong chapters both before and after. But with the defeat of Germany, a haze of unreality permeates the novel: the objective historical writing generally ceases, and a kind of extended nightmare takes its place; perhaps this is intended as a political parallel, but it makes it difficult to persevere. Only at the very end, with twenty pages describing the end of Shostakovich's life and a fine chapter on American pianist Van Cliburn's success in the Moscow Tchaikowsky Competition, does the novel come back to earth.

Still, read it and wonder. It is not every day that a contemporary novelist will dare to emulate Tolstoy on his home turf!
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