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 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 Sajet), 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, 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?