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.