Europe Central Paperback – Nov 14 2005
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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.
"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.
Top Customer Reviews
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The novel is not organized round a plot that points at any conclusion; rather, it is a sequence of vignettes that contribute to a Gestalt of the times it covers. Certain characters, especially the composer Dmitri Shostakovich and his love interest Elena Konstantinovskaya, have a presence throughout the novel, but the vignettes are in only a loose chronological order. I found this presentation extremely effective. Readers who find themselves adrift without the presence of a plot may not enjoy 'Europe Central' as much as I did, but I urge anyone who appreciates good literature, or who is interested in the Second World War, the Cold War, and the history of European totalitarianism, to give it a good long try.
You cannot read one without the other.
It is that rare book that one finishes and takes a breath and then begins again.
I am not sure myself, if I fully "like" the novel, apart from the fact that I read it like a crime novel. Interesting, fascinating, yes. But: does it mean something or is it just pretentious?
Does he have to play around with the narrator so much? One moment it sounds like WTV himself, including cocquetish apologies for interfering with the story, then, next line, it is somebody else, not always quite clear who. It seems arbitrary, not following a need of the story, nor of history. Sometimes it seems to be clear that the narrators are Russian or German police agents. Do they have to sound so vulgar and so anachronistically modern?
There is also a problem with the editing of this book. The explanation on sources mentions a chronology: where is it? Deleted? The contents list gives data for the chapters, which seem totally off. The story follows some chronological pattern, but the individual chapters overlap and interfere with each other. The data given in the contents are useless. There are also far too many typos, mainly in the German words.
The book is about the German/Russian conflicts in the 20th century. It uses real historical people to transport us through time, mainly Shostakovich, but also others like Krupskaya, Kollwitz, Akhmatova etc. It is strongly based in art history. You could say that the novel is about music and war. You also need to know the communist party history quite well.
If you do not already have fairly broad knowledge of these historical subjects, the book will be meaningless to you. There is not much explanation. Some of the stories are "parables", i.e. they assume the reader can help himself as far as backgrounds are concerned. In the age of the internet, that is largely true, but relies on a lot of motivation. How many readers can a writer have that way?
I do not think he handles the Germanic mythology well in relation to the German elements of the story/history. Interpreting Nazi ideology in the light of the Nibelungen or of Parzival does not go very far. It would have pleased them too much, let's not give them the honor.
I am also not happy with the cosy nicknames that WTV finds for the evil guys: sleepwalker, Uncle Wolf, the realist ... why are they, Hitler and Stalin, depicted in such cute terms? Sarcasm?
After all these complaints, why still 4 stars?
The core of the book consists of strong historical "stories", like the "biographies" of Shostakovich's 7th symphony, in the chapter called "The Palm Tree of Deborah". Like the mini-bio of Roman Karmen, or the one of the tragic General Vlasov, or the one of poor Paulus, or the deeply sad story of "holy fool" Gerstein.
If only he had kept his scope to the mini-bios and staid out of the realm of mythology and of meaningful parables.
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.
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!