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Empathy for the Devil

More Tender But No Less Ambitious, William T. Vollmann Opens a New Chapter in His Already Prolific Career With Europe Central

Emily Flake

By Bret McCabe | Posted 4/27/2005

Europe Central

By William T. Vollmann

Viking, clothbound

Tenderness isn’t the first word that comes to mind when thinking of William T. Vollmann. The fearless author who survived a sniper attack in Yugoslavia is friend and confidant to prostitutes the world over, was once an insider to white-power skinheads prowling San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, and has long been mistakenly allied either with America’s manly writers (a make-believe tree filled out with Charles Bukowski, Ernest Hemingway, Sebastian Junger, et al.) or the so-called maximalist wing of postmodernists (another pseudo-genre lassoing David Foster Wallace, Joseph McElroy, David Markson, Thomas Pynchon, etc.). While Vollmann's oddly personal journalism and meticulously researched, information- and adventure-packed novels mine the more extreme consequences of human nature, his recent inquiry into the history of violence (2003’s Rising Up Rising Down) suggests alliances with both camps. His latest epic, the mammoth novel Europe Central, offers surprising glimpses of touching humanity that may signal a shift in Vollmann’s unfathomably prolific endeavor.

Blame it on Dmitri Shostakovich. One of the many personalities that pass through the panoramic Europe Central, the Russian composer is introduced through an object of love/lust: artist Elena Konstantinovskaya, wife of Soviet documentary filmmaker Roman Karmen. Vollmann has Shostakovich fantasize her as something only a Russian at the dawn of the Communist experiment could covet, as an idealized “Rodchenko angel” with outstretched arms. It’s a documented relationship the author inflates into a possible love triangle, and it sparks some of most subtly dazzling writing from a writer whose idea of subtle has previously been confined to the 800-page tome. “He could sight read her, so to speak; he knew how to make her feel as though an orchestra were playing.”

That may read like an obvious and simple metaphor, but for Vollmann, allowing the simple is a minor miracle. In the nearly 10,000 book pages he has published since debuting with 1987’s You Bright and Risen Angels, Vollmann has aspired to a Comte de Lautreamont-florid prose that wields words like amino acids, twisting sentences into densely packed double helixes of long-strand DNA. It’s a process that weds his adamant combination of primary research of historical sources with contemporary ethnographic fieldwork to prime the novelistic imagination. And while such efforts have spawned the muscular historical fiction of his Seven Dreams series of New World populations in their first encounters with their oppressors, in Europe Central it precipitates a flood of very human emotions in carefully crafted sentences that often pierce the heart.

Europe Central crosscuts almost linearly between Germany and the nascent Soviet Union from 1914 to 1975, told in episodic, thematic chapter-books through a rotating cast of citizens and military personnel, all operating under the shadows cast by the “sleepwalker” (Adolf Hitler) and the “realist” (Josef Stalin), who keep watchful eyes over their flocks. (The seamlessly insidious way Vollmann portrays each leader’s effortless ability to remove undesirables, sustaining the metaphor of the telephone as passive surveillance instrument throughout, is one of the novel’s most chillingly understated leitmotifs.) Central does contain its share of Vollmann’s typical fascination with life during wartime—as in the story/chapter “CleanHands,” about German SS officer Kurt Gerstein, who tried to thwart the Final Solution, and “The Last Field-Marshall,” about a German officer and a Soviet officer who disobey orders to spare their ranks—but it’s his dealings with the noncombatants collaterally damaged by life under dictatorships that make the novel soar.

Chief among those are the chapters dealing with Shostakovich. “Opus 40” parallels the precarious, roughly sketched Shostakovich-Konstantinovskaya affair with Shostakovich’s own crumbling relationship with the Communist Party (and his own slow realization as to what that could mean), while “Opus 110” is an ass-flattener, a novella unto itself in which Vollmann outlines how much of Shostakovich’s personally painful life is infused into his heralded 1960 string quartet. These deeply moving Shostakovich chapters are modest departures from the author’s usual norm, and early in the novel Vollmann, for all the incongruous first-person tangents scattered through his writing like a breadcrumb path into an endless labyrinth, concedes a direct reader address:

Most literary critics agree that fiction cannot be reduced to mere falsehood. Well-crafted protagonists come to life, pornography causes orgasms, and the pretense that life is what we want it to be may conceivably bring about the desired condition. Hence religious parables, socialist realism, Nazi propaganda. And if this story likewise crawls with reactionary supernaturalism, that might be because its author longs to see letters scuttling across ceilings, cautiously beginning to reify themselves into angels. For if they could do only that, then why not us?

This paragraph is the closest Vollmann has ever come to stating clearly his entire literary endeavor, and for the legions who have followed his writings’ meteoric burn, it arrives with the burden-lift of a blessing. Europe Central isn’t Vollmann’s best (still 1992’s unsung masterpiece Fathers and Crows) nor his most accessible (1997’s short-story collection-qua-thematic palindrome Atlas), but it could be a welcome midcareer turning point, as if finally finishing Rising Up Rising Down has permitted him to turn his prodigious brain and talent on the empathies of human weaknesses as diligently as he’s applied them to horrors of human will.

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