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William T. Vollmann: Europe Central

I have an ambivalent relationship with William Vollmann. His first book, You Bright and Risen Angels, was a glorious spewfest, so unrestrained in its messiness that the “transcendental” table of contents was overflowing with promises of later chapters that the actual novel never even got to. After that he kept the logorrhea but dialed back the technicolor craziness, which can turn his novels into a bit of a slog.

Europe Central, winner of the 2005 National Book Award and considered by many to be his best work, turned out to be about par for the course. It’s a sprawling linked collection of stories, mostly featuring actual historical characters, taking place in the Soviet Union and Germany over the course of the 20th century, linked mainly by World War II. The main character, if there can be said to be one, is the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, but many others appear, largely artists and military men. The loose theme is how people’s lives are changed (usually, ruined) by politics and war.

Many of the historical people portrayed in this novel were fascinating, and new to me: Andrey Vlasov, Friedrich Paulus, Kurt Gerstein, Hilde Benjamin. I might not have been as interested in the book if I already knew these people’s stories (and maybe if you follow those links you won’t be anymore either), since much of the interest for me was just the discovery of the stories themselves. It was worth reading the book just to find out about them.

But at the two-thirds point or so (of a 750-page novel) I started to get a little fatigued. For one thing, things started to get a little magical-realist in some of the stories, which was not really the ride I signed up for. Also, there’s a really long and slightly tedious section on the latter half of Shostakovich’s life (basically a long and futile attempt to write the music he wanted to unmolested by the demands of the Communist Party), and this story I did already know.

So by the time I staggered to the end I was pretty relieved to finally put it down, and I certainly didn’t enjoy every page, but I am glad I read it, although I will probably take a decent break before I read Vollmann again (including the 1344-page Imperial, just out this week!).

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