Monday, September 29, 2014

William Vollmann, Europe Central

I have spent much of my spare time over the past month slogging through William Vollmann's 750-page epic, which won the National Book Award in 2005. I had several reasons for persevering with Europe Central. Vollmann is regarded in some circles as one of our most important thinkers, or at least the most intellectually interesting novelist of our times. He is an outsider intellectual, not part of academia or any other identifiable cultural elite. Since I also sometimes consider myself an outsider intellectual, I wanted to give his work a try, and various critics have proclaimed Europe Central his most accessible and possibly best book. Plus, it is interesting, in parts very much so. So I kept at it until I finally stumbled to the end.

Europe Central is a historical novel about the region between Dresden and Moscow over the period from 1920 to 1970, focusing mainly on World War II. It is divided into sections that have no direct connection to each other. Each section follows one character or small group of characters, all of them historical people, for a period that varies from a few months to many years. The characters include German artist and antiwar activist Käthe Kollwitz; Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, the German commander at Stalingrad; SS officer Kurt Gerstein, who tried to document the atrocities of the Holocaust so that its organizers could eventually be prosecuted; Soviet general Andrey Vlasov, who ended up trying to lead an army of anti-Stalinists fighting on the Nazi side; Russian film director Roman Karmen; East German prosecutor and judge Hilde Benjamin; and especially composer Dmitri Shostakovich, the only character who comes back for repeated chapters. The Shostakovich chapters were actually my least favorite, and I kept groaning whenever he appeared again, but as I will explain I think they are crucial to understanding what Vollmann was about.

Vollmann's research is prodigious, and sometimes he chooses scenes or events that brilliantly illuminate the times. But I have to say that his writing often irritated me. His attempts to vary the storytelling voice result in prose that is shrill, disjointed, and more distracting than anything else. At several points I found myself thinking, this is interesting but only because of the history, and I would have liked it a lot better if Vollmann had just written a straight historical narrative. Europe Central contains a variety of surreal departures from history that are mostly unsuccessful, although I rather enjoyed the chapter in which a German soldier at Kursk finds himself re-enacting the Niebelungenlied in the company of Wotan, battling Soviet soldiers who keep rising back up as zombies. In this Europe Central reminded me of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, which is also full of fascinating history but written in such an irritating way that I never finished it.

What Vollmann captures in Europe Central is the need to make choices. Often all the choices are bad -- after all, the characters are trapped between Hitler and Stalin -- but that is no excuse not to choose. Vollmann's main interest has always been the marginal and downtrodden, rather than the movers and shakers of the world. The characters of Europe Central are mainly people caught up in events over which they have no control, events so terrible that they could do hardly anything to mitigate them even if they tried. Yet they still face choices. Vollmann has said that there are two heroes in the book, Shostakovich and Kurt Gerstein, both of whom (says Vollmann) fought against the atrocities of their age as best they could. This is interesting because both men camouflaged their resistance under facades of obedience, and in fact both were attacked as willing servants of tyranny. Gerstein was actually indicted for genocide and killed himself in prison. Shostakovich had strange career under Stalin, interrogated several times by the NKVD, forced to engage in "self criticism" over some of his works that were deemed anti-Soviet, but then awarded the Stalin Prize for his Leningrad Symphony. In Vollmann's telling he gives just enough obedience to the party to stay alive, while secretly writing music that serves to catalog its crimes. Mainly Shostakovich tries not to think about politics at all, preferring to anguish over his love affairs, which is the most tiresome thing about Europe Central. Vollmann's Shostakovich is one of those men who has many lovers but imagines each relationship as a great and perfect love and is devastated when one of his lovers rejects him. He becomes obsessed with the one woman who refused him and thinks of her more often than anyone else. She seems to represent everything else that slipped away: innocence, youth, artistic integrity, all the friends who disappeared into the Gulag or were killed in he war. At times Vollmann seems to present passionate love as the one of the two possible antidotes to totalitarianism; Shostakovich remains in some sense pure through the war and the purges because his desire is so great, his feelings for women so strong.

The other force that opposes totalitarianism is art. Vollmann makes repeated references to one of Shostakovich's compositions, Opus 110, the Eighth String Quartet. There will be a horrible sound, say the scream of a wounded person or the clanging of a prison door, and Vollman's Shostakovich stores it away to include in his Opus 110.
Best listened to in a windowless room, better than best an airless room -- correctly speaking, a bunker sealed forever and enwrapped in tree-roots--the Eighth String Quartet of Shotakovich (Opus 110) is the living corpse of music, perfect in its horror. Call it the simultaneous asphyxiation and bleeding of melody.
There is a lot of folklore surrounding this piece, including a report from a family friend that Shostakovich intended it as his suicide note but then couldn't pull the trigger. Volllmann makes it Shostakovich's supreme act of resistance to Stalinism, his way of bearing witness to terrible crimes. I've listened to it twice while writing this, and I have to say that while it is grim, it does not strike me as more grim than a lot of other twentieth-century music. It is also much disputed among musicologists whether Shostakovich actually composed in the way Vollmann attributes to him, using sounds or themes to reference particular events or ideas. Much of what he wrote about music advocated strict formalism, that is, music that references only itself, or other music. But anyway this is what Vollmann gives us.

Vollmann's world is full of horrors. He wastes little time condemning the authors of the particular atrocities he documents; from a moral perspective war and genocide come across as much like earthquakes or plagues. What matters is how we respond to them. I found it interesting that instead of people who stood up boldly against Hitler or Stalin and got shot for it, Vollmann focuses on Shostakovich the great survivor. We are not called on, he suggests, to sacrifice our lives in futile gestures. We are called on to muddle through as best we can, avoiding if possible personal crimes, but saving our outrage for expression in some secret or semi-secret way. Meanwhile we should get on with our lives, loving and working and getting by. We may be crushed by history like soldiers crushed by tanks, but at least we will not ourselves have been the instigators of evil. With any luck we will live on into better days, when our documentation of the horrors we witnessed can be made public, and we can shout out the outrage we had to hide. Which is interesting, but probably not worth 750 pages of Vollmann's prose.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I'm highly skeptical of the notion that art and talent are politically liberating forces that can save us from evil. Ezra Pound was a talented, monumental figure of literature, and he was also a fascist hack.

For my money, a superior novelistic meditation on the Second World War would be Curzio Malaparte's Kaputt, which, particularly in its opening passages, contains much meditation on the fact that all of Europe's art, all its culture and civilization, all that talent and grace and learning, did exactly nothing to forestall the disaster.