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Europe Central by William T. Vollmann

Europe Central (original 2005; edition 2007)

by William T. Vollmann

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979208,791 (4.09)131
Title:Europe Central
Authors:William T. Vollmann
Info:Alma Books (2007), Paperback, 800 pages
Collections:Your library, To read

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Europe Central by William Vollmann (2005)

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"This gets to the root of what makes intellectuals dangerous. We use them to add newness to life, which is what keeps it bearable, but newness shouldn't mutate into utter alienation [...]" ( )
  lawrenh | May 14, 2014 |

If you have no interest at all in learning massive amounts about World War II, this book is not for you. As a matter of fact, if you are not in the mood for facts and quotations and references galore packaged in a semi short story fashion, refer to the previous statement. However, if you are alright with that sort of thing, you are in for a treat.

I will admit, I panicked a little bit once I realized how jam packed this book is with historical trivia. As if that wasn't intimidating enough, the writing loves its metaphors and imagery, and often descends into extended fantastical meanderings. Lots of eagles and octupuses and letters formed in physical settings. It was definitely overwhelming at the beginning, and contributed to the lengthy amount of time I took to finish the book.

What helped me get my bearings and start to enjoy the book was the decision to interpret the phantasmagoric quality to the writing as the author's effort to convey just how crazy this time was. I have no idea if that's what the author intended, but it seemed to work. In fact, a prime example of this is the map insert at the beginning, which consists of an outline of Europe covered in names of military operations, as well as nearly nonsensical warlike doodles. The further you get in the book, the more ridiculously brutal the events become, especially during the parts concerning Shostakovich. He of all the characters most clearly comprehends the menace that surrounds everyone, but more importantly he understands that despite objections to the contrary, none of it makes any sense. And it never will.

Throughout the book, there are a number of characters whose morals are challenged, who are forced into compromising situations and decisions by the murderous chaos surrounding them. Some of them, like the Berlin sleepwalker, are thought by many to have a hand in the chaos, but they are in truth just as trapped by historical events as the rest of them. The only difference is their position, and how willing they are to disengage from reality in order to do what needs to be done. If this doesn't makes sense, to those who wish to know, the sleepwalker is Hitler. And as previously mentioned, there is little to no rhyme or reason to why these people need to go through these trials. It just is.

Personally, I found the learning experience amazing, as I had known nothing about the SS officer who had persistently worked against the machinations of the concentration camps, or that there was a female lawyer known as the 'Red Guillotine' who condemned many to death in the name of the workers of the USSR. Generals switch from Russia to Germany and back again, and the fighters below them march on into oblivion. And of course there was the monumental focus on Shostakovich, whose romantic obsession may not have been nearly as strong as the book made it out to be, but whose experiences under Stalin and the Soviet Republic can't be denied.

Not only was the author thorough in writing all these people in, he also had a real talent at conveying that deep feeling of resignation of wartime; it's the one that sinks deep into the bones and leaves one viewing flowers in the snow and corpses in the street as one and the same. A brilliant example of this is the Shostakovich's Opus 110, which is described as containing the screams of women and the moans of rockets, along with a whole host of other unearthly cries and shrieks that only war and its sufferings can bring to life.

Now that I've finished the book, I'm strongly reminded of The Kindly Ones; both are stories that use unconventional descriptive prose to talk about morally objectionable and unimaginably violent subjects. In fact, people who had trouble with getting past the brutal parts in The Kindly Ones may have better luck with this book, although as previously mentioned, there are gigantic amounts of historical references. Again, if that's your sort of thing, go for it. You won't be disappointed.

PS: There was very little mention of the US, and what little there was was coupled with either contempt or hatred. Somewhat refreshing in an odd sense. ( )
2 vote Korrick | Mar 30, 2013 |
This is an extremely ambitious novel that is at times breathtaking and fascinating and at times tedious and boring. Vollman attempts to interweave the history of Soviet Russia from the time of the revolution with that of Germany from the post-world war I period, through the second world war and into the cold war era as a way of illustrating how people confront horror and evil, totalitarianism and moral decisions. He introduces a cast of hundreds, focusing on a group of fictionalized real people -- artists and musicians (including, most extensively, Shostakovitch) as well as generals, revolutionaries, and party leaders. Hitler ("the Sleepwalker) and Stalin themselves play a role too, largely offstage.

I am glad I finished this book, and yet I feel I didn't get as much out of it as I could have. It demands careful, concentrated reading, and because it is a tome (not portable on the subway) and because real life was very busy, I read it in discrete bursts, over the course of nearly two months. Thus, I lost some of the connectedness between people and sections, because I just couldn't hold everything and everyone in my mind between reading binges. Furthermore, the book is full of references to history, people, classical literature and music, etc., and at first I was checking the dictionary and Wikipedia every page or so, but after a while I gave up because it interfered with reading. So I missed a lot that way too. Also confusing is the changing narrator, different for Russia and Germany, different even for different sections; I was often unclear about who was telling the tale and what his perspective was (however, I think this was intentional on Vollmann's part). Finally, music is very important to this book, with lengthy sections devoted to the creation of several of Shostakovitch's compositions as well as metaphoric allusions to Wagner's ring cycle and Parzifal, and I didn't think I was completely in tune with what Vollmann was trying to accomplish.

Yet, despite these feelings of not getting it, I found much of the book stunning. Vollmann did a phenomenal amount of research, including among original sources (some of which is noted in his endnotes), but somehow synthesized it into amazing, often poetic, writing and a story that very rarely seems forced. I found many of the individual human stories compelling, and occasionally moving. The novel has a broad sweep both geographically and temporally ("Far and Wide My Country Stretches" is the title of one section and of a movie by Roman Karmen, a Soviet documentary film maker who is one one the characters) and also probes into the intimate thoughts of its characters. The novel brings home the destruction and horror of the 20th century, particularly its middle part, in central Europe.

And what of Europe Central? I confess I'm not entirely sure what Vollman is getting at here, but from the very beginning of the book a telephone, and the whole idea of a switchboard, sometimes connected, sometimes not, at the heart of central Europe, i.e., Europe Central, is prominent. The means of communication? The source of death and chaos? There is a lot of food for thought in this book, and I know I only scratched the surface.
3 vote rebeccanyc | May 23, 2012 |
Some folks enjoy light reading in summer, but I save those extra daylight hours for the heavies. I’d been dying to read William T. Vollmann’s massive cold war epic Europe Central since it won the National Book Award in 2005. Well worth my wait, Europe Central is a work of art as brutal and heavy as the 88mm shells which litter its chapters. Which is not to say the story lacks moral delicacy. Tough times require tough… well you know. Vollmann utilizes prosopography to present a cyclical narrative that spans the German invasion of Russia to height of the Cold War in the 1970s. Equivalent German and Russian historical figures are paired and their psychological responses to fanatical ideology are contrasted in a mesh of recurrent tropes. The cast of characters includes German printmaker Kathe Kollwitz, communist documentarian Roman Karmen, Nazi general Friedrich Paulus, and Soviet general Andrei Vaslov (both of whom defect to enemy’s side when captured). Last but not least is Dimitri Shostakovitch whose life and work epitomizes the moral ambiguities and ideological confusions at which Vollmann aims his bright spotlight. Even today musicologists debate the thematic intention of Shostakovitch's body of work. The ambiguity exists only within the personal sphere, within the public sphere the result of hard line ideology is, of course, mass murder. Admist all this death, denial and despair transmuted there is also a love story. Vollmann casts Elena Konstantinovskaya as the love of Shostakovitch's life. She is Shostakovitch's mistress, not his wife and their relationship is idealized in is mind, crystallizing into a perfection which may or may not conform to reality to the reality of their relationship. His love for Elena, or the memories thereof, are like the political fantasies of Hitler or Stalin, i.e., unattainable.The horror of the novel is nearly spoiled by the story of SS officer Kurt Gerstein who clandestinely tried to expose the Holocaust. This is the only section of the book that comes dangerously close to an elementary school morality lesson. Fortunately, at least on an aesthetic level, Gerstein's end is an tragic as the rest.You might be thinking, “Bryan this book sounds terrible!” I recommend this book to anyone interested in the Nazi and Soviet culture, anyone interested in the history of the Eastern Front during World War II, and anyone interested in the life and music of Dmitri Shostakovitch. Though cast of characters is based on historical persons, Europe Central is a work of fiction and the primary reason to experience the book is the artistry of William Vollmann. His prose are precise and evoke a modernist tone. Recurring themes, repeated vocabulary, and chronological interlacing weave a snowy bloodstained tapestry across fifty years heartbreak and political violence. Think of Europe Central as a photo negative Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation, or a constructivist War and Peace. ( )
  librarianbryan | Apr 20, 2012 |
Good book, good writing, engaging story, absurd political stance. Enough of Shostakovich as a victim of Stalin, there are tens of books written on this, all while people forget that at the same time black folks had no rights in America, that books are censured by libraries even today in our country! Shostakovich was paid by the Soviet government,enjoyed popularity beyond cult, and was criticized by his landlord. OK. I got it, Stalin was bad, bad Shostakovich is not the best composer of the century because of Stalin! He had a private life, an open marriage (quite advanced given the times), was happily having affairs and minded for the most part his own business, which was an incredible gift for composition. Not a good pianist, according to his peers, technically superb but very cold, cold as a person as well, not a big social animal.
The rest of the book hinges on this chapter, and tries to compare Hitler to Stalin. The historical accuracy is laughable sometimes, says that Dimitri's dad was "liberal, communist", terms that in Europe had and have opposite valence, liberal being a conservative. The description of the siege of Leningrad makes Hitlerites look as good guys...
But as I said it reads well, and if you are interested in fact checking it may actually be a useful starting point. ( )
  Lapsus16 | May 30, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 18 (next | show all)
Europe Central is a worthy companion to.. Gravity’s Rainbow.
"Europe Central" is not without its flaws. A few of the sections seem, in the end, like the fictional equivalent of balloons that have slipped out of their holder's hands, bobbing skyward most beautifully, but not in a way that connects with anything. That said, William Vollmann deserves a hearty ovation: He has done as much as anyone in recent memory to return moral seriousness to American fiction, and here's hoping that this jarring, haunting absurdly ambitious symphony of a book will inspire other writers to batter down mental barriers, the way that Shostakovich's music did.

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William Vollmannprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Pannofino, GianniTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0143036599, Paperback)

In this magnificent work of fiction, William T. Vollmann turns his trenchant eye to the authoritarian cultures of Germany and the USSR in the twentieth century. Assembling a composite portrait of these two warring leviathans and the terrible age they defined, the narrative intertwines experiences both real and fictional—a young German who joins the SS to expose its crimes, two generals who collaborate with the enemy for different reasons, the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich laboring under Stalinist oppression. Through these and other lives, Vollmann offers a daring and mesmerizing perspective on human actions during wartime.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:57:13 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Vollmann presents a mesmerizing series of intertwined paired stories that compare and contrast the moral decisions made by various figures (some famous, some infamous, some unknown) associated with the warring authoritarian cultures of Germany and the USSR from 1900-1968.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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