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Europe Central by William Vollmann
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Europe Central (2005)

by William Vollmann

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,2332610,196 (4.05)143
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.
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Vollmann, William T. (2005). Europe Central. New York NY: Viking. 2005. eISBN: 9781101118191. Pagine 832. 14,04 €.

Forse la prima cosa da dire – almeno questa è la mia soggettiva impressione – è che dopo avere letto questo romanzo non ascolterete mai più Šostakovič allo stesso modo di prima, soprattutto l'Op. 40 e l'Op. 110, ma anche la Settima sinfonia.

Ma andiamo con ordine. Devo ringraziare Il barbarico re (ma chissà se si fa ancora chiamare così da qualcuno) per il suggerimento. Ho acquistato il libro la sera stessa che me lo ha consigliato. per la verità me ne aveva parlato già un paio d'anni fa in occasione di una bella esecuzione del Quartetto Op. 110 al Museo Bilotti di Roma il 17 febbraio 2017. Ma non avevo prestato sufficiente attenzione.

Il romanzo è monumentale, non soltanto per la lunghezza (più di 800 pagine, e ci ho messo un buon mese e mezzo per leggerle), ma anche per il respiro e per le ambizioni. Viene fuori alla distanza, dopo un po' di disorientamento iniziale. La narrazione, infatti, procede grosso modo cronologicamente, mentre le storie seguono i diversi protagonisti – in parte inventati, ma per lo più "ricreati" a partire da persone reali (oltre a Dmitri Šostakovič, Käthe Kollwitz, Friedrich Paulus, Andrej Andreevič Vlasov e altri). Un "romanzo storico", dunque, ma sui generis. Il tema è l'immane conflitto tra Germania e Russia, e tra i due dittatori che le guidavano (senza però nessuna equiparazione tra le due, salvo che una grande compassione per le sofferenze dei due popoli). Nonostante le molte diversità, difficile non pensare a Vita e destino di Vasilij Grossman: altro romanzo monumentale e straordinario, che ho letto nel 2013, ma non recensito per colpevole pigrizia.

Eviterò di fare una recensione anch'essa lunghissima. Mi limito di consigliarne vivamente la lettura a chi voglia impegnarsi a capire meglio il Novecento, le radici del totalitarismo (che non sono ancora estirpate) e i grandi rischi che comporta (comprese la guerra, lo sterminio e la completa disumanizzazione). Il libro (che conserva il titolo originale) è stato tradotto in italiano da Gianni Pannofino e pubblicato da Mondadori nella collana Strade Blu nel 2010: in questa edizione si superano le mille pagine.

Se volete una bella recensione, lunga ed esauriente (anche se non sono sempre d'accordo con l'autore), vi consiglio quella di Giuseppe Genna (autore anche lui di un libro su Hitler, bruttino, che ho letto e recensito qui). Nel rinviarvi al testo completo della recensione, che trovate su carmillaonline, vi riporto la parte dedicata a Hitler in persona:

Da pagina 164 a pagina 180, questo genio neorinascimentale (ma anche neogreco e neobabilonese e tutti i neo più epici della storia della letteratura universale) compie ciò che nessuno è riuscito a compiere: narra Hitler. La narrazione di Hitler è difficile, al punto che se ne hanno pochissimi esempi – il romanzo latita a fronte dello sbaglio a cui induce la rappresentazione del Führer. Spiegarlo, renderlo umano, renderlo disumano, farne leggenda, abbassarlo a figurina polverosa, dichiararlo perdente, essere asettici nei suoi confronti: come si vede, tra alcune opzioni di narrazione possibile, ciascuna risulta immorale, eticamente scorretta, sbagliata drammaturgicamente. Ciò semplicemente perché Hitler non è un personaggio. Vollmann coglie proprio questa gigantesca falla, che non si dimostra affatto una chance narrativa: vede il buco bianco Hitler e lo attraversa, facendolo chiudere dall’interno. Questo capitolo di poche pagine, Il sonnambulo, è un’opera nell’opera, è il centro della Centrale Europa narrata con sforzo omerico. In nemmeno venti pagine Vollmann compie un gesto impressionante, che a mio parere non ha pari nella storia della narrativa contemporanea occidentale. Vengono narrate, per brevi metope, alcune diseguali gesta del sonnambulo e della realtà da lui innescata. Il sonnambulo: è scritto così, semplicemente in minuscolo, non nominato se non con questa qualifica che lo mette in contatto con l’umanità, ma anche lo separa dall’umanità, lui che vorrebbe separare l’umanità da se stessa. Non si è mai visto infatti un sonnambulo che lo sia per tutta la sua vicenda esistenziale. In sedici pagine Vollmann esaurisce l’avventura tragica in cui Hitler trascina il mondo, la sua grottesca e quasi ineffata seminagione di male – e ciò senza mitizzare Hitler nemmeno in una frase. Chi scrive ha affrontato di persona, con mezzi di intelletto e vocazione artistica assai inferiori a quelli di Vollmann, il problema della narrazione di Hitler e assicura che quanto è stato realizzato in Europe Central ha dell’incredibile, del sovraumano: e cioè dell’umanissmo. Qui l’arte non sutura affatto la ferita, ma è mimetica dello svuotamento a cui Hitler deve essere sottoposto affinché gli sia impedita ogni vittoria postuma. Ecco un esempio della prosa e della visione e del trattamento che Vollmann riserva a Hitler per svuotarlo trattenendo tutto quanto è stato, in modo che non continui a essere:
“Il sonnambulo, nel suo cappotto grigio chiaro (i nostri ricordi di lui si sono fatti così grigi e sgranati) anela a essere un altro Gunnar. Non è forse un apripista anche lui? Non è forse stato abile a incantare tutti i serpenti fino a quel momento? E la sua Germania sarà Gúthrun. La Germania deve morire feroce, mettendo a fuoco ogni cosa…”
Il sonnambulo sogna cosa? La realtà. Tanto che riesce a muoversi in essa, quasi fosse sveglio, agilmente, non urta, incede. Incide nella realtà e sulla realtà, essendone di fatto separato per un fatto di percezione – per un fatto coscienziale che lo separa dalla veglia e dall’umano. Lo separa sì, ma chi si azzarderebbe a dire che un sonnambulo non appartiene all’umanità?

Come di consueto, qualche citazione (il riferimento è alla posizione Kindle):

(People forget that Hagen, the man who murdered Siegfried, was also a German. He had his reasons. This war was Siegfried’s war. The next war would be Hagen’s.) (757)

The woman with the dead child is me, myself. And the child is also myself. (1160)

The future doesn’t exist until it happens. (1247)

Pyotr Alexeev, with whom I sometimes do wet work, told me a funny one yesterday. It seems that a herd of kolkhozniks with fresh manure on their shoes get to Moscow; you know; they’re shock workers; they’ve won the prize! Think of them as Rodchenko’s robotlike abstract paper cutouts painted with dark oil and mounted on circular wooden bases. The guide explains that they are now in the world capital of progress, abundance, freedom, you name it. Eventually one of the farmers comes up timidly and says: Comrade Leader, yesterday I walked all over the city and didn’t see any of those things! The guide has just the right answer. He replies: You should spend less time walking around and more time reading newspapers! (1256)

[...] the piano was the skeleton; the cello was the flesh; he was the knowledge and commemoration; she was the life. (1615)

I’m only a mollusk; I need to hide forever within your lovely shell [...] (1622)

[...] imagining the future, then mistaking imagination for foresight, is one of life’s luxuries; (1644)

And how can love be self-ironic? (1709)

She loved him without understanding him, which may be the noblest love of all. (2287)

I love you, he said. I love you, too, very very much. I need you. No you don’t! she cried in a panic. You don’t need to need anybody. You love me. That’s enough. (4692)

Paulus himself believed far less in luck than he did in application. (6594)

[...] the skin of her naked throat was as perfect as a political idea. (8147)

Those Greek caryatids, they’re female without being human. (8551)

And the further those subjects (I mean objects) get altered in accordance with the purpose, the more problematic it becomes to perceive their irrelevantly human qualities. I quote the testimony of Michal Chilczuk, Polish People’s Army (he’d participated in the liberation of Sachsenhausen): But what I saw were people I call humans, but it was difficult to grasp that they were humans. What did Chilczuk mean by this? To put it aphoristically, a human skeleton is not human. (8875)

[...] when you flee one menace for another, the world will call you brave. (9969)

Send me out, and I’ll take the wires in my teeth; who cares what happens after that, as long as their signal goes through? (10123: mi ha fatto venire in mente Underground di Kusturica)

After all, one of life’s best pleasures is reading a book of perfect beauty; more pleasurable still is rereading that book; most pleasurable of all is lending it to the person one loves. (10220)

When you separate from a woman, what you have to do is kill your love for her; you have to blockade it and starve it to death, just as the sleepwalker set out to do in Leningrad; that’s the only way. (10669)

Soviets had antidotes to everything, even unfortunate facts. (10864)

That was how I learned that no is stronger than yes. It takes two yesses for I to become we, but only one no for we to break apart, no matter what the other party wishes. (11121)

Frau Lange had much on her side: logic, experience, and, above all, love. (11284)

Happiness is the absence of unpleasant information. (12105: forse l'aforisma più bello del libro)

You can’t hide your secrets from me, Mitya. When you were sleeping with that slut Elena I could literally smell her on you. That cheap, catty smell of her—ugh! You’re a man who has to have affairs. Maybe I would have preferred to love somebody different, but that’s how it is, right? Well, are you going to answer me or not? I, I don’t see what this has to do with— Maybe the only person that an artist can be faithful to is himself. Maybe he’s got to betray everybody else. (12633)

Just as in winter we frontline men dread abandoning our dugouts, because it’s so difficult to dig new ones in the frozen ground, so he did not want to give up Ustvolskaya, especially now that his penis could no longer perform its world-historic task; there was nothing more to it than that. (13337: the world-historic task!)

(The center of the world is Leningrad, which is Stalingrad, which is Auschwitz.) (13902)

When his death began, it was as if successive shrouds, each one so gauzy as to be nearly transparent, kept settling over his face, strangling away the breath almost tenderly, with Irina bending over him in the hospital ward, screaming his name like a shrilling telephone. He could hear her longer than he could see her, for the shrouds kept swirling down so that her image steadily greyed into a blackness deeper than meaning, and although for a little while longer he could almost perceive the reflection of her presence swimming on the nightstruck waters, she was fading very rapidly now; indeed, before he had time to mistake her for a certain other woman, she’d vanished with an almost playful suddenness, so that he sank irremediably alone into his velvet agony which drowned and tickled him while a blood-red spot rushed before him in ever-narrowing spirals. (14365: la morte di Šostakovič)
( )
  Boris.Limpopo | Apr 29, 2019 |
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 only do that, then why not us?

Extremity is revealing. The fact that the instances of such (to 1st Worlders, anyway) occur so seldom only enhances its spell. The soul MUST be forged within the flames of being. Well, maybe. The Ost Front was the greatest mechanized calmaity of our species. What does it mean morally? What does it portend over those who ponder the foe-stated dilemma? Is the equation apt? Simple statistics reveal that most of us would bow, collaborate or remain mute in the Dark Times, yet we turn again and again to Year Zero. What sort of tacit death wish are we actually whispering? ( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |


Vollmann’s language is rich and strawberry cream creamy, language that, without too much ado, could be transcribed into T.S. Elliot-style poetry since his themes hit on damaged humanity, the power of history and fragmentation, and that’s fragmentation as in Dada, as in Hannah Höch and John Heartfield photomontage, a form of art Adolf Hitler especially despised. And with this quote from Mein Kampf “I go the way that Providence dictates, with the assurance of a sleepwalker." the novel repeatedly refers to Hitler as the sleepwalker.

I particularly enjoy the author’s vivid image of those old black rotary telephones having ten eyes, “that octopus whose ten round eyes, each inscribed with a number, glare through you at the world.” and then linking the telephone with sleepwalker Hitler: “The sleepwalker in the Reich Chancellery could tell you (not that he would) they’re his eyes, lidless, oval, which imparts to them a monotonously idiotic or hysterical appearance."

It’s that fluid yet deadly interplay of objects with the human, as if Hitler is so omnipresent he is looking at all Nazis under his command as well as the entire population of Europe through the ten eyes of each and every black telephone, 1930s-1940s ubiquitous device par excellence. “The sleepwalker’s all eyes” And in terms of using his eyes, let's not forget Hitler spent many years dedicated to the visual arts, drawing and painting as a near-starving artist in Vienna.

Reading the first section Steel in Motion I catch initial glimpses of the novel’s stunning historical references, for example: “Barrage balloons swim in the air, finned and fat like children’s renderings.” Bulls-eye, WTV! Perfect simile; that’s exactly what those barrage balloons looked like, balloon used by the British to defend against air attacks – the cables holding up the balloon would damage enemy aircraft.



“Steel imbued with the sleepwalker’s magic sight, illuminates itself as it comes murdering." Again, Europe Central shares much with the photomontage of artists like Hannah Höch and John Heartfield, a steely emphasis on the intertwining of humans with technologies, for example, another image of the octopus-telephone: “From the anus-mouth behind the dial.”

Vollmann soaks the black gadget for all its worth, telephone as the eyes and anus of Hitler. Yet again, another striking quote: “Don’t trust any technicians who assure you that this brain is “neutral” – soon you’ll hear how angrily the receiver jitters in its cradle.”

The author picks up on Marshall McLuhan -- the media is the message. It’s as if in Europe Central the gadgets and all that steel exude a life of their own and are manipulating humans as their flesh-and-blood pawns. “Behind the wall, rubberized black tentacles spread across Europe.” Ominous, ominous – 20th century technology as the strangling octopus, throttling, choking, crushing humans as if a school of helpless little fish in an ocean of unforgiving tentacles.



Then, in the section entitled The Saviors: A Kabbalistic Tale, the author uses Aristotelian compare and contrast in presenting Fanya Kaplan with N.K.Krupskaya,, two women who saw themselves as good Marxist comrades marching shoulder to shoulder with other like-minded comrades toward the land of final synthesis as in Hegel-turned-on-his-head thesis-antithesis-synthesis. And age twenty-eight special for both Ks, Kaplan and Krupskaya, since Krupskaya at age twenty-eight married Lenin and Kaplan at age twenty-eight shot him. And each woman, as per vintage photos, were stunning as a twenty-year-old, but, oh my goodness, did women age quickly back then, especially when sent to prison or Siberia for years of hard labor.


N.K.Krupskaya - At age twenty-eight she married Lenin


Fanya Kaplan - At age twenty-eight she shot Lenin

Anyway, Vollmann packs in historical facts and lyrical images as if he were stuffing twenty-five pounds of potatoes into a 10 pound sack, for example, we read the following of the last four days in Fanya Kaplan’s life after she shot Lenin: “a huddle of twenty-four grey subterranean hours like orphaned mice; and in the flesh of every hour a swarm of useless moments like ants whose queen has perished; and within each moment an uncountable multitude of instants resembling starpointed syllables shaken out of words."

If you were counting, that’s three tightly packed in similes. I read a Paris Review interview where Vollmann relates how at one time in his life he was writing sixteen hours a day. Now that’s a writer on fire! . . . and perhaps on cocaine, speed, or, at least, caffeine.

For the narrator of Europe Central, people stand tall like a certain letter of the alphabet, ideas glow like a letter, words hum like a letter, which reminds me of that Georges Perec quote: “Is the aleph that place in Borges from which the entire world is visible simultaneously, anything other than an alphabet?”

And these Europe Central times are times for men and women of action, as in the action-packed words of Comrade N. V. Krylenko “We must execute not only the guilty. Execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more.” Ironically, Comrade Krylenko would himself be shot – I wonder if the masses were impressed.

However, nobody could ever doubt Comrade Krylenko was a revolutionary who took his revolution seriously. And equally ironic, through all the revolutionary slaughter, one of N. K. Krepskaya’s very favorite books was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

And there’s a scene of N. K. Krepskaya meeting Fanya Kaplan in a prison cell that provides a stroke of Latin American-style magical realism: "Then the letters disappeared into the woman's mouth. Krupskaya was speechless. The woman began to glow more and more, until the light from her was as white and pure as a page of the Torah."

One of my favorite parts of the novel is all the references to Dimitri Shostakovich and his music. For example: “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 Shostakovich (Opus 110) is the living corpse of music, perfect in its horror. Call it the simultaneous asphyxiation and bleeding of melody.”

To gain a keener insight and feeling for this novel, I listened to this and other Shostakovich string quartets repeatedly during my reading. All in all, a great novel, but I must say not a novel exactly to my taste since I found, for one thing, the shifting first-person narrator (who, at points, could be the voice of the entire continent of Europe) at a huge emotional distance from the other characters. I contrast this with another 800 page novel set in Europe and Russia during WWII: The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, a novel where the first-person narrator was a member of the Nazi SS. The evil of Littell's novel is so real, so immediate, so powerful, I had to listen to the audiobook while taking my walks and let the evil run down my legs and out the bottom of my feet. Europe Central is an encyclopedic literary monument to an incredible time in 20th century European history but, for me, Vollmann’s novel lacks the power of Littell’s.


William T. Vollmann ( )
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
Europe Central is William Vollmann's massively ambitious epic novel about the warring totalitarianisms which defined the West in the twentieth century: Stalinism and Nazism. Over nearly 800 pages, we are presented with a non-chronological interweaving series of vignettes, novellas and ruminations which examine human behaviour under the most horrific of conditions, and which take the reader from the early days of the regimes through to the descent of the Iron Curtain and the early days of the Cold War.

There are characters both fictional and historical in the book, and while Vollmann takes liberties with the historical records in various ways (and is very open about it in the appendix of sources at the end - this is a meticulously researched work), but the beating heart of Europe Central is a cast of historical figures whose lives were shaped and defined by evil in one way or another: we meet Käthe Kollwitz, an artist whose woodcuts present an endless series of grieving mothers and children; Anna Akhmatova, the famed Russian poet whose poems "Requiem" and "Poem Without A Hero" challenged Stalin's regime while her own life was bound up with compromises because of it; Kurt Gerstein was a young Aryan SS officer who joined the ranks of the Nazi party in order to rise through its ranks, access its most secret documents and expose its horrors to the world, but who found himself morally compromised and ignored at every turn (he eventually committed suicide while awaiting trial after WWII); Andrey Vlasov was a Soviet general who defected to the Nazis, while Field Marshall Paulus was a German officer who surrendered to the Russians at Stalingrad and became a propaganda tool for them. It continues: filmmaker Roman Karmen occupies a place somewhere between chronicler of Stalinist evil and Leni Reifenstahl-esque propagandist, while Hilde Benjamin was a Russian judge who earned the nickname "the Red Guillotine" for her brutal death sentences, imposed for the slightest anti-collectivist infractions. Stalin and Hitler themselves also make appearances, but largely we deal with smaller, less politically important figures. Over and over again, Vollmann presents us with characters, some of whom are admirable, some of whom are despicable, and many of whom have lives bound up with ambiguity and ambivalence: how can we judge those who lived through horrors we can scarcely imagine? When is compromise a form of cowardice and when is it a form of heroism? How do we behave in the face of such forces, and what compels us to keep going?

But the one character who most forcefully embodies these questions, and whose life is really the central issue of this sprawling book, is the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich's life and work is intimately tied up with the Stalinist regime, and he found himself continually forced to appease and to acquiesce to "that murdering bastard". His late-period string quartet piece Opus 110 is central to this book, a piece whose stabbing violins and keening cellos echo the screams of the disappeared under Stalin, the victims who were sent to kulaks or simply slaughtered. Again and again we see Shostakovich - here presented as a shy, neurotic, hesitant man who perceives himself at times as worthless coward and at others as hard-nosed survivor - humiliatingly made to bow and agree to change his work at the behest of threatening party apparatchiks. His life was one which was defined by a continual attempt to create beauty in the face of evil and to somehow bear witness to that evil while under very real threat of violence to himself and his loved ones. If there is a "main character" in this novel, it's the tragic figure of Shostakovich.

There are long sections of this book which deal with military strategy and descriptions of troop movements in Eastern Russia. There are sections which depict the mounds of burned Jewish corpses at Auschwitz, burned by Zyklon B gas which Kurt Gerstein is forced to administer. There are dreamlike passages in which Vollmann's trademark prose style - muscular yet lyrical - becomes exhausting. In other words, this is not an easy book to read and it is not a light book. In its startling ambition and its unflinching examination of human behaviour under the most appalling conditions, however, Europe Central may be one of the most morally significant books I have read. ( )
1 vote haarpsichord | Nov 5, 2018 |


Vollmann’s language is rich and strawberry cream creamy, language that, without too much ado, could be transcribed into T.S. Elliot-style poetry, since his themes hit on damaged humanity, the power of history and fragmentation, and that’s fragmentation as in Dada, as in Hannah Höch and John Heartfield photomontage, a form of art Adolf Hitler especially despised. And with this quote from Mein Kampf “I go the way that Providence dictates, with the assurance of a sleepwalker." the novel repeatedly refers to Hitler as the sleepwalker.

I particularly enjoy the author’s vivid image of those old black rotary telephones having ten eyes, “that octopus whose ten round eyes, each inscribed with a number, glare through you at the world.” and then linking the telephone with sleepwalker Hitler: “The sleepwalker in the Reich Chancellery could tell you (not that he would) they’re his eyes, lidless, oval, which imparts to them a monotonously idiotic or hysterical appearance . . . “. It’s that fluid yet deadly interplay of objects with the human, as if Hitler is so omnipresent he is looking at all Nazis under his command as well as the entire population of Europe through the ten eyes of each and every black telephone, 1930s-1940s ubiquitous device par excellence. “The sleepwalker’s all eyes” And in terms of using his eyes, let's not forget Hitler spent many years dedicated to the visual arts, drawing and painting as a near-starving artist in Vienna.

Reading the first section ‘Steel in Motion’ I catch initial glimpses of the novel’s stunning historical references, for example: “Barrage balloons swim in the air, finned and fat like children’s renderings.” Bulls-eye, WTV! Perfect simile; that’s exactly what those barrage balloons looked like, balloon used by the British to defend against air attacks – the cables holding up the balloon would damage enemy aircraft.


“Steel imbued with the sleepwalker’s magic sight, illuminates itself as it comes murdering." Again, 'Europe Central' shares much with the photomontage of artists like Hannah Höch and John Heartfield, a steely emphasis on the intertwining of humans with technologies, for example, another image of the octopus-telephone: “From the anus-mouth behind the dial.” Vollmann soaks the black gadget for all its worth, telephone as the eyes and anus of Hitler. Yet again, another striking quote: “Don’t trust any technicians who assure you that this brain is “neutral” – soon you’ll hear how angrily the receiver jitters in its cradle.” The author picks up on Marshall McLuhan -- the media is the message. It’s as if in Europe Central the gadgets and all that steel exude a life of their own and are manipulating humans as their flesh-and-blood pawns. “Behind the wall, rubberized black tentacles spread across Europe.” Ominous, ominous – 20th century technology as the strangling octopus, throttling, choking, crushing humans as if a school of helpless little fish in an ocean of unforgiving tentacles.


Then, in the section entitled “The Saviors: A Kabbalistic Tale," the author uses Aristotelian compare and contrast in presenting Fanya Kaplan with N.K.Krupskaya,, two women who saw themselves as good Marxist comrades marching shoulder to shoulder with other like-minded comrades toward the land of final synthesis as in Hegel-turned-on-his-head thesis-antithesis-synthesis. And age 28 special for both Ks, Kaplan and Krupskaya, since Krupskaya at age 28 married Lenin and Kaplan at age 28 shot him. And each woman, as per vintage photos, were stunning as a 20-year-old, but, oh my goodness, did women age quickly back then, especially when sent to prison or Siberia for years of hard labor.

N.K.Krupskaya - At age 28 she married Lenin


Fanya Kaplan - At age 28 she shot Lenin


Anyway, Vollmann packs in historical facts and lyrical images as if he were stuffing 25 pounds of potatoes into a 10 pound sack, for example, we read the following of the last 4 days in Fanya Kaplan’s life after she shot Lenin: “a huddle of twenty-four grey subterranean hours like orphaned mice; and in the flesh of every hour a swarm of useless moments like ants whose queen has perished; and within each moment an uncountable multitude of instants resembling starpointed syllables shaken out of words.“ If you were counting, that’s three tightly packed in similes. I read a Paris Review interview where Vollmann relates how at one time in his life he was writing 16 hours a day. Now that’s a writer on fire! . . . and perhaps on cocaine, speed, or, at least, caffeine.

For the narrator of Europe Central, people stand tall like a certain letter of the alphabet, ideas glow like a letter, words hum like a letter, which reminds me of that Georges Perec quote: “Is the aleph that place in Borges from which the entire world is visible simultaneously, anything other than an alphabet?” And these Europe Central times are times for men and women of action, as in the action-packed words of Comrade N. V. Krylenko “We must execute not only the guilty. Execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more.” Ironically, Comrade Krylenko would himself be shot – I wonder if the masses were impressed.

However, nobody could ever doubt Comrade Krylenko was a revolutionary who took his revolution seriously. And equally ironic, through all the revolutionary slaughter, one of N. K. Krepskaya’s very favorite books was Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women.’ And there’s a scene of N. K. Krepskaya meeting Fanya Kaplan in a prison cell that provides a stroke of Latin American-style magical realism: "Then the letters disappeared into the woman's mouth. Krupskaya was speechless. The woman began to glow more and more, until the light from her was as white and pure as a page of the Torah."

One of my favorite parts of the novel is all the references to Dimitri Shostakovich and his music. For example: “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 Shostakovich (Opus 110) is the living corpse of music, perfect in its horror. Call it the simultaneous asphyxiation and bleeding of melody.” To gain a keener insight and feeling for this novel, I listened to this and other Shostakovich string quartets repeatedly during my reading. All in all, a great novel, but I must say not a novel exactly to my taste since I found, for one thing, the shifting first-person narrator (who, at points, could be the voice of the entire continent of Europe) at a huge emotional distance from the other characters. I contrast this with another 800 page novel set in Europe and Russia during WWII: “The Kindly Ones” by Jonathan Littell, a novel where the first-person narrator was a member of the Nazi SS. The evil of Littell's novel is so real, so immediate, so powerful, I had to listen to the audiobook while taking my walks and let the evil run down my legs and out the bottom of my feet. Europe Central is an encyclopedic literary monument to an incredible time in 20th century European history but, for me, Vollmann’s novel lacks the power of Littell’s.

William T. Vollmann ( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
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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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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
William Vollmannprimary authorall editionscalculated
Pannofino, GianniTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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