Hawking Up Hairballs

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Europe Central

Well, I finally managed to slog my way through all 750 pages of William T. Vollman's Europe Central. That’s 750 pages of relatively small type in a hard-bound book. Was it worth it? In a word, no, and I’ll explain why.

In the first place, I want to say that the following constitutes my impressions of the book. I wouldn’t call it a proper review for the simple reason that I feel that I would have to read it a couple of more times before really getting a firm grasp on what he’s trying to do. In addition, I would have to learn more about certain subjects with which I’m not terribly familiar, like classical music, and certain aspects of Jewish culture like the Kabbala. That said, I don’t believe that a more thorough study of the book would change my opinion, and I’m not inclined to make the effort.

Europe Central is an epic tale of life in the Soviet Union, and also in Nazi Germany until its fall. It is told from the point of view of a number of individuals, principal among them being the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. As Vollmann writes in a note on his sources at the end of the book, “...the goal here was to write a series of parables about famous, infamous and anonymous European moral actors at moments of decision.”

In the notes, Vollman also says about Shostacovich that he was “a person consumed by fear and regret, a person who (like Kurt Gerstein) did what little he could to uphold the good - in this case artistic creation, and the mitigation of other people’s emergencies. He became progressively more beaten down, and certainly experienced difficulty saying no - a character trait which may have kept him alive in the Stalinist years. In spite of the fact that he joined the Party near the end, to me he is a great hero - a tragic hero naturally.”

A couple of things there leave me scratching my head, as does the novel itself. Vollman says that it’s a series of parables. Okay, I find myself wondering just what the lessons are. I came away from his story of Shostakovich’s life with a negative lesson, namely that it is impossible for one to maintain the purity of one’s motives and that one is condemned to failure if one attempts to do so. The Kurt Gerstein that he mentions is another whose life leads me to the same conclusion. He was a devout Christian who joined the SS to do what he could to inform the world of the Holocaust and to, in some small way, sabotage it. That led him to contact certain diplomats from countries that he hoped would be sympathetic, like Sweden, to tell them what was going on and to get the information to the outside world. However, none of those he was able to contact cared to listen to what he had to say. A big part of his job was to deliver poison gas to concentration camps and he would throw away a portion of it, claiming that it had spoiled, in the hope of thus sparing some lives, but it didn’t work. They always had so much of the gas that the canisters he disposed of weren’t really missed. In a word, he failed, though his testimony at the Nurenberg trials contributed to the convictions of some of the Nazis involved in the Holocaust. Does that make his effort heroic? I don’t know, but there’s a very fine moral calculus involved there.

All of the main characters in the novel, most of whom were real people, are failures in some sense. For example, there’s Paulus, the German general who failed to take the city of Stalingrad. As that battle concluded, the Russians broke through and surrounded the army commanded by Paulus. He wanted break out and retreat, but Hitler refused to allow it. When it became clear that his army was to be destroyed by the Russians, Paulus wanted to surrender, but Hitler refused to allow that either, and insisted that Paulus and his army fight to the last man and the last bullet. In addition, Hitler promoted Paulus to the coveted rank of field marshal because a German field marshal had never been captured. Hitler thus hoped to encourage Paulus to fight to the death against the Russians. It didn’t work. Paulus surrendered along with his troops. I forget what the number involved was, but it was enormous, well over a hundred thousand men. Of course, it didn’t do any good. All but a handful of the men died in Russian prison camps, though Paulus hmself embraced Soviet Communism and lived into old age in Russia and then East Germany. Where is the parable there? I guess my mind isn’t subtle enough to get it.

I could go on and describe other characters in the novel, but it would amount to the same thing. The book didn’t grab me. Part of it may be that Vollman is Jewish and, though I’m not a religious man, I had a strong Catholic upbringing. Christians are brought up to believe that the salvation of one’s soul is primary. Hence, moral purity becomes a big deal. Given the way Shostakovich, for example, was ground down and ended up as a flak for Soviet Russia, I can’t embrace him as a hero. I’m inclined to pronounce him a failure, and even something of an object of contempt.

One thing that Vollman does well though, is to communicate the atmosphere that existed in both Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. Though both were brutal, totalitarian systems, there were significant differences. If you were a Jew, a gypsy, or homosexual in Nazi Germany, your life was hell, no matter what. However, if you were judged to be one of strong Aryan stock, life wasn’t so bad as long as you made certain minor compromises with the system, like doing your Heil Hiters. In Soviet Russia, it was another matter. Since, its system wasn’t based on racial ideology, everyone lived in terror of the KGB, the knock on the door in the middle of the night, and the ride to oblivion in the black maria, which is what the paddy wagon of the era was called.

Some critics have said that Vollman’s prose is bloated, and I would have to agree. With some judicious editing, this book could have been cut in half without losing anything. One thing that really annoyed me was the way he played fast and loose with his metaphors. For example, Shostakovich says of his lover, “Oh, yes, her teeth were as crystalline as The Jupiter Symphony.” What? How in the hell is a symphony crystalline? He also likes to get too cute with them. For example, when discussing a German character, Vollman writes, “...his face greyish-white like the element germanium...” Give me a break. How many people have ever seen a sample of germanium? That’s poor writing in my opinion.

Vollman has fifty pages of notes at the end of the book. These are all quotes that are attributed to the characters in the book and they were gathered from memoirs, interviews and published accounts of friends and associates of the real people portrayed in the novel. Given that this is a work of fiction, what’s the point? Nothing is gained by using quotations attributed to the actual people.

I’ve said more bad than good about the book. A lot of that can be put down to my curmudgeonly nature, but I just don’t believe that Europe Central is all that good, though it is a prodigious accomplishment in terms of breadth and length.


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