Friday, July 04, 2008

Europe Central

William T Vollmann: Europe Central. A historical kind of beast that spans the history of Russian and Germany from the turn of the century more or less to the 1970s. It's an intriguing book. I want to be careful about making overly sweeping statements, but it seems to me like it simultaneously illustrates and challenges Jameson's notion that genuine historicity has been lost in the postmodern--that all you can do is take pieces of the perceived past and throw them together, hoping to make something out of it that, nonetheless, will not be the same thing as the actual past. There is certainly a pastiche quality to the novel, as Vollmann places mostly real historical figures (Kathe Kollwitz, Dmitri Shostakovich) in little vignettes that move through time freely. The fact that various sections are narrated by various figures, including Vollmann himself, adds to the disorderliness. On the other hand, one has to ask, is this REALLY to be considered only a simulacrum of history? Is it any less artificial than more conventional, ordered, linear histories? How so? You're leaving stuff out and putting stuff in according to an ideological plan no matter how you swing it. I think I might have to argue a bit with Jameson on this point.

This is a riveting book. A lot of the laudatory quotes (including one from my former writing teacher, Melvin Jules Bukiet) talk about its "moral seriousness" and the like, and I think that's right. Some of the stuff I'm reading seems comparatively trivial by comparison. I'm particularly thinking of the Delillo, which claims to be dealing with similarly Big Issues but doesn't get at them in a really substantive way.

Should a book like this even be counted as a "novel?" Sometime-recurring characters, but the only plot is history, and even that's somewhat slippery. It's difficult to tell the difference between what is factual and what is fabricated, which is part of its achievement. People are in situations with no good solutions; how, I wonder, can any sort of moral judgment be meaningful? That's not to say that you SHOULDN'T judge, just to say that it may be a necessary fiction that you're really dispensing justice. What, for the love of god, is someone like Andrei Vlasov--Soviet general captured by Germany and convinced to propagate anti-Russian propaganda--supposed to DO? What would YOU do? There's nothing you CAN do, other than kill yourself, and how does THAT accomplish anything? Ack!

A character I like a lot is Soviet filmmaker Roman Karmen. Whether or not he was a great filmmaker (none of his work seems to be commercially available, which is a shame), and whether or not he was anything more than a mindless apparatchik, he comes across very sympathetically. I wish I could say the same--or anything similar--for Elena Konstantinovskaya, whose existence seems to serve little purpose other than to torment the men who fall for her. A lot of male authors really DO have a problem drawing women. Which shouldn't be surprising, I reckon, but still...

This book kind of sneaks up on you, and then you realize you've been punched in the stomach. The section called "The Last Field-Marshall," for instance, featuring Friedrich Paulus, the German general saddled with the impossible task of taking Stalingrad (and who, I can't help but note, looks an awful lot like Mike Huckabee). The section is full of military tactics, which can be sort of numbing at times, but that seems to be intentional, as it ends up perfectly conveying the numbing futility of the whole endeavor. He survives the war and is allowed to work in East Germany as a police inspector, but it's clear that he's a shell of a man. He wasn't, per Vollmann, a bad guy; he tried to avoid needless death and wasn't keen on ethnic cleansing (which I suppose is the definition of damning with faint praise, but still...), but he was just in an impossible situation. Even more harrowing is the story of Kurt Gerstein, the conscience-stricken SS officer making vociferous but futile efforts to save Jews and to tell the world about what was going on. Reading it is like being punched repeatedly in the face. And then when you're done you just COLLAPSE. I guess I don't really have a point to make. This is just a very powerful book.

Things starting to get a little crazy. There's a section called "Operation Citadel" in which an anonymous German soldier, the rest of his unit killed, wanders around witnessing various figures and icons from Germanic/Wagnerian and Russian folklore. This makes a certain amount of sense, if it's all just simulacra anyway. Is it that this war cannot really be rendered realistically? Anyway, it's pretty striking. Then there's a section which I really don't understand very well: it's 1951, and a guy is ordered by the Gehlen Organization to assassinate Shostakovich, apparently for being kind of the soul of Russia. Only everything east of the Iron Curtain is a kind of dreamland, and when he kills Shostakovich--which he does many times in many ways--it turns out just to be a...dream? Hallucination? He starts to have a kind of love/hate relationship with the man, and he in turn is executed a number of times by Stasi and NKVD officials, but it's never real. I don't know what to say about this. It's pretty surreal.

Right. Another one down. The last section includes a little fantasia about the supposed development of color throughout the course of the twentieth century. It's clearly meant to say something about Europe's moral state and development, but the exact specifics remain somewhat hazy.

I think that "Opus 110," the longest section in the book and its climax, might be a bit protracted. Shostakovich is a fairly compelling character, but his unrequited love for Elena Konstantinovskaya...well, I'm not sure it's as deep or interesting as Vollmann perhaps imagines. I listened to that there opus on youtube; per the book, it's supposed to contain all of Shostakovich's bitterness about the war and violence and cruelty all around him; I can see it, I think, but I sort of doubt I would without having read the book.

Anyway, that aside, this is a great book; maybe the best on the list. Excluding Pynchon, but hey, what can I say? I'm a partisan.

Next: The Tunnel. Let's do this thing. Opinions of Gass are extremely mixed, to put it mildly, and I'm afraid I'll hate it, but I do not think I can avoid it. But also, some theory, so there may be a longer-than-expected delay between entries here.


Blogger theorist pontificated to the effect that...

hmmm. think i'll leave this one off of my list. if i want to be this miserable, i'll go with martin amis's house of meetings.

and - why exactly is it that you can't post on theory? now *there* would be some reason for a discussion.

8:11 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...

A. Because it's hard.
B. Because I don't like it as much.
C. Because it ruins the blog's conceptual purity.
D. Because I'm not doing as much of it at a time.
E. Because I'm lame.

Still, maybe I'll stick something up when I'm done with the Jameson, sometime in the distant future, where sports are like they are now, only MORE VIOLENT. Is that postmodern?

6:45 PM  

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