Tomb Reader

A WW II epic puts Shostakovich in a bizarre love triangle

Since the politico-insecticide of 1987's You Bright and Risen Angels, whether Dostoyevskifying the detective novel or offering boundless books-of-Genesis, William T. Vollmann has had an ability to conjure tomes in a range of genres that is increasingly Faustian. On the heels of the encyclopedic Rising Up and Rising Down, the bowl-cut Californian chose Yugoslavian author Danilo Kis's A Tomb for Boris Davidovich as a spare template for Europe Central's 36 paired parables that burrow through WWII's Wagnerian Hitler-Stalin showdown.

Kaleidoscoping the lives of Eastern European multitudes, Vollmann's new megalith is the maximalist extension of Kis's concision. In the afterword to a 2001 edition of Tomb, Vollmann remembers himself as a "lonely, homely teenager who felt as stifled by the heartland as ever did any Trotsky or Emma Bovary." He located salvation and a break from America's "complacent parochialism" and "brutal commercialism" in Penguin's "Writers From the Other Europe" series. Despite stiff competition from Bruno Schulz and Tadeusz Borowski, Tomb seems to be the work he admires most. Tellingly, he points out Kis's warning that (to quote Vollmann) "in systems such as Stalin's, people are vulnerable to the ultimate degree of repression in direct proportion to their generosity of heart."

This "horrific" maxim's played out in Europe Central. The narrative weaves through the minds and minutiae of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, stark German woodcutting lithographer K Kollwitz, loyal Russian documentary filmmaker Roman Karmen (Dziga Vertov lands a couple lines), soloist Adolf Hitler a/k/a "the sleepwalker" ("In the symphony called 'Barbarossa,' these bar lines were provided by a double file of tall German executioners aiming their rifles at an evenly spaced line of civilian hostages who stood facing a stone wall"), plus countless average joes and martyred folk heroes ("Communist saboteur" Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya's famed ballet cry becomes a ghostly refrain: "You can't hang all hundred and ninety million of us!"). While noting that Europe Central is "not as rigorously grounded in historical fact" as his Seven Dreams, Vollmann labels it "a series of parables about famous, infamous, and anonymous moral actors at moments of decision." The italics are mine, but the concern with morality is Vollmann's.

The stories bleed together, with character parallels and conceptual continuations. Often at the center of the fugue is Soviet "formalist" composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who aches as part of a Vollmann-invented love triangle with shape-shifting translator Elena Konstantinovskaya and Roman Karmen. Like the title character of Whores for Gloria, Elena becomes an elusive female figure that the author himself grows to love. He writes: "I had various reasons for making my version of her to be capable of love for both men and women. One motive was to make her as infinitely lovable as I could. As I've written in this book, 'above all Europa is Elena.' " Accordingly, Shostakovich receives the most column space with visionary riffs on Opus 40 and Opus 110 and their secret chord codes and escape hatches à la Nabokov's Ada and his electric, obsessive love for his bisexual Elena.

Still, the most compelling stories stick to military maneuvers, as in the closely observed family drama that retells Nazi infiltrator Kurt Gerstein's attempt to keep "Clean Hands" while sabotaging the SS, a claustrophobic Stalingrad standstill in "The Last Field-Marshal," and traitor General A.A. Vlasov's "Breakout," which buzzes with nervous, melancholy energy. Linkages grow playful: Germany's Sixth Army vs. Shostakovich's Eighth String Quartet, East/West Germany, De/Pre-Nazification, Berlin portrayed as both a brain and a quartered heart, and Europe Central (both book and place) as a telephone or octopus.

Given the hardcore research (check the 50-plus pages of source notes!), Vollmann's sentence-to-sentence care isn't the same as in his salad days, and his most felt work still emerges from his lived knowledge of punks and prostitutes. Nevertheless, Europe Central is a mesmerizingly overdone performance. With Pynchon on a slow-release schedule (I was reminded of Gravity's Rainbow's V-2 missiles throughout), Barth's ribaldry grown soft, David Foster Wallace proving his points better in essays, Gass's The Tunnel somewhat of a dud, and Gaddis safely in the ground, it's likely up to Vollmann to carry the torch of post-pomo overambition. Even if he does drop it here and there, he's created something of both beauty and historical use value, a visionary textbook on human suffering.

 
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