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My Date With William T. Vollmann


ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA—A Baltic sun burned the noses of a thousand beaming grandmothers in the northern cultural capitol this weekend.

For several days I had been in the tubercular throes of a nasty sick, writhing and sweating in starched sheets and administering to myself bowls of soup and vitamin tablets. The timing was unfortunate: William T. Vollmann, one of America’s great living writers, arrived Thursday, and I was to introduce his talk Friday night.

Instead, I observed a faithful vigil by starting and finishing his latest novel, Europe Central, a delirious trick for 48 hours of bed residency.

The book is good, as ambitious as any volume from his seven-part sketch of North American history, but a better record, ultimately, of the author’s almost accidental gift of spiraling information around profoundly rendered characters, a result of deep research and a lavish flow of words. (Thank indulgent editors. Attempts to trim and prune Vollmann results in work like his shrill columns for Gear, pieces that read like addled stories from a hopped-up million-dollar DNC donor and Nation subscriber.)

Any given paragraph in Europe Central would not, I acknowledge, top the charts for clarity, concision, or diction—but the sum reward of any 10 pages should not be underestimated. There are times when Vollmann literally trades places with a Red Army general, where the author’s project becomes indistinguishable in terms of stakes and urgency from his finely-crafted characters, when the politics of literature—the author’s principle of travel and personal risk as much as his staggering output—cannot be seen as better, worse, or any less flawed than any of the dark corners he prowls.

I hacked into the Russian night, pausing to admire the waters of the Griboedova canal, stomping grounds for Dostoevsky and Gogol, as I devoured chapters about St. Petersburg’s 900-day siege by Hitler’s German Army.

Closing the final pages, I declared myself well. I lit a cigarette in our cramped, Soviet kitchen, curling my toes into deep grooves worn into the wooden flooring. I toasted Vollmann with a glass of Vodka and called it a night.

By Saturday, the sun, I tell you, was stunning, baking the great columned arms of the Kazan Cathedral, which in turn gave shade for a small park and mud-filled fountain—blocks from Nevsky Prospekt and thronged on a day like today. In Soviet times, the church was used as a public toilet and later, in an equally sublime gesture, served as the city’s Museum of Atheism. Today, the park and fountain are flanked by twin beer gardens.

By 2 p.m., everyone’s drinking. Sun-burnt punks lay dazed in the grass, one chipped-tooth wise guy strumming a worn guitar. A straight-backed young woman in crisp, white jeans brushes her horse’s flank while a friend in dirty sneakers braids the tail. Arm in arm and sipping cups of red wine are two older Russian women—babushkas, they call them, a true story that most of the country’s women evolve rapidly from towering, thin sculptures into stout, smiling grandmothers.

I blow the foam off a draft and feel the sun cracking my lips. No more coughing. Haven’t seen Vollmann yet. Kinda nervous.

I visit another park deeper in the city, back in a neighborhood where the alleys are tighter and fewer foreign cars can be seen negotiating the rough asphalt, pitted as if trod by tanks.

I’m reading An African in Greenland, a first-person account of a black villager born to the West African nation of Togo. Possessed by an ethnography of the north found in a missionary’s small library, Mikael determines to visit and settle in Greenland. It takes him six years, but he reaches the Dutch island of ice, trading equatorial beaches for blizzards.

At the park in St. Petersburg, the grasses are recently shorn and give off a calming green perfume. Released from nine months of deep freeze, foliage here is a riot, with trees sprouting shoots from any junction, flowers bursting through cracked brick walkways, vines struggling against iron fencing.

Any square yard of park turf is a bouquet of salad, with grass blades as much as lush leaves, dense sprigs, and fans of spicy bloom.

Seeking shade, I meander to the city’s main train station, built in the 1850s. A giant flat screen mounted on a far wall of the grand concourse attempts to discourage travelers from smoking cigarettes. A short animation features one such cigarette flying across the screen, where it is then trapped by a giant, glowing red circle. The circle fades and the cigarette reanimates, twisting through space, when it impales a chubby white hand, fingers half-clenched. The camera pulls back, and—yes— that hand belongs to Jesus, who has been crucified by cigarettes-turned-nails.

Under the screen, I notice a pair of teenaged soldiers tapping ashes into their hands and grinning at each other.

The former musculature of the Soviet Union is a creature that has withered and all that remains is the arteries of a great rail system, rendered in iron and bolted to the great wall of St. Petersburg’s Moscow station. On one end, Prague and Berlin. At the map’s other end, Novosibirsk.

I learn later that night, having returned to the Cathedral’s beer garden in good company, that taxi drivers at St. Petersburg’s airport no longer seek out passengers from the United States. A better catch are visitors from Moscow, who bring more luggage and spend more money.

I consider this fact, add it to the archive, resolve not to worry about it too much.

Contact: At the birthday party for the seminar’s founder last night, held in a shabby hotel bar, I finally talk with William T. Vollmann. The room is sweltering, everyone’s drinking warm beer, and smoke hangs in the air. We shake hands. Tomorrow, he delivers a lecture; I’m to give the introduction; there’s a plan to drink shots of absinthe together. Full report forthcoming.

Trouble ahead.

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