New York

Huffing Russian Absinthe With W. T. Vollmann


At a subterranean café on the Fontanka river, green liquor rolls heavily in glasses set carefully before my wife, whose eyes widen, and before William T. Vollmann, who cocks his head and smiles.

The set up: A four-inch snifter rests at a 10-degree angle, cradled over a standard low-ball cocktail glass, and the snifter contains roughly two ounces of absinthe. The waiter submerges a teaspoon of sugar into the liquid and the crystal is entirely soaked. With a practiced flourish, he produces a lighter from his apron and torches the sugar. A blue flame reaches a height of several inches, and with his other hand the waiter rotates the angled snifter on its low-ball perch. In the spoon goes, igniting the agitated liquor, which bursts into fire, with red licking waves of yellow and blue.

The waiter dumps the flaming absinthe into the low-ball and seals the concoction with the up-ended snifter, trapping fumes and allowing every drop to settle into the low-ball.

Next, he tears a hole in a folded paper napkin, through which he works a bended straw. The snifter, swirling with hot gases and coated with a layer of absinthe, is placed over the napkin and straw, so that my wife can take straw in mouth and huff the fumes.

Vollmann is beaming. Kelly draws deep breaths and closes her eyes.

Earlier, he had addressed a room of American fiction writers and poets in St. Petersburg’s House of Journalists. The talk was to cover literature and politics, and it wasn’t lost on us the irony of audience, topic, and location.

After all, Vollmann is more than a novelist. His books—almost a dozen now, including his staggering 3,000-page, seven-volume study of violence—are often crafted with a depth of research more common for serious books of journalism, including reporting that includes real time in tough places.

What would he say tonight, in Russia?

His project, from the start, I think, has centered around the idea of personal risk, the sacrifice of comfort for story.

I’ve heard Vollmann tell an audience to consider, if not actually flying to Iraq with a pile of notebooks, then making even the smallest step in that direction.

I know he addressed a group of college students (at Deep Springs, incidentally, where we were both students) and told them the greatest good would be to learn Arabic and go East.

It wasn’t obvious what tack he might take this evening, but it was a treat to capture him when he’s moving slowly, taking a break from a furious pace.

I was thinking: What if everyone in the English-speaking world—particularly its creative writers—each time they put pen to paper, or cracked a book, or visited St. Petersburg, asked, What Would William T. Vollmann Do?

If they did this, I can’t guarantee the world would be a better place, but I do think the darker corners of the world would make more sense, that we’d come that much closer to bridging that enormous gulf of understanding between us and them.

The talk is good. Vollmann points to the Russian political novel, asking why—if America had its own Civil War—we’ve never produced a novel that comes anywhere close to War and Peace?

“We can try to ignore politics,” he says. “But that is possible only if politics were to continue to ignore us.” And after September 11th, he explains, “that became impossible.”

Impossible, but unheeded by America’s fiction writers—for beyond the glut of nimble, narrative nonfiction that tackles politics directly, he says there is an absence of novels that attempt to do so.

“There are people dead as a result of [American] political and religious praxis,” he says. “Whether we owe those dead bodies a tight, middle, or panoramic gaze, we owe those dead bodies a story.”

As for collecting these stories, Vollmann acknowledges that he feels he has no home, that instead he does his best to feel at home wherever he is.

His project: To find the despised people of the world—and help them.

To do so, he says he tries as hard as possible to live—not just observe—the life of others. He visits some fare off corner of hell and locates a big brother or sister. With their advice, he goes totally native.

And: “To the extent that their life involves illegal drugs and or terrorism, I do my earnest best to join in.”

A few hours after Vollmann’s talk, my wife concludes huffing burned absinthe. She eyes the low-ball, glowing with sugar crystals and containing several ounces of liquor warmed by flame. Should she drink the whole thing in one go? It smells like kerosene and insect repellant.

“You might as well live it up,” Vollmann says to her.

Kelly tips the glass. I leave the next day, back to New York. She’ll live the life down south, coming as close to Chechnya as possible.

The London bombings: Security is at highest alert at the Moscow airport. An army of airport employees wearing white gloves hand inspects every piece of check-in luggage.

The red-haired woman pawing my dirty laundry finds an alarm clock, a basic wind-up model with bells—almost a cartoon of an “alarm clock.” It’s not ticking; I’ve been lax in keeping it wound. She’s disturbed, and fingers the bells, pinching the cheap metal. She looks tired, shrugs, and shoves the alarm clock back into the bag with a pile of shirts.

Through three security checks, I’m standing in line for the flight home. A square-jawed attendant in boots and coveralls is scoring an advertisement with a box cutter, removing the panel in strips. “Moscow 2012,” it reads. “An Olympic Dream.”

I think it’s a safe bet we’ll read solid nonfiction about London’s bombs before we’ll read a decent novel thereof.

I think there’s something about the rapid movement of information—and the knowledge industry’s ability to package news quickly—that makes the novel a refuge.

Nabokov said any fiction that tackles politics would remain banished from his bedside table.

As I fly back to life in New York City, itself another failed candidate for 2012, I’m wondering if maybe we no longer have Nabakov’s luxury?

Thanks for reading.

Archive Highlights