By William T. Vollmann
Viking, 811 pages, $58
American writer William T. Vollmann's new novel Europe Central concerns central Europe's movements in and out of the Second World War, the event that combines politics, morality and geography to make history central to so many. The accomplishments and challenges of this 800-plus-page novel (which includes 50 pages of endnotes) reopen the recurrent debate about which is more central to the historical novel: History or narrative? Fact or fiction?
Vollmann's facts and fictions, the mismatched parents of his work, concentrate on the love affairs of composer Dmitri Shostakovich and his labours both musical and martial during the siege of Leningrad; the military campaigns of German General Paulus and the defecting Soviet General Vlasov; and, most notably, the "spy for God," Kurt Gerstein, the SS officer who tried to warn the world of the Holocaust while working as a supply officer for the gas chambers.
Vollmann's numerous admirers laud him for returning morality to U.S. fiction, and his recent seven-volume essay, Rising Up, Rising Down, hopes to provide nothing short of a moral calculus on human violence. In Europe Central, however, this self-described "part-time journalist of armed politics" takes on so much history that he makes the classic mistake of the historical novel, the confusion of shopping with cooking. Good ingredients (i.e., good history) do not necessarily make for a good novel.
The historical material here is too vast and too significant for a novel that prefers multiple narratives and voices to visit, as it claims, "European moral actors at moments of decision." Illuminating differences can no doubt be drawn between the military lives of generals Paulus and Vlasov, and their multifaceted conflicts between soldierly fraternity and the imprudent commands of their zealous superiors.
Within this novel, though, each adjacent 100-page section finds no meaningful thematic distinction. Undoubtedly, the repetition of frustrated loyalties and mismanagement across two opposing but nearly identical military careers expands their historical significance; their adjacent repetition in a novel is sadly unrewarding.
Either of the Shostakovich or the Gerstein narratives could have been isolated then mined more fully. Yes, it is a historical fact that Gerstein stopped his truck to bury a load of Zyklon B in a forest, then reported the load "damaged in transit" rather than putting it to its intended use; the incident is multiply affecting. Surely, though, our narrative expectations for the explanation of such a character, his movement to this dangerous, heroic and futile moment, should be prepared for by scenes of comparable density. The imperious veteran father, and the repeated lowering of Gerstein's head into his hands at the family dinner table, which Vollmann tries to place before Gerstein's well-known sabotages and ignored reports, just aren't strong enough fuel to get us to the historical destination. (Realistically, is anything?)
Narrative fuel and focus are not the only significant challenges here. Vollmann's popularity with magazines such as The New Yorker and Esquire, his past success with historical material (such as his Seven Dreams books) and the novel's subject seem to have armoured him against his editor's blue pencil. This $58 novel doesn't find its feet until its second quarter, squandering nearly 200 pages between two costly opening fixations that are then inexplicably (although mercifully) abandoned.
Even more off-putting is an insistent but affected postmodern voice. Here yet again are the metafictional winks and nudges, as in the condescending question: "After all, reader, don't you prefer to believe that this story which you're taking the trouble to read has something to say to you?" or the prankster's smirk, "I freely confess to altering certain details of her appearance throughout this book" (this is from the novel, not its endnotes).
Perhaps most costly is a dubious switching of cart for horse, which vainly tries to elevate literary criticism to literature. Consider this chapter-opening zinger: "Most literary critics agree that fiction cannot be reduced to mere falsehood," or this narrative boiling point: "This story, like this book itself, is derivative." Don't turn out the bedside lamp yet, this war novel's finally getting essayistic.
This distracted, uneven novel should have compacted its history into a more focused and cohesive story, confident enough to offer conclusions about the history it attempts to transplant. Many of the scenes Vollmann offers from his research are palpably stronger and denser than those he fabricates alongside them. Sadly, dubious narrative strategies and undirected characters deny much emotional or intellectual depth to the novel's ambitious historical breadth.
Darryl Whetter is the author of A Sharp Tooth in the Fur. His latest story will appear in 05: Best Canadian Stories.