fractious fiction
At first glance, William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central demands respect
as a serious and sober historical novel. The book is massive; the cover
foreboding. The characters are dark and gloomy, and the incidents related
are even darker and gloomier. Vollmann
focuses his attention on the most tragic
circumstances of the middle decades of
the 20th century—including the Holocaust,
the Soviet show trials, the Babi Yar massacre,
and the Battle of Stalingrad. And if you had
any doubts about Vollmann’s gravitas, just
peer over the more than fifty pages of
footnotes (for a novel!) filled with references
to obscure books and archival documents in
various languages.

But don’t be fooled by all this scholarly
apparatus. Vollmann is a connoisseur of the
grotesque and absurd, and even when he
peers into the inner  workings of world-
historical events, he aspires  neither to
scrupulous accuracy nor philosophical
reflection. He forces his characters
to serve as puppets in edifying fables. At the novel’s conclusion, in the
preamble to the footnotes, Vollmann even admits that his book isn't
"rigorously grounded in historical fact"; instead "the goal here was to write
a series of parables about famous, infamous, and anonymous European
moral actors at moments of decision."

Vollmann occasionally uses the word "hero" to describe some of these
characters, but even the boldest of them find that opportunities for
constructive action are severely limited in a world dominated by Hitler, Stalin
and their toadying underlings. The most emblematic figure in this entire novel
is the German SS officer Kurt Gerstein, a devout Christian who is assigned
responsibility for supplying poison gas to the Nazi death camps. Gerstein is
horrified by the regime’s program of genocide, and tries to alert international
authorities—at great risk to his own life, he gives an account of the mass
extermination program to the Swedish diplomat Göran von Otter, and attempts
to meet with representatives of the Swiss government and the Vatican. In his
official capacities, he tries to find ways of constraining the supply of cyanide-
based Zyklon B to the death camps, but eventually realizes that he has few
ways of doing this without having his efforts discovered and halted.

And what is the end result of Gerstein’s 'heroism'? His attempts to notify
the international community have no apparent impact, and at the conclusion
of the war, he is arrested as a war criminal. In July 1945, he commits suicide
while still under custody. Vollmann offers his own verdict on Gerstein in the
footnotes to
Europe Central, and in many ways it sums up the underlying
paradox that haunts the entire novel: “I firmly believe that there was nothing
ambiguous  about Gerstein's good, unavailing though it proved to be. He is
one of my heroes." Such are the positive role models in this book: they
achieve little, and even that comes at the cost of painful moral compromises.
Even Vollmann frets over the possibility that “someone who continues to fight
evil and gets victimized is from a psychological  perspective complicit.” But
who are we to say that we would have made wiser, better choices in these
circumstances? This is the world of
Europe Central, a burned-out landscape
where innocence is unattainable and even self-preservation a constant
challenge, but that fact does not minimize the importance of striving for a
lesser degree of guilt. A theologian might call this a state of original sin; but
for Vollmann this complicity is embedded in the sociopolitical realities of
Europe during the middle years of the 20th century.

Vollmann tells this same parable over and over again. He relates the
story of Russian general Andrey Vlasov who renounces Stalin only to become
a tool of Hitler. Then he balances it out by recounting the tale of German
general Friedrich Paulus, who abandons Hitler only to become an accessory
of Stalin’s regime. They may strut on the stage of world history as proud
military leaders with tens of thousands of troops under their control, but in
this novel they have only the tiniest ability to control their own destinies. All
their options are flawed and involve some degree of hypocrisy, yet they
frequently speak of honor, duty and responsibility. Vollmann is at his best
when he takes these sad historical figures, so easily dismissed as dupes
or turncoats, and shows how they must have viewed their own circumstances
and narrow range of choices.

Of all these historical figures, composer Dmitri
Shostakovich gets the most attention in this
supersized book. He is a genius, a man whose
vocation might seem to place him beyond the
reverberations of battlefields and political rivalries.
Yet Vollman shows that Shostakovich can hardly
escape the same impossible choices that beset
Gerstein, Paulus and Vlasov. Stalin's hostility to
Shostakovich's 1934 opera
Lady Macbeth not
only prevented the composer from mounting
performances of this and other works, but actually
put his life at risk. In such an environment, what is
the correct moral decision? If Shostakovich stands
up for freedom of creative expression, he will be
killed and enjoy no freedom or creative expression.
If he caters to Stalin’s primitive and clumsy notions
of proletariat art, Shostakovich and his family might
survive, but his art will be dead.

In this dangerous game, the most illustrious Russian composer of the mid-
20th century is forced into a delicate balancing act. He makes enough
concessions to survive, but not so many that he compromises his genius. In other
words, this is the perfect story for a Vollmann parable.

Yet our author undercuts the power of this story by portraying Shostakovich
as a muddle-headed bumbler. In conversations, the famous composer can
hardly finish a sentence without losing his way. His romantic life is a disaster,
and he somehow manages to destroy the relationships that would be most
sustaining to his psyche. Meanwhile, family and friends are constantly
reminding Shostakovich to watch what he says—surely his home and phone
are bugged!—and often pressure him into lies or accommodation with the
ruling regime. He rarely takes their advice, but the reader never gets the
sense that his objections are driven by policy or principle. Rather this great
musical mind is terminally clueless whenever pragmatic moves must be
made in the real world.  

I call this the
Amadeus syndrome—in honor of the celebrated play and
Oscar-winning movie that depicted Mozart in similar fashion. The basic
concept is a simple one: no necessary connection exists between a sublime
work of art and the artist, who might just be a shallow joker. I don’t find this
position persuasive, but I grasp its appeal to a certain postmodern mindset.
What better way to ensure the "autonomy" of a music composition than to
dismiss the composer as a dottering fool?

How accurate is Vollmann's depiction of the bumbling, incoherent
Shostakovich? Judge for yourself by comparing the biographical record
with the fictional reenactment. In Elizabeth Wilson’s detailed biography
Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, we encounter the composer’s modest
description of his cello concerto: "I took a simple little theme and tried to
develop it.” But in Vollmann’s version of this same conversation,
Shostakovich rambles on: “My dear lady, thank you for your, your, you know,
but I, I, well, I simply took a simple little theme and I did my simple,
best to develop it!” Those who go back to primary sources will find that
Shostakovich, in his private communications, was often incisive, frequently
ironic and very conscious of double meanings in his words. His close friend
Isaak Glikman saw Shostakovich as the master of "veiled" remarks,
and noted his skill at conveying his meaning in subtle hints and allusions.
He might loosen up after a few drinks, but even then he became more biting,
not a blustering fool, as he comes across in much of
Europe Central.

And how reliable is Vollmann's account of Shostakovich’s love life? Here
again the historical record deviates markedly from the novelistic
enactment. Vollmann places the love affair between the composer and
Elena Konstantinovskaya at the center of his novel, and shows how it
continued to define Shostakovich's emotional temperament until his
final days. In real life, Shostakovich had a brief affair with the young translator.
This tryst threatened the composer’s marriage, but did not topple it. A short
while later,  Konstantinovskaya was married to film director Roman Karmen,
and Shostakovich was again acting the part of a dutiful husband. He may
have had a lingering attachment for his old flame—some see hidden
references to this lover in the Fifth Symphony (1937), but Vollmann's
contention that this was the central relationship of Shostakovich’s life,
and that his obsession would last forty years, is just a fanciful invention.

These distortions are indicative of Vollmann’s approach to historical fiction.
Readers who assume that
Europe Central is an accurate rendering of events
are advised to read the footnotes carefully. These are filled with admissions
of deviations from sources, departures from accepted chronologies,
wholesale invention of scenes and relationships, and "retranslation" (a word
Vollmann uses at least a hundred times) of texts. Why is he "retranslating"?
Vollmann is rarely specific, but in one instance he claims that he changed
a passage from Vladimir Nabokov to avoid paying for reprint rights. I don’t
doubt that our author is careful with his budgeting (at several points in the
notes he includes bookkeeping figure on what he paid translators for their
services), but I suspect that his cavalier attitude toward sources is more
than just frugality. He probably believes that artistic freedom gives him the
right to tinker with empirical data and original sources. In an odd way, this
puts him the same boat as the Stalinists and National Socialists he so
caustically attacks in these pages.

As the strange footnotes make clear, Vollmann often veers into the territory
of the absurdists and deconstructionists. One long section of the novel,
dealing with a Cold War double agent who moves back and forth between
West and East Germany, even lingers on the brink of magical realism. Yet
even when he stays closer to historical realism, Vollmann invariably pushes
for extreme effects, occasionally ridiculous ones.

Vollmann’s language borders on the absurd, even when discussing the
gravest subjects. "In the hot darkness above [Stalingrad] the moon shone
like Reichenau’s glass eye"; while in "besieged Leningrad, long cattails of
smoke [are] hanging as soft and fluffy as an opera diva's boa." Sometimes
the similes are deliberately offensive: When a soccer player scores a goal,
the fans are “screaming and screaming like kulaks being executed.” But at
every junction, the comparisons are pushed beyond the realm of poetic
expression into bizarre contortions where meaning is practically obliterated.
When Shostakovich is at work on a composition "chords and motifs trolled
between his ears like tank-silhouettes probing the dark teeth of antitank
concrete." The fourth movement of his Leningrad Symphony glitters “as
brightly as the nickel-plated door handle of the late Marshal Tukhachevsky’s

And what exactly does that mean? Who knows!

These are not isolated examples, but indicative of the general tone of
Vollmann’s novel. On almost every page, the reader will encounter an
outrageous analogy, a startling incogruity, or an extravagantly hideous turn
of phrase. Yet even as a I shudder over some solecism or mixed metaphor,
I am inevitably reminded of the musical works of Vollmann's main character,
Shostakovich. This remarkable composer—who, famous as he is, is still
insufficiently appreciated, by my assessment—achieved his greatest effects
by a willingness to embrace the grotesque. The low and high always rub
shoulders in his works (and especially the symphonies). Instrumental
groupings seem chosen with a cussed desire to bring out the awkwardness
and rudeness of themes.  Percussion is employed to horrify as much as
propel. Melodies are twisted into parodies of themselves. Who could ever
recommend this as a methodology for artistic creation? Yet Shostakovich
does it, and succeeds again and again. Vollmann, for his part, operates with
an almost identical aesthetic vision.

Yes, Vollmann is the Shostakovich of fiction, and those who have interpreted
this book as a straightforward work of historical fiction are falling into the same
trap as those who tried to assign similar meanings to the Russian composer's
pieces. Many will tell you that many of Shostakovich's most famous
compositions embody narrative structures drawn from the history of World
War II and the ongoing class struggle, just as
Europe Central is considered
a novel on that same historical period. In both instances, the bombast and
absurdities are clearly intentional, and those who  try to sweep them aside are
missing the most essential parts of their works.

By the way, I’d like to give William Vollmann credit for rewriting the history of
World War II as a kind of musical development. What a brave notion! Yet—
strange to say!—he is hardly the first to do this. We see the exact same
approach realized in Gunter Grass’s
The Tin Drum and Thomas Mann's
Doctor Faustus. Yet it is to Vollmann’s credit that his ambitious novel, for
all its quirks (or perhaps because of these very same eccentricities) can
be mentioned in the same breath as these two modern masterpieces. No,
I don’t have much faith in this book as a historical novel, and especially not
as a description of a war or life of a great composer, but it succeeds as
something different, as a narrative more in the style of a myth. I am thinking
in particular of those myths in which protagonists battle against cruel destiny,
forced to pursue some grand task, but lacking even the most basic tools for
success. They must journey into the underworld and win a struggle against
death itself, or push the boulder endlessly up the slope only to watch it
tumble down again. Such are the heroes—if heroes they be—who
Europe Central.

And myth is hardly inferior to history. As Claude Levi-Strauss reminds us
a "myth always refers to events alleged to have taken place long ago. But what
gives the myth an operational value is that the specific pattern described is
timeless; it explains the present and the past as well as the future." That sense
of timelessness permeates these pages, even as our cranky author distorts
events and inserts little receipts for services rendered into his tale. The end
result is lopsided and even sometimes distasteful, but never boring and,
more often than not, brilliant.

Ted Gioia writes on books, music and popular culture. His latest book Love Songs: The Hidden
History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This essay was published on July 7, 2015
The Bumbling Shostakovich
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Dmitri Shostakovich
Ten years ago, William T. Vollmann depicted composer
Dmitri Shostakovich as a confused bumbler in his
Europe Central. The book was awarded the
coveted National Book Award for Fiction, and remains
Vollmann's best known work. But how fair is his
assessment of Shostakovich, and does this impact
the value of this ambitious historical novel?
Essay by Ted Gioia