Ed's Reviews > Europe Central

Europe Central by William T. Vollmann
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's review
Sep 16, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: fiction, central-and-eastern-europe, music, wwii
Read from September 16 to November 04, 2010

A friggin monument.

Europe Central is such a thorough ass-kicking. As Chris S has pointed out to me (and it was his reason for recommending this book in the first place), I've been doing a lot of reading, both fiction and non-, on the subject of WWII, especially the Ostfront. With that background, together with the fairly thorough background I have from coursework at LU regarding the life and works of Dmitri Shostakovich, I feel I am qualified to make a pretty serious judgment on this work. And I love it.

As the blurbs on the back cover state, Europe Central is absurdly ambitious. It covers a lot of ground, and digs deep, deep into the lives and personalities of a number of figures, both prominent and not, from the time and on both sides of the eastern front. Vollman tells an intense and broad story about this pivotal historical conflict through intense and personal character profiles, or parables as he calls them. We get the stories, written with both cynicism and sympathy, of Field Marshal Paulus (defeated at Stalingrad), General Vlasov (captured by the Germans at Leningrad and defected), Weimar artist Käthe Kollwitz, Soviet film propagandist Roman Karmen, and most centrally, Shostakovich. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Most of the parables are written with the voice of a narrator baldly sympathetic to one or the other of the totalitarian systems in question, which provides lots of opportunity for irony, circumspection, and layers of meaning. Vollman also shifts occasionally and virtuosically into the voices of his subjects, most strikingly Shostakovich, and thus wins our sympathy for people we might otherwise dismiss or whose actions we would otherwise judge harshly--which we may end up doing anyway but not without more careful consideration. In short, this book makes you THINK, man. And I mean, just read the wikipedia pages on some of these characters! Intense dramatic shit no matter how you slice it.

But seriously. At his best Vollman made me listen with new ears to music and love it in a new way--a gift I can't say I have received from many other authors. This book compelled me to go back and listen to several of Shostakovich's works which I had previously ignored or underrated, and in every case I was so deeply moved: I thought, damn, I've had this in my library for years...I never really listened till now. This was very, very special for me, though it made for some uncomfortable situations. I was moved to tears by the 8th String Quartet in headphones, in a very public place and while eating. I hate crying while eating, what an awful feeling! But shit man.

I am tempted to dock a star because towards the end it starts feeling really realy long--in order to preserve what I gather was an attempt at symphonic form, Vollman spends a bit too much time meandering around in some less effective literary territory and noodling with less interesting side characters and motifs (in postwar, Cold War Berlin for example) before his spectacular coda back in the Shostakovich tonic...which I must say, though, is really spectacular. This was the part that got me right in the gonads about the 8th Quartet, for example. So in that regard it was worth the wait, and I have to respect that the impatience and wandering attention I experienced before the finale may have been part of Vollman's plan--to intesify the finale itself--and jeezus, well, it worked.
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