Europe Central by William K. Vollman

This book is a heart-wrenchingly beautiful work.

Europe Central

Europe Central tells the stories of courageous people trapped between two vicious powers for whom courage was an abomination to be controlled. It’s a book by an American about World War II, but almost zero American or British characters appear. It’s all about the Eastern Front, the Ostfront, the landscape of Operation Barbarossa. Beginning with the conceptual parallel of Hitler and Stalin and their respective totalitarian empires, William Vollman tells deeply personal stories of unexpected historical figures like the Soviet composer Dimitri Shostakovich, the Communist German artist Käthe Kollwitz, the Soviet General Vlasov who resurfaced in the hands of the Nazis, the Nazi General Paulus who resurfaced in the hands of the Soviets. The story of Kurt Gerstein, the man who became an SS officer to catalogue and expose the Nazis’ war crimes but was deemed too ineffective at tribunal and sentenced to death. He hung himself.


This is one of the few books over which I’ve openly sobbed while reading. This is largely thanks to a technique Vollman uses that I think is enormously brave for an author and incredibly evocative. He takes these stories, meticulously researched, and fictionalizes them. He gives each character voice, inner monologue, motivation, places a warmly beating heart into skeletons constructed of historical fact.

Another piece is the soundtrack. Of the characters it is only the composer Dmitri Shostakovich that gets three long chapters (all others get one at most). Vollman sets each of these around one of three pieces of his music: Opus 40, the Seventh Symphony (“The Leningrad Symphony”), and Opus 110. This necessarily dictates listening to them, a haunting accompaniment. (Note: Read about the music here. And here is a playlist, if you’re on Rdio.) Vollman’s ability to read visual imagery into the music itself is enormous— there are four pages of nearly Burroughs-style prose in “Opus 110″ that weave musical theory into the iconography of war and siege; the effect is echoed by listening to Shostakovich’s beautiful but disturbing music while you read about his life, his loves, and the terrible Siege of Leningrad, through which he lived.

The Siege of Leningrad

I cannot gush enough about Vollman’s craft in this book. The voices he lends these characters, the way he stitches their lives together across history— planting a Kollwitz work like an unexploded land mine for a future Shostakovich, that when it explodes ends up in his Seventh Symphony. It is a novel filled with parenthetical callbacks and calls forward— devices that make the book truly a novel and not simply a thematic collection of unrelated historical stories.

I love Europe Central because it’s courageous and it’s new. Because it makes me believe the future of the novel is not yet done, that there are experiments left to be conducted with the form and that those experiments don’t necessarily end in the musty rabbit warrens of academia like philosophy, but can result in challenging yet readable innovations. It is important to note that Europe Central, like The Moviegoer, won the National Book Award. It was reading this book that I realized the good folks over at the National Book Award and I were on the same team. (Don’t get me started on the Pulitzer.) They are right. Europe Central is a book that should be read by humans.

If you are a human and not a spam robot, get yourself a copy of Europe Central from the Internet.

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