Wednesday, November 09, 2005

VIKING. $39.95. 832 PAGES.

When a “screaming comes across the sky,” in the first page of Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” the V-2 rocket Blitz bombing of WWII London sets forth as much novelistic intrigue and ambiguity as it does interwoven, encyclopedic narratives and heady mix of all things apocalyptic, paranoiac, and pop-cultural. Will the deadly barrage “come in darkness, or will it bring its own light?” The open-ended and enigmatic conclusion hints that the seeming “angel of death” and utter annihilation may actually signal some kind of divine salvation, bearing out motifs of regeneration, cyclical time, and metamorphic accord with a “Soul in ev’ry stone.” Indeed, noted in the epigraph to part one of “Gravity” is Werner Von Braun’s belief in the continuity of spiritual existence after death: “Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation.”

The rainbow connection in “Europe Central,“ the epic fever-dream fusion of fiction and fact by the prolific William T. Vollmann--considered by many to be the “new Pynchon” for his works’ multi-layered history-based complexity in plot and themes--takes on more monochromatic hues, arcing closer to earth. Also centering around events of World War II, “Europe Central” focuses on some figures--famous, infamous, unknown and mythic--surrounding the authoritarian regimes of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. But because “color had yet to enter the world,” we’ll “tell our tale in grey,” and this time it’s personal: one character “dreamed that a bomb was singing to him. From far away, the bomb was coming to marry him. The bomb was his destiny, falling on him, screaming.” There’s no transformative pot of gold at the end of this ear-piercing vapor-trail rainbow, though, and no souls in any stone as two lovers amidst the Armageddon (in a dream about a film that seems to parallel “Gravity’s” concluding movie-house setting) come together for the last time as “their mouths both opened and then those two pale, open-mouthed Russian corpses formed their own exclusive society on a street corner which shone brilliant silver with rain.” An extinction pretty much pounding the last nail in the last coffin with resounding finality, in apt complement to “Europe Central”’s fatalistic epigraph, this from Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich: “The majority of my symphonies are tombstones.” Nothing transcends or soothes in this war-torn terra firma, not even art and music.

But the tenaciously ambitious and prodigious Vollmann has never been one to appease and pacify in over a dozen novels, as well as essays and on-the-spot journalistic forays, all culled from whirlwind detours of duty and variegated labors of love and deviance. From early-on under-the-radar cult figure and gadfly on the wall, to more widely-recognized critical acclaim, Vollmann has demonstrated steadfast dedication to professional craft and personal quirks: smoking crack for research; consorting with junkies, terrorists and prostitutes; roughing it in Afghanistan in 1982 to help fight the Soviets; and in his off-hours at his San Francisco computer programming job, surviving on candy bars and sleeping under his desk while writing his 1987 debut novel, a phantasmagoric millenarian allegory. Among his most audacious works are the “Seven Dreams” series of novels, comprising a “symbolic history” of North America, and “The Royal Family” (2000), a harrowing gumshoe tale of sordid sorts set amid the denizens and dregs of San Francisco’s mean streets, the who-done-it inspired by a who’s-who of such disparate influences as Ovid, Dante, and Melville. The non-fiction “Rising Up and Rising Down” is Vollman’s doorstop magnum opus, an elaborate and exhaustive seven-volume analysis and history of human violence.

Bringing similar historical insight in the endeavor to “invade the meaning of Europe,” Vollmann, calling to mind Pynchon’s view of history (from “Mason and Dixon”) as a “great disorderly tangle of lines,” attempts and largely succeeds in “Europe Central,” in synthesizing and reconciling varied factual, cultural and imaginative strands. Against the backdrop of Operation Barbarossa, the 1941 German advance into Russia, and the eventual German defeat at Stalingrad, Vollmann presents thirty-six intertwined paired narratives reflecting the impulses and actions of an assortment of German and Russian military, diplomatic, and artistic characters--and posits to riddle us thusly: “The winged figures on the bridges of Berlin are now mostly flown, for certain things went wrong in Europe . . .”
And certain steadfast positions of principled and faithful men (of the just-following-orders variety) weaken into wavering loyalties as campaigns of attrition exact a personal toll. In the linked counternarratives “Breakout” and “The Last Field Marshall,” Russian general A. A. Vlasov and Friedrich Paulus, commander of Germany’s Sixth Army, find that impossible circumstances force their hands to such an extent that collaboration with the enemy results.

Vollmann, with minute attention to detail and psychological probing, traces the evolution of events--and the differing fates-- with dramatic and compelling effect, allowing for such then-rationalizations as the abstract intangibles constituted in “the bourgeois-reactionary ideology of so-called world citizenship,” and on the other hand, a loaded guilt-by-dissociation charge that there was “nothing more dangerous than an old man’s self-justifications.”
In addition to vibrant portrayals of such cultural luminaries as Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, translator Elena Konstantinovskaya, and the socialist artist Kathe Kollwitz, another particularly powerful one-two counterpunch is found in “Zoya” and “Clean Hands.” Here Vollmann outlines the heroics of a female Russian martyr whose fate inspired and hardened Soviet resolve, and more vividly recounts the rousing and courageous story of Kurt Gerstein, an SS officer who, while working as the supply agent for the gas chambers, risked his life to tell the world about the concentration camps. Giving an impassioned and nuanced account of Gerstein’s mounting apprehension and course of action, the author avers, “The first time he joined the Party, it was out of true German ardor . . .. Then he’d volunteered to be a spy for God.”

Not all accounts are as inspirational, of course. The retelling of Shostakovich's personal life and musical career (varying with the Communist political climate, the composer faced periods of condemnation and rehabilitation, especially with his Leningrad Symphony, performed in the city under German siege) is potent and poignant in his long resistance to Stalin, but he ultimately finds himself acquiescing and toeing the Party line. Unfortunately, Vollmann adds a little insult to the injury with his conjuration of a love triangle between Shostakovich, Elena Konstantinovskaya, and documentary filmmaker Roman Karmen, which meanders melodramatically throughout the book with weepy and overlong As-the-USSR-Turns histrionics.

Indeed, one of the undeniable problems overall with ”Europe Central” lies in its unwieldy, gargantuan length and tendency to belabor. A distinctive Vollmann trait, to be sure, but at over 800 densely-packed pages (including fifty pages of source notes), parts of this often-repetitive tome could have benefited from a little slash-and-burn editing without losing one umlaut of sturm and drang effect.

Still, life is messy, war is messy, and a project this grand and all-embracing calls for at least a little literary overkill in order to convey the totality and extent constituted in a time of unforgiving Russan winters and a steadily evolving Gotterdammerung, and in a place where “We have a Motherland and they have a Fatherland. Their child is Europe Central.” Vollmann conveys it all with great insights as always, punctuating his incisive analysis with masterful prose--here a little mythopoeic Whitmanian yawp, there a little Joycean stream of consciousness or even Blonde on Blonde-era Dylanese to strangle up your mind--but ultimately in a style and in a passion and committment all his own.
What once impelled millions of manned and unmanned bullets into motion? You say Germany. They say Russia. It certainly couldn’t have been Europe herself, much less Europe Central, who’s always been such a good docile girl. I repeat: Europe’s a mild heifer, a plump virgin, an R-maiden or P-girl ripe for loving, an angel, a submissive prize. Europe is Lisca Malbran. Europe’s never burned a witch or laid hands on a Jew! How can one catalogue her jewels? In Prague, for instance, one sees dawn sky through the arched windows of bell-towers, and that sky becomes more desirable by being set in that verdigrised frame whose underpinning, the finger of the tower itself, emerges from the city’s flesh, the floral-relieved, cartouched and lionheaded facades of it whose walled and winding streets have ever so many eyes; Europe’s watchful since she’s already been raped so many times, which may be why some of her eyes still shine with lamplight even now, but what good does it do to see them coming? The first metal lice already scuttle over her skin, which is cobblestoned with dark grey and light grey follicles. Europe feels all, bears all, raising her sky-ringed church-fingers up to heaven so that she can be married.

What set steel in motion? The late SS-Obersturmfuhrer Kurt Gerstein has counseled me to seek the answers in scripture, meaning Europe Central’s old Greek Bibles with their red majuscules and black woodcut engravings of terrifying mummies bursting up from narrow sarcophagi; a few dozen of those volumes survived the war.
“Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader” edited by Larry McCafffery and Michael Hemmingson. Thunder Mouth Press. $17.95. 479 pages.

William T. Vollman, Shape-shifter. Our “most crazed, suicidal romantic visionary since Poe and Melville.” Unreconstructed adolescent attracted to doomed causes “because he hasn‘t matured enough to realize the futility of the ideals he’s based his life and work on.”

Seems about right. Especially with an almost suitable-for-framing “Portrait of the Artist as Young Man with a Beretta”--a photograph of Vollmann with a gun pointed to his own head--prominently featured at the beginning of “Expelled From Eden,” a wonderfully off-kilter anthology and scrapbook miscellany chock full o’ Vollmann. And there’s more than enough to go around, with photos, plot summaries, biographical confessions, letters, poetry, and journalistic essays; excerpts from his odyssey through the history of violence, “Rising Up and Rising Down”; published fiction such as “You Bright and Risen Angels,” and “Rainbow Stories,” as well as some not-yet published novels. Also along for the ride are such curiosities as a Vollmann-centric timeline of world history, and an eclectic list of books--many obscure--most admired by the unusually well-read Vollmann. All writings are well organized among the sections of the book, covering such essential required-reading material as background and influences, travels, and “On Writing, Literature, and Culture”; For extra credit, you can tackle “On Death, War, and Violence,” and “On Love, Sex, Prostitutes, and Pornography.”

Vollmann knows more than a little about all of these things, as the discerning and refreshingly irreverent editors of “William T. Vollmann, Larry McCaffery and Michael Hemmingson, make clear. But while Vollmann has a reputation for having one foot in the grave, the other in the gutter, a wide-eyed reader of this compendium will come away with a fuller understanding of a complex writer still lingering by those gates of Eden: “Part sinner indelibly stained by the mark of Cain, Vollmann is also part saint who in Christ-like fashion embraces everyman and every woman, lays his hands upon their scars, and forgives them their sins.”


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