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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Europe Central

The opening of this historical novel by W.T. Vollmann seems to suggest that material objects such as steel and telephones and telephone wire are endowed with volition and that human beings are in some sense subservient to them and he seems to suggest an equivalence between human beings and individual letters of the Hebrew alphabet (is this what human beings actually are, merely means by which various alphabets exercise themselves?) and the narrator seems to be at times History itself, some sort of supra-personal consciousness, then a functionary in the Third Reich, and then the eminent Vollmann himself, after a reference to "this story" and "its author" (who deprecates himself for indulging in "reactionary supernaturalism"); then a Russian (?) operative takes up the narrative reins for a time, transitioning into a heterodiegetic "omniscient" narrator who reports on the thoughts of German visual artist Kathe Kollwitz when she visits Moscow for an exhibition of her work in 1927, giving us almost as many narrators as the crew in As I Lay Dying, this privileged speaker here and there tiptoeing into the story with a shy "I" ; in any case, W.T.V. deposits us back in Littell's bailiwick, ceaselessly shoveling out the historical facts and persons, heaps and masses of them, a writer who clearly takes his reality principle seriously, burying one in objective reality, though tampering with the historical record where he pleases, and I wonder if I shouldn't take a look at Martin Amis's new novel about the same era, but here's a first rate rendering from Vollmann: "[T]he brave young men who rushed against barbed wire, got impaled, and hung there until the bullet-wind blew through them," though I would have said, "got hooked and tangled there until," but his neologistic "bullet-wind" is very fine.

And here's another outstanding sentence: "Her [i.e., Kollwitz's] eyes were not unlike Shostakovich's in that grief seemed almost ready to explode out of them, like corpses flying into the air when a stray shell hits a mass grave."  In Chapter 4 ("You Have Shut the Danube's Gates") our unnamed, plodding German narrator becomes peevish: "That's what I thought.  Of course, nobody gives a shit about my opinions."

In Chapter 6 ("Maiden Voyage") he gets excited about the German Air Force and arrogant vis-a-vis the gentle reader: "When I was a boy, we'd all run out into the street to watch our fire-red biplanes pass over us!  Just take it from me: You'll never understand."  Also of interest is a bogus footnote to this chapter, in which WTV breaks his bond of presumed good faith with the reader (or is one to take it as a jest?) concerning a particular handgun cartridge on which the plot of EC "in part turns." Strange overlapping temporalities: "When Parzival killed Galogandres, the standard-bearer of King Clamide, the attackers called the battle off. The long dark pipelike barrels of their antitank rifles couldn't frighten him: Parzival had saved Queen Condwiramurs!"

The German narrator, apparently an intelligence agent of high rank in the Wehrmacht, is none too endearing: "[N]o one would deny that it's healthy for us Germans to try to get what we want [.]"  The Russian narrator, also a high-ranking surveillance official, isn't much better: cf. his comment anent Anna Akhmatova: [S]he kept her precious head up her ass, or somebody else's--you can't imagine all the filthy things I've seen her do!--so it proved a simple business to keep an eye on her," an endnote confessing this revelation is spurious.  (Why do I feel like I'm reading Gravity's Rainbow all over again?) Narrators who are relentlessly negative, vulgar, histrionic, calloused and arrogant leave one cold.

The M. Amis novel--The Zone of Interest, columnist R. Cohen in the Times giving it good marks today (Sept. 29).  Touching EC, I suppose one should be impressed by the exhaustive and meticulous research that went into its creation, as indicated by the endnotes--not particularly, having read any number of wonderful novels that showed few if any signs of research; though if WTV enjoyed undertaking it, where's the harm?, though it is undeniable EC is a book about other books; a bookish novel, not a Hemingwayesque tale relying on personal experience acquired in dangerous circumstances, or a Proustian reverie in which Marcel attempts to understand his personal past; for novels like EC we can thank our incomparable graduate schools, WTV the proud holder of a PhD in complit summa.

EC is engrossing, no question, but joyless so far, I'm on p. 108 and no real laughs yet which for this reader is a problem.  In an endnote to the chapter "And I Dried My Salty Hair" it is revealed that our Russian narrator is named Comrade Alexandrov.  One doesn't glide through this book so much as trudge, an "artistic" disordering of chronology subverting suspense at every step of the way. Interesting sentence: "Most literary critics agree that fiction cannot be reduced to mere falsehood."

In the midst of the shovelfuls, the dumptruckfuls of erudition, our Alexandrov can be thoroughly informal: "Actually he [composer Shostakovitch] was dwelling on Tatyana Glivenko, who was really, truly, you get the idea."  And when the young composer says a few words, why, just a regular guy; when asked to explain his musical intentions, he replies: "Well [giggled Mitya], why shouldn't I give them a little, you know?  I mean, I, I. well, when you consider Rodchenko spatial constructions, they're like, um, plywood robots!  So why can I get wacky?" (Blogging is reverse-samizdat: U.S. govt. doesn't suppress dissident writing, it encourages it, so that it can "keep tabs" on it, for our protection of course.)  Of Dimitri composing: "His reconnaissance-notes of alienness infiltrated the staffs of score-sheets like flat-capped, rifle-pointing silhouettes creeping through gaps in barbed wire."  Nice!  I'm enjoying this novel, I can't deny it.  Startling fact mentioned in passing: "In 1935, when Stalin made twelve-year-olds subject to the death penalty [!] ...."  And a quote from Dimitri anent Soviet propaganda: "[T]heir speeches make my ears vomit."

Hitler's invasion of Russia is described in musical terms: "[T]he sirens of the Stuka divebombers illustrated the concept of portamento, which, as we know, is the glide from one note to another on a woodwind.... Did you know that under ideal conditions bombs can express all eight degrees of the diatonic scale as they whistle down?";  instances of this tic are plentiful--or should I say "inspired innovation"?  Hardships suffered by the residents of Leningrad during the German siege are rendered starkly: "Cannibals were said to be killing stray children every day; steak-meat was cut from the shoulders, thighs and buttocks of corpses abandoned at the cemetery .... Bundled-up women belly-crawled through the snow between frozen tramcars, hoping to find a frozen rat or a scrap of oilcake which would give them the strength to rise."

The dialogue of historical persons in the novel, such as Shostakovitch and his circle, is massively (compulsively?) footnoted and substantiated--yawn. Reading the 4-1/2 pages of closely printed endnotes for the chapter "The Palm Tree of Deborah" I couldn't help saying to myself: "This is insane!" and feeling on the verge of laughing at the bizarre studiousness of it all.  EC is a composite work, a work of "faction," two-thirds history treatise, one-third fiction.  (To be continued, perhaps.)

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