Vollmann, born in 1959, has published eight novels (four of which are part of his Seven Dreams series, a historicofictional account of the settlement of North America), three collections of stories (including The Atlas), a memoir about his experiences in Afghanistan, and an extraordinary seven-volume, two-thousand-plus-page meditation on violence called Rising Up and Rising Down (2003). In 2004, he produced an abridgment of this last work (just 726 pages, not including the acknowledgments) and the tone of his preface makes clear why it is so easy to like him and also why you might not want his company all the time. “The longer version of Rising Up and Rising Down,” he says, “took me twenty-three years, counting editorial errands. The abridgment took me half an hour.” And:
The single justification which I can offer [for the length of the original version] is that I believe it needed to be that long. This abridgment likewise has only one justification: I did it for the money. In other words, I can’t pretend (although you may disagree) that a one-volume reduction is any improvement upon the full version. All the same, it’s not necessarily worse. For one thing, the possibility now exists that someone might read it.
Vollmann is a writer who is both stylish and garrulous, a combination I thought impossible until I started to read him. He is also both tough and sentimental, but this is a more familiar mix: he’s seen it all but he still hasn’t lost his innocence. Here he is—as the narrator of a story in The Atlas—left holding the jacket of a prostitute who has gone out onto the streets of San Francisco to look for crack. He riffles
through the lining, into which all kinds of objects have fallen: lighters, Vaseline, tissues, a hamburger wrapping, a broken cigarette, some matches, “and finally, like some sweet secret, a little Tootsie Roll.” He is touched by the Tootsie Roll, and says he doesn’t know why. But in the next sentence he knows why. “It was like her, the dearness of her hidden inside all the greed and the lies, the goodness of her that the badness drew on and exhibited and used for its own selfish work.”
And here he is—he or another avatar in another story—reading a letter from a Japanese girl. He has written a passionate missive to her, and she says in reply, among more mundane things, “Please come back alive from Burma. Because I love you, too.” He treasures the letter and its reciprocation of passion, reads it again and again, but gradually its potency fades. “One night the letter was used up. Instead of tacit it seemed lukewarm.” When he looks at the letter again a week later it is “not lukewarm but sisterly, loving, enthusiastic, not at all erotic.”
He said to himself: How can the meaning of these words squirm and wriggle so much on my mind’s hook?
But then he thought: After all, I never knew what anything else meant, so why should I know what this means?
Six months later he hears that the girl is about to marry someone else.
“It was like her”; “I never knew what anything else meant.” Both the confident moralizing, the certainty of allegorical goodness in the midst of allegorical badness, and the easy skepticism, the quick slide from verbal uncertainty into total ignorance, are characteristic of Vollmann’s writing. But they are characteristically stylized too, matters of performance. As soon as we hear his voice, he has another one. He lays himself open but he moves on, leaving us to pick up the pieces, construct some sort of meaning of our own. Is he saying, does the slight mawkishness of his language suggest, that the prostitute’s goodness is his own article of faith, not a fact about her? Do we hear in the faint note of self-pity not that he doesn’t know what things mean but that he can’t bear “the squirm and wriggle” of words? Vollmann describes himself elsewhere as having been “a hack journalist” before he became a novelist, and of course it must always be possible, if you are as restless and as curious as Vollmann is, to see your reportage as self-reportage too, and to distrust and get impatient with the words that are your very trade.
In Expelled from Eden the editors have collected an interesting cross-section of Vollmann’s writing, including short stories, excerpts from novels, pieces of journalism, letters, manifestoes, juvenilia, and unpublished nonfiction. The selections are often rather short, which given the pace and space of Vollmann’s work seems a slightly odd choice, and the emphasis is on Vollmann’s energy and eccentricity. “Rimbaud, then,” as Larry McCaffery cheerfully puts it, “but also… Rambo.” This old gag doesn’t do Vollmann any favors, and we don’t in general get much sense of the more thoughtful writer from the anthology. There is a slightly awkward irony too in so much room being given to the writer’s letters to his editors protesting cuts in his Seven Dreams novels: we could have been reading some of the stuff Vollmann didn’t want to cut. But then this collection, addressed to “the astute Vollmann reader, scholar, fan, and fanatic,” is not meant to introduce anyone to Vollmann. It’s offered as a greatest hits album, a portrait of Vollmann as Bruce Springsteen. Everyone reading it will already have read him. Well, nearly everyone.
Europe Central is described in Expelled from Eden as a “collection of World War II stories,” which it may have been in the planning. The book is “dedicated to the memory of Danilo Kis,” and within the text Vollmann repeatedly evokes A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, for which he wrote an afterword in 2001. Kis’s book is a masterly work of linked stories, an ironic and compassionate portrait of the horrors of Eastern European history in the first part of the twentieth century. The thirty-six stories in Europe Central are paired in what Vollmann calls “pincer movements”—a Russian story linked to a German story mainly, although occasionally he twins one moment or scene in Russia or Germany with another from the same country. I don’t see any reason not to call the whole thing a novel. The stories connect as we read them, and the book has a lengthy central plot involving the fate of the composer Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich. Many characters reappear; certain questions preside over all the stories.
Vollmann calls Kis’s book “a series of parables,” and “parable” is the word he keeps using for the stories in Europe Central, even if its application is intermittent. The work is dominated by an “imaginary love triangle” in which Shostakovich is irrecoverably in love with Elena Konstantinovskaya, a translator who is married to the filmmaker Roman Karmen. This is not a parable, but a slightly soggy romance; and the many detailed accounts Vollmann gives of World War II battles are not parables either, but something like written versions of Hollywood war movies. Still, the word “parable” does help us to see what Vollmann is trying to do, and there are times when it seems precisely the right term.
From the beginning of his career Vollmann has understood that distortions of the real can improve rather than hinder our vision. His first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels (1987), was subtitled “A Cartoon,” and had an epigraph from a manual on graphic art: “Only the expert will realize that your exaggerations are really true.” Even the expert would have had a little trouble with this particular book, a hectic, allusive, and very funny account of the long war between a reactionary imperial power pictured as an electricity-mad America and the forces of rebellion represented by a seething mass of insects and their human allies. The exaggerations—the portraits of capitalists as rapaciousness personified, of revolutionaries as children who never got over the horrors of summer camp—are not meant to be “really true,” but they do hint at forms of continuity that are important to Vollmann. A hyperbole, he is saying, is the rhetorical end of a line which may start out in modest-looking fact. Or more polemically, “nothing displays such an artificial nature as ‘life as we know it.'”
What Vollmann calls a parable is actually closer to a good cartoon. It works by tightening up and paring down rather than through exaggeration, so that the confusions of reality give way to a series of schematic moments. One of Vollmann’s many narrators in Europe Central, in this case an enthusiastic German in Freiburg in 1933, throws a book—“some Jew book, something about pacifism, I believe”—on to a pile of burning volumes. But what he chiefly describes is the flight of the book in the air, and for a moment we are led to believe he is talking about a newly developed German rocket. “The command came. I was ready; I did my part. Liftoff! And so it rose and flew, gloriously propelled by human force….”
In his prodigious notes on his sources for Europe Central—voluminous reading scrupulously registered—Vollmann says his “goal here was to write a series of parables about famous, infamous and anonymous European moral actors at moments of decision,” and speaks of “historical situations…stripped down into parables,” but the word also occurs many times among the stories themselves. “Moral actor” is a crucial term in Rising Up and Rising Down, and reminds us that history for Vollmann is above all a scene of ethical events or non-events, often floating rather too easily free of their contexts, although in Europe Central they are considerably more grounded.
In a chapter called “Breakout,” the corpses of fifty Russian peasant women who have “perished variously, as people will,” that is, fallen to their death in a range of different positions, become “an enigmatic parable of universal fatality” because they have all been killed by the German invaders in the same way—“shot in the base of the skull.” The grisly implication is that death, and even murder, are individual matters until we see what unifies particular instances. “I see him,” the German narrator says of Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus, who was captured by the Russians after defying the Führer’s order to fight to the death, “as the central figure of a parable, and therefore apathetic in spite of himself.” “He was brought into the story of our Reich to illustrate a principle, to carry out a function, to think and suffer while things were done to him.” The narrator goes on to say: “On 22.1.43, the last airstrip in Stalingrad fell to the Russians. Paulus again requested permission to surrender. The Führer replied: You must stand fast to the last soldier and the last bullet.”
The very first story in the book, “The Saviors,” about the attempted assassination of Lenin in 1918 by the anarchist Fanya Kaplan, is subtitled “a Kabbalistic Tale” and is so abundantly set up as a parable that it reads like a parody of an ancient Jewish example of the genre: “The tale of Fanya Kaplan, that darkhaired, pale-faced, slender idealist, tells itself with grim brevity in keeping with her times,” the story begins. “And doesn’t the parable,” Vollmann asks, raising the stakes immediately, “possess greater integrity, greater righteousness we might almost say, than any other literary form?” After the assassination attempt, Lenin’s wife, N.K. Krupskaya, seeking to understand the deluded enemy, visits Kaplan in jail. Except that she doesn’t, can’t; the woman has already been executed. Lenin and Stalin together arrange for Krupskaya to see an actress impersonating Kaplan, and who is to say the actual Fanya would have stood up to such a symbolic inquiry any better than a person with a professional sense of history as theater? “Who are you?” Krupskaya asks at the end of the interview. The actress whispers, “I am unknowable. I am nothing.”
This example is perhaps too wry and mannered to represent the spirit of the rest of the work, but we find further parables in two sections that perfectly display what is most achieved and most provocative about Europe Central. The cases I have in mind stand as a pair at the heart of the book, taken together they occupy some 150 pages, and they tell in great detail the stories, respectively, of General A.A. Vlasov, a decorated Soviet hero of the early years of World War II who was captured by the Germans and ended up leading an army of Slavs against his country, and of Field Marshal von Paulus and his refusal to die in battle. Vlasov was executed in Russia in 1946. Paulus ended his career as a police inspector in East Germany, and died in 1957.
There are plenty of other memorably evoked figures in the book: Käthe Kollwitz makes her prints in Berlin, mourns the death of her son in World War I, and becomes a radical and a pacifist; Anna Akhmatova writes her poems and manages to survive; Kurt Gerstein joins the SS in order to document its atrocities for history, sees mass murders, and in 1942 tries to inform the world about them; Van Cliburn wins the Tchaikovsky competition; various nameless Russian and German operatives make their murky way through the corridors and bombing and rubble of the war and its aftermath.
Throughout the book Shostakovich keeps composing, now in official favor now out, but never really recovering from the regime’s hostility to his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, and never forgetting Elena Konstantinovskaya, with whom he had a brief affair in 1934 and 1935. In history and in this novel Elena marries another man; and in Vollmann’s imagination, for good measure, she finds her true love only with another woman. Elena is introduced to us as “an object of obsessive desire,” but somehow never ceases to be an object, and at one point the narrator baldly tells us that “anyone who writes about her quickly finds himself at a loss. She’s unknowable.”
The rest of these persons and worlds are patiently, if sometimes a little flatly, evoked, and Vollmann’s scheme is clear. He doesn’t want to equate Russia and Germany in the twentieth century, or Stalinism with Hitlerism, but he does want to assemble documentable cases of life and death in these extreme empires—because they were at the center of the century, and because the century itself may become a parable if we look at it long enough and in the right light. It’s not that Vollmann’s characters are ordinary people in extraordinary times—some of them are themselves quite extraordinary. But he is deeply interested in what happens when moderately straightforward people are revealed as too complicated for their drastically simplified circumstances—when, for example, without being heroes or martyrs, they are forced to choose between their principles and their lives, or more intricately, between two different but equally imperative sets of duties.
This interest allows us to think again about the movement of Rising Up and Rising Down, which seems to drive toward what Vollmann calls his “moral calculus,” a series of propositions about when violence may or may not be justified. The words of the title seem at first to name the matching violences of revolt and repression (“Rising up, rising down! History shambles on! What are we left with?”; “it was time to cut one’s losses, avoid a rising down”), but Vollmann finally settles on something subtler, where the metaphor becomes ethical rather than institutional or empirical. Rising up is “a just act of violence” and rising down is “an unjust act of violence.” The calculus is a curious mixture of traditional ethics, a huge investment in the sovereignty of the self (“the self is…the basic indissoluble element of autonomy”), and a few bits of contentious contemporary libertarianism (“In my opinion, most of the time, authority’s self-aggrandizement is unjustified”).
The book is always lucid, even as it hovers between the obvious and the recondite, and the under- and over-examined, but it is not seeking a conclusion, only a new framing of moral options, and the pathos of Europe Central is that it reminds us that a moral calculus is only as good as its local practitioners can make it. This is why the tale of Kurt Gerstein, who Vollmann says is “one of my heroes,” comes across as relatively feeble: he’s living a terrible life but he’s not in any moral trouble, he’s merely trying and failing to do what he is sure is right. “There was nothing ambiguous about Gerstein’s good,” Vollmann says, and that is why this career couldn’t become a parable. A parable for Vollmann is a story where his temptation to allegorize and his inclination to skepticism are having an argument neither of them can win.
The somber parables about Vlasov and Paulus multiply questions for us, and offer no simple lesson or example. How would a Russian who was not an opportunist or a scoundrel or a coward persuade himself that the German cause in World War II was better than that of the Soviets? If you were a soldier with an “aversion to murder,” as Vlasov is described, would there be a way of calculating which side was more murderous? And how would you live with the results of your (unavoidable) calculation? Why would von Paulus, a distinguished German commander who disagreed with his Führer on all kinds of military (and other) matters, follow his instructions all the way to disaster—and then disobey? What does it mean to be a good soldier in the wrong army, what kind of weakness is it to prefer, as Vollmann delicately suggests Paulus did, your sense of duty to your sense of responsibility?
Vollmann answers these questions by reconstructing in detail what happened to these men, by letting us see how they got through their days. He pays attention to gesture and counter-gesture, and he closely watches, albeit without analyzing them, the movements of his characters’ minds. “He hardly cared for his own life any more, or so he supposed,” he writes of Vlasov. Of Paulus, who had seen a Nazi massacre of Jews, he writes, “He’d tried ever since then never to think about the anti-Jewish measures.” The parable arises in large part from Vollmann’s restraint in describing the complex fates of the two men, allowing the larger questions to float up of their own accord. What is loyalty? Who or what is betrayed in a betrayal? Can any decency remain when the very notion of decency seems to have crumbled?
Vollmann can’t quite manage this effect with Shostakovich. Of course Shostakovich’s career, with its deviations from and groveling obeisances to the Party line on music and other matters, offers all the material for a parable along the lines of the stories of Vlasov and Paulus, and at one point Vollmann has Shostakovich himself wonder about a resemblance between his fate and Vlasov’s. The account of the composer’s last years, saddened by his moral and political compromises and by the absence of Elena, is a rhetorical tour de force. He died in 1975, but in Vollmann’s view he had been effectively dead since he composed his Opus 110 string quartet in Dresden in 1960, a piece of music the narrator calls
too sad even to rise from a moan into a wail… The very first moment that Shostakovich arrived in Dresden, music flooded his skull in a hideous scream; he clutched at his chest and the world whirled, but nothing else did.
The novelist gets across the idea of a mere dragging out of days through the repetition of a simple phrase: “lived on.” “He lived on to 1964,” we are told; “he lived on to 1965”; “he even lived on to 1969”; and so on four more times (four more years) until the end.
But “the helpless, rumpled Shostakovich” in this novel is too much an artist figure (as distinct from an artist or a person). The constant conversion of his musical practice into psychological and historical metaphors is very clunky (“the cello as vivid as Elena herself, the piano steady and glittery like Shostakovich”; “Some notes of Opus 110 get coffined up in chords, while others, solo, coffinless, become Leningraders falling one by one into the snow to die”); and he is given page after page of interior monologue that seems to have been borrowed from the Platonic idea of a Russian novel in translation (“Now it’s better just to, I don’t know. I wish I could talk to Irina about this, because she’s my angel, but I’m afraid of making her sad”). For quite different reasons, and at much greater length, the Shostakovich story plays out the way the Gerstein story does. It’s simple: this is a mess of a man who produces great work.
But what is Europe Central, the place that provides the title of the novel? Initially (and again later in the novel) it’s a telephone exchange, a point where wartime messages intersect, but the narrator, ostensibly a member of the German Signal Corps, rapidly mutates into the novelist himself, setting his scene, listening to what his characters have to tell him. “So I apply myself now,” he says, “on this dark winter night, preparing to invade the meaning of Europe.” One of the consistent pleasures of this book, and a feature that makes the woodenness of the impersonation of certain of the major characters all the more surprising, is the variety of narrative positions Vollmann skillfully takes up. The person who says “I” is a rabid German, a disaffected German, a member of the Russian Secret Service, a double agent, and many more figures, all contemporary with the action, as well as Vollmann the writer, looking back at it all from the distance of fifty years or more (“I’m writing in the year 2002,” he says at one point in the text; and speaks of documents “as I study them in 2001”).
But Europe is also a battlefield, a theater: “In Europe everything is a performance; everything gets announced.” It’s “wine-tinted maple leaves and pale hexagonal church towers.” It’s Dresden, “the walled kingdom in the middle of the past.” It’s “this terrible new Europe,” as Käthe Kollwitz calls it, meaning the world of 1914 and after. It’s what gets lost in the war between Germany and Russia, although Shostakovich in the novel thinks it may be the child of these two forces: “We have a Motherland and they have a Fatherland. Their child is Europe Central.” Vollmann quotes Bismarck: “I’ve always found the word EUROPE on the lips of those statesmen who want something from a foreign power which they would never venture to ask for in their own name.” “And so,” Vollmann adds, “the Kaiser …divorced the word Europe. He said Germany.” Stalin meanwhile said socialism in one country, but Europe was always what was at stake. It was a place, in Vollmann’s view, situated “between two darknesses,” an image not of hope against hope but of memory or even fiction against disaster: “Sunlight between two darknesses isn’t sunlight at all: it’s central Europe herself….”
We note the personification and Vollmann waxes lyrical on just this subject: “Europe is Europa; Europe is a woman. Europa’s names are Marie-Luise Moskav and Berlin Liubova; Europa is Elena Ekaterinburg and Constanze Konstaninovskaya, not to mention Galina Germany, Rosa Russkaya …above all Europa is Elena.” In what sense can we identify Europe with Shostakovich’s Elena? Vollmann says he doesn’t understand Elena but has made her “as infinitely lovable as I could,” so that she becomes, we may think, a version of the “dear” prostitute or the unreadable Japanese girl, or a combination of both. In context, this thought adds up to the rather trite suggestion that Europe is the always fleeing, enigmatic female, an allegory of unavailable goodness. That makes us guys into Shostakovich at best and members of the Russian or German marauding armies at worst. I’m sure Vollmann means his list to be a love song but with a friend like this you might, if you were a woman or a European, begin to look around for other allies or try to reinvent yourself as something other than a fable or a battlefield. Then you remember the phrase about “preparing to invade the meaning of Europe,” and you realize that at least one of Vollmann’s narrative selves is ready to see what’s wrong with this romance.
One can’t invade meaning. One can only put it together or fail, honorably or not, in the attempt. “I take my meaning where I can find it,” Vollmann says in Rising Up and Rising Down. “When I can’t find it, I invent it. And when I do that, I deny meaninglessness, and when I do that I am lying to myself.” This is not to abandon his quest for meaning but to make it stricter (finding is not a form of invention but its precise and demanding opposite), and the view requires a full acknowledgment of the sheer meaninglessness presented to us by accidents, diseases, deaths, and all our many forms of loss. Vollmann is thinking here, as he so often is, of his sister who drowned as a child when he was supposed to be watching her. He was nine and she was six. A little later he says, “The murderer’s execution might mean something; his victim’s killing almost certainly will not.”
But meaning can be found in the most desolate zones, for survivors if not for victims, and in Rising Up and Rising Down Vollmann relates the following story from the San Francisco morgue as what he calls a “Solomonic parable”:
Three different mothers were led into the viewing room one by one to identify a dead girl, and each mother claimed the girl as hers, with a desperate relief, as I would suppose…. Those three mothers must all have given up hoping that their daughters would ever speak to them or smile at them again. They wanted to stop dreading and start grieving. They didn’t want to go into viewing rooms any more. And maybe the glass window was dirty, and maybe their eyes were old or full of tears. It was a natural mistake. But one mother was lucky. The dead girl was really her daughter.
In Europe Central, a novel where so much is said, what’s memorable is often the half-said, like the comment that Shostakovich and Akhmatova had nothing in common “excepting nightmares,” or the repeated suggestion that among the real difficulties of dark times are both our ability to get used to them (“whatever fate sends us quickly becomes us”) and our fear of being “disloyal to [our] own sufferings.” Rising Up and Rising Down, similarly, has its wonderful quiet moments: “Meager results: that’s life. Not to be deterred by meager results: that’s a kind of nobility.” And: “The most illuminating way to perceive the shoddiness of your own ideals is to witness someone else practicing them.” Such moments help us to wait out the longer stretches in Vollmann’s books; the great virtue of his writing is that even at its windiest it tries to think with us rather than for us.
December 15, 2005