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Sunday, 16 July 2006

Review: Europe Central, William T. Vollmann (2005)

Vollmann’s vision enshrouds and underlines great swathes of history: from Russia at the time of the 1917 revolution to pre-WWII Germany, where Kathe Kollwitz struggles with her art to the defeat of the Third Reich and beyond. His ironic, impassioned prose breathes life into forgotten or neglected corners of history. Europe Central is a spangly, dark-burning book about the realities of life, catching moments of thoughtfulness and transforming them into iconic symbols of human enterprise.

Clearly, Vollmann has learned much about writing. Obviously, he is a major talent. And he is indefatigable, commanding millions of facts at his fingertips (the ‘Sources’ section details 748 individual locations of source data), making them ripe for his purposes: illustrating the thunderous climactic of a continent rent asunder by struggle. Death, life, art, weariness, ambition all take on new forms under the enchantment of Vollmann’s pen. Kollwitz, being presented with a prize, meets the famous Professor Moholy-Nagy at the Prussian Academy, and Vollmann turns their rencontre into a rumination on the causes of WWII:

Professor Moholy-Nagy vindictively interrupted: The traditional painting has become a historical relic and is finished with.
  She smiled at him. Then slowly she turned away to receive more congratulations from elitists and militarists, the ones who had killed Peter, and not just Peter, but all the brave young men in helmets who toiled white-faced through zig-zag trenches and marched through hellscapes, falling a dozen at a time, the smoke skinned young men with daggers who crept through tunnels to murder one another, the brave young men who rushed against barbed wire, got impaled, and hung there until the bullet-wind blew through them; or else if they were lucky they became squinting prisoners, marched away between lines of Frenchmen on horseback; then they could look forward to coming home years later, bitter, poor and hateful, ripe for the next war.

The problems that Shostakovich faced in the aesthetic wasteland of Soviet Russia were multiple. How could this sheepish genius atone for the ‘formulism’ of his work? What would happen to him, to his family? The lock-step attitude of the authorities could hound him to despair but what about posterity? In the brightly-lit diorama that Vollmann has laid out in this novel, Shostakovich wanders around, dazed by fear.

As for all who’d ever praised “Lady Macbeth,” they found themselves in much the same position as those two female parachutists, Tamara Ivanovna and Liubov’ Berlin, who’d been so desperate to best each other in the recent All-Soviet competition that neither one pulled her rip cord in time. What would the praisers do in this turnaround race? Pravda had denounced their “fawning music criticism.” To save themselves, they must leap as far and fast as possible, leaving Shostakovich alone in the stormy skies of formalism. (And he knew that; he knew the rules. He’d done it to Malko. From Archangel he sent Glikman a telegram: Please send all the press clippings immediately, dear Isaak Davidovich! He wanted to hear each individual note in the symphony of denunciation.) They must rush to earth. They must exclude him from friendship, charity, memory. Ruthless seclusion in private, ruthless conformity in public—those were the two wires they must pull, to steer themselves safely down to obscurity.

There is a timely article just published this weekend in the Guardian Review about Shostakovich and his efforts to evade censorship. I also want to include here a poem by an American (Owen Campbell Mortimer) published in the early 1950s in an Australian Communist journal. It is very illuminating, showing us how the thoughts of Communists veered away from the aesthetic to the utilitarian:

Lines To A Conventional Poet…

Fashionable poet, he belongs
Where decadence puts forth its precious blooms;
Pretentiously he pens anaemic songs
Recited in the smartest drawing rooms.

He wears his hair artistically long,
Against the gentle pallor of his brow;
He doesn’t give a fig for right or wrong—
It isn’t done this season, anyhow!

He publishes exclusive little tracts
Of wonderful and pessimistic verse;
Of course, his utter disregard for facts
Continues, like his lines, from bad to worse.

He writes romantic lines to Liberty,
To Love and flowers, rainbows after rain,
Entirely unconcerned by History—
My God, don’t tell me they did that in Spain!

    *    *    *

Leave him his trivial verse, his idle eye;
He holds no stature with the things immense—
And after all, the world has passed him by
To sing instead the Songs of Common Sense.

Well, history has surely passed this poet by.

‘The Last Field-Marshal’ clearly will not please everyone. Because, in this story we begin to sympathise with this dutiful, but finally doomed, man. The increasing activity of the Russian forces is the death-knell; tank production has been successful in Russia and the balance of power at Stalingrad shifts rapidly — at least in this version of events. I have nothing to compare it to. Vollmann imagines into life the obsequious deference paid to Hitler — and its inevitable consequences. The politics of the field command come alive and so too the heavy banalities of Aryanism; these are transformed by pathos into a dream-like enchantment that is set to shatter beneath the relentless advance of the Soviet forces. The movement from summer to winter is also, obviously, heavily metaphorical. This story is so long, the detail so brilliant, that we come to respect Paulus, although he was part of a system that has long been discredited, to say the least. And so this is a very challenging story narrated by a German — each story in the book has not only different characters, but a different narrator.

‘Clean Hands’ is a wonderful story, full of life and great reading, complete with a breathless expectancy as we ponder the fate of this curious man:

He was present, trying to laugh with his comrades, when they stripped the Jews naked, beat them and shot them. An old man, needing to relieve himself, squatted down in the bushes and got overlooked by his murderers. Gerstein whispered in his ear, urging him to hide in the forest.—No, thank you, Herr Obermeisterfürer, the Jew said coldly, in perfect German. I prefer the company of my wife and children.—And then he pulled up his pants and joined the next batch of lean, yellow-faced Russian Jews with upraised hands, bearded, kneeling, while the Order Police stood smiling easily, posing for pictures beside their bagged quarry. They were so at ease that they could have been Sunday equestrians in the Tiergarten. In the town, the church bell under its cross-roofed platform stayed silent, dangling between massive wooden legs.

In another story, ‘Ecstasy’, we see Shostakovich in love with Elena. But she can’t reciprocate his feelings. So he lends her books:

She knew how much he loved her. At first she’d disbelieved, but now she believed (so he thought; she said that she didn’t believe him but he supposed she had to say this in order to avoid encouraging him). Wasn’t that enough? So he lent her books. After all, one of life’s pleasures is reading a book of perfect beauty; more pleasurable still is rereading that book; most pleasurable of all is lending it to the person one loves: Now she is reading or has just read the scene with the mirrors; she who is so lovely is drinking in that loveliness I’ve drunk.

.  .  .

I should mention that this beautiful volume, which was such a pleasure to hold, began its tale with a dazzling abruptness, as if the reader had just emerged from a dark tunnel into another world, a perfect world whose ground was a hot white plain of salt upon which the words lived their eternal lives.

Finally, we get it — the whole shebang. The chapter entitled ‘Opus 110’ is nothing less than the story of the composer’s life and, in it, the story of this piece of music. A life surrounded by evil and terror. Hanging on either end of the life are Opus 110 and his love for Elena. For he never stopped, it seems, loving Elena Konstantinovskaya.

He remembered the cries which Elena used to utter: first appassionato, almost con dolore, then morendo, then after a long rigid silence with her face locked away in pleasure, con brio for the very finish, not explosively as other women so often did, but as calmly unstoppably as a rocket rising upon its own flame, with superhuman brilliance, really; hence that smooth shrill pass of the cello’s bow in the second movement of Opus 40; that was when he’d first known how far above everyone she truly was. Well, that was over. The waffles which this American had made (she seemed to be suffering from a case of leftwing infantile deviation) reminded him of war-skeletonized buildings. It was all a matter of scale. Instead of charred square concrete pits which had once been rooms, square wells of golden starchiness looked up at him, glimmering with melted butter and maple syrup imported all the way from Canada!

16 comments:

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Anonymous said...

I'm Katy,
from Singapore,
and I'm 16 y.o

Hi, All
I've studied English sinse this Spring .
It's very difficult for Me! Really hard!
I would like like to meet peple and practisice My English with them.

Thanks all!!

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