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Europe Central Paperback – November 14, 2005

3.7 out of 5 stars 53 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In the small set of America's best contemporary novelists, Vollmann is the perpetual comet. Every two years or so he flashes across the sky with another incredibly learned, incredibly written, incredibly long novel. Two years ago, with Argall, he easily bested John Barth in the writing of 17th-century prose while taking up the tired story of the settlement of Jamestown and making it absolutely riveting. His latest departs from his usual themes--the borders between natives and Westerners, or prostitutes and johns--to take on Central Europe in the 20th century. "The winged figures on the bridges of Berlin are now mostly flown, for certain things went wrong in Europe...." What went wrong is captured in profiles of real persons (Kathe Kollwitz, Kurt Gerstein, Dmitri Shostakovich, General Paulus and General Vlasov) as well as mythic personages (a shape-shifting Nazi communications officer and creatures from the German mythology Wagner incorporated into his operas). Operation Barbarossa--the German advance into Russia in 1941, and the subsequent German defeat at Stalingrad and Kursk--is central here, with the prewar and postwar scenes radiating out from it, as though the war were primary, not the nations engaged in it. The strongest chapter is a retelling of Kurt Gerstein's life; Gerstein was the SS officer who tried to warn the world about the concentration camps while working as the SS supply agent for the gas chambers. The weakest sections of the book are devoted to the love triangle between Shostakovich, Elena Konstantinovskaya and film director Roman Karmen. Throughout, Vollman develops counternarratives to memorialize those millions who paid the penalties of history. Few American writers infuse their writing with similar urgency.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Most critics praised Vollmann’s twelfth novel, paying homage to his ambitious yet capable grasp of the pivotal political and moral issues of the 20th-century. They hail his dazzling prose, sure command of history, innovation, and copious research, and they proclaim that Europe Central is one of his best (if not the best) works. Reviewers cast an indulgent eye on Europe Central’s shortcomings, though almost all bemoan the ponderous length of the novel and Vollmann’s predilection for hammering his main points ad nauseam. The critics agree: What kept Europe Central from being a tour de force was an editor willing to excise the excess.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 832 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (November 14, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143036599
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143036593
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.3 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (53 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #245,739 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Guy Rittger on May 18, 2005
Format: Hardcover
First, "Europe Central" is not a work for those who need linear narrative structure - "plot" in the conventional sense - unambiguous authorial "voice", and all the trappings of popular, realist fiction. Vollmann writes in a stylistic mode that is simultaneously impressionistic and expressionistic - jarring "realist" imagery juxtaposed against swirling emotions that flow around, between and through the multitude of characterizations (not "characters") that populate the work. Readers unaccustomed to the styles of high modernist and post-modernist fiction such as the works of Thomas Pynchon, Antonio Lobos Antunes or Juan Goytisolo will find themselves struggling continually and probably find the novel impenetrable.

For the rest of us, "Europe Central" is a much-needed antidote to the American exceptionalist, "Good War" nostalgia that informs so many American accounts of the 20th century. The corollary of this perspective is to simultaneously anthropomorphize "Europe" and dehumanize "Europeans" in an attempt to contrast them unfavorably to "America" and "Americans". Indeed, this is precisely the discourse that we currently hear so frequently from various corners of our much-benighted country.

In this respect, "Europe Central" succeeds in many of the same ways that the recent film "Downfall" succeeds: i.e., by humanizing the protoganists of some of the world's most catastrophic events and forcing the reader / viewer to ask the question, "In similar circumstances would I have felt or acted any differently?
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Format: Hardcover
Having finished the book a few minutes ago, I must record my reactions. I spent the last few weeks in its passages--on and off, necessarily--it's an overwhelming monolith as forbidding as its 1935 "Deutschland, das Land der Musik" stylized eagle cover image. Yet, like the somber image, it attracts a certain reader curious to part the curtain and enter. This mythic structure towers over the individual, whether in the storylines or ourselves, wandering into a great labyrinth.

The blurbs summarize the plots, but a few overall reactions may let you know if this book may be worth the considerable effort and investment of time. I was pleased to see that in the sources appended to the text, Guy Sajer's outstanding memoir (which I've also reviewed for Amazon) The Forgotten Soldier is cited first of all. This account (which has been asserted by some to take liberties with fact) of an Alsatian fighting for the Germans on the Ostfront came often to mind as I read Vollmann. The author's scope and research simply is not the type we expect to find so evidently scaffolding even "historical fiction," and this involved me more in the result even as it distanced me from the conceit that I was listening to fully-realized narrators rather than, as Vollmann gives away in one footnote, a "fabulist."

The musical themes I found appropriate, but lacking knowledge of Shostakovich's ouevre, the exacting attention given to them left me floundering for long stretches of an already nearly endless work. (My wife was reading Anna Karenina simultaneously, and we kept pace with each other!) Unlike the earlier Russian writers, Vollmann's epic does not unfold so easily.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
William T Vollmann follows in a long and almost uniquely American tradition - including dos Passos, Pynchon, Barth, de Lillo, Gass and Gaddis - of writers of big, slightly impersonal, self-consciously literary novels attempting to document a significant slab of history, usually involving some element of the formal innovations of modernism. Like many of its predecessors, this is not a true novel, but a fantasia on historical themes, veering in and out of biography, history, fiction and musicology.

As a work of history and biography, Vollmann's erudition is impressive. This is evident not merely from the text of the book but from the extensive bibliography, which while interesting is unnecessary for a novel unless, as I suspect is the case, Vollmann puts this forward to demonstrate the moral and historiographic case for his book.

The novel consists of the dramatisation of the roles of many of the key players in the great ideological struggles of the 1940s, both between Russia and Germany, but also within those countries. In portraying these historical figures as fictional characters - Shostakovich, General Vlasov, Field Marshall Paulus, Kurt Gerstein, Anna Akhmatova and others - Vollmann privileges us with an insight into the dilemmas and ambiguities that characterised their existence under totalitarian regimes in which personal resistance - however seemingly passive - could be fatal.

Despite some of the comments from other reviewers, I found the novel a relatively "easy" read - that is, it was engrossing and fascinating. But at the same time it took a long time - several weeks - to read it, not merely because of its size, but because it so often required me to put the book down to reflect on what I had been reading. Many of the scenes are harrowing and disturbing.
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