Europe central

18 January 2010

Europe mapped by operations; frontispiece of Europe Central.

How do you write historical fiction? I read William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central over Christmas, which may or may not have answered the question (I don’t mean history-as-costume drama, incidentally), but does, at least, provide an approach. It orchestrates in the midst of its parables (always paired, Soviet & German) a murmuring chorus of incorporated & assembled voices — snatches from letters, private correspondence, poetry, surveillance reports, interrogation transcripts — repurposed as dialogue, becoming people’s thoughts . . . The novel reminds me of Roberto Calasso’s project, particularly in The Marriage of Cadmus & Harmony: an all-encompassing reimagining of stories whose broad outlines we already know, decentered & allusive. Our basic familiarity is in fact presumed — we are never handed exposition as such. There are a few emblammatic figures — Cadmus, or Shostakovich, for instance — who function less as characters than as mythic analogues. Both of the endnotes are  exhaustive. Even the tone of the prose strikes me as similar — those rhetorical questions, the slight disjunction between one sentence & the next, each one a self-contained thought, not quite following from the last. This, for instance, could be something out of the Ruins of Kasch:

“All magic spells fail without belief. We enforced belief. In place of ruins we offered the wide white monumentality of Stalinalee, arched, windowed, black and white, fading magnificently into the East.” — p. 583

There are, of course, differences between Calasso & Vollmann, obvious ones, Calasso hewing closer to poetry, Vollmann to the encyclopedic catalogue — I should say, since they’re two sides of the same coin, differences of enumeration on the one hand & compression on the other. Vollmann also has a moral energy, an interest in ethics absent in Calasso. Gerstein in “Clean Hands” is almost exactly the sort of story Vonnegut tells in Mother Night, right down to certain details of the plot, though Vollmann is far more sympathetic than Vonnegut to Gerstein’s secret moral soul. And in Vollmann, the divine omniscience that allows Homer to sing has been replaced in most cases by the plural of nations — I should say, rather, their respective security services, who have taken the gods’ place. Narrative as a surveillance state.

“This is a work of fiction,” he writes, among other things, before giving us fifty-three pages of endnotes. (But surely not the same kind of fictionalized history as Scott’s Ivanhoe?) “Under such circumstances it would be a sterile exercise in didacticism to list sources of anything other than direct quotations. But I’ve tried to be as accurate in the small details (for instance, ‘the sound of our footsteps, which I loved, and love still, despite everything’*), and as fair to the historical personages involved as possible. It is probably needless to state that the social systems described here, together with all their institutions and atrocities, derive entirely from the historical record.”

So. Just a few illustrative samples of endnotes that append Europe Central, giving an indication of, among other things, ventriloquism, alteration & compression, ‘retranslation,’ & filling in of gaps in the record that accompany the exhaustive factual grounding. The book’s at home. I wish I’d written more down.

*Guy Sajer, The Forgotten Soldier, trans. Lily Emmet (New York: Harper and Row, 1971 trans. of original 1967 French ed.), p. 71. The forgotten soldier was Alsatian, and he served with the Wehrmacht. He missed the sound of steel boots on cobblestones, a detail which I have pilfered for “Clean Hands.”

69 The “Carpenter” link of the N. K. Krupskaya Brigade —I have invented these names. A Pioneer brigade of forty-fifty members was subdivided into links of ten members each. Each brigade was named after a revolutionary leader; each link was named after a toll or field of production. Pioneers were divided by age into Young Pioneers and Little Octobrists. The Komsomol (Communist Youth Organization) kept young people from ages fourteen to twenty-three. Sharpshooting and first aid would indeed have been some of the skills which Elena would have learned there. As mentioned in “Opus 40,” she was expelled from the Komsomol in 1935.

161 Shostakovich to the press: “I want to write a Soviet Ring of the Nibelung!” —Seroff, p. 191 (interview with Leonid and Pyotr Tur; exclamation point added).

262 Vlasov’s wife: “Andrei, can you really live like that?” —Catherine Andreyev, Vlasov and the Russian Liberation Movement: Soviet Reality and Émigre Theories (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 39. Vlasov’s wife was actually not the allegorical Moscow figurine of my conception, but a doctor from a tiny village in the province of Nizhni Novgorod. She was indeed executed after his defection. They had a small son, whose fate I don’t know.

277. Boyarsky: “When the Jews saw how easy it was to be executed, they ran to the pits of their own free will.” —Slightly rephrased from the statement of a German customs official who saw the Jews being machine-gunned in Vinnitsa. The eyewitness estimated that “some thousands” were shot “over the total period” (Klee et al, p. 119).

287. Strik-Strikfeldt: “One could come across grey wraiths who subsisted on corpses and tree-bark” —Op. cit., p. 49 (which actually reads: “One could come across ghostlike figures, ashen gray, starving, half naked, living perhaps for days on end on corpses and the bark of trees”).

472. Chuikov: “The black humped shapes, like camels on their knees, of dead enemy tanks.” —Op. cit., p. 18.

486. Rüdiger’s admiration for Lisca Malbran in “Young Heart” —An anachronism. This film cleared the censorship in mid-September 1944 and premiered at the end of November. The Battle of Kursk had taken place in the summer of 1943. “Young Heart” disappeared rapidly because in its second month it had earned only 372 Reichsmarks, ten percent less than the authorities required. It was an E-film (“Erst Grundhaltung latente polit. Funktion”), in other words a “serious” drama with appropriate political nudges. H-films were comic with political nudges. There were also nP-films and P-films (non-political and manifestly political). After Stalingrad, E-films were preferred over H-films, “on account of the seriousness and greatness of our times”. Unlike many films, especially P-films, “Young Heart” received no subsidy. Information from Dr. Gerd Albrecht, Nationalsozialistiche Filmpolitik: Eine soziologische Untersuchung über die Spielfilme des Drittes Reiches(Stuttgart: Ferdinand Enke Verlag, 1969), summarized for WTV by the delicious Yolande Korb. “Young Heart” must have been dreadful.

493. Sergeant Gunter: “Slavs drink from the skulls of their enemies” —Loosely based on Tsvetaeva, p. 114 (“Bus,” 1934-35: “Inside me, warmth and birdsong./You could drink both of them from/the two halves of my skull/[Slavs did that with enemies]”).

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3 Responses to “Europe central”

  1. John B. Says:

    This is also Vollmann’s method in Argall, his retelling of the story of John Smith and Pocahontas. I’m not sure what I think of it. There’s a kind of excess at work; it’s so filled with, oh, I don’t know, information (in Neil Postman’s sense of our environment’s being so suffused with knowledge that it becomes difficult to separate out the important from the unimportant) that there’s no space for the reader to get a sense of what matters/doesn’t matter. It’s kind of like reading a data mining printout of Vollmann’s reading assembled in narrative form.

    It’s interesting, but so are almanacs. In their way.

    • Jim Sligh Says:

      Hm. I’d have to read more Vollmann before I could agree or disagree (certainly, I can speak to the effect being that of excess — it could also describe what he did in Rising Up, Rising Down, which I was barely able to begin before I left). It seems to me that if it works, it works because it’s applied to stories that are already mythic territory, stories we already think we know — Smith & Pocahontas is surely one of those (it’s practically one of our founding myths), and WWII another. The effect of the excess is intentional, of course, but to what end? To defamiliarize, alienate, overwhelm.

      The footnotes I find interesting in & of themselves because they’re a kind of record of process — how did that become this? — and so I can consider them when I’m thinking about how I would approach my own work.

      I’m not sure. I’m reading Imperial & Argall, at least, when I get home in June. I suspect I’ll have more to say about it then.

  2. John B. Says:

    It would help if I knew my website’s URL. Now corrected.


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