Europe Central, by William T Vollmann

War and peace and sex
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The Independent Culture

Two years ago, I went to see William T Vollmann give a reading in New York. The event was organised by McSweeney's, Dave Eggers's publishing enterprise. It had recently produced a beautiful seven-volume edition of Vollmann's 3000-plus page non-fiction magnum opus, Rising Up and Rising Down, a treatise on political violence that he had written over 20 years. Several important young American authors were in the audience and, over the next four hours, they remained spellbound by the combination of discussion, readings and slide-shows given by the author and admiring journalists, fellow-writers and fans.

The length of the event was justified not just by the enormous scope of Vollmann's work, but also the audience's sense that here was someone who could give them answers to the questions America's news media had failed to address. As Vollmann talked about problems with the current American administration, addressing the audience as "thinking Americans", I felt almost as if I had infiltrated a secret meeting I was unqualified to attend.

At the time of giving this lecture, Vollmann was in the middle of writing an enormous novel about Europe, Europe Central, which won the National Book Award in America last year, and has only just appeared in the UK. Although Vollmann's early novels - including his bizarre 1987 debut, You Bright and Risen Angels, a tale of computer programmers, prostitutes (a recurring Vollmann obsession), insects and electricity - were published with great fanfare here, his recent novels are only available as imports, including his best to date: The Royal Family, a pseudo-detective story about one man's search for a possibly mythical "queen of the whores" in San Francisco. Europe Central has been published here by the independent Alma Books, and it's a shrewd move, as this is by far the most accessible novel by this important American author.

Along with Rising Up and Rising Down, Vollmann's other lifetime work is the Seven Dreams series, a septet of novels dealing with "the repeated collisions between Native Americans and their European colonizers and oppressors", covering hundreds of years and published out of order. It seems likely that, when this massive work is complete, Vollmann's already considerable reputation will be assured.

Europe Central is a series of linked narratives that explore Russian and German history from 1914 to 1975, but focus largely on the years of the Second World War. At the centre of the novel is an imaginary love triangle between three real people, the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, the documentary film-maker Roman Karmen, and their shared lover, Elena Konstantinovskaya. Vollmann reinvents Konstantinovskaya for his own purposes, changing her hair from blonde to dark-haired and imagining her as a symbol of Europe. Some critics have had problems with Vollmann's depiction of women in previous books, and although there are far fewer sex scenes here than before, they are incredibly vivid.

These explicit imaginings provide a necessary counterpoint to the similarly graphic descriptions of extermination in camps such as Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor. Vollmann's greatest accomplishment is to capture the overwhelming nature of violence and sex through seemingly outré detail. In previous books this has often involved personal revelation, but here his authorial intrusions are few. He seems most concerned with people "consumed with fear and regret" who do what they can to "uphold the good", which here is described as "freedom of artistic creation" and "the mitigation of other people's emergencies".

Foremost among these characters is Shostakovich, and Vollmann focuses on two of his compositions, Opus 40 (Sonata in D minor for cello and piano) and Opus 110 (his Eighth String Quartet). He brings the music to life so successfully that it is impossible, after reading the book, not to hear these works through the filter of Vollmann's prose.

Europe Central is an enormous accomplishment, but really only offers a starting-point to understanding this author's oeuvre. His books are long and occasionally baroque, but they are also incredibly rewarding; he has a scope and ambition far beyond the ability of most authors. And while his work may take months to read, it is nothing compared to the frankly terrifying amount of time he must put into composing them.

Matt Thorne's 'Cherry' is published by Phoenix

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