The worm of history

For whom does William T. Vollmann think he is writing? During the past two decades, this Sacramento-based writer has published eight novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, a book of photographs, a 3,298-page “essay” on violence and a hefty selected reader from his work. Add to this list Europe Central, his latest Dodge Durango-sized novel, and the grand total of Vollmann’s output tops 10,000 pages.

This author’s inability to turn the faucet off has made him something of a circus freak among writers, but to focus on this facet alone, as it is tempting to do, would belittle the scope of his ambition. Indeed, Vollmann seems to write long because what he wants us to understand is broad and deeply complex, fiercely resistant to simplification. His Seven Dreams series attempts to explore and re-spin the tale of how whites conquered the North American continent. Rising Up and Rising Down sought to create a moral calculus that could tell us when violence was justifiable and when it was not.

Europe Central, not surprisingly, arrives with a fistful of ambitious visas to foreign countries and a familiarly stark moral quandary. Set in Europe mostly in the 20th century, the novel asks whether good people could be caught up in the slaughter that came as a result of totalitarianism.

Basically an interconnected collection of short stories, Europe Central has each tale getting a kind of sister story, so the book essentially reveals Nazis and Soviets facing off across the gulf of Vollmann’s imagination.

The space between becomes the nubbly texture of history. Shuffling from one story to the next, we get to know many dozens of figures involved in the rise, production and propaganda of totalitarianism. Some of them are invented; many, however, are not. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin make appearances, as do the opposing military leaders of their armies and opposing martyrs for partisan causes.

Vollmann has been criticized for being an insensitive inventor of female characters; many of the ones who appear in his books are prostitutes. That charge will not stick with Europe Central, however, which brings forward a group of strong, brilliant and three-dimensionally wicked women, including Stalin’s wife.

As he did in Rising Up and Rising Down, Vollmann storms into this highly charged bit of history. He asks us to put aside our preconceptions, to allow that there could have been SS with whom we might feel sympathy, Stalinists who were heroic, if only on their own terms.

Vollmann works his prose into a kind of green froth trying to capture the noxious reality of human beings warping their dignity before the greater power of the state. One of the book’s central characters is another morally cloudy figure, Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who becomes a celebrated public artist during V.I. Lenin’s time and enjoys the benefits of such acclaim, not to mention Communist Party membership, even as he “kept silent, feeling worms crawling in his heart.”

The worm of history is insidious, this book instructs. And more American writers are beginning to understand how deeply it has burrowed its way into our lives, how much it has feasted on our sense of right and wrong. Jonathan Safran Foer does it in his new novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, as does Tom Bissell in his story collection, God Lives in St. Petersburg.

With this profound and fully realized new work of fiction, Vollmann asks us to put aside what we think we know of history and immerse ourselves in it once again. He posits that even if it is the devil that lives in St. Petersburg, and not God, it is our duty to know him, too.