Mar. 10th, 2009

starlady: (remember remember)
Finished, thank god.

Vollman, William T. Europe Central. New York: Penguin, 2005.

Yes, I just (finally) finished reading Europe Central by William T. Vollman. It's a book told in--well, I would say vignettes, but some of the sections of vignettes are 120 pages--at any rate, it focuses on a collection of, in Vollman's words, "European moral actors" at various key points in the great conflict of the long twentieth century, i.e. the struggle between and against totalitarianisms that began in 1933 and didn't end until 1989--and has not yet ended, in some parts of Europe. All of this sounds really abstruse, and at times it is, but the book is anchored by D.D. Shostakovitch, whose life is recounted in what becomes excruciating detail, since Vollman is clearly obsessed with Shostakovitch as an artist (and in particular with Shostakovitch's Eighth String Quartet, Op. 110) and as a metonym for what all people who lived under Hitler and the USSR experienced, and also because Vollman admits elliptically to having construced one of Shostakovitch's mistresses, the translator Elena E. Konstantinovskaya, as Europe. It's an amazing, thrilling, unsparing book, and in particular, at the beginning, before the Nazis encountered military defeats, Vollmann succeeds brilliantly in evoking the disturbingly seductive appeal of fascist aesthetics; more importantly, he puts the reader in the shoes of each of his moral actors, which is not a position guaranteed to give one comfort. It's an excellent book, but I have to say, almost every 800-page book I've read could have done with losing at least 100 pages of flab, and Vollman is no exception in this regard; by the final major section, "Opus 110," my will to keep caring broke, because I simply got sick of hearing about poor Shostakovitch's problems, I got sick of his obsession with Elena's long dark hair, blah blah blah--and apparently I wasn't the only one who couldn't go on, because the only typos I found were at the end of that section and just after it. After reading Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise, I know that Vollman's fixation on Opus 110 is something of a literary conceit (though the Eighth is a stupefying achievement in its own right), and that in some ways things weren't as bad for Shostakovitch at the end as he depicts them, but these caveats are largely beside the point. Anyone trying to understand fascism, totalitarianism, and the horrors of the 20th century would do well to read this book, which (not bound by the strictures of historical writing) ably reconstructs their impact in our time.

I heard tree frogs singing on my way in to the library tonight. Spring is just around the bend.

I went to the library to return multiple books, among them Paper Cities, an anthology of "urban fantasy" edited by Ekaterina Sedia, from which I cherry-picked several stories, of which two were notable: 
  • "The Tower of Morning's Bones" by Hal Duncan, in which he does his thing as he always does, set in the world of his novels Vellum and Ink. I liked Vellum, and I fully endorse Duncan's principles, but the mannered quality of his prose was brought home to me with new force reading this story; the editor described it as "Joycean," which seems fair, since Joyce was mannered too. I can't disapprove of the way Duncan is obsessed with classical tropes, though. *g*
  • "Palimpsest" by Catherryne M. Valente ([ profile] yuki_onna), out of which the novel of the same name apparently grew, and which I am very much looking forward to getting out of the library. For better or worse, I think she engaged a lot more with the cityness of her landscape than did the other writers I read, and as someone who loves cities, I was happy for that.