'Europe Central' straddles borders in chaos

By CASEY SEILER, Entertainment editor
First published: Sunday, April 3, 2005

As the title suggests, William T. Vollmann's "Europe Central" (Viking, $39.95, 806 pages) covers a lot of ground. The result of almost three decades of research into the paired histories of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, it contains the sort of authorial derring-do -- from intimate moments between lovers to widescreen re-creations of mass combat -- that we associate with writers like Tolstoy and Zola.

It is, in other words, the sort of thing that most authors would build toward over the course of a half-century career. But Vollmann is only 45. And if you're looking for his monumental career-capper, he published that book two years ago.

"Rising Up and Rising Down" -- the project Vollmann unabashedly referred to as "my life's work" -- was a seven-volume, 3,300-page inquiry into the moral quandaries surrounding human violence. (The literary provocateurs at McSweeney's published the full boxed set, which sold out its 3,500-copy run; Ecco Press released a 752-page abridged version.) A National Book Critics Circle Award nominee, "Rising Up" contained everything from first-person journalism and historical analysis to Vollmann's attempt to create a sort of mathematical system -- a moral calculus, literally -- to determine when violence can be called upon.

"I feel very lucky that the book did get published," Vollmann said last week from his home in Sacramento, Calif. "I never expected it to, actually. I thought it would just sit in a drawer."

Taking his time

The author -- who visits the New York State Writers Institute on Tuesday -- had just returned from the Imperial Valley, which runs from Yuma, Ariz., to the Pacific. Vollmann has spent almost 10 years in the region researching his next book, a nonfiction look at life on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Vollmann likes to take his time with things. "One of the most important aspects to some of this stuff, especially the nonfiction, is to see how an area changes over time," he said. " ... If you get the sense of some trajectory or direction, it somehow makes everything more alive. Otherwise, all you get is a snapshot."

But traveling on the border post-9/11 isn't easy for a writer with a penchant for throwing himself into war zones, as Vollmann learned recently when he was detained by the U.S. Border Patrol while crossing from Mexicali to Calexico, Calif.

"They called in the FBI," he said. "They didn't like the fact that I had traveled to a lot of suspicious places, like China."

Vollmann had turned in his old passport "after it started getting a little bit too checkered with visas to rogue nations. This one, unfortunately, has my Yemen visa on it. I was there for the first anniversary of Sept. 11, so it's stamped 'Sept. 11, 2002' -- and that tends to set them off."

Like his passport, Vollmann's body of work suggests a writer who feels at home in the most inhospitable places in the planet. Leaping back and forth over the borders separating journalism and fiction, memoir and history, his previous books include "The Afghanistan Picture Show" (1992), an account of the perilous summer Vollmann spent with the mujahedeen rebels in 1982, while "Whores for Gloria" (1991) and "The Butterfly Stories" (1993) emerged from the author's longtime interest in prostitution.

"Seven Dreams," an uncompleted cycle of novels -- so far comprised of "The Ice Shirt," "Fathers and Crows" and "The Rifles" -- jumps centuries to imagine the collision between European colonists and American Indians. In an effort to get inside the perceptions of the doomed Franklin Expedition for "The Rifles," Vollmann spent 12 days in March 1991 at an abandoned weather station close to the magnetic North Pole; he came close to freezing to death. (Vollmann's account of that experience is one of many excellent selections to be found in "Expelled From Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader," which was published by Thunder's Mouth Press last year.)

Individuals

"Europe Central" is made up of 37 paired stories that shuttle between Russia and Germany as those nations prepare for, engage in and reel away from some of the most grotesque crimes in human history. Vollmann brings to life historical figures such as the German artist Kathe Kollwitz, Russian filmmaker Roman Karmen and Nazi Field Marshal Ernst Paulus. The Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich's slow capitulation to the Soviet state forms the spine of the book; the novella "Clean Hands" concerns Kurt Gerstein, an SS officer who tried to alert the world to the Final Solution, to no avail.

In many ways, the new book echoes "Rising Up and Rising Down." One question pertains in both works: What can individuals do in the face of enormous, mechanized, state-sponsored barbarity?

In World War II, Vollmann said, "You had these two monstrous regimes fighting to the death, and then under the sway of each of these regimes you had people like us -- some good, some bad -- who through sheer historical accident happened to be put in this situation."

As in the "Seven Dreams" books, Vollmann shows a masterly ability to slip out of the cliches of historical fiction through deep immersion in his characters' lives and times.

"It's a good idea, to say the least, for a writer to put himself into all his characters -- including Hitler, everybody," Vollmann said.

"That doesn't mean that you're going to justify Hitler. I do believe that, since we're all human, we have the right and duty as artists to appropriate from any time and any place, to try to express ourselves as a result. We also have the right and duty, if we're writing historical fiction, to honor the ethos of the time and place.

"Usually, it's not too hard to just read a lot of books, see newsreels, whatever -- and after a while you start sensing some sort of common thing -- and it's the kind of thing that's going to be invisible (to people) at the time, because they live it. If we were going to write a historical fiction about, say, the United States of this particular era, it would be difficult for us to step back and do it. We would think we were being very objective, and yet there would be all kinds of attitudes that would be dated very quickly."

Disaster ahead

Vollmann, who is married and has a 6-year-old daughter, worries that we're living in an era that's all too analogous to Europe a century ago. "I think that we are headed for a terrible disaster, frankly," he said. "When I was in Iraq in '98, I thought there was going to be some sort of retaliation against us for the first Gulf War, and said so in 'Rising Up and Rising Down.' ... I don't know what's going to happen now."

After his border book -- the tentative title is "Imperial" -- Vollmann plans to work on two smaller works of nonfiction, on poverty and Japanese Noh drama, before returning to the "Seven Dreams" cycle. Two volumes are partially done, on the Hopi-Navajo land dispute and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce.

Vollmann's ambitions remain as large as his page count. Which raises the question: What in the world does his publisher think when a massive new manuscript arrives?

"Usually what happens is the publisher will say, 'OK, this is great,' Vollmann says.

"And then a little bit later the publisher will say, 'Well, we just got the page count back, and given that your books don't sell hugely and (the price of) paper has just gone up, we'd like you to cut your book by a third.' And then I'll say, 'Well, that sounds like a great idea -- but I'm not going to do it.'

"And then the publisher will say, 'Well, then how about we just cut your royalties by a half?' And I'll say, 'That sounds perfect.' And then we cut the royalties by half, and I promise them the next one will be shorter, and then we do it all again the next time. It works."

Casey Seiler may be reached at 454-5619 or by e-mail at cseiler@timesunion.com.

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