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Parallel Lives

Reviewed by Steven Moore
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page BW07


By William T. Vollmann. Viking. 811 pp. $39.95


A William T. Vollmann Reader

Edited by Larry McCaffery and Michael Hemmingson

Thunder's Mouth. 479 pp. Paperback, $17.95

The Vollmann juggernaut rolls on. Instead of taking a well-deserved rest after publishing his seven-volume, 3,300-page Rising Up and Rising Down in the fall of 2003, he quickly prepared a one-volume abridgement -- a mere 733 pages, published by Ecco last fall -- then collaborated with critic Larry McCaffery and novelist Michael Hemmingson on Expelled From Eden, continued to publish essays and reviews in various journals, and then completed his new 800-page novel, Europe Central, while recovering from a broken pelvis. He has published 15 books in the past 18 years, half of them 600 pages or longer, and with no falling off in quality or innovation. He's what they used to call a shock worker back in the USSR.

The former Soviet Union and Nazi Germany are the settings for his new novel, a grimly magnificent dramatization of the impossible moral choices forced on individuals by those totalitarian regimes. Ranging from 1914 to 1975, the book is organized as a series of paired stories, like Plutarch's Parallel Lives, comparing a German and a Russian facing similar situations. For example, one set pairs Soviet general Andrei Vlasov, who deserted his army for the enemy's, with Field-Marshal Friedrich Paulus, a Nazi who collaborated with the communists after capture. But most are not so neat. The danger of using violent means to attain idealistic ends is the point of the first pair of stories, which contrasts the revolutionary idealist Fanya Kaplan, whose failed attempt to assassinate Lenin in 1918 unleashed the Red Terror wave of executions, with a nameless German whose patriotic idealism inspires him to cheer Kaiser Wilhelm's decision to begin World War I -- "and right beside me a pale little man, probably a tramp, with disheveled hair and a dark trapezoidal mustache, began to caper, smiling at the world with a sleepwalker's eyes."

Many of the stories focus on four artists, tracking their attempts to create meaningful art under regimes that are hostile to any art that doesn't celebrate official patriotic ideals in social-realist form. The German Käthe Kollwitz rejects charges that she is too pessimistic and persists with her series of stark engravings depicting the victims of oppression.The Russian Anna Akhmatova tries to keep her poetry free of political themes and pays the price of non-publication for decades, until she capitulates in order to rescue her son from a Siberian prison. The Soviet filmmaker Roman Karmen, by contrast, has an easier time of it by producing films that win official approval. Vollmann devotes the most pages to the case of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, the subject of several long stories, who played a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities throughout his career, outwardly submitting to their criticism and "corrections" while managing to write deeply personal music and avoid joining the Party until near the end of his life.

Like a method actor immersing himself in a role, Vollmann tells most of his stories from the point of view of their protagonists or a related character -- the apparatchik Comrade Alexandrov relates many of the Soviet stories -- relying on his immense research to empathize with his characters. (There are 50 pages of source notes at the end of the book, scrupulously documenting his occasional departures from the historical record for artistic purposes.) He shows that most moral decisions are not abstract applications of principles but the complicated result of cultural conditioning and personal psychology, a muddy mix of dreams, neuroses, fairy tales, nationalism, perversion, pride and fear. His German characters are motivated as much by myths and Wagnerian opera as by political considerations, and communist double-speak keeps most of his Soviet characters from even thinking straight.

Vollmann's language beautifully captures these warring conflicts, moving from lyricism to military strategy to hallucination to erotic longing as his characters navigate their way through a landscape of atrocities -- and not just the ones perpetrated by the Nazis and the communists. A Russian character notes: "On the night of 13-14.2.45, the British and the Americans burned thirty-five thousand people, mainly civilians, in an incendiary bombing raid in Dresden. This slightly bettered the Nazi achievement at Babi Yar, where only thirty-three thousand Jews had been machined-gunned."

I've reviewed nearly all of Vollmann's books over the years and am running out of superlatives; suffice it to say, if you've been following his extraordinary career, Europe Central may be his best novel yet. If you haven't, you might want to begin with Expelled From Eden, a well-organized collection of selections from his works, uncollected essays and letters, poems, all enclosed by very useful commentary from the editors. Vollmann's willingness to go against the preferred social realism of our day, enabled by his publishers' willingness to allow him to unfold his Wagnerian epics at full length, makes him a hero of our time. •

Steven Moore, a literary critic, is writing a history of the novel.

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