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Thursday
Sep172009

2005

Europe Central

By William T. Vollmann

Original and Current PublisherViking Press
(Penguin Group USA, Inc.)

Tom LeClair writes:

Since serving on the 2005 committee that gave the award to William Vollmann’s Europe Central, I’ve become an NBA junkie, reading all of the finalists since then and catching up with many winners that I’d not read since 1974 when Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow shared the award.  Europe Central caused some consternation within the committee and elicited considerable surprise the night of the awards.  The next day I checked various bookstores around Manhattan, and none were displaying it and several didn’t have it in stock.  I continue to see large stacks of remainders, but given this anniversary opportunity I have two claims many readers may find unlikely.

Although the last three winners—The Echo Maker, Tree of Smoke, and Shadow Country—are admirably wide-ranging in their knowledge of science or history, subtle in their examinations of moral ambiguity, and relatively unconventional in their narrative methods, I think Europe Central is the best of this excellent recent group.  Vollmann’s novellas, stories, and sketches set in central Europe before and during World War II demonstrate a remarkable knowledge of non-American history and culture.  Told through the points of view of Russian and German generals, artists, politicians, and ordinary citizens, the fictions provide original perspectives on ethically complex events that include, but are not limited to, the Holocaust.  Vollmann’s successors concentrate on Americans even, as in Johnson’s case, when the novel is set abroad.  Europe Central imagines the lives and situations of distant others, making it an instructive literary alternative to the American exceptionalism of its decade.

My second claim: that Europe Central is a worthy companion to Pynchon’s World War II novel Gravity’s Rainbow, which I consider the most important award winner of the last thirty-five years.  If not as stylistically diverse or as surreally inventive as Gravity’s Rainbow, Vollmann’s fact-based stories also eschew the sophomoric foolery and cartoonish characters that sometimes diminish Pynchon’s novel after multiple readings.  Pynchon is wonderful on pre-human life and post-human existence; Vollmann’s achievement is his compulsive exploration of the all too human.  Although I have not read every NBA winner since 1974, I would place Europe Central in my select group of Pynchon’s successors: William Gaddis’s JR, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, and Norman Rush’s Mating, all expansive books (like Vollmann’s) of great cultural range and narrative vigor.

Limited to 400 words here, I’m unable to provide 200 pages of demonstration for this provocation.

Tom LeClair was a National Book Awards Fiction judge in 2005. His most recent novel is Passing Through.

ISBN: 9780143036593

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • E.L. Doctorow for The March
  • Mary Gaitskill for Veronica
  • Christopher Sorrentino for Trance
  • Renè Steinke for Holy Skirts

Fiction Judges that Year:

Andre Dubus III, Rikki Ducornet, Cristina Garcia, Tom LeClair, Anna Quindlen

The Year in Literature:  

  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

After earning a B.A. in comparative literature at Cornell University, William T. Vollmann went on to the University of California, Berkeley, on a fellowship for a doctoral program in comparative literature. He dropped out of the program after one year and began working a series of odd jobs, including one as a secretary at an insurance company, and saved up enough money to go to Afghanistan in 1982. His experiences traveling with the mujahideen formed the basis of his first non-fiction book, An Afghanistan Picture Show or, How I Saved the World, which was published in 1992.

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