Friday, October 23, 2009

EUROPE CENTRAL by William T. Vollmann

Europe Central should have been titled Big Bill Vollmann's Bag O' War Stories. It is exceptionally well-written (like all of Vollmann's books), but the points Vollmann makes, the ideas he explores and even the tales he chooses to tell are often less interesting and original than the prose that constitutes them. Less a novel than a collection of loosely related stories and novellas, Europe Central suffers from the lack of any overall, unifying structural architecture. Vollmann attempts to make it all cohere into a kind of contrapuntal form, as outlined in the Table of Contents, but he seems to have lost the thread of this structure at some point during the writing process. The result is a bloated book about Nazism, Stalinism, art and ethics that contains many interesting parts (a novella about Shostakovich; the story of Walter Benjamin's sister-in-law, an East German judge known as 'the red guillotine') and far too many pages that deserve to be skimmed or skipped. In other words, it's a typical Vollmann book: beautifully written, very smart, and baggier than a strip club patron's pants.

It's also telling that the book's longest sustained narrative of the Holocaust is the tale of Kurt Gerstein, an ineffectual 'renegade' SS officer who is one of Vollmann's personal heroes. Gerstein, as Vollmann imagines him, is a complex and conflicted character, but the choice of his story as a lens through which to view the extermination camps serves to place Vollmann's narrative in the long line of Holocaust stories that use the Nazi genocide to reaffirm the humanistic ideals that the camps so casually slaughtered. Spielberg's Schindler's List, in many respects an extraordinary film, is the best-known example of this kind of narrative. By way of contrast, I want to mention a darker, more intense film that finds absolutely no affirmation in the ice-cold reality of genocide. I'm speaking of Tim Blake Nelson's The Grey Zone, a movie that came and went in 2001 with little fanfare and that may be the grimmest and most impressive representation of the Holocaust yet achieved by an American filmmaker. Focusing on the prisoners of the Auschwitz sonderkommando, it depicts characters who are both more deeply conflicted that Schindler and more impossibly heroic than Gerstein. It deserves to be much better known.


The ambivalence that I and many on the left feel toward Christopher Hitchens is perhaps best summed up in this post by a reader of the Guardian (UK)'s books blog:

"Hitch is a pretty amazing character. His output is immense, his commitment unwavering and he should be applauded for this and held in high regard. I really like the guy.

He's also clearly a massive, massive twat. Anyone who genuinely thinks he is a good person needs to have his head examined.

If Hitch was given the slightest whiff of power, we'd all be his underslaves while a host of elected 'worthies' including Dawko, McEwen, Rushdie and Stephen Fry fed each other grapes, composed atonal music and played with each others balls.

Does anyone else think he should change the record too? He's delivering the same lines over and over again. I've heard the North Korea gag a thousand times over. And the Hubble telescope nonsense. Yeah, I've seen the pictures too. They're kinda shit. Not a patch on the wonder of Jurassic Park.

PS His literary criticism is cracking by the way. Stick to that."

My own view is that Hitchens is a knowledgeable political analyst, a talented writer and a wonderful polemicist who has been unfortunately mistaken for a public intellectual. (It's an easy mistake to make in America, a country without an intelligentsia. We have a professoriat, which is a different and much tamer animal.) I admire the passionate energy of Hitchens's polemics against religion, Kissinger, etc. while deploring his support of the Iraq War and his recent cosiness with the neocon right. (I essentially agree with him on Afghanistan, though...) Anyone with an interest in the man or his work should read this cover story from the May 2008 issue of the British magazine Prospect, which elucidates Hitchens's thought processes better than anything else I've read.

And I suppose I should eventually get around to the stated subject of this post. Unacknowledged Legislation is the unwieldy Shelleyan title for a grab bag of Hitchens's literary criticism from the 1990s. There are some good pieces here on Wilde, Raymond Williams, Anthony Powell, Kipling, Martin Amis, Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin books, etc., but the collection's greatest joys come (as one would expect) when Hitchens unloads mercilessly on a more or less deserving target of his wrath. The Reagan-worshipping Tom Clancy and the self-worshipping Tom Wolfe receive devastating bombardments, but the most furious polemical barrage is reserved for the egregious Norman Podhoretz. A high-point is Hitchens's casually parenthetical reference to "the engulfing, mandible-destroying blowjob that [Podhoretz] would...bestow on Ronald Reagan." And yet, even as I enjoyed this evisceration of Old Poddy I reflected that Hitchens's imagery had been rendered fatally ironic by his own later performance of the same service upon the corpus of George W. Bush. (Anyone who doubts the abjectness of Hitchens's period as an apologist for the Bush administration need only view a tape of Hitch's New York debate with George Galloway, during which he defended even the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina.) Near the beginning of his piece on Isaiah Berlin, as he considers Berlin's support of the Vietnam War, Hitchens writes of hawkishness as "the most lethal temptation to which the contemplative can fall victim." I'm surely not alone in wishing that Hitch had been more contemplative on the issue of Iraq.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

ONE LAST NOBEL PRIZE POST (and then no more about it until next October, I promise)

What can we conclude about the Nobel Prize from a list of the last 25 winners? (Click on each name to see the writer's official page at the Nobel foundation's website.)

2009 - Herta Müller
2008 - Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio
2007 - Doris Lessing
2006 - Orhan Pamuk
2005 - Harold Pinter
2004 - Elfriede Jelinek
2003 - J. M. Coetzee
2002 - Imre Kertész
2001 - V. S. Naipaul
2000 - Gao Xingjian
1999 - Günter Grass
1998 - José Saramago
1997 - Dario Fo
1996 - Wislawa Szymborska
1995 - Seamus Heaney
1994 - Kenzaburo Oe
1993 - Toni Morrison
1992 - Derek Walcott
1991 - Nadine Gordimer
1990 - Octavio Paz
1989 - Camilo José Cela
1988 - Naguib Mahfouz
1987 - Joseph Brodsky
1986 - Wole Soyinka
1985 - Claude Simon

It's an eclectic list that at first appears to defy generalizations. True, more than half are Europeans, so the prize is certainly Eurocentric, but does anyone really expect a prize awarded by Europeans to be non-Eurocentric? More troubling to me is the fact that the prize seems to have 'contracted' into a strictly European award during the last few years. Looking at the 1980s through 2000, we see laureates from Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, China, Japan--and even one lonely American. But since 2001 Europeans have dominated. Not a single writer from the Western hemisphere has won the prize since V.S. Naipaul (who although born in Trinidad is, by general agreement, more English than the English); no American has won since Toni Morrison; no one from Central or South America since Derek Walcott; only two East Asian writers have won in 25 years. And even the non-Europeans who have won recently (Pamuk and Coetzee) are writers deeply indebted to European literature. The Swedish Academy needs to look outward or risk closing itself into a European box.

Herta Muller Wins Nobel

Proving once again that nobody, absolutely nobody, can predict the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Swedish Academy has just awarded it to Romanian-born German novelist Herta Muller, a writer who wasn't on anyone's list of Nobel possibilities. Having never read Muller, I can say nothing about her work, but I predict that there will be a lot of blather spoken today by people who are only slightly better informed than I am. This is a selection that's going to have readers scratching their heads and saying 'Who?' and going to Wikipedia for a quick info fix. So I guess the Swedish Academy has done the best thing they can really do. They've introduced me and the world to a writer who might be very good. I just hope she's better than Elfriede Jelinek...

Saturday, October 3, 2009


The winner of this year's Nobel Prize for literature will be announced on Thursday October 8. Israeli writer Amos Oz is the predictors' favorite this year, which means he probably doesn't have a chance in hell of winning. Whatever one may think of the Nobel committee's choices, they are almost always surprising. Last year's win by J.M.G. Le Clezio (a writer I still haven't read) sent me and millions of other non-French readers to Wikipedia to find out exactly who the hell this dude with three initials was and what he had written that was so nobelisable. Likewise the recent wins by Elfriede Jelinek and Imre Kertesz, writers little-known outside Europe. Doris Lessing's and Harold Pinter's wins were surprising for their extreme tardiness; Orhan Pamuk's Nobel, by contrast, seemed to come surprisingly early.

So if Amos Oz can be safely counted out, who might the other contenders be? British bookmaker Ladbrokes is giving odds on Oz, Assia Djebar, Syrian poet Adonis, and perpetual American mentions Thomas Pynchon and Joyce Carol Oates. Philip Roth, a favorite in years past, hasn't been mentioned recently, so this may be his year. But the pool of nobelisable writers is broad, and I wouldn't be surprised if one of the following walked away with this year's award: Carlos Fuentes, Chinua Achebe, Milan Kundera, David Grossman, Korean poet Ko Un, Juan Goytisolo, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie (but that would take real courage, so it's unlikely), Adrienne Rich, Milorad Pavic, Peter Carey, Edna O'Brien, Wilson Harris (Guyana), Ernesto Sabato (who at 98 would be the prize's oldest recipient)... But I suspect the winner's name has not yet been mentioned in this blog.

And all this speculation raises another question: What does the Nobel mean? It's an amazingly good payday for the winner, and it's undeniably prestigious, but is the prize's prestige really deserved? The negative case is easily made: simply list a few of the great writers who went to their graves un-Nobeled. The list is a veritable Who's Who of twentieth-century literature: James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Jean Genet, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Alain Robbe-Grillet, James Baldwin, D.H, Lawrence, Ralph Ellison, Andre Breton, Paul Celan, Antonin Artaud, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Simone de Beauvoir, Mikhail Bulgakov, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, George Orwell, W.G. Sebald, Susan Sontag, Witold Gombrowicz, and the list goes on... To put the case as succinctly as possible: Why should we grant so much prestige to a literary award that preferred Pearl Buck to James Joyce? Now, some readers will surely consider that question 'elitist.' They will be correct. The question is elitist, and in matters of art, so is the questioner.