Shostakovich on the cover of Time, 1942, via Zeitschichten
William T. Vollmann's historical novel Europe Central is at times a long, dark slog, but definitely worth the effort. His research into Nazi and Soviet history is impressive, particularly on musical topics -- don't miss the notes at the end. What other contemporary novel is likely to spend so much time with not only Dmitri Shostakovich, but less-famous composers such as Moisey Vainberg and Galina Ustvolskaya?
The only thing I disliked about the book was when the chapters about Shostakovich imitated the verbal tics he developed as he got older, due to the extreme mental stress he suffered under the Soviets. One example, from the "Opus 110" section of the book, when he is talking with NKVD men about his work, is below:
Because my hands get tired, comrades, even when I ... It, so to speak, subverts me. But I'm only a worm, and my symphonies are mere, uh, so it's no loss to, to ... I do apologize.
I understand the importance of conveying how he communicated later in his life, and a letter by Isaiah Berlin about his sad visit to Oxford in 1958 certainly documents that, but it's painful to read one hundred consecutive pages written in that style.
The long passages about the harrowing conditions for Soviet and Nazi soldiers on the Eastern Front, civilians in Leningrad, Dresden, and 1944-45 Berlin, as well as chapters set in East Germany after the war, serve as a strong antidote to the ridiculous idea that the USA saved Europe single-handedly in World War II. The Soviets and the countries of Eastern Europe lost millions of people -- soldiers and civilians -- as the West allowed them to grind down much of the strength of Nazi Germany. The people of central Europe were then abandoned to the sinister realities of Stalinism once victory was declared.
The novel is overlong, and could have used some more editing, but its empathy for the people of Europe Central is a worthy accompaniment to the works of Anna Akhmatova and Shostakovich regarding this dark period of our "civilized" 20th century.