What makes an honest writer

William T. Vollmann: Destiny, sin, sickness, God


Read on one side

William T. Vollmann is a colorful figure in American literature. There's a story that the FBI mistook him for the Unabomber for some time. There is a story that he fought with the mujahideen in Afghanistan and almost died in the process. There's a story that Vollmann doesn't have a phone or credit card and lives in an old restaurant in Sacramento. There is a story that Vollmann has created a female alter ego, a woman named Dolores, in whose role and clothes he steps outside the door. All of these stories are true. Incidentally, this too: if it were up to his mainly American supporters, he would have long been a Nobel Prize winner.

When Vollmann writes, it is rarely less than 1,000 pages in the end. A few years ago he made his polyphonic novel in Germany Europe Central known to a large audience. Vollmann is an author of almost limitless productivity and breakneck research madness. He wrote extensive books about femininity in Japan, about violence, about hobos and prostitutes, wise to life and suffering. Always with a radically subjective view and often erratic temperament, which you now meet again in his collected, previously unpublished reports that have just appeared in a volume. They are all about poverty and absolute lack of property.

In Thailand he meets the cleaner Sunnee, who loves alcohol too much. In Russia he meets Natalia, an epileptic who sits on a cardboard in front of the church every day. In Japan he drinks tea under a bridge with Kleiner Berg and Gro├čer Berg, two homeless people. In Yemen he speaks to a tuna angler and in Kenya to prostitutes. Vollmann goes to Pakistan, the Philippines, Colombia, and the Congo. On his travels he sees the disabled, the dispossessed and the toothless, bricks, demolition gravel, cold concrete. But he also sees gestures, fleeting smiles, shyness and loneliness. Whom he meets he asks a question that runs like a thread through all texts: "Why are you poor?"

Honest curiosity

Already on the first pages Vollmann says of himself: "I know how little I know". For a well-traveled, well-read writer like him, that is also flirtatious modesty. But this sentence is definitely an ethical principle of this book, and it has formal and stylistic consequences. Some of his expeditions go nowhere, many drill into reflections and end in almost obsessive self-doubt. All of this is not a defect, but a principle of planned surrender.

Vollmann's formulations thus undermine the reading expectations of commercial milieu or social reports. There is no sentimental emotional color, no excessive exposure in which the most insignificant detail casts a foreboding shadow. The author's empathy is not only evident in his renunciation of amateur psychograms and routine empathy, it is also evident in the genuine seriousness with which he describes his characters, in his honest curiosity.


What We Read - Celebrities recommend their favorite books

In the free newsletter, ZEIT journalists, actors, politicians and other readers tell about the books they are currently enthusiastic about.

With your registration you take note of the data protection regulations.

Many Thanks! We have sent you an email.

Check your mailbox and confirm the newsletter subscription.

He would like to design a new phenomenology of poverty, arranged according to terms: invisibility, deformity, undesirableness, dependence, susceptibility to accidents, pain, dulling, alienation. Perhaps the framework into which Vollmann forces some of the texts is a little too large and arbitrary. But that is just as forgivable as his occasional propensity for peculiar adventurous pride.