"Europe Central," a sprawling series of 37 intertwined stories by William T. Vollmann that examine the moral decisions of characters, some real and some fictional, in Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II, won the National Book Award for fiction on Wednesday night.
The award for nonfiction went to Joan Didion, whose memoir "The Year of Magical Thinking" recounts her response to the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the serious illness of their daughter, Quintana Roo, who died in August, just weeks before the book was published.
It was a surprise victory over for Mr. Vollmann over E. L. Doctorow, a previous winner and literary lion; Mary Gaitskill, a sentimental favorite for her piercing stories that demonstrate a willingness to challenge societal norms; and two other finalists. Among those most surprised was Mr. Vollmann himself, who accepted the award by saying, "I thought I would lose, so I didn't prepare a speech."
"Europe Central," published by Viking, had its origins, Mr. Vollmann said, in films that he saw in elementary school that showed "burned corpses being pulled out of ovens."
"It was really horrifying," said Mr. Vollmann, who was born in 1959, "and later on I understood that I was partly German and I wondered, 'Am I somehow guilty for this?'
"I really have tried for many years to read myself into this horrible event, to imagine how anybody could have done this and to think, 'Could I have done this?' " he said.
In accepting the award for nonfiction, Ms. Didion thanked her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, for believing that she should pursue "something that was not exactly anything but personal and that it would work."
"The Year of Magical Thinking" has been on the New York Times best-seller list four weeks so far and has already sold several times as many copies as Ms. Didion's most recent books.
The award for young people's literature went to Jeanne Birdsall for her debut novel, "The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits and a Very Interesting Boy," published by Knopf. The story of four girls and their widowed father, the book was best described, Ms. Birdsall said, by a third grader from Long Island who told her, "This book is about being a good listener, even if you're a grown-up."
The poetry prize was awarded to W. S. Merwin, the Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the great American living poets, who had been nominated seven previous times for the National Book Award but never won. His most recent volume, "Migration: New and Selected Poems," was published by Copper Canyon Press. The novelist John Burnham Schwartz, Mr. Merwin's stepson, accepted the award on his behalf.
The National Book Foundation, which presents the awards - a sculpture and $10,000 - also gave two lifetime achievement awards. The first Literarian Award for outstanding service to the American literary community was presented to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet and co-founder of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, the country's first all-paperback bookstore, and City Lights Publishers. It was his publication of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" in 1956 that led to Mr. Ferlinghetti's arrest on obscenity charges. He was acquitted.
Norman Mailer received the foundation's medal for distinguished contribution to American letters. Mr. Mailer, who is 82 and recovering from surgery, walked to the stage with two canes and support on each arm. He was introduced by Toni Morrison, the author and Nobel laureate, who called him "a huge and provocative talent" with "a carnivorous intelligence."
"On my best days I have that high an opinion of myself," Mr. Mailer said, adding that recently he had felt more like a carriage maker watching the advent of the automobile, feeling that his art is being left behind.
"The serious novel may be in serious decline," he said, asking rhetorically how many in the audience enjoy reading "an egregiously cruel review" of a serious novel more than trying to appreciate the art involved in creating such a work. The purpose of the serious novel, he said, is "to enter one's life, even alter it," but too often such works are in opposition to "the needs of the marketplace."
Garrison Keillor, the host of the ceremony at the New York Marriott Marquis, noted that it was taking place just before another "Harry Potter" film would open in theaters. "Most of us have stood in Barnes & Noble," he said, "and opened a Harry Potter book, read a few pages and said: 'I could have done that. I could have done that while doing all the other things that I do. Why didn't I?' "