Thursday, December 1, 2011

Maus by Art Spiegelman

I know that I’m late to reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus. It has been one of those glaring omissions from the books that I’ve read, one of those admissions to, “What really canonical important novels haven’t you read?” I had always been meaning to read the graphic novels (and I’m actually only one in – I picked up volume one, My Father Bleeds History, from a secondhand bookstore, but the other volume was no where to be found), but other books seemed to take priority. It was just luck that I was able to find a copy of the book the other day, but finally reading Maus now seems really convenient. 2011 overlaps with the twenty-fifth anniversary of publication, which coincides with the October release of MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic (the book also includes a section of rejection letters Spiegelman received when sending Maus to publishing houses). And because of this recent publication, Spiegelman has been back in the spotlight, with interviews cropping up in major newspapers. They are all really great to read, particularly his interview with the Guardian where Spiegelman says, “Having a writer in the family is to have a traitor in it; it's basic to the project.” So everything is really going on with Maus again right now, and it seems like a happy miracle that I found the book now to read.

Maus tells the story of Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. It is recounted through a series of interviews between Spiegelman and his father, which reveal a frustration between father and son that speaks towards a relationship that does not appear completely in the novel. The graphic novel form casts the Jewish characters as mice and the Nazis as cats, and these representations both refigure the events of the Holocaust while also changing nothing (Polish characters are drawn as pigs, and Americans as dogs). As Spiegelman meets regularly with his father at his New York apartment, he pieces together the history that is related to him at each meeting. The story meanders, backtracks, and loops at times (and this occurs because when Spiegelman’s interruptions cause his father to scold him for confusing the order in which things are told), which is underlined by the conditions under which Spiegelman’s father tells the story. At times father and son walk and talk, but mostly their meetings occur while Spiegelman’s father rides an exercise bike in the apartment. All of this present action precludes and influences the story of the Holocaust that Spiegelman is so interested in, reconnecting with his father in order to find out the details of his personal experience. The story unravels from the early 1930s to the relocation of Spiegelman’s parents to Auschwitz in the 1940s, at which point the second volume continues the story.

I was fascinated by the structure of the movement between present and past, between listening and telling, particularly for what it reveals about Spiegelman‘s father during the process. The present Vladek lives with his second wife Mala, who is also a survivor of the Holocaust. He treats her like a servant, and is impatient, controlling, and erratic in his relationship with her. He yells at her when she hangs up his son’s coat (“Acch, Mala! A wire hanger you give him! I haven’t seen Artie in almost two years – we have plenty wooden hangers” [and the two year gap in their visits seems to signal early the relationship between father and son]), and complains when she cooks dinner (“Pfeh – the chicken was, I thought, too dry…I tell you, with Mala I don’t know what to do. She –“). But these vagaries of Vladek’s present relationship and life, which are introduced before returning to the events of the Holocaust, cast a light backwards on the rest of the book. It becomes a way of reading with the end in mind, and knowing that Vladek’s character in the present may influence or change the way he describes his character in the past to his son. He has the ability to construct a past character, and the reader has the ability to see him as a present character, and understand how that might change the construction of the past.

I am, of course, looking for the second volume, and am a little bit disappointed that I didn’t just find MetaMaus and buy that instead. To look for a sequel to this novel seems strange, particularly because as a reader, I know it will take me right back into the suffering and difficulty of the first volume. However, Spiegelman’s past/present construction seems to make this important, and his characterization of the father/son relationship in the present makes this even more effective. I’m late in reading this story, but I’m glad I finally did pick it up, and I’m eager to see what comes next.

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