Mar 12, 2008

The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

How do I even begin to write about this book? I’ve been putting this post off because I really don’t know how to put my experience with Maus into words. It is, quite simply, one of the most powerful books I have ever read. But postponing this post won’t make writing it any easier, so here it goes.

The events retold in Maus take place in Poland between the mid-30’s and 1945. They also take place in New York in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Maus is three things: the story of Art Spiegalman’s father’s, Vladek Spiegelman, survival; the story of a strenuous father and son relationship; and the story of the process of writing a comic book about the Holocaust.

The one thing everyone probably knows about Maus is that the Jews are portrayed as mice, the Nazis as cats, the Polish as pigs, the Americans as dogs, and so on. What you hear less often, though, is that, instead of turning the characters into caricatures, this portrayal increases their humanity, and thus the book’s poignancy. What shines through, past these animal faces, is the fact that people are the same – what we have in common is much greater than our differences, and there are both cruel and sympathetic people in every nationality, every ethnicity, every religion.

As I said before, Maus is as much about the Holocaust as it is about the enduring marks it left on the survivors and their families and about the process of trying to make sense of something this enormous through art. We are shown an adult Art Spiegelman asking his father to tell him the whole story – and this Vladek does. He tells him the story of the War and the pre- and post-War years, from meeting his future wife in the 1930s in Poland, to the increasing discrimination against Jewish people that first took their numerous family to a ghetto and later took the few surviving members to Auschwitz, from where only Vladek and his wife Anja escaped at the end of the war, seeking shelter in Sweden before moving to America.

Maus felt more personal than all the other holocaust stories I have encountered before, and I think the reason was the fact that the format of a father telling this story to a son allowed some complex and conflicting emotions to be expressed. What makes Maus so powerful is how raw, honest and human it is. It goes beyond a story in which the inhuman cruelties that Jewish people had to suffer are described (not that stories that “merely” describe those aren’t very much necessary). It shows what it is to have survived the unimaginable, and also what it is to have something that happened before you were born, something you are not sure you truly understand, be so acutely present in your life.

Art’s relationship with his father is, like I said, strenuous at best. The truth is that the present day Vladek is not a very likeable character. He is mean and demanding to those who surround him, he is obsessed with not spending a single unnecessary scent, and, most shocking of all, he is a racist. When his daughter-in-law asks him how he can be a racist after his whole life was shattered by anti-Semitism, he answers that you cannot even begin to compare a black man and a Jew.

All the questions that the reader struggles with throughout this book are the same questions Art Spiegelman is trying to find answers for. He realises that in many ways his father resembles the stereotype of the “miser old Jew”, and having to portray him as such worries him.

Many of these are, of course, unanswerable questions. To which extent did the overwhelming experience of the Holocaust turn his father into who he is today? What can be traced back to it, and what can’t? What can you expect from someone who went through something as overwhelming as that? What can you demand? And how much can you forgive and tolerate? How do you even begin to make sense of something like this?

Then there is the question of trying to portray this experience in the form of a comic book, and all the doubts, struggles and hesitations Art Spiegelman has to overcome. He considers giving up many times – fortunately for us, he didn’t, and he couldn’t have used a better approach to tell this story.

Art Spiegalman was born in Sweden after the War, and another question he has to struggle with is the extent to which he can understand the Holocaust even though he didn’t experience it himself. And yet its presence in his life is undeniable. His parents are haunted by the memories of those who didn’t survive, especially of their first-born son, Richeu. Richeu was poisoned by his aunt Tosha, who also poisoned herself, her daughter and another child at her guard when she was told that they were all going to be sent to Auschwitz, and there was nowhere else to hide. In 1968, his mother Anja commits suicide and doesn’t leave a note. Was it the experience of the death camps that caused it? Was it her lost son Richeu, her lost family? Was it Vladek? Was it something else? In an attempt to make sense of this, Art Spiegelman draws the mini-comic “Prisoner on Planet Hell”, which is reproduced in its integrity on Maus.

Another question raised in the book is if those who managed to survive, like his father, are to be admired, and if so, whether this means that not having survived is condemnable. And accepting that neither is the case is also accepting that something like the Holocaust is too horrible to have any sort of inner logic. There is no pattern that can be discerned. There is only utter senselessness and random death.

I know that this post is already very long, but I cannot finish without saying that Maus couldn’t be what it is if it wasn’t a comic. The art is an integral part of its power, of its poignancy. There’s the image that I posted above, of Vladek and Art in a classic storytelling pose, resembling a father and a young child, Vladek telling the story while his son takes notes. Then there are important details like the fact that when Vladek tries to pretend that he is not a Jew in Poland, he is shown wearing a pig mask:

And finally there is my favourite image:

This version of it that I found online is slightly different from the one in the book: there Vladek and Anja are shown from behind, walking aimlessly in the night towards the crossroad/swastika, and somehow they look even more vulnerable, even more forlorn, even more lost.

I urge you all to read Maus, even if – especially if – you are not a big fan of comics. I can’t think of a better book to demonstrate their power.

Reviewed at:
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The Written World (Book 1)
The Written World (Book 2)
where troubles melt like lemon drops
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  1. I read this in college, and had forgotten much of it. Thanks for the wonderful review, that reminded me how great this book was.

  2. This is on my graphic novels challenge list. I was a bit upset that our library didn't have it (well, they only have the first half, and I, of course, want to read both), and that I was going to have to buy it. After reading your incredibly thoughtful, gut-wrenching review, I can honestly say, I'm now happy that I have to buy it...for one thing, so I can loan it to everyone I know. I honestly had no idea there were so many layers to the story. Honestly, all I knew about it was that it was a "holocaust story"...I now see it's so much more. Thank you, Nymeth...I'm at a loss to tell you how much this review touched me.

  3. I have this on my reading list as part of my Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge. In fact, this will be my first foray into graphic novels or comics. I'm actually looking forward to reading this. Thanks for the great review.

  4. What an incredible, powerful story...I haven't read this but I've had it on my list for so long. Books like this tend to get to me, but they also tend to be favorites of mine. So strong and emotional and so important. Thanks for the beautiful and heartfelt review Nymeth. I'll have to bravely venture into this one!

  5. As usual, you've written a great review about this book, Nymeth! I read mangas once in a while but I don't think I've ever came across this book... I'll have to look out for this. Thanks for the review! :)

  6. Another great review Nymeth! Makes me want to reread this one again. I guess it's due for a reread, the first time I delved into this was way, way back in '94. Yeah, that long. I borrowed it from a friend and I was thisclose to not returning it except that I did. Now I wish I didn't. Hahaha.

  7. Great review, Nymeth! I'm looking forward to finally reading it for the Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge in August.

  8. as a comic fan, like yourself, i've been meaning to read this for years now. its actually getting on decades!

    i'm glad to hear it still has all the power that it became famed for.

  9. This is one of those graphic novels I always pick up and put down again, but I think next time I see it I will get it. I know what you mean about some stories being told better somehow as graphic novels which gives them more power combining the tale with images. I think you will find Persepolis the same when you come to read it. I love the ifnal image of them walking down the swastika with their yellow stars shining so brightly.

  10. Jeane, you're more than welcome!

    Debi: It was the same with me, actually. The Nottingham library only had the first half, so I ended up buying it, and I'm extremely glad that I did. This is definitely one to keep, to re-read and lend to friends and loved ones. I didn't know much about the story either...I knew about the cats and mice, and for some reason that gave me the impression that it was somewhat like Orwell's Animal Farm. And, as always, thank you for your kind words.

    Lisa: I look forward to seeing what you think of it!

    Chris: You so need to read this one! Sometimes I tend to put off reading a book if I know it's going to be a really emotional experience (I've been doing that with The Book Thief), but in the end it's always worth it.

    Melody: Thank you. You do have to look for this! I think it's one of those books that everyone should read.

    Lightheaded: has been a while indeed. You definitely need to re-read it! Borrow it from your friend again :P

    Tanabata: I really look forward to following the discussion about this one on the challenge blog.

    Jean Pierre: It definitely does. I'm pretty sure reading this will be quiet an experience for you. You should get it once you finally defeat your monster :P

    Rhinoa: Even without having read Persepolis I think I see how it does the same in that regard. I'm really looking forward to reading it. And yeah...I found that image so touching.

  11. Nymeth it's always so nice to read your reviews. I have plan to read Maus for two reading challenges and I'm really looking forward to it. I had the opportunity to hear Art Spiegelman several years ago. I can't believe I didn't rush out and get the books then. Oh and that final image you posted is absolutely haunting isn't it?

  12. Iliana: How great that you got to hear him! It really is a haunting image. I look forward to reading your thoughts on the book.

  13. wonderful review, as always:-)
    I understand why you're putting off reading the Book Thief especially after this one. Even though I have to say the Book Thief has lots of funny moments,too.

    I totally agree with you about the power of the comic as a form of art. It's sad that sometimes comics and graphic novels are regarded as less important than "proper" novels. But we know better!

  14. Valentina: Thank you :) I will get to The Book Thief soon...early next month at the most. It is sad, but fortunately I think that those misconceptions are beginning to fade.

  15. Hooray, hooray, I'm so happy you read this! Unfortunately, the images don't show up (because I'm at work) so I'll try to remember to come back and look at your favorite image later.

  16. Also! Jeane's comment reminded me of something, and I want to ask your opinion, since you read The Complete Maus. A friend of mine was recently assigned just Maus, just the first book, for a class. But not the second book. I was appalled, really. I can't imagine reading the first book and not the second, but I can sort of see that happening if, say, someone just picked up the first one and didn't like it (unthinkable!) or liked it and intended to get around to Maus II later. But to assign one and not the other? Wow, maybe I'll assign only half of L'Etranger or Le Petit Prince to my students this year. :/ What do you think? Do you think the professor just felt short on time and hope students would pick up Maus II on their own? That's my hope.

  17. Dewey: wow. The only reason for that that crosses my mind is also lack of time. I don't see how any of the things the teacher would want to get at by using that book in class could be seen in part I alone. Doing that really isn't any different from assigning half a novel.

  18. Nymeth, what a great review! I struggled a lot to review this book because it was such a heavy book, and so many great things have been said about it already.

  19. This is an intriguing one. I really need to check it out. Thanks for the wonderful review!

  20. Love this novel. Where did you find the images to put on your site?


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