My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Our life happens to be such that a child, as soon as it can run about a little and a little distinguish one thing from another, must look after itself just like an adult; the areas on which, for economic reasons, we have to live in dispersion are too wide, our enemies too numerous, the dangers lying everywhere in wait for us too incalculable—we cannot shelter our children from the struggle for existence, if we did so, it would bring them to an early grave.
—Franz Kafka, “Josephine the Singer, or, the Mouse Folk” (trans. Willa and Edwin Muir)
I was too young the first time I read Maus—around age 14. In search of the masterpieces of the comics medium, I was reading my two paperback volumes, purchased as I recall at a suburban mall Waldenbooks, at the height of interest in the Holocaust in America. It was two years after Schindler’s List, in the period when American presidents and their courtier intellectuals liked to justify their military interventions with constant reference to Hitler. Spiegelman’s subtle but decisive attack on the instrumentalization of the Holocaust was a bit over my head, though I did perceive the calculated provocation against the bourgeoisie, so characteristic of the Underground Comix which were Spiegelman’s aesthetic school, of recasting the genocide as Tom and Jerry or Krazy and Ignatz.
Despite my budding comics writer’s admiration for Spiegelman’s storytelling craft—his endless flexibility with a rough eight-panel grid; his subtle variations in panel composition so that there was none of the much-admired “cinematic” long-take effects as in the likes of Miller or Moore nor any melodramatic “camera angles”; his astounding ease at keeping the story straight even though all the characters have just about the same mouse head—the historical resonance of the style eluded me. The art grows progressively less sketchy/Crumby and more solid-lined as we move from volume one to volume two, the panels like light-streaked black windows: Spiegelman conjures up the stark medieval woodcuts of interwar Europe in a kind of pogrom-Gothic that summons the whole bloody history of Europe even as it harks back to the earliest “graphic novels,” the woodcut fictions of Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward. All of this serves to bleed the cuteness from his “funny animal” cartoon, as if to say that a hypothetical George Herriman or Carl Barks of European Jewry would have had to be comics’ Kafka. The storytelling is as fresh and light as the actual art is haunted and heavy; the visuals would be the best thing about Maus if it weren’t for the writing.
No, what went over my adolescent head was precisely the Kafka of it. (Spiegelman speaks in interviews of having been influenced by the murine short story, the author’s last, from which I take my epigraph, a tale of a bathetically willful artist in a community too beset to venerate her person though it will heed her music, “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.”) Perhaps the only one of those viral David Foster Wallace sentimental quotations I like is the one about Kafka’s humor (I would say “irony,” not sharing DFW’s hostility to that word):
It’s not that students don’t “get” Kafka’s humor but that we’ve taught them to see humor as something you get—the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke—that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle.
This is the story of Maus, in two ways: first, it is the story of its narrator/author, the son struggling to record his father’s experiences in Auschwitz, and so it is the story of how the book itself comes to be; second, it is the story of the father himself, whose humanity—which is at times intolerable to those who love him, as it manifests itself as meanness, miserliness, misogyny, racism, neurosis—is inseparable from the struggle to survive genocide that has made him who he is.
In worrying endlessly over its own moral and epistemological status, Maus might appear to be just another postmodern artifact: it has everything from mise en abyme gestures ironically locating photographic truth within increasingly cartoonish fictional frames (see my the image below, when the characters read one of Spiegelman’s old memoir comics) to outright comic-strip humor, as when Art tells his wife that in real life she’d never let him talk so long without interruption—all to remind us that we are getting a representation, not a reality. Most interestingly, Spiegelman also subverts his own metaphor, when his cartoon animals interact with “real” animals, suggesting the arbitrary artifice of the Nazi race classification that this book has bitterly borrowed, and also the animality that extremes of suffering reveal human beings to share. But Spiegelman was insistent upon his book’s status as nonfiction; perhaps it is the scrupulousness of its self-questioning that justifies its claim to reality.
The memoir’s complexity of representation is mirrored by the complexity of its represented subject: Spiegelman’s father, Vladek. He goes from a textile-salesman with film-star looks—the first chapter is called “The Sheik,” in homage to Valentino—to an inmate at Auschwitz doing everything he can to survive. And he ends up, having lost a son in the Holocaust and a wife to suicide after, a bewildered, neurotic, and angry old man in Rego Park, Queens. I have never felt that comics particularly lends itself, as a form, to characterization, which requires more words and fewer pictures; comics does better with the manipulation of icons—precisely the game of cat-and-mouse Spiegelman so seriously plays in the pictures. But through the precise capture of his verbal rhythms, so deadpan in narrating atrocities and so peevish and anguished at the slights of everyday life, Vladek becomes a character of novelistic depth. Over the course of the book, everything about him balances and nothing cancels, so that we come to love him without exactly liking him, to understand him without judging him. He pitted endless resourcefulness against the greatest of tribulations; he lost his entire family, including his first son; he harries and harasses his second son; he burned his late wife’s journals; he emotionally tortures his second wife; he “talk[s] about blacks the way the Nazis talked about the Jews,” in his daughter-in-law’s appalled judgment: “he was a man, take him for all in all.”
Polemically, Spiegelman aims at a pernicious idea that has only grown in influence since the mid-1980s: that oppression gives its victim superior powers of social discernment and moral cognition. Whereas in fact Vladek’s suffering has maladapted him for social life and has continued into the second generation, sufficiently molding his son so that he, too, is construed in the book as a kind of survivor. In Metamaus, a recent volume of notes and interviews in which Spiegelman reflects on his creation, he identifies the oppression-creates-wisdom concept as a refinement of Christian martyrdom, and, as such, alien to his secular-Jewish sensibility (though the idea probably came to the contemporary cultural left via Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, as mediated by Du Bois’s “double-consciousness” and perhaps also Lukács’s “standpoint of the proletariat”). In any case, Spiegelman takes special care to show that oppression not only fails to confer moral or intellectual power, but actually saps and distorts these human powers.
And in its metafictional formalism, Maus also argues against the cult of “lived experience” (a pleonasm: if you experienced it, you lived it, by definition: but I am not naive, the term is deployed to delegitimate reflection and intellectual activity as second-order, inauthentic forms of experience, even though thought has always seemed to me to be simultaneous with acting and suffering). The concentric ring of calculated falsehoods Spiegelman erects around the truth of his father’s experience—even though he has only his father’s sometimes unreliable memory to go on—not to mention the vanished truth of what his mother went through, demonstrates that living and thinking cannot be separated, that dispute-over-truth is lodged in the heart of experience. (Academics understandably like to compare Maus to its near-contemporary novel of lingering historical oppression, Morrison’s Beloved; but Roth’s Counterlife is really much closer in theme and method, even though it treats a perhaps opposite extreme of 20th-century Jewish life, the very different success stories of Israel and America.)
So, if you are over the age of 14, and have lived long enough to appreciate the necessity and impossibility of trying to live and think, you should read Maus. I will end with one of my favorite pages, from volume 2, in which Spiegelman speaks to his psychoanalyst about his struggles to tell his father’s story:
The page—with its almost iconographic engraving-like style and its subtle variation in staging figures within the panels—has everything and more one could ask in a comic: it begins in near-Dostoevskyean or -Mannian or -Bellovian or -Rothian dialectic, establishing the moral impossibility of even thinking about survivorship and the Holocaust, and passes through both a good Beckett quote and a good deflation of Beckett’s (or his admirers’) occasional solemnity of despair, and ends with a saving joke.