And it’s overwhelming me.
I finished reading Maus a few hours ago, and I can’t stop thinking about it; I don’t think a literary work has ever affected me as much.
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, by Art Spiegelman, is a memoir of Art Spiegelman listening to his father, Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, retelling his story. It alternates between descriptions of Vladek’s life in Poland before and during the Second World War and Vladek’s later life in the Rego Park neighborhood of New York City
I’m just going to come out and say it. I’m an ignorant person. I knew about the Holocaust. I knew about Hitler. I knew about Auschwitz. I knew about the gas chambers. And… well, I’ve already crudely simplified it, but, these were events of the past, and had no impact on me. I accepted that they happened, I was disgusted by it, but again, it was just another “fact” or piece of history that I acknowledged.
Then I read Maus, and now the weight of what occured during those years, and the lasting impact it has had on survivors, and the generations after, is starting to hit me. Don’t get me wrong, I am in NO WAY claiming to understand I know how it feels, as I am so far removed from this, but, I will forever look at it from a completely different perspective, and it’s a perspective I am grateful I have gained, and I feel a little less ignorant as a result.
I know that there are probably hundreds of more factual accounts of the Holocaust, but it took this very personal relationship that Art Spiegelman created with himself and his father that allowed me to make a personal connection, and consequently imagine, and realise the unimaginable.
I loved the way the story was told, intercutting between Vladek’s recollections, Art’s “present day” thoughts—breaking the fourth wall—that sit on top of the narrative, and his time over the years with Vladek, in garnering those recollections. I know it’s not anything alike, but I could relate to Art’s struggles, frustrations and guilt of the life he is allowed to lead as a result of the sacrifices made by previous generations, and his inability to fully comprehend what they went through, but for all his frustrations, this work that he has created will stay with me, and no doubt countless others.
As the Independent says in their review…
One of the cliches about the Holocaust is that you can’t imagine it – like nuclear war, its horror outfaces the artistic imagination. Spiegelman disproves that theory
Vladek Spiegelman must be the most resourceful and remarkable man I’ve ever come across. He navigates through dire circumstance after dire circumstance with an unbelievable will to live, doing whatever is necessary time and time again, when many around him had resigned to their fate. No doubt the horrors and atrocities he bear witness to never left him, and shaped him into the father that Artie, and others in his life are often bewildered by, but I bow to you sir.
I don’t know how well any of this would have worked were it not for the medium in which this story was told; the comic. Maus ultimately ended up as a collected, graphic novel, but regardless, it saddens me when comics are dismissed as a light-hearted, lesser form of story-telling. There is a simplicity to how Maus is drawn, but on many occasions, I was shocked at the ability of a single frame, combined with the bluntness of Vladek’s recollection, to convey so much.
A quiet triumph, moving and simple – impossible to describe accurately, and impossible to achieve in any medium by comics
Then there’s the other elephant [or should I say, mouse] in the room. The Germans / Nazis are cats, the Jews are mice, the Polish are pigs, the French are frogs, the Swedish are deer, and the Americans are dogs.
These images are not my images. I borrowed them from the Germans. At a certain point I wanted to go to Poland, and I had to get a visa. I put in my application, and then I got a call from the consul. He said “the Polish attache wants to speak with you.” And I knew what he wanted to talk to me about. On the way over there, I tried to figure out what I was going to say to him. “I wanted to draw noble stallions, but I don’t do horses very well?” When I got there, he gave me the perfect opening. He said, “You know, the Nazis called us schwein” (German for pig). And I said, “Yes, and they called us vermin (German for mouse or rat).”
Ultimately, what the book is about is the commonality of human beings. It’s crazy to divide things down the nationalistic or racial or religious lines. And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? These metaphors, which are meant to self-destruct in my book – and I think they do self-destruct – still have a residual force that allows them to work as metaphors, and still get people worked up over them.
– Art Spiegelman
Humans, in general, are very messed up. When people are stripped of everything, and left in desperate situations, you cannot imagine what they will do.
Look, every aspect of Maus has been deconstructed to death by many far better qualified** than me, and I’m currently reading this fantastic paper by Samantha Zuckerman, so I’m not going to bother, as I’ve probably already bastardised the meaning and impact of this book, but just know that this is a unique, and very special work of art, and I highly recommend it to anyone.
Thank you to Vladek Spiegelman for sharing this story, and thank you Art Spiegelman, for sharing this story with the world.
** Other things I’ve been reading while writing this…
I posted this on Reddit, under /r/books, in the hopes of talking about Maus some more, and all I can say is, you guys rock! Thanks for the suggestions and fantastic discussion ❤