Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The Complete Maus

If you read one graphic novel then let it be The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman. Theordor W. Adorno wrote that to "write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric" but later retracted it by stating that "Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream"; Maus is not poetry, it is a graphic novel (well, two graphic novels), and a novel approach to writing the Holocaust. Cynics say that to win Oscars all you have to do is direct or act in a Holocaust movie and the same can apply to literary prizes; Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize (Special Mention) for Maus but I don't think he appropriated his father's experiences in Auschwitz for success and acclaim but in an attempt to understand and record.

Chapters one to six of Maus Volume I: A Survivor's Tale (My Father Bleeds History) and chapters one to four of Maus Volume II: And Here My Trouble Began first appeared, in a somewhat different form, in Raw magazine between 1980 and 1991; Raw was an acclaimed magazine of avant-garde comics and graphics of which Spiegelman was co-founder and editor. Maus Volume I contained a graphic novel within a graphic novel, the short 'Prisoner of the Hell Planet', which originally appeared in Short Order Comix #1, in 1973.

Spiegelman employs an extended metaphor throughout The Complete Maus of anthromorphisation with Jews as mice (hence the German word for mouse as the title) and Nazis as cats; other cutesy animals appear but the horrific scale of the game of cat and mouse is pronounced in Spiegelman's use of literary device. Furthermore, mice represent the Nazi notion of Jews as vermin and this metaphor becomes more detailed and complicated in the second volume, eventually breaking down (Spiegelman intentionally destroying the separation of humans along race-lines) when he depicts himself as human wearing a mouse mask and self-consciously referring to his metaphor. To say that the account of Vladek's, Spiegelman's father, experience as a Polish Jew during the Holocaust and his recollections of his time is harrowing is an understatement. However, to my mind, Holocaust literature is necessary and The Complete Maus is highly effective in its juxtaposition of the graphic novel form and the events it is recounting in art.

Due to previous Holocaust reading, Spiegelman didn't inform me of anything new in the core subject matter but I greatly appreciated what he had to say in regards to the nature of guilt as both a survivor and the offspring of survivors. Artie and Vladek did not have the best of relationships but how can you connect with your parents when they have experienced the unfathomable? I also admired how Spiegelman portrayed his father as someone you didn't necessarily sympathise with, emphasising that it was not the worthy who survived the Holocaust but the lucky. To strip back such dark, essential themes to literally black and white boxes had me in awe of Spiegelman.

To say much more would come across as trite but suffice to say that Spiegelman never trivialises Vladek's experiences but articulates them with brutal honesty and creativity that emphasises rather than detracts from the horror whilst also presenting it through an accessible medium. The Complete Maus isn't entirely harrowing but does have moments of humour especially in Vladek's later life when he is remarried to Mala and living in New York; Vladek is an often stingy and once shockingly racist elderly man whose metabiography makes thought-provoking and challenging reading.


Anonymous said...

One of my friends absolutely loves Maus and when we were in Philadelphia last year he bought some special american editions and let me have a gander at some of them... I was engrossed but Maus hasnt passed me in a shop since, when it does am snapping it up.

Anonymous said...

A friend recommended it to me earlier on this year, and I'm quite keen to read it soon. It sounds absolutely fantastic.

mel u said...

I confess I have never read a Graphic novel-I think I will look for this work-

Paperback Reader said...

Simon, once you are buying books again pop into Foyles as they have a LOT of copies (and a good graphic novel section as does the Waterstone's on Piccadilly).

anothercookie, I hope you do read it soon and find it fantastic (I would normally say "enjoy" but it is the wrong word-choice for a book of this kind).

mel, I think this would be a good place to start; you would get a lot out of it, I think.

farmlanebooks said...

I have a copy of this, but haven't read it yet. It is next on my graphic novel list!

Paperback Reader said...

Jackie, it seems the logical one to read when you're new to graphic novels, doesn't it? Maus, Fun Home, Persepolis... this brings something additional to the experience but, like Persepolis, isn't enjoyable (not that Fun Home really was with its dark subject matter either). Perhaps the GN medium allows a darker tone that would be too suffocating in another form.

The Literary Stew said...

I read this earlier this year and really enjoyed it! Yes, it's definitely a unique and excellent graphic novel.

Darlene said...

We carry Maus at our library and its discovery usually excites the people borrowing it as it's not found at a lot of other libraries. Why? I'm not sure.

This book intrigues me but like so many others, I just haven't got around to reading it yet...but I will one day.

Color Online said...

I read this and enjoyed it. I think it was one of my first GN reads, too.

Carl V. said...'s where I admit that I've owned this for years, encouraged others to borrow and read my copies, and still have not read them myself.

I know, and I do feel ashamed.

Nymeth said...

Lovely review, Claire. What made this book so interesting to me was exactly that he added a new layer to the story he was telling - not that a story about something so horrible could ever be "just" a Holocaust story, but you know what I mean. I loved what he had to say about the effect it had on the generations that followed those of the survivors, about the process of writing about something like this, about his relationship with his father, etc. Such a brilliant book.

Paperback Reader said...

Danielle, I'm glad that you enjoyed it too ... although "enjoy" is a word I hesitate to use in relation to a book of this kind, although I liked it a lot.

Darlene, I borrowed it from my library - your library sounds like it has an amazing collection!

I fully sympathise: way too many books and so little time.

Color Online, it seems like a very popular place to start probably due to its popularity and acclaim, which makes it more mainstream.

Carl, don't feel ashamed... rectify it! I'd be very interested in hearing your thoughts once you do.

Ana, I loved the means he used to distance himself from the story; the metaphor wasn't just a cutesy way of retelling the Holocaust but an effective device for him to separate himself from it and all it entailed.

Rebecca Reid said...

I agree: this is the graphic novel to read.

I loved how it illustrated (literally) that even when one can survive a horrible experience, life and subsequent relationships are unalterable affected!

Paperback Reader said...

Rebecca, I concur: normally the stories leave off with the survivors surviving but not the impact that it had on them; I found the story of Anja, Art's mother, heartbreaking and it really brought home the theme of survivor's guilt.