MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus by Art Spiegelman

Begin with Maus I and Maus II. And then move on to MetaMaus, filled with images from the book and discussions with Art, and his wife and two children, about what it all means, his process, his motivations, and the impact these powerful little books have had on all of them.
metamaus
At the outset, let me say, holy magnificent book. MetaMaus asks the questions (according to its back cover), why the Holocaust? why mice? why comics? And of course, the Holocaust is the easiest to answer, to me: the Holocaust because it was what he knew (“write what you know”), except that he didn’t know the Holocaust. He emphasizes that. (And I confess it surprised me, that a survivors’ son could have grown up with such a limited knowledge of what happened so recently, and so centrally to his own personal and family history. I had a fairly decent, basic grasp of the Holocaust in grade school. But then, I grew up a full generation after the author did. Clearly a lot had changed.) Still, it was what arced over him, what oppressed him or at least leaned against him; what else was there? In fact, my surprise was that it wasn’t that obvious – that he wasn’t driven to write (draw) about the Holocaust, at least not that he knew: “What consciously motivated me was the impulse of wanting to do a long comic that needed a bookmark.” He needed to make a full-length comic, as it turned out. Who knew. I am baffled by the visual arts, at least as much as I am stimulated and inspired by the written/verbal ones; most of the visual artistry of Maus escaped me before reading this book, which is part of why I found it so wonderful. Unlike many monographs meant to elucidate the visual arts for us plebeians, this really brought it home to me, exposed so much more, increased my understanding & appreciation.

But the real question I was here for: why mice? Honestly, this was my chief concern (followed by: why cats, why pigs, why dogs…) and all those questions are answered, happily. And of course there are only more questions behind them, much discussion of the imagery and symbolism that belongs to animals in different cultures, for example, and some of that taking-back of the derogatory where Jews were called rats by the Nazis, for example. MetaMaus follows these paths, and lets us get to know the author. I found it very satisfying, after getting to know a version of him and feel him so strongly. We should always be so lucky.

And then the CD! This book is accompanied by a CD with complete images of both of the books; over 7,000 early sketches & studies & the like; video and audio files including recordings of interviews with Vladek; and some of the pamphlets off his mother’s bookshelf that Art used in his research. I think there were about 4 hours of Vladek interviews – the man’s actual voice! – and an hour-long home movie made by Art and Francoise on a visit to Auschwitz. Holy smokes, the CD is chock-full of goodies. I did not exhaustively study it, I confess. There was just so much; and I felt so well-served by the reading of the book itself. I did enjoy listening to Vladek’s voice, though: it brought everything to life, and was an interesting counterpoint to the relative unreality of comics.

Of course another theme of the book is the power and faultiness of memory. I love memoir, and I love that memoir almost inevitably has to confront this obstacle: the ‘mem’ in memoir is unavoidably problematic, at least enough to raise questions. In Maus‘s case, the clearest example comes when Vladek describes leaving Auschwitz and denies that there was an orchestra playing at the gates. As Art has documented, there is substantial support for the existence of this orchestra: there are photographs, and there are eyewitnesses among the Nazis, the Jews, and the musicians. But Vladek is sure there was no orchestra. What to do? I love Art’s discussion of the problem: how he could have represented Vladek’s version, or the official one, or left the whole question out of his story; but he instead elected to show the actual question. There is a panel in which there is an orchestra – followed by Vladek’s denial of the orchestra – followed by a panel in which the orchestra is no longer present, except that if you look closely, you can see the tips and shadows of their presence behind the marching prisoners. This is really something. Of course, when I read the comic, I didn’t catch that visual shadow, just the discussion of the question.

I learned a lot of intriguing details. Who knew the size of these (quite small) comics was so important to Spiegelman? Or more surprising, that he drew the originals in that same small size? And the details about the different reactions to the books in different countries (it’s been translated into some thirty languages) were fascinating to me. I had innumerable little details of the comics pointed out to me and elucidated – things I would never, in 100 readings, have figured out for myself, but value greatly once they were explained to me. But I most enjoyed the feeling of greater intimacy with a very talented, and unique artist. And I remain boggled by the dual artistry of the composition of this book as narrative, next to the visual artistry of the comic aspect. Art Spiegelman is a special man. The two Maus books were special, and should be required reading (for, I don’t know, everyone). And then if you like those – do yourself a favor and immerse yourself in this behind-the-scenes look. If you appreciate art (in any format) and are interested in process, also check this one out. And for those of you who prefer other formats than plain old reading, the CD has a great deal to offer in formats all over the map. Major win!

Additionally, I had to mark many passages for further consideration, so many philosophies I found valuable…

On communication vs. High Arts:

I do like to communicate clearly. It’s a pleasure. And as soon as one is involved with communication, one’s already suspect in the High Arts. A lot of what happens in the more rarefied precincts of art is that the word “communication” gets replaced by “communion,” and one is involved in a kind of religious experience with the artist as shaman. And that’s really different than, “Hey, I’ll tell you a yarn.” Or even “I’ll tell you a parable,” if you want to be didactic. And it’s always been either a skill or a deficiency that I try to make contact with with people.

I appreciate this, because I think High Arts (his phrase, but I like it) can sometimes let us down a great deal when it gets religious, or mysterious, or snooty. I’m not saying everything has to be forever perfectly literal and transparent, and I do enjoy moments of inexplicable beauty. But I think it’s exclusive and elitist to shun honest communication.

On the authenticity of his way of story-telling:

Everything drawn in the so-called past in the story that Vladek is telling is very clearly an attempt by the son to show what the father is telling. And that offered a margin within which to operate authentically. The fact that you’re told that I’m trying to show you what I understand of what Vladek is telling me is built into the fabric of the narrative itself, and allows that narrative to get told.

This reminds me of one of my favorite movies, 2 Seconds. There is an extended sequence where Lorenzo is telling Laurie the story of his professional bike racing career and how it ended. He speaks, and we see the action he is describing – but we see it as imagined by Laurie as she listens – but apparently Lorenzo can see it too, because he corrects it here and there. For example, he’s describing walking down a country road, and we see a young man doing just that, and kind of waddling on his clipless cycling shoes, with the cleats on them. And then we skip back to Lorenzo and Laurie sitting and talking, and he corrects her: “no no, we didn’t waddle, our shoes were soft leather” (I paraphrase). Skip back to the young man walking down the country road, smoothly on his smooth soles. I love love love this effect. In the same way, for example, in the question of the orchestra at Auschwitz, Spiegelman makes it clear that his father is correctly his visualization as they go. And this makes it honest and clear that he is only telling a story as told to him and as he understands it, which I appreciate deeply for its honesty.

On nihilism and ethics:

One night, we’re going down to feed the cats after one of our snooze-and-probe sessions, and he’s carrying those scraps downstairs and he says, apropos of I don’t remember what, that basically he’s a nihilist. And I ask him how this involves getting up in the middle of the night to talk to dying AIDS patients, and being so available to patients way past the point of it being good for his health, and he says something that one might take as just an off-the-cuff remark, but I found profound: “Well, I decided that behaving ethically was the most nihilistic thing I could do.” It delighted me as an idea, as a way of living one’s life.

This quotation launched a lengthy discussion for my father and I of the different meanings of ‘values,’ ‘morals’ and ‘ethics.’

On stories:

[The word ‘story’] comes from medieval Latin historia. It refers to those very early comic strips made before the invention of newsprint: the stained-glass windows that told a superhero story about that guy who could walk on water and turn it into wine. This is how in English, the word ‘story’ has come to mean both story as in stories of a building and story as a narrative. And at that point one is steered toward an architectural model for what a comic is, something very basic about comics narrative. Comics pages are structures made up of panels, sort of the way the windows in a church articulate a story. Thinking of these pages as units that have to be joined together, as if each page was some kind of building with windows init, was something that often happens overtly in Maus, and sometimes is just implicit in the DNA of the medium.

Story as architecture was a little mind-blowing to me, too. Allow these few examples to show how deeply thought-provoking I found this book. It’s a really dense, exciting experience.

So, to sum up: I found each Maus book thrilling and touching it itself. MetaMaus was equally thrilling and touching, increased the experience of both Mauses, and additionally set loose all kind of thought threads for me, that I have listed here as briefly as I could stand so as to not ramble on all day. Clearly I’m a fan. Pick up this book, and keep your notebook handy as you go.


Rating: what the hell, 10 sketches.

book beginnings on Friday: Whipping Boy by Allen Kurzweil

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

whipping boy

On the opening page, we get these lines.

Confession

You’ve been a menace and a muse. A beacon and a roadblock. My jailer and my travel agent.

Kurzweil writes to his childhood bully here, who the whole book is about. And this gets to the heart of his need to research and write it – that first line, in fact, does it alone: “you’ve been a menace and a muse.” A fine beginning, I think, because it says so much so briefly. It is still worth reading the whole story, though, I assure you.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Maus II, A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman

Following Maus I, in a word: every bit as good.

maus iiMaus II picks up Art Spiegelman’s, and his father’s, stories more or less where they left us last. Art continues to have difficulty relating to his dad, but still needs to hear the story, and his father just wants him around at whatever cost. We get the full details of father Vladek’s stay at Auschwitz and Dachau (it is of the latter camp that Vladek gives the line that becomes a subtitle, “and here my troubles began”), and a vague sketching of mother Anja’s time at Auschwitz: she is no longer around to tell her side, and Vladek is a little blurry on that account. Art continues to mourn the loss of her notes on her own wartime experience – destroyed by Vladek in a quest for forgetfulness.

In this book we also get to know Art a little better, as well as his wife Francoise. We meet his therapist, another Holocaust survivor. We see some of the fame earned by Maus I, which was not a force for good in Art’s life.

The art is still amazing. Detailed, and so representative of so much, despite the characters being portrayed not as people but as animals. To review: Jews are mice, Poles are pigs, Germans are cats, and as we see here, Americans are dogs. Maus II opens with an exchange I found charming, where Art worries about how to draw his wife, Francoise: originally a frog, he suggests, since she is French, but she insists she is a mouse, having converted to Judaism to satisfy Vladek’s need for appearances in the marriage. The use of animals for people, and their categorization in this way, is one of the most striking, interesting choices of this book – after, I guess, the choice to make it a comic at all. More on that when I get to MetaMaus.

I digress. The art is still beautiful, impactful, and communicative. The storyline is evocative and strangely universal, even while it is the unique story of a Holocaust survivor and his family; most people have experienced these difficulties relating to their parents, who are loved but hard to understand. The dialog between Art and Vladek is funny, and heartrending, familiar and true, even while it is also disturbingly stereotypical of Jews – a tension that Art and Francoise discuss. They acknowledge that this is how Vladek really is, so this is how he must be portrayed. Okay. I’m good with that, especially after it’s been acknowledged, owned in this way.

This is an astounding book. I am a total amateur at appreciating the visual arts, so I can barely claim to understand that aspect of it, but I like it. And as a work of memoir, love, portrayal, language, and history, I am deeply impressed. Read these books.


Rating: 9 cigarettes.

The World of Raymond Chandler: In His Own Words, edited by Barry Day

This collection of Raymond Chandler’s reflections and witticisms, edited into themed chapters, will equally satisfy his fans and readers unfamiliar with the noir master.

chandler

Though born in Chicago in 1888, Raymond Chandler was raised in England, so when he returned to the United States at age 24 he felt rather foreign. He had to study and learn what he called the “American” language, but conquered it in writing The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The Long Goodbye and many short stories in the noir style–a style he helped perfect. He created the famous Philip Marlowe (an archetypal hard-boiled private investigator who has trouble with the ladies) and wrote screenplays for Double Indemnity, The Blue Dahlia and Strangers on a Train. When he died in 1959, he left a variety of written works behind, and many are respected as classics today. In The World of Raymond Chandler, editor Barry Day (The Noël Coward Reader) compiles Chandler’s published and epistolary writing to form a picture of the man behind Marlowe.

The voice of this book is as much Day’s as his subject’s. Rather than a memoir by Chandler or, as the subtitle might suggest, a narrative told in his words, this is a collection of quotations. Beginning with an excellent brief introduction, Day sketches the major events and publications in Chandler’s life, largely avoiding a standard biography. Selecting from letters and articles, but more often from Chandler’s fiction, Day patches these fragments together with commentary into chapters on themes or common topics of Chandler’s work: cops, dames, Los Angeles, Hollywood. We see Chandler invent the strong sense of place that helps define such writers as Michael Connelly and James Lee Burke today. Day makes the argument fairly successfully that Marlowe’s voice represents Chandler’s, particularly in their later years, as both softened (but not, Chandler insists, mellowed) until Marlowe in The Long Goodbye was “as hollow as the spaces between the stars.”

Chandler fans will be tickled by a great many pithy aphorisms that both describe and exemplify his distinctive style. “To justify… certain experiments in dramatic dialogue… I have to have plot and situation; but fundamentally I care almost nothing about either.” About his preference for small casts, he wrote, “If more than two people were on scene I couldn’t keep one of them alive. A crowded canvas just bewilders me.” And what Day calls the master’s “ground rules” (Chandler labeled them “Casual Notes on the Mystery Novel”) are treasures, including “The mystery must elude a reasonably intelligent reader” and (sadly) “The perfect mystery cannot be written.” At the end of this admiring collection, Day’s reader is left wondering if Chandler came closest.


This review originally ran in the December 2, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 5 disconnected quotations.

The Color of Courage: A Boy at War by Julian Kulski

Kulski’s story heart-wrenchingly follows the arc of a boy becoming a young man in World War II Poland.

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The Color of Courage is the chronological diary of Julian Kulski, who was ten years old when Germany invaded his native Poland in 1939. Transitioning from the Boy Scouts to the Polish Underground Army, through the Warsaw Ghetto and the event of the Warsaw Uprising, Kulski ends up a sixteen-year-old German prisoner of war; but his story doesn’t end there. This gripping personal account brings a deeply moving and unique perspective to World War II Poland.

…Click here to read the full review.


This review was published on November 27, 2014 by ForeWord Reviews.

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My rating: 8 bricks.

Growing Up with Ignorance: Memoirs of a Singaporean Baby Boomer by Ali Lee

Sweetly touching, yet sometimes shocking, this memoir provides a unique view of a child’s daily life in 1950s Singapore.

growing up

Lee Ali’s Growing Up with Ignorance: Memoirs of a Singaporean Baby Boomer is a simply written, powerful tale of a particular kind of childhood and upbringing. Born in Singapore in 1949, she was raised simultaneously in an immensely multicultural city and in great isolation, often staying within her family’s one room. By telling her story, she hopes to improve conditions for later generations. Her straightforward narrative is moving and sympathetic.

…Click here to read the full review.


This review was published on November 20, 2014 by ForeWord Reviews.

growing


My rating: 5 buses.

The Killdeer: And Other Stories From the Farming Life by Michael Cotter

There is something for everyone in this very special collection of moving stories about the farming life, and the human experience.

killdeer

Michael Cotter, born in 1931 on Minnesota land his family had farmed since the 1870s, was scolded from an early age: “Cut out those damn stories and get some work done around here!” As a hardworking livestock farmer, his natural inclination toward storytelling had to be suppressed. He was nearly fifty when he attended a workshop that reactivated his artistic side and began his storytelling career. The Killdeer and Other Stories from the Farming Life compiles his stories, full of simple humor and pathos of his life experiences and storytelling prowess.

…Click here to read the full review.


This review was published on November 6, 2014 by ForeWord Reviews.

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My rating: 8 kittens.
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