Sunday, March 18, 2012

Maus: A Survivor's Tale (1973-1991)

It seems like every time I go through the two little volumes of Maus it finds new ways to surprise me. This most recent time the core story reached me in ways it never has. Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish Jew and father of the author and illustrator, Art, actually spent most of his time during World War II and the run-up surviving one way and another on his own. He was not finally caught and sent to Auschwitz until 1944. Until then he lived by his wits, courage, and a good deal of luck. The realities of his life are all but unimaginable to me now—even to his son who created this, which of course contributes to its complexity and makes it so fascinating. In many ways, Vladek is an awful human being, and Art his ungrateful heir. But in just as many ways they are both admirable—and likeable. The art struck me as surprisingly crude this time, even stick-man simple at points, and generally much more so than I had remembered, but the story is always compelling, and many of the features of the art serve their purposes well. It always works, and some panels are amazing; this time I really noticed the way the Jews (as mice) are shown enduring pain. It's simple, yet haunting, neck tipped back and open mouth a hollow black. This last time through I tried to put myself in Vladek's place. Essentially he spent his 30s, the better part of a full decade, feeling the increasingly dire impact of the German Nazi regime on his life. I suspect I would have been among those who didn't survive—so much of the hiding and running and the humiliations endured seem to me simply intolerable. But you never know, and in many ways that's explicitly Vladek's message to the rest of us, mediated by Art. Vladek's wife (Art's mother), Anja, was weak like me but she made it, even though much of the rest of both her and Vladek's families, including their first son (Art's older brother, whom Art never met), did not. But then she committed suicide in 1968 with no explanation. "No note!" Vladek and Art both can't help but pointing out repeatedly. Aside from its undeniable place as an important milestone of the graphic novel, Maus deserves all its many accolades and its reputation for finding a way to tell a familiar story that makes it uniquely compelling and more powerful than ever. Someone else has no doubt made the point somewhere: this deserves a place among the greatest works of the 20th century, and it certainly deserves to be read, discussed, and taught everywhere.

In case it's not at the library.

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