The Critics Respond: Considering Maus

Memento

I can’t remember how old I was, but I’m guessing I must have been nine or ten. Dad’s office was on the ninth floor of the history building, looking out over the vast expanse of Burrard Inlet, extending into the Pacific, with the backdrop of the North Shore. Massive bald eagles circled above Spanish Banks in wide, lazy spirals, rising on the updrafts.

Both walls of the office were lined with bookshelves that extended to the ceiling. Books and newspapers were everywhere, stacked on the coffee table and on the armrests and seats of the well-worn couch hidden under their weight.

Dad collected his work in preparation to return home. I absently picked up a book—I no longer recall the title—and noticing the glossy signature inset in the book’s centre, turned to the photographs. The images were riveting. In some of the photos, mounds of emaciated bodies were stacked in shallow graves. In others, live human skeletons stared blankly out at the cameras. It’s hard to describe what I felt at the time—something beyond horror, beyond shock. I continued flipping the pages uncomprehendingly, until dad came and gently took the book from my hands.

“It’s probably better if you don’t look at those.”

Time Passes

Like so many others, when Maus I: My Father Bleeds History was published, it rocked my world—especially as a sixteen year-old comic collector who was already beginning to tire of the monthly (re)cycle of men in tights. Though I had learned more about the Shoah in the meantime (beginning with reading The Diary of Anne Frank when I was thirteen) Maus was something different once again. In particular, the “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” insert gave me a voice and permission through which I could vicariously express the rage that I felt towards my own mother, who had spent the bulk of my own childhood into my teen years struggling with depression.

Considering Maus

My copy of Maus I is now falling apart, having been re-read and loaned out to so many people. The book’s critical acclaim built momentum for the “graphic novel” format, and also brought comix out from the underground and into the mainstream. Academics have begun putting their spin on the medium and its message, as demonstrated by the essays in Considering Maus: Approaches to Art Spiegelman’s “Survivor’sTale” (University of Alabama Press, 2003: edited by Deborah R. Geis).

Maus has been dissected by scholars through the lenses of cultural studies and literary studies (with an emphasis on psychoanalytic theory), feminist studies, and of course—comics studies. Geis cites the intersection between Maus and Jewish studies, historiography  and oral history as particular fields of interest among the contributors to her collection.

Considering Maus is a fascinating read. Many of the essays included in Geis’ anthology cite one another; their consolidation in one volume demonstrates that these writings are more than isolated events, they inform each other and create a constellation, the nexus of which is Maus itself.

Maus will remain a seminal “graphic novel” for the brilliance of its narrative techniques, the maturity and honesty of its subject matter, and the power of its representation. Considering Maus is an important addition to understanding the work, and I would strongly recommend it for anyone interested in exploring Maus in greater depth.

Art Spiegelman. Photograph by Nadja Spiegelman. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0.

Entry Points

In no particular order, here are a variety of topics that are found in the essays included in Considering Maus.

  • Commodification and commercialization of the Holocaust for public consumption
  • Psychoanalytic studies of narrative and their relation to Maus
  • Incongruities between dialogue attributed to Vladek in Maus, and how his words were actually recorded in the audio clips included on the CD-ROM, The Complete Maus (1994)
  • Representation of Jewish identity in Maus
  • The father-son relationship between Vladek and Art/Artie
  • Self-representation in Maus and the Art/Artie persona
  • The role of translation and the English language in Holocaust testimony
  • Comparison between film techniques and graphic narrative
  • Situating Maus from within the comix movement and the ensuing new wave of graphic storytellers that followed
  • Comparisons between Maus and Breakdowns, In the Shadow of No Towers, and The Wild Party
  • Anthropomorphism in Maus: the visual trope of representing mice as Jews, cats as Germans, pigs as Poles, and dogs as Americans.
  • Spiegelman’s smoking habit
  • The relationship between trauma and testimony and its treatment in Maus
  • Memoir and authenticity in Maus
  • Anja’s absence and silence throughout the pages of Maus
  • “Prisoner on the Hell Planet”
  • Postmodern narrative techniques in Maus
  • Maus as fiction versus nonfiction:

 

The CD-ROM includes Spiegelman’s letter to the New York Times in which he protests the presence of Maus on their fiction best-seller list. Maus has presented problems of classification since its first publication; a separate category of Pulitzer was created for its award.(174)

 

 

Selected Quotations from Considering Maus

PART 2: BLOOD LEGACIES: MAUS AND HOLOCAUST TESTIMONY

 

“Necessary Stains: Art Spiegelman’s Maus and the Bleeding of History” by Michael G. Levine

In a 1986 interview, Spiegelman explained to Lawrence Weschler,

I’d never really had any intention of publishing the book version in two parts. But then, about a year ago, I read an interview with Steven Spielberg that he was producing an inimated feature entitled An American Tail, involving a family of Jewish mice living in Russia a hundred years ago named the Mouskawitzes, who were being persecuted by Katsacks, and how eventually they fled to America for shelter. He was planning to have it out for the Statue of Liberty centennial celebrations.

I was appalled, shattered….For about a month I went into a frenzy. I’d spent my life on this, and now here, along was coming this Goliath, the most powerful man in Hollywood, just casually trampling everything underfoot. I dashed off a letter, which was returned, unopened. I went sleepless for nights on end, and then, when I finally did sleep, I began confusing our names in my dreams: Spiegelberg, Spielman…I contacted lawyers. I mean, the similarities were obvious, right down to the title—their American Tail simply being a more blatant, pandering-to-the-mob version of my Survivor’s Tale subtitle. Their lawyers argued that the idea of anthropomorphizing mice wasn’t unique to either of us…[W]hat I was saying was that the specific use of mice to sympathetically portray Jews combined with the concept of cats as anti-Semitic oppressors in a story that compares life in the Old World of Europe with life in America was unique—and that it was called Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (88)

–Quoted from Weschler, Lawrence. Shapinski’s Karma, Bogg’s Bills, and Other True-Life Tales. San Francisco: Northpoint P, 1988.

Upon the completion of Maus II, Spiegelman commented:

Thirteen years ago I bet I’d live long enough to finish Maus and by God I did. On the other hand, insofar as I can tune in to these things, there’s already a slight feeling of mourning. Somehow I got used to this large carcinogenic growth attached to my body and I feel sad that it’s been cut away…[A]lthough it was painful and difficult work, it was, in some ways, a staving off of a certain kind of other mourning. Even though it was on the battleground of a piece of paper, I was able to keep my relationship with my father going and was even able to have the illusion of having an effect. And so that was something, even though, like I say, it was difficult to keep going (89)

–Quoted from Rosen, Jonathan. “Spiegelman: The Man behind the Maus That Roared.” Forward 17 Jan. 1992: I-II.).

PART 3: KITSCH, “COMMERZ” AND CYBERMICE: MARKETING MAUS

 

“Read Only Memory: Maus and Its Marginalia on CD-ROM” by John C. Anderson and Bradley Katz.

But perhaps it is a good thing that questions of completeness, Maus, and memory cannot be so quickly resolved. The additional materials change our reading of the story, giving us more information about its production and reception. However, Maus remains Maus; its pages and panels and their contents remain intact. Perhaps what this contradictory state of affairs demonstrates more clearly is how “completely incomplete” Maus has been in its design from the very beginning. Its combinations of personal narrative and historical documentation, comic book form and survivor testimony, remain fundamentally open-ended and unresolvable (Anderson and Katz, 164-165).

Commenting on the marginalia included on the CD-ROM, the authors suggest,

These documentary materials can be read as documents not only of the Holocaust but also of the desire to provide documentation, to establish the authenticity of Maus…The working transcripts and the documentary record of Spiegelman’s own research try to make Maus a more authentic memoir by providing more links between the text of Mausand the words of the transcripts—including the audio clips, which intensify the CD-ROM’s authenticity by presenting the words in Vladek’s own voice. Second, Spiegelman’s own direct contact with the history of the Holocaust—the documents, the sites of the camps—is documented by the photographs, video clips, and sketches, making it a more authentic record of his own project (165).

…There is, perhaps, a danger that the marginalia—working transcripts and other materials—might become more than marginal and deemphasize that which makes Maus unique among survivor narratives and records of intellectual engagement with the Holocaust: its comic book form. However, the CD-ROM highlights one of the primary differences between the panels of Maus and the pages of Vladek’s testimony, thereby emphasizing the constructedness of the narrative, its hybrid status somewhere between nonfiction memoir and fictionalized narrative. While Maus is not a fiction (as Spiegelman has taken great pains to point out), it is fictionalized (167).

On problems of representation related to depicting the Holocaust:

Since to tell the story of the Holocaust is to call forth an area of representation that is ultimately unspeakable or untellable because no form of narrative can hope to portray it, second-generation Holocaust writers have frequently shown the problematics of representation within their work as part of what they also see as an ethical response to the past; they engage in what Jean-François Lyotard refers to as the act of making the “unrepresentable” into the process of representation. In other words, the difficulty of telling becomes part of the fabric of the work (in the case of Maus, part of its narrative structure as well as its visual design) (3).

Selected Scenes

Below are some of the highly significant passages that were referenced frequently in essays throughout Considering Maus.

 

1. Spiegelman’s calling Vladek a murderer at the end of Maus I: May Father Bleeds History (I:159).

2. Spiegelman’s predictably and yet brilliantly ironic self-portrait included on the inner flap of both books. The artist is rendered wearing a mouse mask, sitting at a drawing table with a package of Cremo Light brand cigarettes on a shelf next to him, a German patrol guard and incinerator visible outside his studio window

3. An additional scene in which Art is seen sitting at his drawing board is included at the beginning of Chapter Two of Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began, entitled “Time Flies.” Spiegelman is also framed in these panels adorning his mouse mask. He reflects,

Vladek started working as a tinman in Auschwitz in the spring of 194444…I started working on this page at the very end of February 1987. In May 1987 Francoise and I are expecting a baby…Between May 16, 1944 and May 24, 1944 over 100, 000 Hungarian Jews were gassed in Auschwitz…In September 1986, after 8 years of work, the first part of Maus was published. It was a critical and commercial success.

At least fifteen foreign editions are coming out. I’ve gotten 4 serious offers to turn my book into a T.V. special or movie. (I don’t wanna.)

In May 1968 my mother killed herself. (She left no note.)

Lately I’ve been feeling depressed (II: 41).

In the last image on this page, we zoom out to see that Art’s desk is sitting atop a pile of human corpses with mouse heads, flies circling the bodies.

4. The conversation concerning the Holocaust between Spiegelman and Pavel, Art’s therapist and a Czech Jew, a survivor of Terezin and Auschwitz:

PAVEL:…The victims who died can never tell THEIR side of the story, so maybe it’s better not to have any more stories.

ART: Uh-huh. Samuel Beckett once said: “Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingnesss.”

PAVEL: Yes.

In the next panel, there is a pregnant pause, with no dialogue included.

ART: On the other hand, he SAID it.

PAVEL: He was right. Maybe you can include it in your book (II:45).

5. The ending of Maus II, with Vladek’s final words,

…More I don’t need to tell you. We were both very happy, and lived happy, happy ever after. So…Let’s stop, please, your tape recorder. I’m tired from talking, Richieu, and it’s enough stories for now…(II: 136).


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1 Response to “The Critics Respond: Considering Maus”


  1. 1 Mr. Yeagley December 12, 2011 at 10:20 am

    Look at some of the key elements of this page…


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