Maus Now: Selected Writing
Seventy-four-year-old Art Spiegelman, creator of The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, never really liked his father. He grew up in Vladek’s shadow like a lot of children of Holocaust survivors—yearning for a love that was not to come. Both of his parents were in Auschwitz, and Spiegelman’s mother committed suicide when he was 20 and already experiencing episodes of severe distress. His father had always tried to move forward and pushed away thoughts of the past. That is, until Art began interviewing him for what was to become his enduring masterpiece.
In the beginning, Spiegelman strategized that the literary project he was embarking upon would give him a chance to be with his father without the toxic friction that poisoned their time together. His father loved being the center of attention. Spiegelman writes ironically: “Auschwitz became a safe place for us: a place where we could talk and I would listen.”
The project took 13 years and upended the literary universe with tremendous force, bringing Spiegelman wealth and fame, which added to his already guilt-laden duress. He followed up his work a few years later with MetaMaus, which includes a lengthy interview with literary scholar Hillary Chute about his creative process, and included a DVD with all the materials he had used creating Maus. He included a transcript and recordings of his actual interviews with his father, talks with family relatives, as well as home movies he took when he visited Auschwitz.
The Spiegelman family had always been a sad one, and he recalls being surprised when his friends told him their parents didn’t often scream at night. He was haunted by a picture on the wall of his brother Richieu, who died during the war, and was forever frozen in time as a cherubic little boy whom his parents spoke about in reverential tones. He was jealous of his dead brother since he never could do anything wrong, unlike Spiegelman who often did.
Spiegelman’s father was a textile salesman before the war, and able to make a living, but not much more than that. He came from a large, poor family. He married Anja, who was a nice Jewish girl who came from wealthy family.
In one of the most moving scenes in Maus, Spiegelman allows us to listen to Vladek recalling his first passionate affair before his marriage with another woman who was poor like he was. We see her begging him not to leave her for Anja. And we see him do so, conceding to Spiegelman that this first woman was prettier, but Anja came from a family that would allow him to flourish. He quietly asks Spiegelman never to reveal this story in his forthcoming book, but Spiegelman betrays him. These sort of scenes are representative of Maus.
The author intersplices scenes from Auschwitz and before it, with their life now in Rego Park, Queens. Vladek is now married to another camp survivor named Maja with whom he constantly battles. Spiegelman is married to Francoise Mouly, a French woman, who is a creative artist like Spiegelman. They have two children. She is represented through his text as a peacemaker of sorts, but one that is seemingly baffled at the tirades that keep taking place before her.
Spiegelman also includes throughout his narrative visits with his beloved therapist Pavel, also another camp survivor, who helps him deal with his anxiety. He welcomes his analyst’s therapeutic frankness and empathetic ear. He clearly serves as a much-needed father figure for Spiegelman who has been dominated into a crippling sort of submission and passivity by Vladek’s larger than life personality.
Spiegelman draws himself as someone smaller than his father, a man overwhelmed and constrained by his father’s domineering personality. He never confronts his father directly about how difficult he was to live with—or how impossible he was to please.
Audiences were captivated by Spiegelman’s decision three decades ago to tell his story in graphic novel form having mice representing the Jews, and cats the German, and pigs for the Poles, and so on. It felt like such an outlandish move, almost vulgar. Spiegelman claims he did this in order to distance himself from the traumatic suffering his parents endured, but there is something irreverent about it that speaks to Spiegelman’s outlook on the world. Spiegelman’s only access to the past was his father, who had selfishly burned his mother’s many diaries after the war in order to put it behind him. But he admits to his son that the diaries were intended for him, and we sense this act of disloyalty was one that tore Spiegelman up inside. He had to come to terms with the fact that his mother’s deepest thoughts would remain a mystery to him forever.
Vladek’s compulsion to restore order to his life took many unpleasant turns. He would save nails he found on the street and place them in jars according to size. He would steal napkins from restaurants so he would not have to purchase them, which drove his wife Maja crazy. He would collect random pieces of string he found, claiming you never know if you might need it someday. He even offered his dead wife’s clothes to his new wife who was mortified and refused to touch them. He insisted everything have a place. But it isn’t always clear what place Art Spiegelman had in his father’s world.
It’s not that Vladek never showed him love or concern; he did. But it would have to be on his terms. Their love was conditional; it came with a price tag. It didn’t allow Spiegelman to express his anger. He was forced in many ways to remain a sulking child. His father’s availability was set by his father alone. Their ongoing conversations walking the streets of Queens were often interrupted by something that attracted his father’s attention—usually a meaningless diversion.
But there was something about the way Art Spiegelman depicted his father speaking to us in an immigrant’s broken English that cuts to the bone. We are spellbound by the reality of where Vladek once was, and where he is now. And by the reality that in some ways he is always still back there fighting to live. We understand he is among the lucky; only 13 of the 85 members of his extended family survived.
Spiegelman’s father was once a 14-year-old kid who left school early and learned English and German, which later turned out to be crucial to his survival. He was able to sense danger, which kept his mind in a state of hyper-alertness that got him out of trouble more than once. He could think quickly when a direct threat approached him. His therapist, Pavel, tells Spiegelman that luck was really the key component in deciding who lived or died, but we sense Spiegelman believes his father’s smarts somehow played a part in his survival. But this same toughness made him a lousy parent. Vladek, in Spiegelman’s depiction, never really breaks outside of his own orbit.
In this new compelling collection of critical essays about Maus, Maus Now: Selected Writings, edited by literary scholar Hillary Chute, we are presented with a wide array of critiques on Spiegelman’s grand opus that are laced with amazement at what he was able to accomplish. Spiegelman has cited Franz Kafka and Mad magazine’s Harvey Kurtzman as influences for his work, but Chute believes it was the author’s ability to use simplicity and intricacy both, engaged in a complex dance with one another.
Joshua Brown thinks Spiegelman’s talent lay in showing us how we recall trauma. It isn’t perceived in neat packages, but rather in flashes of recollections that surprise us. Brown believes Spiegelman was able to show us how his father could remember clearly certain incidents, but only have partial memory in regard to other ones. Brown thinks Spiegelman’s decision to portray Jews as mice, with minimally drawn faces that are somehow incredibly affecting, shows how our brains might be hard-wired to respond to such stimuli. Brown feels Vladek’s broken English touched us deeply in a way we weren’t always aware of, but spoke to Vladek’s essential vulnerability as a hunted Jew, finally safe in Manhattan, but still trapped by his woundedness. Brown also notices how meticulous Spiegelman was in his drawings, using a clean black restrained line, to represent each frame of his story. When he needed to draw a tin shop, and was unfamiliar with how to do so, he sought out someone who had worked in one to explain it to him. This attention to detail enhanced his piercing narrative.
Adam Gopnik loves Spiegelman’s portrayal of his father Vladek as a “pinched, meanspirited, and hilariously miserly old man.” Gopnik feels Spiegelman’s willingness to show his father as flawed was far more persuasive than the heroic portrayals of survivors we have become accustomed to. Spiegelman made clear that his father wasn’t always the nicest man, before the war, during it, and afterward. He is impressed by Spiegelman’s overflowing speech balloons that seemed pressurized and explosive. Gopnik is impressed by Spiegelman’s refusal to look for meaning in any of this, and his insistence we see it as what he believes it was: a vicious assault and endless suffering for absolutely no reason at all. Neither Spiegelman nor his father speak of God throughout the text, except for one time when Vladek is reciting a particularly harrowing story and ends it softly saying that this time “God did not come.”
Kurt Scheel is impressed with Spiegelman’s crude drawings that possess a mastery in perspective, composition, and background. Scheel finds Spiegelman’s drawings of his wife Francoise compelling. Francoise plays a peacemaker role throughout the story, but also someone who is somewhat oblivious to the psychological entanglements Spiegelman has with his father.
Spiegelman’s wife Francoise was born into a messy family herself, where borders were transgressed, but her family was a Gentile family. She converted to Judaism after she married in respect to Spiegelman’s father Vladek. Francoise seems not to carry within her the hefty baggage of Jewish ancestry and it’s leadenness; and Scheel notices the subtle differences in Spiegelman’s drawings of her. In one scene, Francoise picks up a black hitchhiker, and Vladek is mortified. After he is dropped off, Vladek chastises Francoise about her decision to do so and she tells him she would not expect such racist dribble from a Jew who has experienced what he has. Vladek, still smoldering, replies “It’s not even to compare. The shvartzers and the Jews.”
Terrence Des Pres remains concerned that all writing about the Holocaust eventually hits a wall because it is beyond comprehension. Andrea Huyssen echoes these sentiments, particularly now that the last survivors are dying. Huyssen believes Maus is an ingenious approach to taking on the impossible, far better than the schlocky Schindler’s List, which became buried under its own excessiveness, or Shoah, whose minimalism eventually loses power.
Huyssen describes Spiegelman’s technique as “saturated with modernist techniques of self-reflexivity, self-irony, ruptures in narrative time, and highly complex image sequencing and montaging.” Huyssen believes it was Spiegelman’s wizardry at crosscutting past and present that seduced the reader into an intense and engaged connectivity with his work. He mentions a scene that illustrates this where Vladek is riding a stationary exercise bike and suddenly stops mid-story to tell Spiegelman that “People always told me I looked just like Rudolph Valentino.”
This collection of commentary, culled over the last few decades, is compelling and offers readers new insights into Spiegelman’s creative process. But it seems infused with its own toxic form of Jewish amnesia. What is missing from the observations presented are any lucid descriptions of what it is like to be a Jew before the Shoah, or in today’s world. There is a lack of anger present about having to live in a world where anti-Semitism is once again on the rise and right-wing groups are attracting droves of members allowing them to become part of congressional bodies in countries all over the world. There is no palpable Jewish anxiety in these pieces, or Jewish fantasies of retribution. The critics remain locked inside their professorial gaze, and when it comes to something like Auschwitz, or the toxicity of anti-Semitism, their lack of personal engagement seems heinous.
Spiegelman, too, has remained comfortably outside the world of anxious Jewish chatter and talkback. He has said in the past that he has little sympathy for excessive nationalisms of any kind, including Israel’s, a country he has yet to visit. He has made disparaging remarks about feeling embarrassed by survivors like Elie Wiesel, who traveled the world with their heads bowed, speaking about forgiveness and his firm belief in God, while his ravaged face told us otherwise. Spiegelman has maintained that any God that let Auschwitz happen is not worth listening to. He feels Jews should feel free to be and live as they please, and he enjoys the rootless cosmopolitanism Manhattan has offered him.
But in today’s climate this isn’t enough. Recent history has shown us otherwise. The ongoing Jewish assault is a specific one, just as the Holocaust was a specifically Jewish tragedy. That is why we shudder listening to marchers chant “The Jews will not replace us,” in Charlottesville and are forced to hear our ex-president defend their patriotism. That is why a rioter at the January 6th insurrection wore a T-shirt reading “Camp Auschwitz.” Right-wing militias have taken to the streets of America daring to wave a flag with a swastika emblazoned upon it. Jews, even in Spiegelman’s cherished Manhattan, are afraid to wear any signs designating them as a Jew, in fear of being targeted. The evangelical right plays many Jews for fools, yet many Jews desperately seek their favor, blind to the bigger picture that floats through the evangelical mindset, in which Jews once again disappear. Orthodox Jews are being brazenly targeted for walking down the street.
Art Spiegelman’s cool, detached, and sometimes snarky demeanor seems out of sync with the lunacy of our times.