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Monday, February 25, 2019

Maus: A Survivor's Tale. My Father Bleeds History, Chapter 2 - a Review

Maus: A Survivor's Tale. My Father Bleeds History (1986)
"The Honeymoon" - Volume 1, Chapter 2
Art Spiegelman

Last month I began a series of reviews of Art Spiegelman's masterpiece, Maus. In chapter one, we met our protagonists, Vladek and Art Spiegelman, father and son, respectively. We got a flavor of Vladek Spiegelman's personality in Art's present, and began to explore events in Vladek's life as a young man in pre-War Poland. We were also introduced to Art's mother Anja, deceased in the present. Now we move deeper into the biography of Vladek and Anja, while also becoming more aware of Art's tribulations as Vladek's son.

100-Word Review:
In “The Honeymoon”, Art Spiegelman reveals further layers of his father’s personality - much of it derived from his experiences before and during World War II. Among other things, we find that Vladek borders on obsessive/compulsive. We also learn that Anja had left-leanings, of which  Vladek and Anja’s parents disapproved. Art uses the incident of the “conspirations” with Anja’s Communist friend to show us the various factions in 1930s Poland - Jews, the Polish police (clamping down on the opposition), and the growing awareness of the neighboring Nazis. We see the birth of Art’s older brother, and witness the first reaction to the sight of the swastika.
I'd mentioned in my first review that when I originally purchased Maus, I read it cover to cover in one sitting. The chapters are relatively short, and I think it's that format that spurred me on each time I reached a stopping point. Also as I said before, the story is so engrossing... it just draws you in.

The Good: I've discussed Maus at length with colleagues at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. While most really like the story as a Holocaust biography, some are hesitant to embrace it as a learning resource. I've had a dialogue with one particular gentleman off-and-on through the years. His stance is that Maus works at too many different levels to be truly effective anywhere. What we've deconstructed is that, in his opinion, the shifting from past to present, the length of time spent on the relationships between Art and Vladek and Vladek and Mala in the present, and the ghosts of Art's brother and mother make the book an odd stew of sociology, anthropology, history, biography, autobiography, and memoir. I've rebutted that those "issues" are exactly the book's strength. With no intent to disparage any of the plethora of Holocaust biographies and memoirs, what sets Maus apart is not only its format as a comic book, but also how deeply it peels away the layers of people affected by the Holocaust narrative. One of the concerns among students of history, and specifically Holocaust history, is that we stand on the cusp of the day when there will be no Holocaust survivors, or liberators, or even perpetrators alive. Some worry how the story will be told once those 1st-person voices have gone. Many academics feel that they will have to rely on the children and even grandchildren of those principle players, a group of people known as 2nd- and 3rd-generation survivors. Although Art Spiegelman was born after the War, his life's experiences were almost wholly shaped by what his parents had endured in the 1930s-'40s.

I suppose for some it could be problematic that Art does not always specifically peg events narrated by his father with firm dates. This doesn't bother me, as there are just enough dates sprinkled throughout to help my mind move the story along across time and place. In fact, later we'll see a scene where Vladek begins to tell a story and Art stops him specifically to ask about the timeline. Some say this is a shortcoming to memoir - those writings are often stream-of-consciousness. That doesn't make it bad history; it's just history told from personal perspective. It has value.

We're not told at this point what happens to Anja after the War. By the end of chapter two we've been made aware that Anja was a small woman, that she came from a wealthy Polish-Jewish family, that she gave birth to Art's older brother, Richieu (and later to Art), that Richieu did not survive the War, and that after giving birth that first time Anja suffered a severe bout of post-partum depression. All of that serves as foreshadowing for what will be revealed later in this volume. It's also worth noting that two chapters in, it's somewhat difficult to ascertain the emotional depth of Vladek's and Art's relationship. There's been just enough said, and we're able to watch Vladek in his day-to-day activities, to suggest that's it is definitely a strained relationship. Yet we also feel that Art finds value in his father's past, and has a sense of urgency in recording his father's thoughts.

I've said little about the art, so here goes: It works. Sometimes I read Maus and I think the art is so simple; at other times I am astonished at the level of detail and emotion in each scene or even panel. I love the animal metaphors, and really like the scene in today's chapter when Vladek and Anja are at the sanitarium for her convalescence. Art also manages to convey impact with is choices of panel size, page layout, and backgrounds. He also uses a non-panel or broken panel format sparingly but to great effect. Having read interviews with Spielgelman, as well as his reflective memoir MetaMaus, I know how meticulous he was in trying to get things "right".

The Bad: I oscillate between being really put out with Vladek Spiegelman and pitying him. I guess where I land is in a state of personal tension. When he is "on screen", I just know he's going to say something that will set Artie off, or he'll do something worthy of slapping my head. But those are my reactions, and I find that I need to self-rebuke and remind myself constantly that he is a product of his life's experiences. In the first chapter overview I looked at some of Vladek's faults when he was a young man - his snooping around Anja's medicine cabinet, the focus on money, etc. We're all flawed, but none of those things would have brought him to the state he's in when Art conducts the interviews. Vladek was a changed man because of the Holocaust and the path his life ended up taking. For that, I feel ashamed of myself that I lose my patience with him.

The Ugly: Art does a masterful job of hinting at the rising tide of Nazism and antisemitism, and then drops it on us like a house. The 1/2-page image of the Polish Jews seeing the Nazi flag for the first time, followed quickly by four vignettes of antisemitic behaviors leave no uncertainties of where this story is headed. From this point on, we'll feel the downward spiral for Vladek and his family and associates. And along the way, we'll be amazed at the dangers they faced, and how Vladek often evaded the worst of it.


  1. Another fine write-up,Doug! The further you read of Maus, the deeper it pulls you in.

    I found your description of the reaction to the book by some of your colleagues most interesting. By the way, I totally agree with your position. I find the book's multiple strengths (format, artwork, depth of character, storytelling skill) make it an immensely powerful read, and hence a valuable resource for sharing,teaching and learning about the Holocaust. Just last week I found a copy discounted at a flea market. Snatched it up, and gave it to a friend with the highest recommendations to allow a good bit of time for reading (because, like you said, it forces you to keep reading until you're through).

    And, I also agree with your praises of Speigelman's artwork. It's astounding how much expression he conveys through those cartoon mice and cats. The overall effect is a perfect balance of simplicity and detail. Ahhh, I could gush over this book all day...

    1. Thanks, Redartz! I am about to begin writing the overview of chapter 3, and looking forward to it. This paced, in-depth reading of Maus has given me a renewed appreciation for the work, which is saying something given the number of times I've read it. But I think I find something new every time!


  2. Yep, another great installment, Doug.
    Since you, and Red, mentioned the art, I have to say that I agree at how deceptively effective it is in conveying this story. Another thing that I think adds to that effectiveness is using the comic/cartoon convention of depicting the characters as mice and cats (as well as a few other animals) - usually they're employed to tell light-hearted, laugh-inducing stories and high jinks, but here it's anything but.

    As an aside, when you noted that fact that we will soon live in a world without Holocaust survivors, liberators and even perpetrators, it just reminded me - with more than a bit of bitterness - of how many of the latter lived (and some are still living) to a ripe, peaceful old age, well into their 90s and largely unmolested in some hideaway county that doesn't allow extradition.

    1. Edo -

      Thanks for the comment.

      While some would argue that it is cruel to bring 90+-year old people to trial, I have been thankful that the courts have never shown even the slightest hint of any statute of limitations on these crimes. And if the courts could find and/or name the collaborators who helped the perpetrators escape justice then or now, I'd suggest that they be held accountable as well.


  3. Brilliant; this is where I started with Maus, when chapter 2 appeared in the third issue of Raw. That was an extraordinary magazine, full of comic strips like nothing I'd ever seen before; yet even next to stylists as striking as Gary Panter and Jose Munoz, Spiegelman's work stood out. His artwork - and narrative approach - was "simple", but maybe the word direct would be a better way to put it.

    Agree with the comments here and last time about Maus, but I've always had a bit of a problem with the cat and mouse thing. I take Edo's point, and it probably helps with the book's general accessibility (I don't think its a coincidence that the comics which broke through to a broader public in the 80s - Watchmen, Love & Rockets etc - play on generic forms like superheroes and "funny animals"; meeting expectations of "comic books" while exceeding them).

    But by representing different groups of human beings with different species of cartoon animal, what is the book actually saying? To put it simply, central European Jews WERE German, or Polish or whatever; it was the anti-semites that said they weren't.
    Not trying to knock Spiegelman - he mentions being sometimes dubious about the metaphor himself at a couple of points in the book - but I'm curious to hear what others think.


    1. Hi, Sean -

      One thing the use of anthropomorphic animals does is give the reader a sense of stereotyping. Now, is that any different than reading/watching a story with "white guys" and "black guys" and regional ethnic stereotypes that might be prevalent? Maybe not. But in Maus, there is that danger of painting types of people with the same brush. I'm sure not all readers know that not all Germans were Nazis, nor were all Nazis German. That certainly makes the story more complex.

      Additionally, along the racial angle of Jews and Jewishness, the Germans were not the only ones who wanted nice, neat boxes for compartmentalizing Europeans. After the French Revolution, it was debated whether Jews could be "French Jews" or "Jewish Frenchmen". That's not semantics - the nouns and adjectives carry weight.

      These are just a few issues I see in the use of the metaphors. Any way the Holocaust narrative is told, it is complex, and certainly complicates one's thinking.


  4. Sean- thought provoking comment about the anthropomorphic depictions. I recall Spiegelman referencing his uncertainty, but his approach never troubled me. It is a good point, you could argue that all the characters could have been represented by mice, or cats, or pigs, or whatever. To my view, it's simply an artisic/storytelling element that works to clarify the different groups involved. Perhaps for the artist, "Maus" being such a deeply personal work, using animals was one means of getting a bit of creative distance from it all. As historically specific as the story and it's settings, Spiegelman certainly could have used human characters. At any rate, he chose not to, and that works fine artistically imho.

    1. Robert, you are making me want to read MetaMaus again...



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