Classic Bildungsroman

Literary Excavations

Fiction Friday: Let’s Start with a Graphic Novel

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While reading Art Spiegleman’s graphic novel, Maus, it is important to remember that the work is essentially the interpretation of a memory, of a traumatic experience, during a particularly dark point in human history. The relationship between Art and his father, Vladek, constantly draws attention to this. Throughout the course of the graphic novel, Art acts as something of an historian, seeking to reconcile History with personal experience. This experience defines Vladek so intensely that both the story and the man seem one-in-the same—a piece of history that must be interpreted to be intelligible. It is through such interpretation and (by extension) artistic expression, that Vladek’s story is able to join the larger, historical Holocaust narrative without losing its singularity.

Throughout the graphic novel, Art can be characterized as single-minded and often
unfeeling in his pursuit for his father’s story. Constantly he avoids dealing with his father’s current problems by encouraging him to tell his story. When Vladek complains to his son about his wife, Mala, Art interrupts, saying, “Please, Pop! I’d rather not hear all that again. Tell me about 1939, when you were drafted” (Vol I, 44). V.I, 84And again, Art avoids confrontation with his father, saying, “Skip it! Tell me about when you got back from the P.O.W. camp in 1940” (Vol 1, 73). Even when Vladek talks of his failing health or the pain of remembering the past (Vol I, 84), Art never sympathizes, but doggedly pursues his father’s story.

 

It could be said that by approaching his work this way, Art is also pursuing his father, or perhaps his mother, who he always questions Vladek about. Either way, it is never through real, sincere communication that he seeks to connect with either of his parents, but through their stories. V.I, 159When Vladek confesses to destroying Anja’s notebooks containing her own experience of events, Art becomes furious and accuses his father of murder (Vol I, 158-159). It’s clear here that Art views the person and the experience as the same thing, rather than separate parts. In this way, Vladek becomes a kind of commodity for Art to acquire—which he does rather relentlessly. As a result, Art often succeeds in relating the story, but fails to relate to the man. He understands that the war was difficult and painful, but he never seems to sympathize. When he and Francoise hear Vladek moaning in his sleep from nightmares, rather than going to comfort him, Art shrugs it off and says, “It’s so peaceful at night. It’s almost impossible to believe Auschwitz ever happened” (Vol II, 74).

Ever the historian, Art is very careful about the dates and order of events, and becomes frustrated when his father deviates from a linear timeline (Vol I, 82). V.I, 82Art also strives to include small details to make the story “more real–more human” (Vol I, 23). So while
on the one hand Art attempts to keep things true to his father’s experience, he also has his own vision of how that experience should be related. Of course, his artistic vision is complicated by the weight of History. This can first be seen in Art’s conversation with his wife Francoise on the way to see his father (Vol II, 14-16). V.II, 16He wonders how he’ll ever make sense out of the Holocaust if he can’t even understand his relationship with Vladek. He admits to feeling guilty for not having experienced the Holocaust, and worries that he won’t be able to relate something so horrible adequately.

This same anxiety reaches its height in Volume II. Art is pictured as a man wearing a
mouse mask, sitting at a drafting table that is standing upon the dead bodies of Holocaust victims (Vol II, 41). V.II, 41Various people appear and attempt to profit off of Maus, or criticize it, or ask for explanations form the author. One German reporter asks Art why Germans today should feel guilty for something that didn’t involve them. Art appears overwhelmed and replies, “I dunno…Maybe EVERYONE has to feel guilty. EVERYONE! FOREVER!” (Vol II, 42)—reflecting his guilt as a “survivor.” As he’s confronted more and more, he shrinks to the size of a child, crying out for his mother. This is the point where he has become totally overwhelmed by the historical implications of his work. He began writing what he thought was his father’s story, but now it has become a Holocaust story. Now he has History to contend with—not just personal history, but History as well. This means that the graphic novel is no longer just a narrative, but art—historical art which will be interpreted by millions of people within the context of the Holocaust and take on meanings and raise questions which Art never intended or even considered. Now that it is a story of History, people will assume it is his interpretation of “what really happened,” or who the survivors “really are.” Just after this scene, Art’s therapist questions the need for such narratives at all. He asks whether it is more admirable to have survived than died, and Art admits he’s never thought of it. A survivor himself, he points out that survival was totally “random,” and says it was not the worst that died or the best that lived (Vol II, 45). He also reminds Art that the stories of those who died are now lost and cannot be told. He wonders if “maybe it’s better not to have any more stories” (Vol II, 45).

Art wants to write his father’s story in order to relate, to really experience and
sympathize with his father, with a story, with history. For this, Vladek is the perfect touchstone. Vladek is alive, and his story is alive with him, connecting past to present, history to historian. While he lives in the present with Art, for him it is as if the past has never really passed, and the Holocaust may always continue. As his health continues to fail, Vladek remains in “survival mode,” ever vigilant. V.I, 26He cycles, walks, counts pills obsessively (Vol I, 26) and is always ready for attack (heart attack) with his nitrostat.
He saves anything he thinks might possibly be useful, including wire he collects off the street, old newspapers, and even used matches. He tells Art about how he would save scraps of paper in the camps so he could write to Anja and share with his friends. When Art asks why other people didn’t save paper, he responds, “Ach! You know how most people are!” (Vol II, 63). V.II, 90He cannot bear to waste or throw anything away, and even manages to return the groceries Mala leaves him that he cannot eat (Vol II, 89-90)—much to the embarrassment of Art and Francoise. However, in the war, it was just this rigid sense of organization and resourcefulness that often saved Vladek’s life. It makes sense that he will not rid himself of these traits now, since they have served him so well in such dire situations.

One instance in particular sheds light on Vladek’s obsession with counting. Vladek
becomes frustrated with Art when he doesn’t balance his checkbook perfectly in keeping with the bank statement (Vol II, 23) and of course this leads to an argument when Art cannot understand why it is so important to him. V.II, 28Later, though, Vladek relates how he received his identification number in the camps, and how a kind priest used Hebrew to interpret the numbers as good omens that would ensure Vladek’s survival (Vol II, 28). Art doesn’t appear to make the connection between past and present, but it seems that—along with the importance and reassurance of knowing what you have to trade for safety—this may be one of the reasons that Vladek is so concerned with numbers.

Vladek appears to have survived the Holocaust oddly “changed-yet-unchanged.” While he continues to be rigidly organized and frugal, those were traits he already had to some extent before the war. And despite his experience with deadly discrimination, he still views people in strictly categorical terms determined by race, religion and nationality. The obvious example of this is his reaction to the black hitchhiker Francoise picks up on the road. Vladek is angry and says that black people are thieves. When Francoise protests and accuses him of learning nothing from his past experience, Vladek says, “It’s not even to compare, the shvartsers [black people] and the Jews.” (Vol II, 99). Despite Vladek’s experience with discrimination, during the war it was this very kind of stereotypical identification and generalization which often saved his life. Again, why would he disregard something which seemed so useful? Yet this, and everything else about Vladek which seems to frustrate the people around him, troubles Art. He is afraid of how people will judge his father as a stereotypical “miserly Jew,” but still wants to be “accurate” (Vol I, 132). The point here is that Vladek is not the “ideal” Holocaust survivor that people may want to read about, and not only will this affect how his father is remembered, but also how Holocaust survivors are remembered—something which seems to preoccupy Vladek’s mind as well.

Toward the end of Volume II,V.II, 115 Vladek finds a box of old photographs of relatives—some dead, and some survivors like himself—each with their own story. “All what is left,” he says, “It’s the photos” (Vol II, 115). The photographs flutter down to fill the bottom of the page, surrounding Vladek and Art, as if in their own snapshot, together on the couch. V.II,116And on the following page, Vladek sits with the photos on the floor, surrounding his feet, one in hand, as if in guilt for all of those he knew who suffered and died while he survived.

To Vladek, the touchstone—the point between History and experience—the past consists of countless stories of countless people who suffered and came to their own ends—good or bad. And the sadness and guilt this brings is something which never quite allows the past to pass. To Art, the past is something he can never quite share, a part of History that will never really include him, but that he attempts to write himself into. Spiegelman’s resulting interpretation may not be comfortable or easily understood, but it gives someone outside the Holocaust a place to stand and remember.

V.II, 136

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