Thursday, May 20, 2010

Reader's Diary #613- Art Spiegelman: Maus I

When I first began blogging about books, I took a different approach than I do now. Basically I'd read so much, blog about my thoughts up to that point, read some more, blog again, and so on until I'd finished. In some ways, that was good. I paced myself better, reflected more, and liked to record the changes that I, as a reader, went through in my experience with the particular text. However, from a practical side, it wasn't working. A major reason why I enjoy litblogs is the conversations we have about the same books. I love when other bloggers read my thoughts and say, "that's similar to what I've been saying" and proceed to add a link to their own review. It was becoming a burden to say, "that's similar to what I said here and here and here and not so much here but here as well" and then trying to link up all those "heres" with posts. Plus, my readership was way down when I used that approach and I suspect people were losing interest in my 12 posts about Suite Francaise. Besides, I'd often find myself at the end of a book with nothing new to add but felt under pressure to write a closure post.

But I'll stop after Maus I, in much the same way as I used to, and collect my thoughts here even though I picked up the 2nd volume today and everyone seems to insist that you have to read both volumes back to back.

So far, I'm not overly impressed. I feel almost sickened to say it, but it's true. I'm a big fan of alternative comics and I've always sort of believed that Spiegelman's Maus was like the granddaddy of them all (though maybe that's TinTin). Plus, I was in love with his Wacky Packages as a kid, so Spiegelman has been topps for me since that time. And Maus has gotten so, so many accolades, even the freakin' Pulitzer, how dare I say any bad about it? Not to mention that it's about the holocaust.

Fortunately, Raych at Books I Done Read, had paved the road of dissent before me. I seriously had to dig deep in the annals of the Internet to find a fellow naysayer on this book. Raych's bravery has encouraged me to speak my mind as well.

You know what I really didn't like? The animals. The mice, the cats, the pigs. I found it all to be a distraction. I'm not opposed to talking animals. Hey, I loved Animal Farm. But the idea of the Jews as mice and the Germans as cats, seems gimmicky. Apparently, he's tired of answering the question of "why mice?" but too bad. If so many people ask why, there might be a problem. One positive review I read said that, "you soon forget they are depicted as animals." Well, if you forget, what's the point? Not only that, but Spiegelman doesn't really give you a chance to forget. According to Ian Johnston, forgetting wasn't Spiegelman's intent. Here's how Johnston describes a scene in the book when Vladek and Anja-- who are drawn as mice-- find themselves hiding in a cellar with a rat.
This picture brings into play a complex series of associations. The rat, for example, is very real. This is no schematic rat. And in the scene the mice are hiding from or scared by the rat. But the mice are telling each other that it is not a rat; it's only a mouse. But, of course, that's not true. The composition of the frame puts the reality of the rat right into the foreground, and the object behind it is rendered in a naturalistic fashion—the cellar is real enough. So we are in a real place, back in historical time. At the same time, we are, as it were, inhabiting the consciousness of the schematic mice—we are there in the scene.

The reality of the rat, however, and the reference to the fact that it might be a mouse punctures the allegorical basis which makes the Jews mice. The frame reminds us that what is at stake here is not mice, but people with whom we have closely identified. There's a sense here that Spiegelman is deliberately straining the beast fable metaphor to the breaking point in order to call into question the adequacy of that metaphor (and thus of his entire text).

Spiegelman doesn't offer us any sort of a commentary on how we are supposed to respond at moments like this.
But whereas Johnston sees this as a good thing, I don't. Why does Spiegelman need the adequacy of his metaphor called into question? If it wasn't an adequate metaphor, why use it in the first place? There's enough going on the story without that to think about as well. How long did Vladek and Anja hide before the Nazis found them? How will Vladek and Artie's relationship be affected by the writing of the book? These are questions I wanted to focus on. Not why the hell Pluto can't talk, but Goofy can.

Johnston, and others, offer all sorts of suggestions as to why he chose to draw the characters as animals (an allegory, a commentary about stereotypes, etc) but none of them work for me-- they take away from the story rather than add to it.

As for the story, I'm on the fence so far. On the one hand, the story of Vladek's holocaust recollection is pretty standard. Johnston says it best when he considers it "an ordinary man's experience of extraordinary circumstances." The more compelling part is the aftermath. Artie, based on Art Spiegelman himself, is interviewing his dad, Vladek, about his experiences in order to write the book. I love that Spiegelman chose to leave in the interviewing process itself. The glimpses into life after the holocaust and the repercussions it's had on the survivors and their subsequent families was the heart of the book for me. Unfortunately, it's not yet beating loud enough. I hope Maus II will focus more on the present day.


JoAnn said...

Interesting post! I've avoided Maus because I thought my reaction might be similar to yours...and it's hard not to like a book everyone raves about.

B.Kienapple said...

Too bad, I haven't read Maus either. I've been sort of intimidated by it. But I'm not really into the whole animal allegory thing. Hence why I really didn't like Beatrice and Virgil.

Wanda said...

Think I'll wait and see what you think of Maus II before I decide whether I should put them on hold for the GN challenge ...

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about reading these books, and you're right, most of the reviews out there are positive. I'm glad to have stumbled upon yours because it gives me a different perspective and much to think about.

I hope it's okay that I linked to your post on the WWII book reviews page on War Through the Generations.