“Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.” – Gustave Flaubert
As 2016 draws to an end and we have to come to terms with a new year and what is often being called in the media ‘soft fascism’ – which is horribly hard-edged if you are on the receiving end of it – I went back to Art Spiegelman’s ‘The Complete Maus’ to remind myself of the dangers.
‘Maus’ has big credentials. It was first serialised in a comics anthology, and when it was put together in book form, it became the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize (1992).
There is an open debate about the terms comic book vs graphic novel to describe works like this. I grew up reading ‘Tintin’ and ‘Astrix and Obelix’ and am quite happy to say I read comic books. Putting the word novel in the description gives the genre more gravitas perhaps. The marvellous Neil Gaiman, when described as writing graphic novels not comic books, said the commentator, “meant it as a compliment, I suppose. But all of a sudden I felt like someone who’d been informed that she wasn’t actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening” (quoted in The Sandman Companion, 1999).
‘Maus’ is comic and ‘Maus’ is graphic. It was revelatory when I first read it in the 1990s and it continues to pack a punch on rereading. There are many novels about the Holocaust, and this one cuts through.
The use of animals to represent peoples is inspired. The Jewish characters are mice while the Nazis are cats (the Poles are pigs, the Americans, dogs). We are taken by the hand and led through the incremental humiliations, the ongoing dehumanising, and into the blind randomness of who lives and who dies in the killing machine of the Third Reich.
The relationship between Spiegelman and his father is complicated, as are all good love stories. His father is difficult in his old age: he is miserly about matches, leaving the gas ring aflame all summer because the cost of the gas is part of the rental but he has to buy matches; he takes uneaten (but open) cereal and other groceries back to the shop for a refund… But to see his story of survival during the Holocaust as those around him were murdered by the millions, is to understand why.
There is an added layer of interest for writers. Within the pages of ‘Maus,’ Spiegelman explores how to tell such a difficult and personal history. At one point, a series of frames shows Art Spiegelman as a man wearing a mouse mask at his drawing board who then slowly transforms into the mouse character talking to his mouse father.
There will never be too many Holocaust novels and memoirs and histories. We keep needing to be reminded, because we don’t seem to have learnt. Setting one group apart and tolerating intolerance is never right. There is a slippery slope in normalising fascism as we move into 2017.
This is one of Flaubert’s books to read in order to live – and to live better.
The image is ‘Playing Cat and Mouse’ by John Henry Dolph.