Review: Maus

Maus by Art Spiegelman

(Note: I rented and read Volumes I and II of Maus, not The Complete Maus, so my review doesn’t reflect The Complete Maus.)

Maus is almost universally acclaimed–it won a Pulitzer Prize Special Award, which is what happens when the Pulitzer Prize jury doesn’t have a specific category for a work but wants to honor it anyway. I do believe it is one of the recommendations that came to me via Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust. With seventeen years to accumulate such a brilliant reputation, I knew I had to read Maus at some point. I’ve been dragging my feet about writing this review, actually–I feel guilty for not being bowled over by it.

Maus details both the story of Valdek Speigelman, a Polish Jew, Holocaust survivor, and unhappily remarried man, and the story of how Art Speigelman, his son, wrote and created the graphic novel (well, biography) about his life, as well as highlighting their relationship. However, there is one twistSpeigelman depicts everyone as anthropomorphic animals. Jews of any nationality are mice (since Speigelman’s French wife converted, she gets to be a mouse), Germans are cats, and Americans are dogs.

The first volume slowly builds up tension as Valdek’s story brings him and his family to the gates of Auschwitz, with occasional reflections on the complicated personal lives of the Speigelmans, and the second focuses on both the horrors of Auschwitz as well as Speigelman’s complicated relationship with his father. Speigelman’s art is very clear, clean, and dramatic. His paneling is typical of comics, I find–nothing especially stood out to me, but there’s nothing wrong with letting the story drive the work instead of the art of it. Because of the anthropomorphic conceit, Speigelman can get away with much smaller shots of his characters than other artists, since it’s easier to discern who is who, although all the mice look alike. Speigelman separates his work into small chapters that are paced quite steadily; never too slow or too fast.

Valdek’s story is very touching, especially because all the material comes out of so many tapes Speigelman made before his father passed away. Since Valdek is often quoted verbatim, Speigelman retains all the quirks that comes with having learned English as a second language. It really helps to give Valdek’s story even more impact, although the main conceit unfortunately cripples it, in my opinion. (More on that later.) It opens on a perfect note–Speigelman, as a child, cries to his father that his friends left him to go do something else, and Valdek cryptically remarks that when you’re all locked up to starve for a week, then you discover who your friends are. Valdek tries to stay calm and think on his feet, but he is not immune. He witnesses and experiences horrors, and is often never more than a step or a bribe away from death, even soon after the war ends. Despite his fairly cheerful demeanor, Valdek still bears scars and often wants to forget these things ever happened- Speigelman is shocked to discover that his father burned his mother’s diaries and recollections of her experience during the Holocaust.

The subplot concerning Speigelman’s relationship with his father is, while not as touching, a universal and sympathetic portrayal of a complicated relationship. Unhappily married, Valdek wants to spend more time with his son and his daughter-in-law, but he’s too eager for it and Speigelman feels smothered. Valdek is stingy, racist, and something of a pack rat in his old age, which causes Speigelman to despair that his father fits the stereotype of a Jew and how that will reflect on his work. Even Mala, Valdek’s second wife, and several other of their survivor friends, feel smothered by him. As much as Speigelman wants to be there and take care of his father, he has to come to terms with the fact that sometimes he cannot stand his father. It’s almost fair, really; while Valdek is more than happy to share his history with his son for this graphic novel, Speigelman also puts up his own history, including his mother’s painful suicide and the comic he created afterwards.

But in the end, I feel that the anthropomorphic metaphor fails. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone dead enough inside to not feel for Valdek, between what has happened to him and what he’s become. When he finally finishes his story, the way he finishes it is heartbreaking. And Speigelman’s story is fairly universal–dealing with your parents as they age and grow dependent on you. But I feel the anthropomorphic metaphor puts too much distance between the stories and the reader. When we finally see a photo of Valdek, the reality of it all weighs in–and I feel we should have felt that from the beginning. I think I understand why the metaphor is being used, but it doesn’t work for me.

I always feel a little awkward when I don’t like works of literature that everyone and their mother has deemed brilliant, I have to say, which is why I’ve been dragging my feet about writing this review. It makes me feel a little small, in a way, like something is flying over my head that everyone else is getting. But at the end of the day, this is my opinion and what I think of it, and I’m certainly not going to apologize for that.

Bottom line: A lovingly detailed graphic novel about the author’s father’s experiences during the Holocaust and their complicated relationship in the present day. The story presented is heartbreaking and harrowing, but the conceit of depicting the characters as animals provides too much distance for such a human story. Not for me.

I rented these books from the public library.

7 thoughts on “Review: Maus

  1. Oh. My. God.

    I wrote a paper on Maus in eleventh grade (title: Tom & Jerry vs. the Holocaust: the Misuse of Animal Allegory in Art Spiegelman’s Maus), and it had basically the same thesis: moving story, but the animal farm thing is full of fail. You just made my day by concurring with me a year and a half after the fact. Thank you!

  2. I liked these books but, like you, wasn’t knocked over sideways by their greatness. I think I might have had a different reaction if I hadn’t heard all the hype first. The value to me of these books is their ability to legitimize comics as a medium (yay!), but yeah, I read them once and I don’t think I’ll ever need to read them again.

    • I’ve been raised with comics as a legitimate medium, between the rise of manga when I was in middle school and simply being a nerd, so it didn’t do that for me- although I’m absolutely delighted did so to you!

  3. Though the anthropomorphication worked for me, I can definitely see what you’re saying. And you certainly don’t have anything to apologise for. You explained why it didn’t do it for you perfectly well, and what could be more fair than that?

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