Maus forty years later

December 9, 2020 by  
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A beginning. Seems as good a title as any for musing on an everyday story of life these days. It was the Torah portion our older son had for his bar mitzvah twenty-seven years ago…writes Sue Fox.

Whilst someone somewhere was reading Bereshit a couple of months ago, I was reading a must-read article by Sam Leith about Art Spiegelman in The Guardian marking the fortieth anniversary of the first publication of his acclaimed graphic novel Maus. It is a deeply disturbing read which brilliantly focuses on a son’s quest to learn about his father, Vladek, a Polish Jew, and his mother, Anja, who survived the Holocaust but committed suicide in America.

A long time ago – July 1987 – I interviewed Spiegelman, the American cartoonist, graphic artist and writer. Maus had just been published in the UK. The previous year, people queued for signed copies at one of the best bookstores in Greenwich Village. ‘It was an unexpected success story in American publishing. Frankly, I never believed it would make a dent in the book world and was a little derailed by all the publicity. It never crossed my mind that MAUS would be used as a teaching aid. Now I hear it’s on some literature and Holocaust study courses and library lists for young people.’

The opening page of Maus quotes Hitler’s chilling words, ‘The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human’. Spiegelman portrays Nazis as cats, Jews as mice and the Americans as dogs. Terrifyingly human, they have absolutely no resemblance to either Tom or Jerry. He admitted that he wasn’t surprised by initial American reaction of sheer revulsion to what he had produced. ‘They assumed I had written something in appalling taste and were prepared for the worst. In a bizarre way, those preconceptions, which I understand, were an asset. After reading it, many Holocaust survivors were extremely generous about it.’

The story ends in 1944 at the gates of Auschwitz. When we spoke, Spiegelman was working on Maus: A Survivor’s Tale Part 2: And Here My Troubles Began. In 1992 Spiegelman was awarded a special citation Pulitzer Prize for the two books. It was the first and, to date, the only graphic novel to be recognised by the Pulitzer committee.

Spiegelman told me that the writer and artist Raymond Briggs sent an American copy of the book to a Jewish friend, with the warning that, ‘It’s about the Holocaust and you may prefer not to look at it.’ Art Spiegelman – like Raymond Briggs – tells an epic story in tiny pictures. I once interviewed Briggs at his home in Sussex. When it was published, he sent me a funny letter with scribblings of Fungus the Bogeyman all over the envelope.

I still have it.

Briggs’s masterpiece, When The Wind Blows is a 1982 graphic novel, that shows a nuclear attack on Britain by the Soviet Union from the viewpoint of a retired couple, Jim and Hilda Bloggs. The book was all the more chilling for being in the form of a strip cartoon. It was later made into an award-winning animated film. Briggs and Spiegelman shared a genius for dealing with subjects which many say cannot be dealt with at all. Of Maus Spiegelman said quietly, ‘It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized other kids didn’t have parents who woke up screaming in the night’.

His book was a way of facing demons which haunt many children of Holocaust survivors – the guilt of being possessed by a history which they never lived.

Photos: Wikipedia

Sue Fox is a freelance journalist who has been interviewing famous people for the Sunday Times, Times Magazine, and many magazines since she was 18.  She has also been associate producer on TV documentaries and a film archive.

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