Of Mice and Memory Originally published in Oral History Review, Spring 1988
by Joshua Brown
(Brown's New Media Lab webpage at CUNY)
American Social History Project,
City University of New York, Graduate Center
archived on Prof. Marcuse's Hist 33d website,
July 2005, updated 8/13/07
see also Maus Questions and Resources Page
Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale is a digest-sized comic book using mice, cats, pigs, and other animals to portray a history of the Holocaust. It has received adulation in newspaper and magazine reviews, was nominated for the 1986 National Book Critics Circle prize in biography, and received the Present Tense/Joel H. Cavior Book Award sponsored by that journal and the American Jewish Committee. But the award Maus won was in the category of fiction, and in that designation one may discern an uneasiness, largely unaddressed in the press, that greeted the book even as it was lauded. I have not seen many criticisms of Maus in print, but I have heard them expressed in casual conversations: "Okay, Maus is an ingenious work of art, it's a good story as well and, certainly, it's better than the run-of-the-mill comic book. But, history? No way."
Maus is not a fictional comic-strip, nor is it an illustrated novel: however unusual the form, it is an important historical work that offers historians, and oral historians in particular, a unique approach to narrative construction and interpretation. Maus also provides us with the unique opportunity to evaluate simultaneously a finished work and a work in progress. The present book, subtitled My Father Bleeds History (Mid-1930s to Winter 1944), is the first half of a planned two-volume work. The six chapters comprising the first volume originally appeared from 1980 to 1985, in somewhat different form, as installments in Raw, an art comics/graphics magazine edited by Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly. The chapters of the second volume will appear sequentially in subsequent issues. Chapter Seven has already been published in Raw number eight, picking up where the first volume ended, at the gates of Auschwitz.
Much of the power of Spiegelman's book lies in his discourse with the reader, a discourse that exists "between the panels," beneath the narration and the dialogue. To understand this relationship between Maus and the reader we must consider first how Spiegelman approached oral history techniques and the problem of remembrance, then how he worked to visualize the past, and finally his use of the central metaphor of mice. Spiegelman's reflections, recorded in an interview I conducted with him in early 1987, run throughout this review. They make clear how much the book's impact is grounded in his explicit intention.
Maus is the story of two survivors of the Holocaust. The first is Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish Jew who, along with his wife Anja, survived Auschwitz and came to live in Queens, New York. There, Vladek and Anja raised their second son, Art, their post-Holocaust child (their first son died during the early stages of the Final Solution). Art grew into adulthood under the shadows of his parents' past, the darkest appearing in 1968 when Anja committed suicide. Art himself is the second survivor, although at first his torment seems self-indulgent compared to the elemental horror of his parents' experience.
The accounts of these two survivors run through Maus as Art records his father's memories in a series of oral interviews: Vladek's courtship of the wealthy Anja, the marriage that facilitated his rise in the business world of the secularized Jewish community of Sosnowiec, his induction into the Polish Army and capture by the Nazis in 1939, his release and return to the area of Poland "annexed" by the Reich. Vladek relates the steady tightening of the Nazi noose around the Jews as the policies of extermination were put into practice, detailing how, as the concentration camps filled, he and Anja managed to survive through cunning strategies and blind luck, until they were caught and sent to Auschwitz.
Throughout Maus, Vladek's story is paralleled by Art's attempts to come to terms with the opinionated, tight-fisted, and self-involved father whose personality was formed in a world and through an experience so completely divorced from his own. The ghosts of this past swirl around Art who is haunted by the irretrievable experiences of the dead, their residue found in familial relationships characterized by guilt and manipulation. The first volume closes with dual betrayals: Vladek describes how he paid two Poles to smuggle Anja and him to Hungary only to be turned over to the Nazis; minutes later he reveals to his son that, after Anja's suicide, he destroyed her diaries, her account of the Holocaust for which Art has been frantically searching.
It is logical to approach the book first as a work of oral history, because of its sources and Spiegelman's decisions about the structure of its text. The absence of footnotes or bibliography should not be mistaken for indifference to the importance of research. "Essentially, the root source of the whole thing is my father's conversations with me," Spiegelman explained when I asked him about the sources he consulted. "Sixty percent of those are on tape and the rest of it's during phone conversations or while I was at his house without a tape recorder, taking notes. Now, my father's not necessarily a reliable witness and I never presumed that he was. So, as far as I could corroborate anything he said, I did--which meant, on occasion, talking to friends and to relatives and also doing as much reading as I could."
Although Maus focuses on the particularity of Vladek's story, Spiegelman succeeds, through succinct narration and dialogue, in keeping us aware of the changing social and political climate of Sosnowiec, and from there the context of Poland and the Third Reich. "This is a bottomless pit of reading if one falls into the area," Spiegelman said. "There's building after building of books and documents. I don't pretend to [have read them all]. On the other hand . . . I read as many survivors' accounts as I could get hold of that touched on the specific geographical locations [depicted in the book]." In his effort to place Vladek on the particular map of Sosnowiec, Spiegelman was also aided by a Polish pamphlet published after the war that chronicled the fate of the Jews of that city. "Every region had its own booklet ... [The Sosnowiec pamphlet] was really important for the things that take place in the last half of the first volume because it has very, very specific information."
Spiegelman's sources are relevant, but oral history is more than a verbatim transcript propped up by corroborative facts and context. The structuring of an account--how a recorder shapes his or her sources, how he or she organizes the materials into an interpretive narrative--are equally a concern. In his choices and the critical considerations behind those choices, Spiegelman worked as a skilled oral historian. He presented his father's story as a chronologically-linked chain of events, restructuring Vladek's testimony to strengthen the clarity of the account. But, the way one chooses to tell a story is a kind of censorship, and Spiegelman conscientiously had to weigh the impact of one narrative decision over the effects of others:
This is my father's tale. I've tried to change as little as possible. But it's almost impossible not to [change it] because as soon as you apply any kind of structure to material, you're in trouble--as probably every historian learns from History 101 or whatever. Shaping means [that] things that came out [in an interview] as shotgun facts about events that happened in 1939, facts about things that happened in 1945, they all have to be organized. As a result, this tends to make my father seem more organized than he was For a while I thought maybe I should do the book in a more Joycean way. Then I realized that, ultimately, that was a literary fabrication just as much as using a more nineteenth century approach to telling a story, and that it would actually get more in the way of getting things across than a more linear approach.
Or, as Spiegelman shows more concisely in Maus:
However, Spiegelman was after more than "telling a story" or creating a comprehensible biographical account. He also strove to depict the process of remembering and relating, one that included the incidental breaks and digressions that occur between two people whose relationship exists outside of the roles of interviewer and interviewee:
In the interstices of the testimony we learn more and more about both Vladek and Art. The breaks and digressions convey the sense of an interview shaped by a relationship. They also remind the reader that Vladek's account is not a chronicle of undefiled fact but a constitutive process, that remembering is a construction of the past.
Spiegelman telegraphs information about events or insight into character or a relationship through inflection, carefully chosen words, or the structuring of their order:
Spiegelman's use of language is remarkable in its exactitude and lack of bravado. The language has the peculiar mix of confusion and clarity of spoken words--because, indeed, the dialogue is based on Spiegelman's interviews with his father. But we are not provided with verbatim transcriptions of conversations. "It's impossible in a comic strip to record verbatim conversation," Spiegelman explained,
because the balloons would be about twelve inches high for every two-inch picture.... Comics are an art of indication. And it's a matter of, after reading Vladek's three or four different accounts of the same story with different language, trying to distill them, to keep the phrases that are most telling for me and rewrite a lot of that in a kind of telegram that catches the cadence of the way he talked. And because I grew up hearing him talk, it was easy enough for me to do.
Beyond presenting a comprehensible account of events while subtly depicting characterization and the composition of a relationship, Maus makes an even greater contribution as a work of oral history by interrogating the limitations of our techniques for recording experience, and by engaging the problematic of memory as evidence. As Art records Vladek's story, the reader follows a course of events and, yet, revelation is accompanied by a feeling of constraint, expressed concretely in Art's persistent and finally frustrated search for his mother's diaries. Spiegelman confronts the perennial obstacle facing any oral historian, the problem of one person's account, the reliance on one memory to record an event. But, there is an added dimension to this problem in Maus: the survivor is not only one person with one memory; the fact of his survival lends a delusory authenticity to his recollections: "It's a built-in problem," Spiegelman observed:
As soon as you tell a story of a survivor and how they survived, you're not telling a story of what happened. Somehow, it becomes a how-to manual. Because there's a natural desire and tendency on the reader's part to identify with a character in a book someplace, you identify with the one who survived. You pick a winner and you ride through with him. And, yet, there was such a large amount of luck involved. There might have been certain personality traits or mechanisms that would help a person increase the odds of surviving, but--no matter what Terrence Des Pres's or Bruno Bettelheim's theories of survivors are--within a situation [?u here?] ninety percent died that's not enough and, therefore, isn't reason to identify with the survivors rather than to try to understand the situation.
Confronted with that dilemma, Spiegelman considered broadening Vladek's story to include others. Instead, however, he decided to confront the problem head-on. The dilemma of not knowing pervades the book. At one point, as Art endeavors to tell Vladek's story, all he seems to come up with is a distorted stereotype; speaking with Mala, Vladek's second wife, he reflects:
The book ends with Vladek's revelation that he has destroyed Anja's diaries. Spiegelman presents the reader with the terrible realization that Vladek's account is what we are left with. The issue escalates in the second volume:
In the second book, I'm now introducing another survivor who is giving me a little bit of a vantage point that I would have liked to have from my mother but isn't in any way available to me anymore from that source. And, yet, it seemed important to indicate ways in which Vladek was not the archetypal survivor, but a survivor.
So, the second volume of Maus--From Mauschwitz to the Catskills (Winter 1944 to the Present)--will overtly grapple with the limitations of oral technique, in part by presenting contradictions to Vladek's testimony through other survivors. Yet, it is the achievement of Maus that Spiegelman refuses to fill in the picture, leaving the reader with the terrible knowledge that we cannot know. "I was obviously angry that my father had done this [destroyed Anja's diaries]," he said.
On the other hand, ... if I had access to my mother's diaries, perhaps I'd have to find yet another way of trying to indicate that, okay, I have those two stories but I don't have the other five or six or seven million stories that could have gone alongside it.... In spite of the fact that everything's so concretely portrayed box-by-box, it's not what happened. It's what my father tells me of what happened and its based on what my father remembers and is willing to tell and, therefore, is not the same as some kind of omniscient camera that sat on his shoulder between the years 1939 and 1945. So, essentially, the number of layers between an event and somebody trying to apprehend that event through time and intermediaries is like working with flickering shadows. It's all you can hope for.
"There persists this illusion that everything can be resolved," John Berger said in a recent New York Times interview, "and the great tragedies have been a result of this impatience with contradiction." The "unknowableness" that ends the first volume of Maus (and promises to characterize the second) leaves the reader uneasy. Maus is a successful work of history because it fails to provide the reader with a catharsis, with the release of tension gained through the complacent construct of "knowing" all.
Maus may be a biography, but it is a comic strip biography, and a comic strip biography that uses mice to depict the victims of the Holocaust. I suspect that the caution with which many readers have approached Maus, and the reasoning behind the Present Tense/Joel H. Cavior Award in the category of fiction, lies not in the text but in the interaction of the written word with images. Beneath that interaction lurks a myriad of issues about the presentation of history and, more particularly, the structuring of an efficient yet nuanced visual narrative.
Consider the challenge Spiegelman faced. He had to "materialize" Vladek's words and descriptions, transforming them into comprehensible images. "My problem," Spiegelman remembered, "was when my father said, 'I was walking down the street,' I'd start picturing 14th Street and 8th Avenue and, of course, it's not that. It's in Eastern Europe." Spiegelman consulted photograph books from Roman Vishniac's pictures of the Jewish ghetto in A Vanished World (1983) to Lucjan Dobroszycki and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett's photographic history of Jewish life in Poland, Image Before My Eyes (1977). He consulted the few remaining family photographs and, for the second volume, has pored over The Book of Alfred Kantor (1971), the artist's "visual diary" of his internment in the concentration camps of Terezin, Auschwitz, and Schwarzheide. He has viewed films such as Shoah, Night and Fog, and Image Before My Eyes, wearing out the heads on his VCR as he gazed at particular images on freeze-frame. And he travelled to Eastern Europe, to his father's hometown, to Auschwitz, taking photographs.
Working on the second volume of Maus, Spiegelman has run into formidable obstacles:
For instance, I'm trying now to figure out what a tinshop looked like in Auschwitz because my father worked in one. There's no documentation whatsoever of that, it's hard to even find out what kind of equipment people used. I happen to be lucky enough to have met somebody who worked in a tinshop in Czechoslovakia in 1930 and so he knows approximately what it was like. And he's trying to describe equipment to me but I have a very poor head for mechanical objects and things like that. It's not something I understand well. So I sort of make little doodles and he'd say, "Oh no, a little bit smaller with a kind of electric motor that attaches to a belt to a ceiling thing." So I'm getting some sense of it.
The intensity of Spiegelman's search for visual sources shouldn't be ascribed to a fetish for visual representation. Indeed, Spiegelman shuns the ubiquitous comic-book "splash panel" displaying sweeping action or filled with minute details that are calculated to impress the reader, preferring instead to convey a sense of time and place through "incidentals":
Wallpaper in a room...
The spatial dimensions of a courtyard...
To Spiegelman, however, exhaustive research still is necessary if he is to distill the images for his readers. Referring to the machinery in the tinshop, Spiegelman noted:
The final drawing will not reflect any of this stuff because it's going to be a two-inch high drawing with a little line representing an electrical cable or something But, somehow, I don't feel comfortable until I know what it is that I'm [drawing], where it's situated. Even if it's ultimately a rather fictionalized space, I have to believe in that space enough so that it can be there, even though what finally represents that space is so modest that somebody can project a whole other space onto what I've drawn.... It's just steeping myself in enough stuff so that I know what it is. And once I know what it is, I assume that I can get some of it over.
Yet, the "unknowableness" remains a problem: "It's becoming harder and harder as I go on in the book. For instance, the stuff in the camps that I'm working on now is very, very difficult because I just can't get a clear sense of movement through Auschwitz. None of the accounts are sufficient to let me feel that." Not knowing presents Spiegelman as a cartoonist with several choices in representation. How much is the artist willing to invent to fill out the incomplete record? When parts of the past are cloaked in silence, how can the artist lend visual coherence to the images without producing pictures that merely provide an illusion of knowledge? "I'm proceeding very, very carefully," Spiegelman answered, "and it means that, in some places here, I'm even more circumspect than I was before in terms of showing something. Unless I need to show it, I try not to speculate on what might be happening in the background."
Spiegelman's strategy for visualizing the past suggests how profoundly his role as a biographer is rooted in years of work as a cartoonist and his persistent experimentation with the comic strip form. In Maus, Spiegelman has used the strengths of the conventions of the comic strip, stretching and rearranging text and image into a coherent presentation. This may seem a long way from listened-to words and transcribed language. But if we accept the idea that history is a construct and not facts existing in a natural state, the aspects of Maus that at first sight seem removed from biography will emerge as critical constitutive parts.
Maus was published in a digest-sized book similar to the periodical you hold in your hand. That size is, of course, unusual for a comic book. Within this format, Spiegelman designed panels that average about two inches in height. The veteran cartoonist has used this dimension to his advantage, creating emphases and effects through sudden changes in an otherwise more uniform presentation. When Vladek and Anja, for the first time, confront Nazism in Czechoslovakia, its impact upon them and their accompanying fear emerge through the abruptly changed dimension of the panel:
The effect is heightened by Spiegelman's unusual method of cartooning. The standard approach is to draw a page twice the size of the published version, permitting the artist to tackle detail more easily. The reduced finished product appears tighter and sharper to the reader's eye (and, practically, obscures mistakes). An illusion, in effect, is produced for the reader, a "naturalized" image divorced from its production. Spiegelman decided, instead, to draw Maus in the constricted format in which it would be finally published. "I didn't want the drawing to get tighter," Spiegelman said,
I wanted it to be more vulnerable as drawing so that it wouldn't be the master talking down to whoever was reading And this sort of leaves me without as many intermediaries between me and somebody reading Maus. It's a little more like reading somebody's handwriting or a journal if it's the same size as you're writing.
The visual language of the images underscores this artistic point. The style of Maus is as concise and direct as the writing in the captions. As with the size of the panels, there is a uniformity of characterization throughout: the mice are not particularly individualized by expression or facial appearance. Other than distinctive clothing and different linguistic constructions in the captions, individual expressiveness is rendered through imaginative use of gestures and simple comicbook symbols for emotions:
This quieter style is not due to lack of skill, as one can see by comparing the images in the book with those in Spiegelman's first attempt at Maus, a three-page strip published in Funny Aminals [sic] in 1972 (or by looking at "Prisoner on the Hell Planet," a 1973 strip included in its entirety within Maus).
Through careful observation of comics (his loft apartment contains one of the largest collections of comic art I've seen) and through "progressive self-revision," to use Michael Baxandall's phrase, in rough sketch after rough sketch of Maus's images, Spiegelman sought to reduce the gap between words and pictures.
I didn't want people to get too interested in the drawings. I wanted them to be there, but the story operates somewhere else. It operates somewhere between the words and the idea that's in the pictures and in the movement between the pictures, which is the essence of what happens in a comic. So, by not focusing you too hard on these people you're forced back into your role as reader rather than looker.... One analogy I've used before is that these faces are a little bit like Little Orphan Annie's eyes If you look at those blank disks you see a lot of expression, but it's taking place somewhere other than on that piece of paper. And by keeping the faces relatively blank, relatively similar to each other, you end up entering into and participating more in bringing this thing to life as a reader. In that sense it's a little more like reading.
Perhaps this explains why, as we read, the simplified images nonetheless magnify the visual impact of character, and the telegraphing of emotions and relationships. This effect is particularly powerful when Maus is read cover to cover. The story of the Holocaust grows as we follow Vladek's chronology, as we stumble over the ruts and holes in the pitted roadway of his memory, and as the slights and misplaced affections of Art's and Vladek's brittle relationship come fully to life. Perhaps, by isolating a two-page spread, the experience of reading Maus--and the nature of the discourse it elicits--may be suggested. In this excerpt, shown on pages 106-107, Vladek has returned after being released from a prisoner of war camp. He returns to the demonstrably straitened circumstances of the Sosnowiec Jewish community, evident even in the comparatively sumptuous circumstances of his in-laws' dinner table.
The simple rendering of the mice, their very lack of individuality, heightens the captions' power to convey information. At the same time, we are not left with mere stick figures to ignore as we pore through the text. The interchanges take place over a dinner table, and the actions and gestures bespeak the peregrinations and little bits of chaos in a family thrown together under the intensification of Nazi policy. The sketched-out activity gives the reader a sense of time and circumstance, drawing the information out within a specific context.
"Historical understanding," Johann Huizinga once wrote, "is like a vision, or rather like an evocation of images." To understand oral testimony we must imagine the narrative, reconstructing it into pictures in our imagination. Spiegelman, in the guise of a cartoonist, renders the intellectual work of the oral historian as a palpable act: he presents us with the images that Vladek's testimony created in his mind, carefully exploiting conventions of the comics form in a manner that does not subsume the reader's imagination but stimulates it. It is a finely-wrought balance: while so many contemporary comics lull the reader--whether through a "naturalism" of style that suggests authenticity or through visual pyrotechnics calculated to leave us in awe--Maus engages him or her in filling out the experience.
Which finally brings me to the subject of mice. I've saved for last the most controversial aspect of Maus, the metaphor of mice representing Jews I haven't been neglecting the issue of Spiegelman's use of Hitler's vermin metaphor because I think the subject is unimportant--how can it be unimportant when Spiegelman places in the epigraph Hitler's statement "The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human"? But Spiegelman's use of the metaphor must be placed within the overall concept and construction of Maus. The obvious question to ask, the question that has been repeatedly posed to me on the occasions Maus has come up in conversation, is: why use the metaphor at all? Why not portray the Jews, the Poles, and the Germans as human beings? It has not often been noticed that in fact Spiegelman has done just that: the Jews are not mice, the Poles are not pigs, the Germans are not cats. The anthropomorphic presentation of the characters should make that eminently clear, and were there any doubts Spiegelman dispels them. When Anja and Vladek hide in the cellar of a Polish house:
In fact, we are not really confronted by animals playing people's roles but by humans who wear animal masks (indeed, when the Jews try to pass as Poles, they wear pig masks). Through the metaphor Maus palpably confronts the reader with the social relations of Eastern Europe of nations divided by nationalities and by culturally-constructed, politically-exploited stereotypes.
By drawing people as animals, Spiegelman evokes the stratification of European society that had seemed dormant but soon exploded into an orgy of racism. When you read Maus, you don't tend to identify the characters as animals. You decipher human beings, and then the metaphor takes hold. You are disrupted, upset. That is the effect Spiegelman hoped for:
You can't help when you're reading to try to erase those animals. You go back, saying: no, no, that's a person, and that's a person there, and they're in the same room together, and why do you see them as somehow a different species? And, obviously, they can’t be and aren't, and there's this residual problem you're always left with.
Spiegelman tackled Hitler's metaphor to undermine it. The horror of racial theory is not rationalized or supported by the metaphor; it is brought to its fullest, tense realization.
Spiegelman's rendering of the mice, or rather (as he has put it) "masks of mice," elicits that awful realization. But the metaphor does more than that. Spiegelman explicitly created his "masks of mice" to confront a tendency implicit in Holocaust historiography:
If I had just written a precis of what Maus was, somebody would say, "Oh God, he's doing a comic strip about the Holocaust with cats and mice, and the first thing they'd imagine was cute little Disney mice running around. So I didn't want to make the mice too cute, too sweet. Which brings me to a thing that has disturbed me in the literature on the subject of the Holocaust, the occasional unnecessary plea for sympathy for the victim. There's a lot of literature in which certain demands are being made on you that I feel should be a given and, therefore, it's actually demeaning to ask. Using that kind of cute, pudgy little mouse character with big, round, soulful eyes would've been, well, would've been all wrong.
Maus captures the terrible relationship between the lost world of European Jewry and the present. It portrays the frustration of a son who grew up in a different setting, trying so hard to understand the world that shaped his father, to grasp the stunning dimensions of an unfathomable experience. "Unknowableness" is the void separating the two generations, and the awareness of the limitations of understanding, of how remembering and telling captures and, yet, fails to capture the experience of the past, permeates Maus. Through the structuring of his narrative, sensitive use of language, and a deceptively simple visual strategy, Spiegelman has created a history that is compelling in its portrayal of the Holocaust and in its consistent analysis of the hazards and holes in the reconstruction of history. No short summary delineation of elements can adequately convey Maus's achievement. But the difficult endeavor Art Spiegelman set out for himself is worth reiterating one more time. In her short story "Rosa," Cynthia Ozick suggested the challenge in a passage where she, too, played off of the metaphor of animals:
. . . in America cats have nine lives, but we--were less than cats, so we got three. The life before, the life during, the life after." She saw that Persky did not follow. She said, "The life after is now. The life before is our real life, at home, where we was born."