Collected Works: Literature



by Art Spiegelman
Graphic novel

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Adolf Hitler once said that, ‘The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.’ In Art Spiegelman's Maus, a survivor’s account of the Holocaust in graphic novel form, his statement is taken literally and extended. Germans are depicted as cats, Americans as dogs, Poles as pigs, and Frenchmen as frogs. The mice alluded to in the work’s title, meanwhile, are the Jews. Spiegelman works from a series of spoken interviews conducted with his father, Vladek, unravelling his story and documenting it to great effect.

The interviewing process is used as a framing device, through which the atrocities of World War II are placed alongside everyday domestic concerns: Vladek’s struggle with senility; his troubled relationship with his second wife; the loss of his first; the tensions between father and son. The intention is never to mythologise the former, nor to belittle the latter. Instead, they are combined, providing not only a recollection of war, but also a personal study of its far-reaching aftershocks.

Spiegelman avoids an all-encompassing message, and complicates the structures he employs. Jews become Poles by donning pig masks, highlighting the fluidity of cultural identity. The presence of stray animals ‘louse up’ the cat-and-mouse metaphor. The medium’s limitations are humorously noted. In a monologue to his partner, Spiegelman opines, ‘Reality is too complex for comics … so much has to be left out or distorted.’ Later, he adds, ‘In real life you’d never have let me talk this long without interrupting.’

When tackling such heavy subject matter, the past can rise to consume the present. In one panel, Spiegelman states that he has become a father, but the announcement is hidden within a series of dates stained by death. Flies buzz around the desk at which he works. When we see the whole study, the source is revealed to be a pile of naked corpses. It is often said that the Holocaust is so horrific it is unimaginable. Maus not only stares these horrors in the face, but does so without its tail between its legs.

Words by John Wadsworth

More to discover

Philip Pullman has written about Maus for The Guardian, as has Ruth Franklin for the New Republic.

James Naughtie has interviewed Art Spiegelman for BBC Radio 4's Bookclub, as have Hillary Chute for The New York Review of Books, Rachel Cooke for The Observer (UK), and David Samuels for Tablet Magazine.

Question of the day

Which works of literature from 1991 would you recommend, and why? Let us know on Facebook, Patreon, or Twitter.

The Pitchfork Disney, a stage work by Philip Ridley. A fascinating, deeply disturbing play that mixes comedy and seriousness. (→)

– Lewis Coenen-Rowe, Silent Frame Sub-Editor (via Facebook →)

Saint Maybe, a novel by Anne Tyler. Tyler deftly narrates a life shaped by profound guilt, questioning whether families rescue or imprison us. (→)

– Emma McKinlay, Silent Frame Sub-Editor (via Patreon →)

Read more: Graphic novels