The Bookclub newsletter: Art Spiegelman on Maus
Jim Naughtie presents Bookclub on BBC Radio 4
Ed's note: The subject of this month's Bookclub is Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman. It's a biography of the author's father, Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. It's also the only comic to have won a Pulitzer Prize. As always you can download the programme as part of the BBC Books and Authors podcast - PM.
Art Spiegelman and Jim Naughtie at the recording of Bookclub
I first met Art Spiegelman in New York on the first anniversary of 9/11 to talk about the cover he created for The New Yorker the week after the attacks, showing the two towers as shadows on a dark sky, images about to disappear.
For the city, it became one of the images of the event that would remain as poignant as the news footage of the chaos and the smoke, even the terrible shots of people throwing themselves to the ground from the high windows when they realized there was no escape.
We spoke in his studio in the Tribeca district not for from Ground Zero, and I got a vivid account of his passion for the power of the cartoon, the single image, the simplest of drawings. He came to Bookclub to talk about Maus, the graphic book that made him famous in 1986, and had a great story to tell.
Turning the holocaust into a picture story - a graphic novel - was bold enough, but it was a stroke of brilliance to come up with the device that turned the Jews into mice and the Germans cats. He told us that when a journalist at the Frankfurt Bookfair said that some people might think that it was rather tasteless to deal with Auschwitz in such a way, he was glad that he had the presence of mind to suggest that building Auschwitz in the first place might be thought to have been a little tasteless.
Maus was a worldwide success, and became the novel that spawned a genre. None, it's safe to say, has surpassed its power. However, our discussion went beyond the reasons for that success - the way the story lends itself to cartoon story-telling and the use of the comic imagination - because the story of his family that lies behind it is particular intriguing, and perhaps surprising.
His parents, born in Poland, had different ways of dealing with the events they had witnessed in the camps. His mother would make references to the experience all the time, his father wouldn't. He said it wasn't yet time to tell the story, and it was only long after Art's mother's suicide in the 60s that he began to hear in detail what had happened.
The father-son relationship was not a happy one - indeed, sometimes it was positively hostile and distressing to them both - but it was one of the reasons why he was able to come up with the story.
"I tried to follow a very specific narrative, what happened to my mother and father and in a way it was an Oedipal quest. How did my parents ever get together and hatch me, as it were. They were supposed to be dead before they could do such a thing."
The focus on a particular relationship in the story - between a boy and his father - allowed him to paint the big picture, and to cast it in an intimate human light. Otherwise, as he put it, how could you reveal the scale of the awfulness?
The act of writing Maus was the trigger for at least a partial recovery in his relationship with his father, because he sat down for three days to listen to his story, which he agreed to tell for the first time.
"We had an area for an actual relationship, even if it was closer to the journalist and the - what's the other side of that relationship - the victim? That allowed us to have real time together - and the book Maus by having that framing device of the conversations between the father and the son, that is our relationship. You're not getting 1/8th of it, you're getting 4/5ths of it."
He spoke of how he discovered after writing the book how unusual his experience was. The second generation of the survivors' children was growing up and when he began to meet them he found that many of them were shocked at how cruel he could seem to be to his father, because they grew up with a mandate that was "my parents suffered so much I can't make them suffer any more". He wondered if it was a bad molecule inside him that meant such a thought hadn't occurred to him.
He reflected on the idea - familiar in Christian literature, as well as holocaust stories - that suffering redeems. It doesn't attract him. "Actually, all suffering does is cause pain and good people suffer, bad people suffer and all you can say is that suffering stinks. It was important for me in Maus not to turn him in a martyr."
But don't let me suggest that this was a gloomy discussion. On the contrary, it was funny, warm and self-deprecating. The boy who loved comics grew up into the artist and storyteller who had an original way of conjuring up the most complicated and distressing images and relationships. He has a lively sense of the absurd, and a deep belief in the power of the pen.
That's why, despite everything, it was such fun. I do hope you enjoy the programme. Art Spiegelman on Maus is repeated this Thursday, February 9 at 3.30pm. And you can listen online or download the Bookclub podcast to keep and listen at your leisure.
Our next recordings are with Anne Enright on 27 March talking about her Booker prizewinner The Gathering, and then on 17 May, the Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson discusses Gilead with us. If you'd like to come, tickets are free and available from our website.
Jim Naughtie presents Bookclub