In the late 1960s, Irving Layton, a Montreal Jewish poet who had risen to international fame a decade earlier, began to write poetry about the Holocaust. Like other Jewish artists of the period, his avoidance of the subject before then was almost conspicuous. Perhaps he was finally spurred to address the elephant in the room when he saw a new generation of poets do so, including his protégé Leonard Cohen, whose first collection, Flowers for Hitler, was published in 1964.
The Holocaust is so massive a subject that it can easily overshadow everything else in an artist’s work. When Layton began to acknowledge it more openly in his writing, he soon found it difficult not to write about the holocaust. Massacres and dead animals began to crop up with frightening regularity in his work; the loud, intractable violence choked every other topic and made them seem banal in comparison.
The poster for the Art Spiegelman exhibit currently showing at the Vancouver Art Gallery, “CO-MIX: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics and Scraps,” illustrates a related sentiment. The image is taken from a Spiegelman drawing from 1989 entitled “Self Portrait with Maus Mask.” In the foreground there’s the human Spiegelman with his usual shirt, vest, and cigarette, seated at his drawing table. An expressive mask of a mouse covers his face. His hands are pressed against his cheeks in a gesture of despair as he stares despondently at whatever he is trying to draw. In the background there hangs the covers of Maus I and an issue of RAW, the magazine thought up by Spiegelman’s wife Françoise Mouly, in which Maus was originally serialized. More ominously, a Nazi cat sharpshooter from the pages of Maus stands on a guard tower outside the window with stripes of barbed wire and a brick chimney belching black smoke.
In this image, we see the artist struggling to write and draw the subject he feels compelled to turn into art. We see Spiegelman dreading the inescapably difficult path he has set himself on.
The mouse mask echoes not only the mouse and cat metaphor Spiegelman uses illustrate Jews and Nazis in his book, but also the animal masks that characters wear when trying to pass off as members of groups there are not (so that Vladek Spiegelman is shown as a mouse wearing a pig’s mask when he is trying to pass as a non-Jewish Pole). By wearing the mask, Spiegelamn may also be showing us that he sees himself as a fraud when telling this story, because it isn’t really his to tell.
The self-portrait also represents Spiegelman’s very real struggle to finish writing Maus after the publication of the first volume in 1986, which garnered great acclaim. Spiegelman deals with this dilemma in the second chapter of Maus II, “Time Flies,” when he pulls a Cervantes and steps back from the narrative to address the reader and discuss the publication of the first volume. In the images, Spiegelman shrinks to the size of a child under the aggressive questions of journalists and businessmen who try to turn his book into a commercial product. The writer finally retreats to the home of his wise but eccentric shrink, who happens to keep framed photos of his dogs and cats.
Finally, “Self Portrait with Maus Mask” is an artistic manifestation of the struggle that was to come after the publication of Maus II in 1991, when Spiegelman found himself unable to take off his mouse mask and write a narrative about anything else. The black stain of the holocaust had spilled onto his drawing table.
The Art Spiegelman exhibit, which collects decades of material from the artist’s personal collection, makes the artist’s struggle visible on the curated walls of a museum. One of the most enlightening aspects of the exhibit for me was its ability to portray Spiegelman’s chronology. There’s the explosive, variform comix of his youth, some of which was eventually collected in Breakdowns, in parallel with his hilarious work as art director of Topps, including the infamous Garbage Pail Kids, which gave him the income necessary to work on his personal projects. There’s the decade of scandalous New Yorker covers (not all of which were accepted) which followed Maus in the ’90s: a Hassidic Jew kissing a black woman, a presidential press conference with all microphones turned towards Clinton’s crotch, a haggard-looking concentration camp prisoner holding an Oscar to mark the success of Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful. And then came the recovery of Spiegelman’s voice as a narrative comic artist in the wake of 9/11 with In the Shadow of No Towers, his intensely political, satirical, personal account of the attack on the World Trade Center and its aftermath, printed as a board book to avoid the image-splicing seams of usual bindings.
The room devoted to Maus in the exhibit hushes visitors when they walk in. It is darker than the other rooms, and the walls are more cluttered: the finished pages of a few chapters are spread out horizontally at eye level and preliminary sketches extend above and below them. Historical documents, mementos, and source material are displayed in a handful of glass cases in the center of the room, while overhead the frank voice of Spiegelman’s father Vladek can be heard recounting his experience during World War II in one of the recordings which were the basis for the book.
The depth of Spiegelman’s talent and craft is immediately obvious from a glance at any page from Maus. He employs a dark, heavily striated style that replicates something drawn quickly, furiously. Yet the draft pages for Maus demonstrate that, in fact, Spiegelman slaved over each image to find just the right framing, the correct length of eyebrow to create the desired expression on his characters’ anthropomorphic faces. The highly energetic technique displayed in Maus only serves to make individual drawings more compelling — clear enough to be immediately recognizable, cramped enough to demand careful attention. At the same time, there is a fluidity in the drawings that helps each panel meld into the others and create a powerful impression that goes far beyond the punch of its constituent pieces.
I was also amazed, looking at the variety of pictures hanging in the other rooms of this exhibit, to discover the breadth of Spiegelman’s work. His drawing and narrative style is surprisingly flexible, adapting to the requirements of the story he is telling. He was once commissioned to design covers for the German editions of Boris Vian’s books. He drew lurid, sexy collage images with sharp lines and bold blocks of color, inspired by 1950s comics and cubism; he also took advantage of the book’s spine for mirroring effects between the front and back covers and the placement of elongated objects. In The Prisoner on the Hell Planet, Spiegelman uses stark contrasts and an expressionist style in both his text and drawings to express the deeply personal impact of his mother’s suicide.
In the exhibit, I also discovered with a great pleasure a short graphic piece Spiegelman made to commemorate the retirement of Charles Schulz. Spiegelman draws himself as a simplified mouse ruminating on the roof of a doghouse in honor of his subject’s work; even the font he uses for his characters’ speech is borrowed from Peanuts. “At its best, which was often,” Spiegelman writes, “the strip had the simplicity and depth charge of a haiku…only easier to understand.” In the next panel, Snoopy has appeared and is surprised to find another animal sitting on top of his doghouse. Spiegelman adds: “…and cuter.” Spiegelman’s work, in spite of the animals, is rarely cute — and yet here, to honor his subject, he too has made his own style as light and pleasant as a Peanuts strip.
It is through pieces like this that Spiegelman has continued to help nudge comics into rich new territory. After showing that it was possible to write a graphic memoir that couldn’t work in any other form (unless as a kind of doomed hybrid between Elie Wiesel’s Night and Brian Jacques’s Redwall), he began to experiment with essays in graphic form, like the piece on childhood he made for the McSweeney’s special “San Francisco Panorama” issue. On display at the exhibit is the original of another non-fiction piece on the same subject called “In the Dump,” co-written and drawn with Maurice Sendak for in the The New Yorker in 1993. In the piece, Spiegelman goes to visit the reclusive Sendak to discuss the realities of childhood and the nature of imagination. This piece is also impressive because it’s a full-on collaboration: Sendak and Spiegelman worked on the panels at the same time, each drawing himself and then working together on the background.
Born from universal ideas, crafted by the hands of artists, written with passion, the comic strip has become the medium for narratives that can be read again and again and images that can be stared at pensively in the hushed space of a museum.
Discussing his famous graphic novel V for Vendetta, Alan Moore once stated that he always preferred the original, serialized version of the book because it wasn’t in color. “The images were entirely in black and white,” he explains, “but the whole story, in moral terms, had only shades of grey.”
Something similar occurs in Maus, where the drawings often fall into a thick chiaroscuro and hard hatching turns page space into almost solid black. Arguably, no other story has been made to express absolute black and absolute white as clearly as World War II. So how can an artist integrate the textures of grey that make a story truly poignant?
Spiegelman allows his book to transcend its own purpose as a holocaust survival tale by crafting it as a metafiction. This was something I did not expect before I began to learn more about Maus and its writer. At first, I thought the book was just (although that’s not quite the right word) a story about holocaust survivors in which the Nazis are cats and the Jews are mice. But that story is only the core around which the other elements gravitate.
Maus is also very much about a son trying to come to terms with his father — it is an exploration of their relationship, in which the father’s story creates a bridge between them, a reason for them to get together and talk. Spiegelman was very clever in framing his father’s story in the war years with material from the present day: visiting his father, giving us a portrait of his life in old age, mulling over ethical questions, asking his father about specific details. The back and forth between past and present makes the story he tells all the more real.
But there’s still more. On a foundational level, Maus, like every work of literature that admits to being one, is a book about the process of writing a book. It explores not only the meaning of surviving the holocaust and managing a difficult father, but also the difficulties of drawing and writing about this father and telling his story. The fact that the reader is privy to Spiegelman’s questions, comments, and process within Maus, especially in the second volume, is essential to the book’s agenda.
One of Spiegelman’s most admirable qualities, expressed by both the man and his art, is an honest form of moral rectitude. He experienced the success of Maus with considerable discomfort, a discomfort he folded into the book itself: Is this his story to tell? Is he disrespecting the memory of the millions of people who died in the concentration camps by telling it? To this day, Spiegelman believes one of his greatest achievements is to have resisted attempts to make a film version of the book.
I believe his peculiar strength lies in his resolve not to go down the path of artists like Layton who, once they started, were unable to leave behind the subject of the holocaust. Spiegelman refuses to become a figure of authority on the holocaust, another Elie Wiesel. (The closest he has come, admittedly, is in his Life is Beautiful cover for The New Yorker.) Despite his struggle to find another narrative thrust for his graphic art after Maus, his decade of so-called silence was in fact one of his richest — most of his truly arresting shorter work and many pieces I used in this essay to illustrate his genius, were produced in this period. Besides, as Françoise Mouly has said, a decade is not really so long to find your voice again as a storyteller. And Spiegelman has proven that he has many more stories to tell.
“CO-MIX: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics and Scraps” is open at the Vancouver Art Gallery until June 9, 2013. It was originally shown at Angoulême and Paris, France, and then at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany. It will move to the Jewish Museum in New York later this year.
The office of literary agent Ellen Levine is a sun-struck jewel box of a place overlooking Madison Square Park and lined with shelves of signed first editions by Levine’s many famous clients, including Marilyn Robinson, Russell Banks, and Michael Ondaatje. Despite these trappings of power — that view, that big desk, the young editorial assistant who ushers you in with a hushed reverence that suggests you are being granted an audience with the pope — Levine is herself unpretentious and approachable. She is a small person, bird-like and soft-spoken, and when she settles in at a conference table, her manner suggests not a big-wheel New York literary agent but a college professor taking time out of her day to sit with you in her office and talk about books.
I had invited myself to Levine’s office one sunny April morning last year to interview her for the first in a series of features I was writing for Poets Writers Magazine called “The Aha! Moment.” The idea was that I would talk to writers, editors, and literary agents about the moment the light went on for them about a particular manuscript, the moment when they thought, I have to do this project. I had asked Levine to pick a novel by a new client and show me at what point — where exactly, on what page — she decided she had to take this writer on. Then we would print that manuscript page in the magazine, with Levine’s quotes explaining how the writing had grabbed her and why.
As we sat down to discuss the page in question, midway into the first chapter of a first novel by an unknown African-American writer living in Brooklyn, Levine described the writer’s command of language and storytelling craft, but when she reached a key passage in the scene, in which a young mother is about to lose her twin babies to pneumonia, Levine’s voice caught. When I looked up, her eyes had misted over. If you interview a lot of people, you develop a radar for when people are selling and when they are not, and in this case Ellen Levine was not selling. She was genuinely moved by this scene in an unpublished book by a writer nobody had ever heard of. I left her office that day thinking: Something really, really good is going to happen to that book.
Sure enough, eight months later, I read that the book Levine and I had been discussing that day, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, had been published in December, six weeks ahead of schedule, and had been picked by Oprah Winfrey for her newly rebooted Book Club. This weekend — on Super Bowl Sunday, of all days — Mathis will sit for an interview with Winfrey to discuss the book.
Long before Jonathan Franzen famously dissed her for picking his novel The Corrections for her Book Club and James Frey’s pseudo-memoir A Million Little Pieces blew up into, well, a million little pieces, Oprah and her Book Club were the subject of an unseemly mix of love and hate from the publishing industry as well as from many readers of literary fiction. On the one hand, Oprah clearly moved product. An astonishing amount of product. According to one study by Fordham University marketing professor Al Greco, during the 15 years Winfrey ran the Book Club before she shut it down along with her syndicated show in 2011, the 69 “Oprah Editions” embossed with the signature Book Club seal sold roughly 55 million copies.
So much for the love part. Franzen, thoughtless as his comments may have been, was only saying out loud what many others had been saying when he suggested Winfrey had larded her list with “schmaltzy, one-dimensional” novels, directed primarily at women readers. At the time, the blowback at Franzen was all about him being an elitist, but I always thought there was a gendered element to the knock on Oprah books. Franzen, and many others, said the books were middlebrow and directed at women, but to my ears, anyway, there was a strongly implied causal relationship between the two: the books were middlebrow because they were directed at women, as if serious fiction — the kind written by Hemingway and Faulkner — was for guys while anything written with a female audience in mind was, almost by definition, middlebrow.
After the Franzen dustup, Winfrey started devoting fewer shows to books, and after the James Frey debacle, she pulled back even further, picking only a few books a year and relying more heavily on established classics like Elie Weisel’s Night or novels by guy-friendly authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Cormac McCarthy that countered the stereotype of an “Oprah book.” By the time she invited Franzen back on her show in 2010 to discuss his novel Freedom, she just seemed weary of the whole thing.
In many ways, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, the second book picked for the rebooted Book Club 2.0 featured on Winfrey’s eponymous Oprah Winfrey Network, neatly fits the stereotype of an “Oprah book.” For one thing, Hattie focuses on a damaged family, as so many previous Oprah picks have, and like a number of earlier picks, it is set in black America. A cynic — and don’t pretend there aren’t a few of them among you — might even go so far as to say that Hattie is a perfect Oprah book because it is the sort of book about black people that white people like to read, meaning one that allows white readers to bear witness to, and passionately decry, America’s long history of racial oppression without feeling personally indicted for playing any role in that oppression.
It is true that much of Hattie is set safely in early and mid-century America, before many contemporary readers were even alive, and the passages that deal with the most straightforward white racism take place in the South, which allows liberal northerners to blame such ugly behavior on those white people, who are of course nothing like themselves. But such calculations, and indeed all the baggage that comes with being an “Oprah book,” are unfair to the novel Mathis has written, which is a dazzling debut, rich in language and psychological insight, steeped in the history of 20th-century black America and black American writing, and yet fully in tune with a 21st-century America capable of twice electing a black man president.
Hattie is being marketed as a novel, but it would be more accurate to say that it is a collection of linked stories revolving around the dysfunctional Shepherd family, starting in 1925 and ending in 1980. There isn’t a truly weak story in the lot, but the book is best when its central figure, the hard-hearted “plow horse” of a matriarch, Hattie Shepherd, is present, and loses some of its vitality when she is not.
We first meet Hattie in that heartbreaking opening chapter when she is a joy-filled 16-year-old escapee from the Jim Crow South imagining how when her newborn twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee, begin to walk they will “totter around the porch like sweet bumbling old men.” This moment of dreamy bliss lasts barely a page before the twins come down with pneumonia, and Hattie, crippled by her inexperience and pride, fails to save them. Hattie goes on to have nine more children — far more than she and her sweet, but feckless husband August can support in Depression-era black Philadelphia — but the twins’ deaths mark her, turning her into a cold, rage-filled woman capable of beating a child until he wets himself in terror for having left a window open in the rain.
But Hattie isn’t a villain, nor is she a helpless victim of her circumstances. She comes alive on the page in all her complexity as a woman fiercely determined to never let another child slip away, but neither strong nor resourceful enough to keep them alive without terrorizing them within an inch of their lives. “Hattie knew her children did not think her a kind woman,” Mathis writes late in the book.
She had failed them in vital ways, but what good would it have done to spend the days hugging and kissing them if there hadn’t been anything to put in their bellies? They didn’t understand that all the love she had was used up in feeding them and clothing them and preparing them to meet the world.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie has its share of stock figures — child preachers whose touch can heal the sick, good-time men who live for the gambling table, and loose-living women who shack up with criminals — but it is Mathis’s gift to breathe life into these characters, render them in three dimensions as ordinary people striving to be decent but lacking the strength of character or willpower to get there. They are often very destructive and Mathis is too clear-eyed a writer to turn away from the wreckage they leave behind or to pass off their recklessness as a mere product of racism and poverty. But she doesn’t pass judgment on them, either. Mathis’s characters are those rarest of fictional creations: real living, breathing people.
A central element of the Oprah Book Club narrative has always been the sudden reversal of fortune experienced by those lucky few Oprah authors. The poor wretched scribe, the tale goes, was toiling away in obscurity in the backwaters of American literary culture until one day the phone rings, and — Oh, my God! — “Hi, this is Oprah.”
Whether this narrative was ever really true of the earlier Oprah picks is debatable, but it is certainly not true in the case of Mathis who is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and a client of Ellen Levine, one of the top literary agents in New York. I have exactly zero knowledge of what levers Levine pulled, but it is hard to imagine that an agent as well-connected as Levine, sitting on a book as good as Mathis’s, could have resisted at least suggesting to one of Winfrey’s show bookers that they might want to give this book a read.
But if this plucked-from-obscurity narrative is partly a media fiction, it does point up a fact Oprah’s detractors would do well to keep in mind: while Winfrey has occasionally leaned on books by Nobel laureates like Faulkner and Toni Morrison, the bread and butter of the Book Club was always new books by little-known authors. Try this at home sometime. Tell yourself you need to pick a book that will appeal to millions of readers, by an unknown author who will be interesting to talk to for an hour on national television, but who has also written a serious work of literary fiction. And then tell yourself you need to do this once a month while running the highest-rated talk show in the history of television. Let me know how that works out for you.
It is high time defenders of American literary fiction cut Oprah Winfrey a break. These days, even Oprah is no longer Oprah, and while Mathis’s novel has shot up into the bestseller lists, it is unlikely stay there for months the way books did in the Book Club’s 1990s heyday. Still, imagine what would have happened if Winfrey hadn’t picked it. It still would have garnered raves from reviewers in print and online, and over time booksellers would have begun quietly putting it in the hands of favored customers. In other words, it would have remained a well-kept secret among a bookish few. Instead, thanks to Oprah Winfrey, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie will be read by hundreds of thousands of people and Mathis will sit down for a well-publicized interview on the high holiest day in the American television calendar, Super Bowl Sunday. With any luck, this gritty, tough-minded work of literary fiction that also happens to be a mesmerizing read will enter into the cultural mainstream. Who else but Oprah could pull that off?
Still in the throes of controversy surrounding James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, Oprah has selected Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night as the next selection for her book club. While this selection was no doubt in the works long before the Frey controversy, the juxtaposition is still remarkable. Frey’s confessional, sensationalized addiction memoir, the credibility of which seems to crumble further with every passing day, looks awfully silly next to the beloved memoir of a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor whose character is unassailable as far as I know. In the New York Times, Wiesel says he hasn’t read Frey’s book (big surprise), but then goes on to make some comments that seem to me to be directed at Frey’s fast and loose treatment of the truth (emphasis mine):He acknowledged that some people and institutions, including on occasion The New York Times, have referred to Night as a novel, “mainly because of its literary style.””But it is not a novel at all,” he said. “I know the difference,” he added, noting that Night is the first of his 47 books, several of which are novels. “I make a distinction between what I lived through and what I imagined others to have lived through.”As it is a memoir, he said, “my experiences in the book – A to Z – must be true.” He continued: “All the people I describe were with me there. I object angrily if someone mentions it as a novel.”Meanwhile, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that Amazon is changing the classification of Night from fiction to memoir. As of this writing, Night is number one on Amazon, bumping Pieces to number two.