MetaMaus, by Art Spiegelman, Viking, RRP£25, 300 pages

When the German translation of Maus was published in 1987, an aggressive reporter asked Art Spiegelman: “Don’t you think that a comic book about Auschwitz is in bad taste?” He replied: “No, I thought Auschwitz was in bad taste.” Nothing could be further from the abysmal genre of “Holokitsch”, as Spiegelman calls it, than his comic-strip history of his parents’ survival in the place he calls “Mauschwitz”. If you don’t believe that a comic, by definition, can deliver the full load of tragic truth, by representing Jews as mice, Nazis as cats, and Poles as pigs then it may be time, 25 years on from its original publication, for you to read Maus yourself.

MetaMaus, Spiegelman’s retrospective reflections in textual and graphic form on how he came to write Maus, is a wonderfully obsessional book in its own right, and may be a perfect point of entry for the uninitiated. You get a CD containing the two-volume original strip and you get a trip, and I use the word advisedly, around the fabulously and curiously stocked attic that is Spiegelman’s brain.

Maus succeeded where so many more grandiose attempts to convey the enormity of genocide have failed, partly by side-stepping the adequacies, or inadequacies, of mere words to represent literally unutterable horror. Its true subject is not, directly, the Holocaust itself but, as Spiegelman puts it in MetaMaus, “the retrieval of memory”. That traumatic secondary ordeal of remembering is shared between his father Vladek (it may have been too much for his mother Anja, who committed suicide in 1968) and Spiegelman himself, not least as a way of closing the painfully embittered distance between father and son. Can it be entirely fortuitous that it is often those works which document struggles to remember (or to forget) – Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah and Marcel Ophüls’ The Sorrow and the Pity – that have best succeeded in re-entering the black cave of atrocity?

Uncertainties are necessarily part of this process of cathartic recall. In Maus, Spiegelman invokes the well-documented fact of an orchestra playing by the gates of Auschwitz as work details left for labour, but his father insists that there wasn’t one. Equally, though, the memory trail reclaims unbidden specifics of horror: Vladek’s terror of falling on the slippery skins of the dead piled up in the corridors of Dachau as he stumbled to the latrines.

The two volumes of Maus (My Father Bleeds History, 1986 and Here My Troubles Began, 1991) endure as two of the most powerful narrations of the genocide. But shouldn’t Spiegelman have left it at that? Do we really need his history of the history: a mass of ancillary documentation, including the full transcript of his interviews with Vladek from 1972 to 1978; stories from the critical history in many lands; two pages of rejection letters from dismissive publishers, photographs of Art from short-knickered childhood to chain-smoking, self-interrogating adulthood; the ganze megillah of Spiegelman Life and Times? Does this opera of self-importance – Spiegelman, the Art in the Mirror – not undercut the greatness of the original work just a tad?

The answer, surprisingly, is: no. MetaMaus is not a self-indulgent MegaMaus. Its tone is often drolly self-critical in the vein of Woody Allen’s insistence (quoted by Spiegelman), that “I am not a self-hating Jew. I just hate myself.” MetaMaus is a sustained, morally serious and strenuously intelligent attempt to answer – in Spiegelman’s typically multi-directional form – the three key questions raised by the original: why relate (yet again) the Holocaust; why do it with animals; and why in comic book form? The first question might not seem worth putting at all, but, born in 1948, Spiegelman remembers (as do many of us Jews born in this generation) a time when the genocide barely featured at all in epic histories of the second world war. The fact that he had lost an older brother during the genocide and that his mother and father had gone through its most horrifying torments – not just in Auschwitz-Birkenau but at Dachau and on the death marches, did not encourage the telling of family history but rather its repression. Spiegelman senior wanted Art, born after the war, to become a dentist. But instead he became a mental drifter, in and out of mental institutions. Comics, especially the ones which he saw had changed the medium from hero-worship to hard satire – Harvey Kurtzman’s work for MAD magazine, for example – saved and redeemed him. He began to draw himself – alarming self-therapeutic narrations of rape and murder – got a job with Topps Bubble Gum and then finally took on “the hardest thing I’m capable of doing to placate the hanging judge within”.

Spiegelman turned the rhetoric of Nazi dehumanisation against itself. The Jews were “vermin”? Very well, the mice would be small heroes of resilience. And if you think he was doing the Nazis a favour by making them feline, just look at photographs sent to him of “cats who look like Hitler” (alone worth the price of purchase).

But it’s in the section of MetaMaus devoted to the power of comic book storytelling that Spiegelman is most gripping. Seeing himself in the tradition of graphic satirists such as Otto Dix and George Grosz, he gives short shrift to museum curators who condescended to admit comic book art into their gallery shows on condition they knew their place.

Spiegelman leads the reader through the complex process of making his pages. Draft sketches, heavily shadowed and cross-hatched, are often astonishingly beautiful in their own right. But what he has to say about the formal aspects of the work constitutes a true illumination. He is fascinating on the use of circular motifs within his boxes; of the relationship between text and image; on the effect of tilting some of the panels out of the grid; mapping the human geography of the camps; genocide within single enlarged panels; and explaining his concern for figuring the “beat” of any given page, the varying rhythm of looking and reading. And aside from his compelling invitations to rethink the visualisation of historical memory, is the overwhelming sense, documented on every page, that Art Spiegelman is not merely a genius at relating the trials of the human condition, but, more important, a genuine mensch.

Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor

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