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Of Man and Maus
on 12 November 2011
First of all, please allow me to begin by stating the obvious. The book presupposes that you have read and enjoyed Maus, as I have. And, as a great fan of Maus - the first book I ever reviewed on Amazon! - I snapped up this book with relish. But I was left somewhat underwhelmed with the book. In part, this is bound to be because a book like this cannot compare with the original's narrative and emotional power. So one might say that it's case of unrealistic expectations. However, I did find the format of the book frustrating.
The structure of the book is an extended interview over four years of Maus' author, Art Spiegelman by Hillary Chute, a University of Chicago Assistant Professor of English, interpolated with excerpts of primary documents such as previous drafts of Maus, the works of other artists that have influenced the author, and other primary source material pertinent to the story of the creative process behind Maus, like the rejection letters of mainstream publishers. There is also an edited transcript of Spiegelman's interview with his father at the end of the book and a DVD with additional material.
This scrapbook approach breaks up the reading experience somewhat and Spiegelman in his interview style has a tendency to ramble, not aided by some of the vague questions the interviewer asks. This is not to say there isn't a lot of interesting material. The discussion on the practical difficulties of translating Vladek Spiegelman's broken English into other languages, the offence taken in some quarters about the portrayal of Poles as pigs (the reason for the choice of symbolism was because humans breed pigs for instrumental purposes, to kill and eat, broadly analogous to the proposed fate of the Polish population under Nazi occupation, who were not slated for utter annihilation but were to be bred as slaves to be worked to death) were instances when the discussion came alive. But overall what was presented did not sustain this reader's interest consistently. For my liking there was too much technical discussion of the mechanics of composition, and of the influence of other comic artists, especially the world of underground comics, from which Spiegelman sprang, which didn't interest me at all.
The DVD has additional material of interest (interviews with people who knew his mother for instance) but again the variegated approach held this reader's interest only intermittently.
Spiegelman, in his refusal to offer Maus for didactic, edificatory purposes, his questioning of the state of Israel as a happy ending and a coda that somehow makes the reality of the Holocaust easier to bear, indeed his stated unease with the religious connotations of the actual word, is a figure that has not fought shy of cultivating controversy over the years. But the material presented here focuses more on the technical, artistic side, and these controversies are eluded. This I think is a reflection of the interviewer, a literary critic, whose interest will naturally gravitate towards artistic and aesthehtic questions. But the net result of this is to render what might have been an opportunity to raise the difficult questions regarding the uneasy relationship of Maus with Holocaust education into a somewhat anodyne user's manual. But again this assessment is a matter of personal taste.
You don't have to know anything about the technicalities of a painting, a novel or a film to appreciate it and it wouldn't follow that you would appreciate it more if you did. Hence for this reason you do not necessarily need to read this book if you are a great admirer of Maus, as I am. But this is subjective assessment. Others with different temperaments and interests will think differently, and may derive greater reward than I did. If you are the sort of person that is interested in how the technical execution of a story can produce powerful pathos, then this book will interest you and you are likely to get more out of it than I did.
So, in conclusion, I'd like to say that don't let this review put you off buying the book. I am aware that it may well appeal to others. But how can you tell if you are one of these people? To decide for yourself, go to a bookshop and inspect a copy. If you like the look of it, and you find yourself drawn into the author's discussion, wherever you randomly open the book, then you will in all likelihood enjoy the book.
So four stars for the quality of the material but, reluctantly, for the reasons I mentioned above, three stars overall.
P.S I should also mention that if your computer cannot run Quicktime, you won't be able to run the DVD that accompanies the book.