Sun, Oct 16, 2011 - Page 14 News List

Book review: Metamaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus, by Art Spiegelman

By Dwight Garner  /  NY Times News Service, New York

Metamaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus / by Art Spiegelman / 299 pages / Pantheon Books

Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the most unconventional great book yet written about the Holocaust, the one that turned Nazis into cats and Jews into mice and Poles into pigs, turns 25 this year. It was the first comic book to win a Pulitzer Prize, and it changed the way comics — the term seems wrong for Maus — are viewed in the US. It proved they could be serious art.

Maus is not a graphic novel but a work of memoir and history. It tells the story of Spiegelman’s father in Poland before World War II, in Auschwitz during the war and as an old coot in Queens, after the fighting stopped. Part of Spiegelman’s accomplishment in Maus is that he turned it into a second-generation Holocaust survivor’s account, too. That is, he made himself a character in the book and threaded in his own quizzical modern sensibility. Maus doesn’t have a tired or sanctimonious bone in its body.

Spiegelman’s new book, MetaMaus, functions as a kind of artist’s scrapbook, chapbook, photo album and storage trunk. Packed with more extras than a new Transformers DVD, it’s a look back at Maus and its complicated composition and reception. His publisher calls this shaggily engaging volume, accurately enough, a “vast Maus midrash.”

An extended interview with Spiegelman fills most of the book’s pages, while arty and inky things pack the margins: draft sketches from Maus, personal photographs, family trees, official documents like his mother’s passport and his parents’ arrest records from Auschwitz.

There’s a DVD included, as well, with an interactive version of Maus and features like interviews and home movies. It’s OK, I suspect, that, as with all such DVDs, few will look at it more than once; then this already-fading technology will become defunct and you will find this swastika-stamped disk at someone’s lawn sale. Let’s talk about the book instead.

The interview with Spiegelman, conducted by Hillary Chute, an English professor at the University of Chicago, is overly long and reverent. But Spiegelman is a witty and testy raconteur, and Chute knows a good deal about comics and she pulls good things from him.

The success of Maus — the first of its two volumes appeared in 1986 — was far from preordained. The book was turned down by many publishers, and Spiegelman prints his rejection letters here, from nearly all of America’s major publishing houses, including Alfred A. Knopf and Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

The idea of a comic book about the Holocaust was inconceivable to most. The idea made people snort. One editor wrote: “You can imagine the response I’ve gotten from the sales department.”

Maus was finally published by Pantheon Books, which gave its author only a small advance.

Maus became a best-seller, surprising Spiegelman as much as anyone else. “I had actually thrived on the relative neglect; it made me get up and work,” he says. “Neurotically, the anhedonic way I experienced the success of Maus was to spend the next 20 years trying to wriggle out from under my own achievement.”

Spiegelman has been a stern critic of what he calls “Holokitsch,” and has been at pains to avoid it. His wife, Francoise Mouly, said to him, “Next to making Maus, your greatest achievement may have been not turning it into a movie.” He knows the sort of life he does not wish to live. “I didn’t want to become the Elie Wiesel of comic books and become the conscience and voice of a second generation.”

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