Nick Cross grew up on a council estate in the poshest part of Surrey. He's never been quite sure whether that makes him middle class or not. He's thrilled to be included in the Writer's Choice series because he also isn't quite sure if he qualifies as a proper writer. This is despite winning a place in the SCBWI's Undiscovered Voices 2010 anthology, ensnaring the wonderful Jenny Savill of Andrew Nurnberg Associates as his agent and spending an increasing amount of time loitering in publishers' offices. Nick blogs about writing horror fiction for children at Who Ate My Brain? Below he discusses Art Spiegelman's Maus.
Nick Cross on Maus by Art Spiegelman
I'm not Jewish, yet I've often found myself drawn to stories of the Holocaust. As a horror writer, I try to ground my novels in the everyday, and surely there can be no more frightening example of how our world can turn against us. The sheer scale of the Holocaust is so numbing that it's hard to visualize - I'm especially thankful to those who both lived through it and were prepared to talk about their experiences. In the midst of such unimaginable cruelty and horror lie the most astonishing tales of survival and transcendence.
Maus is one of the most powerful memoirs of the Holocaust, yet also so much more. For a start, it's a graphic novel, albeit one that won the Pulitzer Prize. But it's also the story of a second-generation Jewish American (Art Spiegelman himself) struggling with both his artistic career and his relationship to a cantankerous father. Art sees an opportunity to resolve both of these conflicts by making his Polish father Vladek's tale of survival into a comic, an enterprise that would span 13 years.
Maus is one of those books I keep returning to at different stages of my life and finding it speaking to me in different ways. When I first read it in my early twenties, it was in the shadow of Schindler's List – yet Maus's story seemed even more real. No avuncular figure steps in to save Vladek and his wife Anja; they must survive on their own meagre skills in a world that gets smaller every day. It's the slow drip-drip of the process that is so chilling, and this is where Art Spiegelman's attention to detail reaps rewards. Week by week, more Jews are taken to the camps and Vladek barely manages to cling to his freedom, like a man climbing rocks to escape the tide. There is nothing conventionally heroic about Vladek - especially when you see his present-day attitudes - and yet he has a moral centre and knack for survival that I admire very much.
As I became older and started writing more seriously, it was Art I identified with. He is conflicted over his father, guilty when he isn't with him, angry when he is. I have an awkward relationship with my own dad and these themes resonated very strongly. I found yet more common ground in Art's struggles with mental illness and his attempts to unravel the reasons behind his mother Anja's post-war suicide. Art grapples with guilt over his parents and worries that he can never achieve anything as significant in his life as the survivors of his father's generation. The irony being that, with Maus, he does exactly that.
Writers and publishers seem obsessed with the idea of 'voice' and Maus is rich with it. The flashback sections are entirely narrated by Vladek, and Art Spiegelman preserves all of his bad grammar and quintessentially Jewish American speech patterns. He is fearless for showing his father 'warts and all', even when aspects like his penny-pinching nature might seem to play to Jewish stereotypes. As Vladek's back-story continues and he has to fight for every zloty, it becomes very clear how these experiences shaped his later personality.
I'm quite a comedic writer and I suppose Maus might seem a slightly odd choice. But there is some lovely social comedy in it. Witness the moment where Art is leaving Vladek's house and discovers that his father has thrown his jacket in the bin: 'Such an old shabby coat. It's a shame my son would ever wear such a coat.'
I seem to have spent a lot of time discussing the story of Maus without touching on the artwork. And perhaps that's because Art Spiegelman's style of drawing is so unaffected and unsentimental, a simple black and white cartoon style that perfectly evokes the banalities of war. He is careful not to dwell on the horror in a way that could repel the reader - this restraint lends his few depictions of atrocity much greater power. His one abstraction is the way he personifies the characters - the Jews are all drawn as mice, the Nazis as cats and the Poles (controversially) as pigs. But this is no Animal Farm - Maus remains a real story happening to real people. Vladek is so three-dimensional that he almost jumps off the page and starts complaining about how untidy your house is. He also goes through things that no man should ever, ever have to go through - which, for me, makes his story all the more important and compelling.
I can end with no better moral than Vladek's own words. 'To die, it's easy. But you have to struggle for life.'
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]