Friday, 19 September 2008


...the cold that is. If that's what it is. It looks like a cold, it behaves like a cold, but it could be a fancy new allergy I have been cooking up, moving on from hay fever to cats. Well, I hope not. The cold is far more likely. The only thing I could concentrate on was finishing off Art Spiegelman's Maus. I don't know why but I have been avoiding it all these years.

Well, I do sort of know why. Somewhere inside me I know it all already, or at least as much as I can deal with rationally: as to the rest it can feel like vicarious horror, which I distrust more than vicarious pleasure. Viscerally, I don't feel the world is to be despaired of, and the normal accounts, unless somehow transfigured, as by Levi, or Kertész, or worked through into larger, difficult redemptive patterns, as by Sebald or David Grossman - or even, extraordinarily, by Reznikoff - are matter for despair, a kind swelling, conglomerate, bud of poisonous despair. I know this side of humanity exists, but I know the other side too.

Maus is good, but chiefly because of the parallel relationship, as everyone has observed, of the narrator with his camp survivor father. The graphic novel seems an appropriate form. The odd, dark, macabre, slightly crude drawings act as a bridge between the generations, a child's offerings to his lost, distorted, half-destroyed father.

And so to bed, as Mr Pepys used to write. I will stream horizontally. Tomorrow to Northampton to read poems and participate in a round table about Europe. Must get my beauty sleep. Perhaps I will wake up beautiful.

ps. I have added Bill Herbert' magnificent site(s) to the roll on the left. Hit the one to get a portal to the others. A highly metamorphic poetic gentleman of the Scottish persuasion and absolutely full of life and invention joie de vivre and stuff like that. Makes you feel better.


Anonymous said...

perastika, as they say in these parts.
i'm fond of Maus, but then being somewhat drawn to losing myself in graphic novels thats likely, i don't think i ever got hold of the second book.

George S said...

I read two-in-one, Alek.

I quite like graphic novels, but it does depend. I remember reading a Paul Auster graphic novel - ie based on Auster - that was nice and enigmatic.

As a child I read serialised comic versions of some classics. And some time ago at my father's I saw a Hungarian magazine that was serialising Indiana Jones...

Had an MA student two years ago who was a graphic novelist.

Anonymous said...

Funny, I've also been avoiding Maus all these years. Someone at work read it lately, loved it, tried to get me to borrow it, but no. The bits I have read were amazing though.

George S said...

There is, I think, a relation between our disinclination to read Maus and the passing of historical time. It's like being dragged back into that uneasy place in the imagination in which history, nightmare and myth swirl around needling each other. First there is nightmare that turns into history then ventures into myth. We feel safer, I suspect, when these three realms are kept separate.

Probably something to do with sanity.

Stephen F said...

I picked it up the two-in-one in the Jewish Museum bookshop in Berlin a couple of months ago. I have no time for graphic novels, but I thought it was superb: but then I don't have the sense of it being 'my' history. I liked Spiegelman's creation of a whingy Woody Allenish persona for himself, with his permanent hack's cigarette, and his general exasperation with his dad. I think in these personal ways he did add something to the many other narratives that have been produced out of those events. I picked up The Reader too, which I was equally taken with. One uneasy truth is that the Holocuast is a story that is seldom un-compelling.

George S said...

Yes, we can all imagine being treated in inhuman ways. Most of the time it seems a very unlikely possibility but there is a small dark room in the mind that is mentally prepared for it. It's not a room for living in.

But the relationship between Spiegelman and his father, who has not only been living in the room, but has been dragged through the whole cellar, lends the whole a kind of human believability. People can be awkward buggers for many reasons, and Spiegelman's Woody Allen-like persona helps the reader feel less guilty about thinking the father a miserable old git. He has reasons in trumps of course for being a miserable old git but that doesn't make him less irritating now.

And you never really find out whether his second wife is what he says she is, or what she might say she was.

Life, eh?

Stephen F said...

I don't know if this is an argument yet George, but while I take your point on the [position of] the father's wife, I thought that the matter of whether she is 'that thing' or not, whether she is a figment or construction of what the father says she is (to the author and his girlfriend, who can each see her for theirselves anyway), or similarly whether the father's experiences have made him what he is, or whether (to some extent)he was like that anyway, are both unresolved, or unexplained, or unexplainable floating ambiguities, that make the book more, not less of what it is. [I feel now a little bit like I have stood up in class and said something, as if we are back in the Plant Room in Cultural Studies 10 years ago...]

George S said...

But I don't disagree with that. In fact I think we are saying the same thing.

It is precisely the uncertainty that is, I think, the good thing. The book assumes - rightly in my view and experience - that other people cannot be known from within. We strive to find out what others are like by talking to them, by inviting them to speak and even then we don't know. The fact is they don't really know themselves. They just feel their selves, as we ourselves do.

So it's good that the 'truth' of the relationship between father and second wife remains unknown. What's that Rumsfeld quote? As I recall it goes:

There are the known knowns - things we know we know.

There are the known unknowns - things we know we don't know.

And there are the unknown unknowns - things we don't know we don't know.

That was a bit smarter than it was given credit for. It's category 2 that is the key one in this case.

I just knew there would be a use for that Rumsfeld quote some time. Otherwise he was an unpleasant fool.