Maus – Art Spiegelman

Maus tells the story of Art Spiegelman’s family’s experience of the Holocaust through depicting the memories of his father, Vladek. Famously the characters involved are drawn as animals, with their species depending on their nationality or religion. The Nazis become cats while the Jewish people involved are mice terrorised by this cats as dogs, pigs and other animals stand on the sidelines. Although I had heard many great things about the graphic novel I found it difficult to believe that this anthropomorphism would not trivialise its subject. Instead, it makes this global narrative of grief personal and individual to Spiegelman’s description and therefore, perhaps, even more devastating because it presents such a fresh account. Almost every page is filled with Vladek’s idiosyncratic turns of English speech and this quickly allows his character to come to life within the portrayal as a mouse. This peculiar phrasing also draws attention to the separation that exists between the lives of father and son.

The narrative swerves between Vladek’s recollections, Art’s interpretation of these events and some of their everyday conversations as they navigate a relationship fraught with difficulties and cultural differences. Art is a post-war child born in America, and cannot understand his father’s compulsive need to be so frugal with everything from paper to cereal and roof insulation. Art’s frustration demonstrates the difficultly that post-war culture experienced in processing the long term effects of the Holocaust when the easiest response was to try and forget the destruction previous generations had experienced. Although Art’s mother Anja survived Auschwitz she is absent throughout the entire graphic novel due to committing suicide after living for years in America. The shadow of the Holocaust, across even Art’s life, becomes more substantial and solidifies until the present and future cannot compete.

Spiegelman constantly references the process behind Maus, as he struggles to keep Vladek on track in their recorded conversations. His idea of how the graphic novel should be shaped is different to the real experiences and there are not always conclusions to the questions that are raised. So many people disappear into concentration camps, ghettos and violence that they can only be mentioned with a question mark over their fate. The anthropomorphic concept is also demonstrated to be limiting as it cannot reflect the multiple facets of individual personalities, as people convert to Judaism or claim they are German rather than Jewish. The futile nature of attempting to divide every character into one attribute also highlights the arbitrary nature of Hitler’s policies on eugenics. There is also an increasing awareness of how Spiegelman’s work adapts in response to the critical acclaim that the first half receives. He is overwhelmed by the attention which is paid and the demands that are made to promote and diversify the work. As his own reaction becomes a part of the graphic novel Spiegelman reaffirms his connection to the trauma of the previous generation even as he becomes aware how separate he will remain.

The Holocaust cannot remain solely in history books and lessons but should be kept as part of society’s culture, however difficult an admission this may be. Maus is a book that will continue to shock people into accepting that the events of the twentieth century will continue to disrupt and destroy lives that did not even exist when the Nazis’ held Europe in their grasp and so I would recommend it wholeheartedly.

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Dombey and Son – Charles Dickens

If Charles Dickens had been alive in the 21st century I think he is unlikely to have been a novelist but would have been entranced by the possibilities of the screen. The meandering plots of his hefty novels transform easily into TV miniseries and each episode can use the cliffhangers which Dickens tantalised his audiences with. Dombey and Son, published between 1846 and 1848, is no exception to this and its lengthy overarching plots would be worthy of an HBO drama. The story begins in Dickens’ conventional bildungsroman style, as the eponymous son, Paul, is born and struggles through the first years of his life under the weight of his father’s expectations. However, it soon becomes clear that the story cannot remain solely Paul Dombey’s as Dickens includes increasing detailed accounts of the lives of those who surround the little boy. Florence Dombey, Mr Dombey’s elder child, might be ignored by her father but the reader watches her every disappointment and how her young hopes struggle on.

As with all of Dickens’ novels Dombey and Son is awash with eccentric characters and unlikely friendships. Nevertheless no matter how ridiculous an individual might seem the reader quickly comes to know, understand and sympathise with them as Dickens demonstrates that similar worries are experienced throughout social classes and across England.Throughout this cast of characters there are very few who are portrayed as irredeemably evil since there is always an understandable motivation or foible. Mr Dombey’s concern regarding his rank and the standing of his house is not so very different from the boasting of a proud mother or a young man’s nervous entry into the adult world. It is only Mr Carker, the right hand man of Dombey’s business, who becomes even harder to like as aspects of his personality and past are revealed to the reader throughout the novel. In this character I was reminded strongly of Uriah Heep of David Copperfield and I wonder if Charles Dickens had a particular reason for such a strong dislike of stewards and managers.

Although I felt that the book took a while to engage me due to the apparent lack of plot direction this later grew to be a strength. It was completely impossible to predict whether the narrative would twist or forgotten characters would rear their heads again. I’ve struggled to summarise what happens throughout the book as it is so concerned with social situations and conversations that ultimately there is rarely great action scenes. Instead there is shock as Mr Dombey’s fate is decided by a manipulative beggar woman and despair as social pressures force a range of characters to act against their will. They are trapped in their gilded world and it soon becomes apparent that money can be worth very little when love, whether familial or spousal, is not present.

These contemporary illustrations for Dombey and Son perfectly capture the scenes and characters they depict. I was reminded of forgotten moments and characters were exactly how I had imagined them. The characters seem so wrapped up in their worries, and in Mr Dombey’s case self importance, that is difficult to believe that this is a drawing rather than a snapshot of real people living their real lives.

Dombey and Son might not be the best Dickens book to read first as there is less obvious momentum to the storyline to help keep you glued to the 900+ pages but it contains some of my favourite Dickensian characters. As a small example of such favourites; Miss Tox, a lonely spinister, unexpectedly grows in the reader’s estimation throughout the novel as changes from a cruel, small-minded sidekick to someone with ambitious, and unreachable dreams of her own. Captain Cuttle initially seems a ridiculous figure of fun but he clearly cares deeply for the younger characters as they face the everyday dangers of life. The pride of Edith Granger made her both tragic and fascinating as I felt the anger over her powerless position still resonate today. Of course, I also cannot finish this post without mentioning Diogenes the dog who acts exactly like a dog should and clearly enjoys being Florence Dombey’s pampered and beloved mongrel.

Dubliners – James Joyce

James Joyce is named, by some, as one of the greatest writers who has ever lived. Whilst I did not unhesitatingly accept these suggestions I did approach Dubliners with some trepidation and high expectations. However, within the first couple of pages these feelings were allayed and I experienced genuine enjoyment as I read. The book has remained just as approachable as it would have been when it was published in 1914. The covers of each edition might change but they remain focused on the human aspect which is at the heart of Dubliners, as is apparent from the title itself.

The book consists of a collection of short stories which focuses on experiences of both a particularly Irish concern as well as universal human problems. Mrs Kearney in ‘A Mother’ tries her hardest to do the best for her daughter by creating a position of prominence for her in the Irish Nationalism movement. While this might not be every mother’s desire it is clear that she is motivated by her pride and belief in her daughter above all else. However, attempts to break down the stories and describe character motivations and plots misses the point of Dubliners. The plots might occur everyday but the stories are far more ethereal.

There is definitely a feeling of some sort of culmination as the collection ends with its longest short story – ‘The Dead’. Joyce uses this length to expand on details which allow the scene to become inescapably clear and for each character’s foibles to be sympathetically but carefully emphasised. Gabriel Conroy, the main character, has his thoughts carefully detailed by Joyce and this leads us to greater knowledge of Conroy and his surroundings, both material and human. It is this precision that hooks the reader although they remain unsure as to what the significance of certain events might be. If everything in our own lives was observed so minutely I expect that people would quickly experience revelations similar to that of Gabriel Conroy.

Although I would recommend Dubliners this is not a book that will cheer you up and this atmosphere is unlikely to change even if you read it by an open fire. Nevertheless, as I read it I did feel like I was reading some of the best examples of the short story genre and I am even tempted to begin further adventures into Joyce!

Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi

I’ve been meaning to read Persepolis for some time now as I’m trying to widen my knowledge of graphic novels and the book is often mentioned. From the first page I could tell that this would be a book that I would return to again and again – there is a richness to both the story and the pages that will only be discovered on multiple viewings. The book tells is an autobiographical account of Marjane Satrapi growing up under the shadow of the Iranian theocracy.

The illustration is simple to the extent that it is in black and white but beyond that it inventively echoes scenes visually throughout. Without the imagery the story would be diminished as it brings Iran alive to those who have never had a chance of seeing both public and private aspects of its culture.

Her parents were liberal and encouraged Satrapi to be educated despite the theocracy attempting to cut down on women’s rights both through the enforcement of the veil and a restriction of their movements. Satrapi’s parents eventually send her to Austria in the hope that she can experience freedom there that is no longer possible in Iran but this transition also presents Satrapi with difficulties. This is both a bildungsoman and an exploration of the hidden split in Iranian culture – she chronicles her increasing isolation from both cultures and a struggle to understand her evolving identity. Although she adapts to Western culture as she goes to university, lives in a house of gay men and has a boyfriend Marjane remains an outsider to her Austrian life. However, on returning to Iran she finds those friends who she has looked forward to meeting again are now also strangers to her and look down on her “Westernised” ways.

The considered narrative is emotive whilst also restrained,uncovering a side of Iran that remains hidden too those who only experience it through the news. It recalls those who were locked in prison or died at the hands of both the Shah and the theocracy, the continued attempts at rebellion that must become more secretive as protests become too dangerous and parties involving alcohol appear too risky. Instead, in one instance, like minded individuals meet and hold private life drawing classes in response to the regime preventing women attending. They refuse to allow their lives to be narrowed due to close-minded leadership.

If there is any one that sneers at graphic novels they only need to be handed a copy of Persepolis to be proved completely and utterly misguided. This book will remain relevant and fresh for many years and is an excellent entry point for those who wish to understand aspects of Iranian culture, both old and new, better.

War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

The status of War and Peace as a book which is often referred to but rarely read encouraged me to attempt to scale its literary mountain. I wanted to see if it really does deserve to be a book that everyone feels they should read but know it’s unlikely they ever will. It is historical fiction which cannot be sniffed at, a romance which cannot be patronised and a roadtrip which will not be undermined. Following a large range of characters during the French invasion of Russia in the early 1800s War and Peace explores the impact of this disruption on a cross section of Russian society.

Without a doubt the characters of War and Peace are some of the strongest and believable that I have read recently. Their mistakes reverberate through the book but they also adapt in response to these changing environments. The growth of Prince Andrew’s cynicism as he meets challenges and disappointments seemed sadly inevitable even as I watched his youthful potential being wasted. Obviously the length of the book allows for elaborate development of each character and their relationship so that even secondary characters are given depth in social situations. Tolstoy also based many of the characters on information he found in the letters and diaries from members of his family and their social circle.

I must admit that while the book is called War and Peace I definitely enjoyed the ‘Peace’ sections more. There was more scope for the characters to interact and the plot develop while the ‘War’ sections had to focus on describing military tactics and explaining the positions of the armies. While this was obviously necessary to detail Napoleon’s progress into Russia I found the intricate detail boring. However, as I have heard that the fighting episodes are considered some of the finest bits of writing I suppose it could be down to preference. Nevertheless the characters who I was most interested in; Natasha, Pierre and Mary, were rarely in a war zone so would be absent for long periods during a ‘War’ narrative.

As ever when reading a novel in translation I was aware of the additional barrier to my understanding. Not only is the book originally in Russian but it also contains long passages in French due to the Russian upper classes traditionally speaking in French. While the copy I read attempted to keep these nuances by retaining the French passages and translating them in the footnotes I feel there were situations where the use of a particular language or dialect still passed me by. There were also long passages meditating on how to live and what it could mean. These are obviously difficult to translate and I would be interested in reading other versions to compare.

Although I do not plan to immediately reread War and Peace I expect it is a book which is rewarding to return to. I found the expansive vision of Russia during its wars with Napoleon fascinating, partly because I previously knew so little about the book or the period. However, if you do not enjoy very large casts of characters and a carefully developed and meandering plot then it is probably not for you!