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A. Spiegelman's Maus: Memory and Post-Memory

Remembering the Holocaust and the atrocities of the Second World War, even 80 year later, is a particularly difficult ordeal, and still to this day many artistic creations endeavor to find a way to remember this dark period of History. Maus is one of such works, and when it was first published in 1980, the graphic novel by Art Spiegelman immediately struck the whole world. The specificity of its form and the depth of its narration quickly established it as one of the major pieces dealing with Memory and its transmission, so much so, that it became the first graphic novel ever to be awarded with a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Structured in two parts, Maus I, My Father Bleeds and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began, Maus tells the story of Art interviewing his father Vladek about his experience as a Holocaust survivor. Spiegelman's masterpiece could be classified in many genres, but this analysis will focus on its treatment of Memory and Post-Memory, and the extent to which the dialogue between father and son symbolized a dialogue between these two iterations of the remembrance processes.

Figure 1: A. Spiegelman, The complete Maus, front cover.

The very first sentence in Maus directly establishes the preeminence of the memory in the work:

"It was summer, I remember."

While this introduction is from the point of view of Art and set in 1958, the following title of the first part, My Father Bleeds History, leaves no doubt about its main temporal frame. Indeed, the chronological indications , "mid-1930s to winter 1944" clearly shows the historiographic intentions of the tale. Art, through its graphic narration, wishes to tell the reader a story which is not his own, but his father's:

"I still want to draw that book about you...About your life in Poland, and the war."

These lines from Art are directly addressed to his father, but also to the reader, exposing his intentions: remembering, not only his father's story, but the corresponding page of History as well ("and the war"). There is, in Maus, a manifest will to go beyond the private realm of the remembering process, in order to reach the collective realm and establish its narrative in the remembrance process. As verbalized by Hirsch (1993), the essence of memory is the collusion of present and past, memories being past experiences re-contextualized in the present. These are precisely the intentions that Speigelman expresses through Maus, by interviewing his father, thus superimposing two layers within the narrative. Paradoxically, the animalistic representation which Spiegelman resorts to in Maus most likely serves a purpose of accuracy and universalism. Pigs, cats, dogs and mice are universally used figures, especially in fables and folklore, and by choosing to represent the protagonists of this historical period through these animalistic forms, the narrator ensures that the memory he is about to explore is not only private, but also an echo of History itself, shared by every member of society. It is also a literalization of the hatred-laden words pronounced by Hitler and reported as an epigraph to the first chapter of Spiegelman's work.

Nevertheless, Maus is a testimony, and the private sphere of memory, the process of remembering, remains at the heart of the narrative. Spiegelman wishes to transcribe History, but he wants to tell it through his father's memories:

"I want to tell your story, the way it really happened.

Figure 2: A. Spiegelman, Maus I, p. 25.

Spiegelman is indeed looking for a historiographic frame, but it is thanks to private memories that he wants to reach a proper accuracy:

"It has nothing to do with Hitler, with the Holocaust! // But Pop - It's great material. It makes everything more real - more human"

Through this process, Vladek the character grows into the incarnation of Memory, expressed by one individual, but shared by many. The entanglement between both private and public facets of the memory is, for instance, perfectly symbolized with the first illustration of the second chapter, representing a Nazi symbol and the title "The Honeymoon". It is sadly difficult to ignore the universal dimension which the swastika has come to bear, and a honeymoon is supposed to be one of the most intimate event in somebody's life.

Figure 3: A. Spiegelman, Maus I, Chapter 2, "The Honeymoon", p. 27

By interconnecting the collective and privates dimensions of memory, Spiegelman crafts what Pierre Nora (1989) verbalized as a "lieux de mémoire" (French term literally translating into "place of memory"). It is an artistic space of transmission, "created by a play of memory and history (...) mixed, hybrid mutant, bound intimately with life and death, time and eternity, envelopped in a Möbius strip of the collective and the individual" (Nora, 1989, p19).

Although Memory is the central component of the narrative in Maus, its polyphonic structure allows Spiegelman to address another topic intimately linked with the remembrance process. Indeed, whereas the first part is mostly centered on Vladek's memories, the title of the second part (And Here My Troubles Began) directly introduces a process proper to the children of survivors, such as Art, namely, Post-memory.

Post-memory appeared with the survivor's children whose life were dominated by the memories and aftermath of an historical event they did not live. The prologue of Maus perfectly illustrates this process, as while Art simply lives the life of a young boy in New-York in 1958, his father abruptly makes him remember what himself endured during the Holocaust. The title does not only refer to the difficulty for Art to write his father's story down, but also the difficulty to fill this generational gap between him and his father:

"It's so presumptous of me... How am I supposed to make any sense out of Auschwitz?... Of the Holocaust?"

The fact that in the second part, Spiegelman often represents himself not as a mouse, but wearing the mask of a mouse, contributes to emphasizing this distance between his father, the survivors, and himself, trying to share the memory of an event he did not live through. The children of Holocaust survivors grew up with "the simultaneous presence and absence of Holocaust Memory" (Hirsch, 1993, p7), and in order to construct this post-memory, Spiegelman used a narrative mediation. Instead of trying to recollect memories he does not have, the narrator resorts to "representation, projection and creation" (Hirsch, 1993, p16) to evoke this past he is so close to and distant from at the time.

Indeed, the difficult relationship Art has with his father in Maus is definitely linked to the son's inability to experience the trauma in the way his father narrates it. The subtitle, A survivor's tale, is an accurate reflection of the remembering process Art is going through. He uses the narration, in its fictional dimension, to fill in the gaps of the fragmented memories receives handed down from his father. In that sense, the graphic novel is a particularly well-suited medium. Indeed, its sequential structure lets the reader experience this fragmented process of remembrance. Maus is not only the memory of Vladek and the Holocaust, but also the "memory of a witness's memory" (Puneet, 2012), a post-memory. It is a polyphonic transmission between the father and the son, and between the survivor and the ones who didn't suffer the Holocaust trauma.

One particular plate illustrates this duality of memory residing in survivors' children. The second chapter of the second part starts with a plate representing Art Spiegelman with a mask of a mouse. From the first frame, the duality of memory is expressed, and with it its burden weighting upon Art's shoulder. The following frames blur the limit between Art's memory and his father's even further, as the alternating speech of the son mixes memories from both his own life and that of his father's. Finally, the duality of this speech reaches its apex with the final frame, representing Art completely downcast ("I've been feeling depressed"), at the top of many corpses, symbolizing the Holocaust memory. This plate perfectly represents the duality and the difficulty coming with post-memory. The survivor's children must go on living and coping with the constant emotional pressure of memories they did not in fact experience, haunted by dead people they did not know.

"In May 1987 Françoise and I are expecting a baby...Between May 16 and May 24 1944 over 1000,000 Hungarian Jews were gassed in Auschwitz..."

Figure 4: A. Spiegelman, Maus II, p. 201

When evoked, Maus is categorized with difficulty. The plurality of its thematics, reflected by a polyphonic structure, lets the reader explore many aspects of the remembering process of what was the Holocaust. Through the story of his father, Spiegelman reflects on the dynamics of his relationship with him, and through these dynamics, on the relationships between memory and post-memory. It is a work of dialogues between those two aspects of the remembrance process, along with a dialogue between a father and his son. Spiegelman's work, even if questioning the legitimacy of second-generation survivors to tell a survivor's story, never questions the necessity to remember their trauma. It is a "survivor's tale", in which the imaginative and narrative processes of post-memory renders the authenticity of a trauma, lived by a father, but carried by both him and his son.

Bibliographical references

Hirsch M. (Winter 1992-93). Family Pictures: Maus, Mourning, and Post-Memory. Discourse, Vol. 15, No. 2, Special Issue: The Emotions, Gender, and the Politics of Subjectivity, Wayne State University Press, pp. 3-29.

Retrieved from:

Nora P. (1989). Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire. Representations 26: pp. 7-24.

Puneet K. (Spring, 2012). The Memory and Legacy of Trauma in Art Spiegelman's Maus. Prandium. The Journal of Historical Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, The Department of Historical Studies, University of Toronto

Retrieved from:

Spiegelman A. (1986). Maus - A Survivor's Tale. New-York, Pantheon.

Spiegelman A. (1991). Maus - A Survivor's Tale II: And Here My Troubles Began. New-York, Pantheon.

Visual sources

Figure 4: Spiegelman A., The Complete Maus, London, Penguin Books, 2003, p. 201.

Author Photo

Martin Chef

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