On finally having read Maus by Art Spiegelman

I have just now finished reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus. I’m so late to this that the two volumes have been bound together in a 25th-anniversary edition. I don’t know why it took me so long; my dissertation focused on trauma in late 20th century literature, so it should have been on my central reading list. Somehow, it wasn’t, but better late than never.

There’s not much that I want to say about the book; it is as powerful and heartbreaking as I thought that it would be. Because I tend to think about what it means for a victim or witness to recount his or her story–why one might or might not break a silence to talk about something “unspeakable–I was struck by Art’s conversation with his therapist in part II, And Here My Troubles Began (p. 205 in my edition):

–Anyway, the victims who died can never tell THEIR side of the story, so maybe it’s better not to have any more stories.

–Uh huh. Samuel Beckett once said: “Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.”

–Yes.

–On the other hand, he SAID it.

Vladek Spiegelman’s story is impossible to tell, not least because in a world with even the faintest touch of rationality and morality, it is impossible to understand. Art Spiegelman works against that impossibility to tell a story that breaks the silence, giving voice to the unspeakable.

These are not cheery thoughts for the holidays, so I think I’ll turn to something lighter next. Wishing everyone a wonderful Christmas with loved ones, and a happy and healthy start to 2012.

On finally having read Maus by Art Spiegelman

I have just now finished reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus. I’m so late to this that the two volumes have been bound together in a 25th-anniversary edition. I don’t know why it took me so long; my dissertation focused on trauma in late 20th century literature, so it should have been on my central reading list. Somehow, it wasn’t, but better late than never.

There’s not much that I want to say about the book; it is as powerful and heartbreaking as I thought that it would be. Because I tend to think about what it means for a victim or witness to recount his or her story–why one might or might not break a silence to talk about something “unspeakable–I was struck by Art’s conversation with his therapist in part II, And Here My Troubles Began (p. 205 in my edition):

–Anyway, the victims who died can never tell THEIR side of the story, so maybe it’s better not to have any more stories.

–Uh huh. Samuel Beckett once said: “Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.”

–Yes.

–On the other hand, he SAID it.

Vladek Spiegelman’s story is impossible to tell, not least because in a world with even the faintest touch of rationality and morality, it is impossible to understand. Art Spiegelman works against that impossibility to tell a story that breaks the silence, giving voice to the unspeakable.

These are not cheery thoughts for the holidays, so I think I’ll turn to something lighter next. Wishing everyone a wonderful Christmas with loved ones, and a happy and healthy start to 2012.

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

I read very little historical non-fiction. In fact, I’m probably within a rounding error of reading none at all. So it was an unusual moment indeed when I found myself wanting to pick up The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal — and I’m so very glad that I did.

I heard about the book from the NYPL Live line up, and noticed the way Paul Holdengraber was writing about it on Twitter — he mentioned that it was a book to read slowly, with prose that should be savored. I must have been going through my Alice Munro raptures around that time, and was luxuriating in slow reading, so in that regard it made some sense that I’d be interested. Still, it’s a book about 19th century family history and art collection — not my thing. I ordered the book and wondered how long it would sit on my shelf.

The book clearly didn’t gather dust for very long. It has actually proven to be a welcome change of pace from fiction, and something I might enjoy delving into more often. (Maybe.) De Waal sets out to trace the story of how a collection of netsuke (small, carved figures from Japan, like these) came to belong to him. He traces his lineage through the Ephrussi family, who had astonishing connections in 19th century France (Charles Swann is based partly on Charles Ephrussi, a friend of Proust’s!) and amazing art to go with it.

Deep down, what I care about most when I read is style. If a writer’s style grabs me, I will happily go in for the characters or the plot or the aesthetics or whatever it is that the writer draws my attention to. That’s probably why I enjoyed this book, even though the genre is so far out of my norm: de Waal’s style is carefully crafted and quite beautiful. De Waal is a potter, and the materiality of language is strongly present in the way he shapes his words and phrases. I think that’s why the book reads slowly: there’s a carefully measured rhythm to it, always keeping the balance, like a pot being slowly pulled into shape on a wheel.

De Waal cares about the netsuke, and he cares about learning enough about the story to make it all feel real to him. The reader benefits as the generations are revived and explored, each person examined one by one like the figures de Waal removes from their display case. He doesn’t just tell about them; it’s as though he wants to know them by touch, have a sensory experience of them.

The portrait that de Waal paints looks inward as much as back through history; the reader accompanies him on a distinct journey as he researches the movements of his netsuke through generations and across borders. He relays his discoveries about his family, of course, but he also brings the reader with him into libraries and archives, through opulent family homes that have been reconfigured into insurance offices, across borders from France to Austria to Japan to Russia. His research replicates the path of the netsuke, which echoes the journeys of the family.

The family history is a painful one, and really could not be otherwise, given that it focuses on a Jewish family of Russian origin living in Paris and Vienna during World War I and II. As he learns of the events leading up to World War II — which stripped his family of all that they had built, and then continued stripping away their nationalities and even their names — de Waal comes to the crushing realization that “the family is not erased, but written over” until not a trace of them can be seen in the revised Austria (259). One of the most moving images for me was Viktor, stripped of wealth, homeland, and much of his family, spending the days of his own exile reading Ovid and concealing his emotion (270).

The family manages to rebuild itself after the war, albeit in a very different form and in many new places. That the netsuke remain with the family when so much else was lost is incredible, and their particular journey out of post-war Vienna is especially poignant — but I’ll leave it for other readers to discover.

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

I read very little historical non-fiction. In fact, I’m probably within a rounding error of reading none at all. So it was an unusual moment indeed when I found myself wanting to pick up The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal — and I’m so very glad that I did.

I heard about the book from the NYPL Live line up, and noticed the way Paul Holdengraber was writing about it on Twitter — he mentioned that it was a book to read slowly, with prose that should be savored. I must have been going through my Alice Munro raptures around that time, and was luxuriating in slow reading, so in that regard it made some sense that I’d be interested. Still, it’s a book about 19th century family history and art collection — not my thing. I ordered the book and wondered how long it would sit on my shelf.

The book clearly didn’t gather dust for very long. It has actually proven to be a welcome change of pace from fiction, and something I might enjoy delving into more often. (Maybe.) De Waal sets out to trace the story of how a collection of netsuke (small, carved figures from Japan, like these) came to belong to him. He traces his lineage through the Ephrussi family, who had astonishing connections in 19th century France (Charles Swann is based partly on Charles Ephrussi, a friend of Proust’s!) and amazing art to go with it.

Deep down, what I care about most when I read is style. If a writer’s style grabs me, I will happily go in for the characters or the plot or the aesthetics or whatever it is that the writer draws my attention to. That’s probably why I enjoyed this book, even though the genre is so far out of my norm: de Waal’s style is carefully crafted and quite beautiful. De Waal is a potter, and the materiality of language is strongly present in the way he shapes his words and phrases. I think that’s why the book reads slowly: there’s a carefully measured rhythm to it, always keeping the balance, like a pot being slowly pulled into shape on a wheel.

De Waal cares about the netsuke, and he cares about learning enough about the story to make it all feel real to him. The reader benefits as the generations are revived and explored, each person examined one by one like the figures de Waal removes from their display case. He doesn’t just tell about them; it’s as though he wants to know them by touch, have a sensory experience of them.

The portrait that de Waal paints looks inward as much as back through history; the reader accompanies him on a distinct journey as he researches the movements of his netsuke through generations and across borders. He relays his discoveries about his family, of course, but he also brings the reader with him into libraries and archives, through opulent family homes that have been reconfigured into insurance offices, across borders from France to Austria to Japan to Russia. His research replicates the path of the netsuke, which echoes the journeys of the family.

The family history is a painful one, and really could not be otherwise, given that it focuses on a Jewish family of Russian origin living in Paris and Vienna during World War I and II. As he learns of the events leading up to World War II — which stripped his family of all that they had built, and then continued stripping away their nationalities and even their names — de Waal comes to the crushing realization that “the family is not erased, but written over” until not a trace of them can be seen in the revised Austria (259). One of the most moving images for me was Viktor, stripped of wealth, homeland, and much of his family, spending the days of his own exile reading Ovid and concealing his emotion (270).

The family manages to rebuild itself after the war, albeit in a very different form and in many new places. That the netsuke remain with the family when so much else was lost is incredible, and their particular journey out of post-war Vienna is especially poignant — but I’ll leave it for other readers to discover.

There but for the by Ali Smith

One of the only faults I found with this immensely pleasurable novel is its title, which, for all its poetic incompleteness, is undeniably awkward to say aloud.

Ungainly title aside, There but for the is a delightful read. The prose is light and playful, embodied in many ways by a charming nine-year-old character named Brooke, whose enjoyment of language is catching and whose curiosity is unparalleled. Several nested stories unfold as Smith maneuvers around the book’s central issue: Miles Garth, towards the end of an unpleasant meal at the home of the aptly named Gen & Eric Lee, wordlessly leaves the table and disappears into an upstairs bedroom and refuses to leave or even speak… for months. The premise calls to mind Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s La Salle de Bain (1985; here’s a review of the English translation), whose narrator listlessly retreats to his bathroom and remains fully clothed in the tub for days on end. Whereas Toussaint’s narrator is weary and defeated, however, Miles Garth is energetic and enigmatic, and seems to be judging the foolishness of the world around him.

One image I loved was that of May Winch (a subplot and two degrees of separation from Miles Garth) remembering a night when, as a young woman, she had been riding her bicycle in the dark when she hit something and flew over the handlebars into the road. She is fine but shaken, mainly due to the nature of the accident:

It was the dark taking shape, going solid out of nowhere in front of her. It wasn’t like when the bomb hit the ball-bearing factory next door to the shop and she’d been blown across the room backwards and hit the wall behind her. That had been different. This had come out of nowhere and it had no sound, just the muffled thump of May being hit by the dark. The difference was that she’d just gone headlong with her eyes wide open into it, that she’d done it herself somehow, hit the dark. (164)

May’s reaction to this moment of “hitting the dark” suggests that the fears that affect us most deeply are those that are invisible and internal, when we cannot point to an explosion or any other external cause and know what caused us pain. These kinds of truths can easily feel tired or facile, but Smith introduces them with grace and a lightness of touch that imbue them with freshness.

This lightness is the book’s hallmark, in the prose as in the characters. Smith creates a small circle of witty, like-minded characters whose paths cross throughout the stories; whenever two of them meet, you can almost see the glint in their eyes as they recognize themselves in one another. Both Brooke and Miles are among them. Brooke in particular is an improbable child of pure joy and intelligence, brilliant with language and wordplay and surprisingly attuned to the world around her. Puns send her reeling with pleasure, and she is obsessed with knowing and recording the facts of her own story. The last section of the book consists of Brooke’s internal monologue, and Smith does an excellent job of it, retaining just enough of a childlike quality to the language while also conveying Brooke’s tack-sharp curiosity and creativity.

There are many more characters and storylines that unfold like the origami plane described in the book’s preamble (“Outside, on its top, it looks like a plain folded piece of paper. Inside, underneath, it is packed tight into itself with surprising neatness like origami, like a small machine” [xiii]), and the whole thing holds together beautifully. I’ll definitely be adding Smith’s earlier novels to my reading list.

There but for the by Ali Smith

One of the only faults I found with this immensely pleasurable novel is its title, which, for all its poetic incompleteness, is undeniably awkward to say aloud.

Ungainly title aside, There but for the is a delightful read. The prose is light and playful, embodied in many ways by a charming nine-year-old character named Brooke, whose enjoyment of language is catching and whose curiosity is unparalleled. Several nested stories unfold as Smith maneuvers around the book’s central issue: Miles Garth, towards the end of an unpleasant meal at the home of the aptly named Gen & Eric Lee, wordlessly leaves the table and disappears into an upstairs bedroom and refuses to leave or even speak… for months. The premise calls to mind Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s La Salle de Bain (1985; here’s a review of the English translation), whose narrator listlessly retreats to his bathroom and remains fully clothed in the tub for days on end. Whereas Toussaint’s narrator is weary and defeated, however, Miles Garth is energetic and enigmatic, and seems to be judging the foolishness of the world around him.

One image I loved was that of May Winch (a subplot and two degrees of separation from Miles Garth) remembering a night when, as a young woman, she had been riding her bicycle in the dark when she hit something and flew over the handlebars into the road. She is fine but shaken, mainly due to the nature of the accident:

It was the dark taking shape, going solid out of nowhere in front of her. It wasn’t like when the bomb hit the ball-bearing factory next door to the shop and she’d been blown across the room backwards and hit the wall behind her. That had been different. This had come out of nowhere and it had no sound, just the muffled thump of May being hit by the dark. The difference was that she’d just gone headlong with her eyes wide open into it, that she’d done it herself somehow, hit the dark. (164)

May’s reaction to this moment of “hitting the dark” suggests that the fears that affect us most deeply are those that are invisible and internal, when we cannot point to an explosion or any other external cause and know what caused us pain. These kinds of truths can easily feel tired or facile, but Smith introduces them with grace and a lightness of touch that imbue them with freshness.

This lightness is the book’s hallmark, in the prose as in the characters. Smith creates a small circle of witty, like-minded characters whose paths cross throughout the stories; whenever two of them meet, you can almost see the glint in their eyes as they recognize themselves in one another. Both Brooke and Miles are among them. Brooke in particular is an improbable child of pure joy and intelligence, brilliant with language and wordplay and surprisingly attuned to the world around her. Puns send her reeling with pleasure, and she is obsessed with knowing and recording the facts of her own story. The last section of the book consists of Brooke’s internal monologue, and Smith does an excellent job of it, retaining just enough of a childlike quality to the language while also conveying Brooke’s tack-sharp curiosity and creativity.

There are many more characters and storylines that unfold like the origami plane described in the book’s preamble (“Outside, on its top, it looks like a plain folded piece of paper. Inside, underneath, it is packed tight into itself with surprising neatness like origami, like a small machine” [xiii]), and the whole thing holds together beautifully. I’ll definitely be adding Smith’s earlier novels to my reading list.