We have had two meetings of the current semester (wrong word, I know) of the Jewish Literature class we are taking. The book for the first class was Marge Piercy’s “Gone to Soldiers”, and for the second, Art Spiegleman’s Maus I and Maus II.
I had never heard of “Gone to Soldiers”. I looked at the book with dismay when I saw that there were 773 pages in the book, and each page had 46 lines, many more than normal. My dismay continued as the book went on, and on, and on.
Not that it’s a bad book, it’s just a very long book. Perhaps there should be a law against novels that exceed, say, 400 pages, although my ideal is 250-300. But you couldn’t compress Marge Piercy’s Wagnerian opera of a book into so few pages.
This is a book about World War II in its broadest. It follows several families, in Detroit, New York, New England, and Paris. It takes place all over this country, in France and other places in Europe, and across the Pacific battlefield. Its purpose is not to trace the progress of the war, but to show the war’s effect on the generation that Tom Brokaw later called the “greatest”. You follow Louise, a romance writer who becomes a war correspondent in Europe. Her ex-husband Oscar, a university professor, who winds up as an intelligence officer in Europe. Their teenage daughter, Kay, who winds up pregnant and runs away to marry a soldier. You learn about Daniel, son of Jewish refugees, who had become infatuated with the orient and is recruited to help decode Japanese messages. Jacqueline, a young French Jewish woman, much more French than Jewish, whose father left Paris to head to the south to join the Resistance and who, herself, joins the Resistance and finds herself quite a leader. Abra, young university student, who lives downstairs from Daniel in Washington and becomes the assistant (and more) to Oscar. Naomi, Jacqueline’s sister, who has been secreted out of France to live throughout the war period with a family in Detroit. Bernice, daughter of a dominant father/professor, who longs to be nothing more than a pilot. Jeff, Bernice’s brother, who starts the book as sort of a wild and crazy guy, until he meets Jacqueline. Ruthie, the Detroit high school girl who becomes the big sister of Naomi. Duvey, Ruthie’s rough and tumble brother. Murray, who goes away to war in the Pacific without marrying Ruthie, but makes up for it on his return. And, of course, others.
All of their lives eventually do interconnect – as they go away to war, struggle at home, or hide out in France. You follow the course of the war, everyone’s desire to be involved, and the trauma that so many face. You see their lives transformed, you see them mature, and some you see die. Many, but not all, of the characters are Jewish, and the plight of the Jews in Europe, and how Jews in America coped, is clearly one focus of the book. But the book is more than that – it is more panoramic, and everyone is affected in ways that are both similar and, at the same time, quite different.
While you follow the dynamics of the war broadly, you follow the personal lives of the characters (their internal as well as their physical lives) in detail. You see their fears and their hopes. And you see their various relationships, many of which are sexual relationships that are for the most part, perhaps, a bit more than reality can handle.
Although it’s a lengthy book, it’s not a difficult book. It is easy to read, once you keep all the characters straight. It would make a perfect HBO mini-series, I would think. I wonder why it hasn’t been done.
More of you are probably familiar with the two Maus books – graphic novels, biographical and autobiographical, where cartoonist Spiegelman attempts to recreate the story of his relationship with his difficult father (he is also, it seems, a difficult son), and his father’s (and to some extent his mother’s) experience in the Holocaust. The Jews are mice, the Poles are pigs, the Germans are cats, the French are frogs, the Americans are dogs, etc. In 1991, the books won an unusual Pulitzer Prize, unusual because they were not put into any typical category, and because they were, after all, cartoons.
I had read Maus I shortly after it came out, in 1986. I didn’t like it then, and I don’t like it now. Our class discussion dealt with the great subtlety of the books, how much was contained in them, how carefully each frame was constructed, etc. Many felt that Maus I and II told the story of the Holocaust in a gripping, engaging and memorable way. I just don’t find it so. To me, the books are simply mean spirited. Not only are the Germans and Poles (for the most part) nasty, But Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, is a nasty man, and Art Spiegelman himself is not portrayed as anyone you’d like to spend any time with. Sure his father had unbelievably traumatic experiences in Europe, and certainly Art himself had to live with that father, and with a depressed mother who committed suicide when Spiegelman was still a boy.
I have heard that Philip Roth was once asked how he wrote such awful things about his own family, and didn’t that make it hard for him to interact with them. His answer was something like: sure it does, but if that stops you from being a writer, you aren’t much of a writer.
Perhaps that is true, and that Art Spiegelman would have answered the same question the same way. Perhaps that is why I am not a writer. But even if doesn’t embarrass Roth or Spiegelman (and Spiegelman had no living family that he had to interact with), it embarrasses me. And, for me, that’s enough.