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Sunday, June 3, 2018

Linda Rader Overman is very proud of her student Vanessa Lopez congratulations for winning CSUN English Dept writing award Spring 2018

Congratulations are due for Vanessa Lopez who received
 (from educator Michael Van Slooten --award is in honor of his late father a former professor at CSUN)
The Henry Van Slooten Scholarship in English
A prize of $500  awarded to a student whose essay in ENGL 258, 259, 275, or 355 best demonstrates a passion for the English language.
This was for her essay "The Effect of an Unconventional Narrative"
when she compared Henry Oster's memoir The Kindness of the Hangman with Art Speigelman's Maus II.


 


The Effect of an Unconventional Narrative
 by Vanessa Lopez

 Too often, when the Holocaust is covered in school curriculum, teachers emphasize the historical impact, focusing on the events prior and during World War II.  While the atrocities and genocide are covered, there is a failure to delve deeply into the human experience and understand the impact on the survivors.  It is important to do this in order to fully appreciate the way survivors overcame and triumphed over such adversity.  Two books that effectively do so are The Kindness of the Hangman by Henry Oster and Dexter Ford and Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman.  Though they are different genres, the books work well together, sharing some similarities.  Both Vladek and Henry are imprisoned in Auschwitz and describe the atrocities endured in the camps.  They are, nevertheless, written in different styles; one being a memoir and the other a graphic novel.  Both stories provide extensive background into the daily life in the camps.  The key difference between the stories, however, is Spiegelman’s incorporation of the metanarrative which creates a more emotional tone than Dr. Oster’s story and the fact that the anthropomorphized animals in the graphic novel soften the subject matter in ways that Dr. Oster’s narrative cannot.
            Dr. Oster’s memoir delivers a style that is straightforward and informational.  His co-writer Dexter Ford interweaves much historical background into the narrative as a means of enhancing and contextualizing Henry’s experience.  A key example early in the book states that “Hitler believed that Jews had formed an international conspiracy.  Allied with the Communists who had come to power in Russia, they were, he fantasized, plotting to dominate the world’s political and financial institutions and, eventually, the world itself.  He also believed that some Jews allied with the Communists, had caused Germany to lose World War I by fomenting labor strikes, political subversion and revolutions­­…a myth known as Dolchstoßlegend: the Stab In The Back” (Oster and Ford 15).  Here, the creators inform the reader of the ideological propaganda fueling the Holocaust.  It is important to understand the historical underpinnings of the genocide which consumed so many victims.  Readers are forced to acknowledge the fact that the Jewish people were scapegoated, villainized and cast into the category of “the other.”  Reader’s see no such contextualization in Spiegelman’s graphic novel.
            The beginning of Maus II delves immediately into Spiegelman’s pathos instead of historical facts of the Holocaust, setting up the metanarrative structure of the story.  After Vladek’s wife abandons him, Art and his wife François are compelled to visit him.  Their conversation en route establishes his internal conflict regarding his work and his family. When François asks Art if he is feeling depressed,  he replies ‘Just thinking about my book… it’s so presumptuous of me. I mean, I can’t even make any sense out of my relationship with my father.   How am I supposed to make any sense out of Auschwitz?...Of the Holocaust?...” (Spiegelman 14.3A-3B).  Graphic novels use visual rhetoric in conjunction with the actual text.  When Art asserts that he is presumptuous, readers see the outside of the car as they drive to Vladek’s house.  The next frame, 3B, cuts to the car’s interior.  The shift from outside to inside indicates a deeper understanding of Art’s emotional state.  Once the focus shifts to the car’s interior, readers understand the root his self-contempt.  This panel helps to establish, early on, the fact that Art faces multiple layers of conflict; both as an artist and the son of a Holocaust survivor.  Though conflicted about documenting his father’s experience in the form of a graphic novel, doing so allows the story to reach a wider audience.  Additionally, the fact that people are represented as animals makes the horror more bearable.
            In The Kindness of the Hangman, Oster and Ford make no such attempt at softening the book’s tone and subject matter.  Dr. Oster accounts one of the most painful memories as imprisoned youth; a memory long withheld from anyone.  He recalls a dance with death.  Henry was selected for execution along with four other stable boys and many older men from other barracks.  Of that night, he describes “two machine gun crews that had been concealed in the trucks started firing, their muzzles flashing in the darkness, spitting bullets right into the crowd of prisoners.  Right at me” (Oster and Ford 96).  He continues with the elaborate details explaining for the reader that “I had a fairly tall guy in front of me who was hit in the first blast from the guns.  He fell back on top of me, and I felt a pain in my knee, and then I was under a pile of thrashing, heavy, dying men…I could see that there were two German officers now, with heir pistols out, going through the pile of dead and dying men.  They were going one by one, shooting the wounded lying helpless on the ground in the backs of their heads” (Oster and Ford 96).   Dr. Oster’s description is blunt.  He admits later the terror he felt, but describes that only briefly. Instead, his interest is in transmitting the information, the tragedies sustained in camp life.  He does not place a heavy emphasis on his own emotional state.  Reading those words forces the reader to picture the atrocities and try and imagine what it might be like.  Ironically, the sharp, direct writing style appeals to the reader’s pathos, inevitably evoking an emotional reaction, though the words are not heavily infused with sentimentality.
            Spiegalman’s retelling of Vladek’s life in the camp also covers the cruelty and abominations sustained.  A particularly powerful moment was after Vladek tells Art about the wave of Hungarian Jews that arrived at the camps; so many that prisoners were forced to dig cremation pits.  Vladek is pictured in page 72.2A, describing the scene.  In 2B, Spiegelman draws prisoners in their uniforms, toiling as they drag dead, naked bodies.  In the back, there is smoke and a prisoner spraying liquid, presumably gasoline.  The caption above reads, “And those what finished in the gas chambers before they got pushed in these graves, it was the lucky ones.  The others had to jump in the graves while still they were alive…” (Spiegelman 72.3B).     The combination of word and image limits the reader’s ability imagine much more than what is described.  Spiegelman’s drawings create for the reader their sense of reality.  They can stomach such images only because they are caricatures of animals.  Were they real images, it would be unbearable, especially considering the following image.  Vladek tells that “Prisoners what worked there poured gasoline over the live ones and the dead ones.  And the fat from the burning bodies they scooped and poured again so everyone could burn better” (Spiegelman 72.3A).  This caption is coupled by the image of many mice, writhing in agony as they burned alive.  Spiegelman effectively draws the reader in with his impressive artwork.  He conveys the severity without causing fright, making the story more enjoyable despite the horror.
            For these reasons, Maus II, is a more accessible text.   It focuses on the generational impact of the Holocaust, broadening the issue from simply one man’s perspective, as seen in The Kindness of the Hangman.  The metanarrative structure throughout the story provides a kind of depth lacking from Oster’s book.  Maus II  highlights Spiegelman’s own insecurities apart from his father’s issues.  He draws himself looking miserable at his desk.  One change is particularly significant: He is no longer a mouse.  Instead, he is a man, wearing a mouse mask.  We see then another level of detachment from the story he created.  He feels like a fraud.   On page 41.3A he reflects on the fact that “at least fifteen foreign editions are coming out.  I’ve gotten 4 serious offers to turn my book into a T.V. special or movie. (I don’t wanna.)  In May 1968, my mother killed herself.  (She left no note.)  Lately I’ve been feeling depressed.”  He sits, head hanging down at his desk.  It is atop a mass of decomposing corpses piled high.  Clearly, he is dealing with guilt, feeling that he exploited the agonies of others.  The fact that he wears a mask indicates a need to hide, a sense of insecurity, and an element of fear that defines his position as an individual with this backstory.  He struggles in a very pure sense, with multiple generations of survivor’s guilt.
            The visual rhetoric and semiotics within Art Spiegelman’s  Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began, are appropriate and perfect for this generation.  Through a new sort of lens, the graphic narrative, these stories continue to be told over seventy years after the Holocaust.  The shift away from a conventional narrative style could attract an audience that might otherwise be disinterested in literature, something that would not have been possible years ago.  Ultimately both conventional and unconventional Holocaust narratives are an essential part of education.  Especially in a political climate infused with bigotry, racism and hatred, understanding these atrocities––however the stories are told––are essential for the emotional growth of society.  These stories demonstrate for the audience that ignorance and fear of others can spawn hatred, war, and genocide.  For younger readers, Spiegelman’s work is an ideal way to introduce these ideas to them.
             
           

Works Cited
Oster, Henry and Decter Ford. The Kindness of the Hangman. Higgins Bay Press, 2014.
Spiegelman, Art.  Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began. Pantheon Books,
     1986 – 1991.