Nadja Spiegelman’s memoir of her life, her mother’s and her grandmother’s is utterly compelling, infuriating and deeply familiar. It exists on two separate levels: the fascinating and heartbreaking stories and patterns across so many generations of women in that family; and the endless fight against subjectivity, the debate on truth. Just because facts contradict memory, does that make the memory less formative if it is so deeply felt? It is a contemporary approach to non-fiction storytelling that openly recounts its own writing process and struggles, and debates issues of objectivity and reliability of memory in its own pages. Part of my curiosity in picking up this book is that Spiegelman is the daughter of Art Spiegelman, the author of Maus, a groundbreaking heartbreaking graphic novel series that I both studied and adored. Maus is the story of Art Spiegelman’s parents, Nadja Spiegelman’s paternal grandparents, during World War II. The fallibility and frailty of human witness is so acute here, both in the larger picture of experienced history and in the intricacies of relationships. In it, as Nadja Spiegelman jokes, she is an asterisk when she is born; her mother Françoise Mouly plays a small role with the sensical support of her husband. Here, Art Spiegelman plays that role; despite my fascination with him as a creator and storyteller himself, he is incidental to this story.
And in this family tale it is not the facts of the people or the story that are the draw card – while they are talented, interesting people whose collective stories have witnessed most major events throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries to date – but in how the story is told. Spiegelman must find out more about her mother, about her becoming; on the cusp of graduation she looks around and realises her distracted, fractious feelings can be directed toward this project. But in it, she sees that she cannot understand her mother without also coming to know her mother’s mother Josée. So after her mother left Paris for New York, Spiegelman leaves New York and goes to Paris and delve into the history of another mother.
On the surface, this is the journey the book takes. I enjoyed how open Spiegelman was about the process of learning, the process of extracting, the process of writing. Never are you in the hands of an amateur – she does build these multiple conversations into timelines – but you see her as she works and you can appreciate the result as well as what it has taken to get there. This content I found gripping; painful. The influence each generation of women exerted over each others’ lives; the patterns and mistakes and cycles each falls into and makes. Whether we see them or not, are we destined to inherit the scars of our mothers? Spiegelman and Françoise’s relationship played out the dramas that Françoise and Josée enacted decades before; an unwitting encore. Of course, it is those who love us best who hurt us the most.
But also it is about meaning in ideals of truth. The blurb on the back says this book is about “how each generation reshapes the past”, but I think it’s more specific than that: I think it’s about the story each generation develops, retells, narrates. It is not the shaping of our own life but how we remember, recall, record, our experiences of others and our memories of their own stories that they have shared with us. And here is where things turn controversial. So much conflict between the women is caused by memory. From a conservation between Spiegelman and Françoise:
“‘Facts are transformed by being recounted,’ she said. ‘They’re turned into stories.’…
‘But still,’ I said, ‘it’s nonfiction. All the events are real events.’
‘No,’ she said. ‘We construct reality. When I tell you I don’t remember if something actually happened or not, it’s because for me it’s the same thing. There’s no way to know if my memories are solid.’ She slapped the book she was holding to emphasise the word.”
Daughter contradicts mother contradicts grandmother; there is a fierce love underlying it as they each battle for their shaping of the story to be the one recorded, written, shared and remembered by the others. It is an understandable, unwinnable fight; upsetting and excusable.
For me, in the end, this early anecdote from one of Speigelman’s parents’ dinner parties had a heavy meaning by the time I had read the last pages:
“‘One morning in the country, while Paul was still sleeping, our daughter and I saw a bird – it was a vision – through the window. A heron, majestic. I held her and we watched it in silence,’ Siri said. ‘Later, I overheard Paul tell the story at a party – but now he had seen the heron. He had held Sophie. I hadn’t been there at all! Because of course we had told him all about it.’
‘I really thought I had seen it,’ Paul said with a gravelly laugh, an open sweep of the cigarillo in his hand.
‘And I believe him,’ Siri said, leaning forward, her blue eyes wide and earnest. ‘And it doesn’t matter. The point is: the heron was seen.'”
Despite our struggle we can never access the one true version of events, one true version of ourselves. It does not exist. It changes with time, with memory, with who is doing the remembering. But when this reality is applied to recalling stories of family battles or childhood struggles this can cause a deep pain, something Spiegelman both manages well in writing as well as dealing with herself.