Book of a lifetime: Maus, By Art Spiegelman


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The Independent Culture

In 1987, when I was 15, I read Maus by Art Spiegelman and, like everyone else, I found it brilliant: telling via a comic strip the story of his father, deported to Auschwitz, with the Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice. For the first time, I heard people talk about the "graphic novel".

This pompous term, which at bottom only means a comic-strip for adults with higher-than-average artistic ambitions, conceals the essential thing about Maus: that it's at the same time a "non-fiction novel" and a "meta-novel". In fact, even if I didn't then realise it, that was what I found brilliant: to tell a true story and to tell the circumstances of its reconstruction; to alternate the story of his father, young in 1940, with autobiographical sequences in which the author stages his interviews with his father in old age.

I took ten years to write HHhH, during which time I read hundreds of books about the Second World War - studies, novels, testimonies. In HHhH, I cite dozens of books and films, but not Maus. I recount the attack on Heydrich in Prague in 1942 and, at the same time, I recount my researches, my doubts, my hesitations - a whole methodological investigation into the best way to tell a true story.

At the time, I was almost convinced that I'd invented a new genre and I formed the concept of the "infra-roman" (a narrative that resorts to all the techniques of the novel, except fiction). But anglo-saxon journalists made me aware that there already was a term in English for that: the "non-fiction novel". They cited In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Except that, in his novel, Capote says nothing about his inquiries. It doesn't have the "meta-novel" dimension.

When I was asked if I had models, I didn't quite know what to say: I love Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman, but it's an old-fashioned novel, a kind of War and Peace at Stalingrad. More and more journalists suggested, to my great pleasure, that I might indeed have invented a new literary genre. And then one day, I realised: no, my brilliant device, this mixture of "non-fiction" and "meta-fiction", repeats very precisely that of Maus. Perhaps, without Art Spiegelman, I could have been been considered the effective inventor of a new genre. Except that, without Art Spiegelman, I couldn't have written HHhH.

Laurent Binet's novel 'HHhH' is published in paperback by Vintage