I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This
If we see the modern memoir as a route towards the self, its measure might be taken by the nature of the trip: is the driver speeding or taking you on a languorous country jaunt? Life is short, and I sometimes feel long memoirs should be criminalised – but then you get an author as open and thoughtful as Nadja Spiegelman, and you only wish the drive were even more circuitous; the scenery is wonderful, and the observations wry.
The author is, of course, the daughter of Art Spiegelman, whose graphic memoir of his own father’s experience of the Holocaust, Maus, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, when Nadja was five. Nadja’s birth appears with an asterisk in Maus – “Nadja Mouly Spiegelman. Born 5/13/87” – a footnote Nadja slyly reproduces. Art Spiegelman appears here, as does the Holocaust, but Nadja’s real topic is her mother, Françoise Mouly.
Mouly was first co-editor, with Spiegelman, of RAW, the groundbreaking anthology of countercultural and formalist comics, and since 1993 has been art editor of The New Yorker, its arbiter of dazzling and still groundbreaking covers. That Nadja’s memoir, built from many years of interviews with Françoise, echoes her father’s project is briefly acknowledged by both interviewer and subject. And indeed, both books are about digging holes through family history, and locating the connections between relatives separated by different times.
To say that Françoise was a bold woman would be to sell her short. “My mother wasn’t perfect,” Nadja writes. “My mother was intense. Things didn’t happen because they were possible, they happened because she decided they would. She once fit a couch through a door frame that was several inches too small simply by pushing with all her strength and saying, ‘Couch, go in!’ ” Having run away from Paris to New York in the 1970s, she “disdained most dangers as American constructs, invented by timid women who washed their vegetables”. She was such a forceful person, so committed, so self-possessed, that Nadja “developed a code in my sporadically kept diaries – a big circled R on each page that detailed a fight with my mother, a reminder to myself that these events were ‘REAL.’ ”
But Nadja’s memoir is not a document of grievance, perhaps the expected stance for memoirs by the children of interesting and famous parents. Instead, the book is as affectionate as it is detailed, and the affection is deepened by this attention to detail, Nadja’s willingness to explore her subjects’ difficult sides. These difficult traits are not limited to Françoise, or even Françoise and Nadja; the author illuminates four generations of Mouly women, all of whom are fascinating people with interesting attitudes and strange lives. When Nadja’s research turns up darker findings than she expected, there’s something almost tender in her provision of space to explore wounds while also surrounding those wounds with substantial amounts of context. The implied argument is that it’s this support, rather than the wounds, that makes families what they are – but the reader is also given enough information to make up their own mind. Again: it’s a memoir that observes rather than judges.
In the same vein, the texture of memory is a constant theme: the thick connections formed between people when memories and storytelling practices align, and the odd things that happen to memories when they are not shared, which is perhaps where personality comes from. When is a memory subordinated to a story – and when does a story transform into a myth? As Nadja writes: “The stories we use to create our sense of self … are also the ones over which we have most heavily embroidered.”
In other words, memories might have value apart from truth – they might be deployed or buried in a range of ways according to the different needs of selfhood, art and family. When Françoise locates a diary that contradicts the chronology of a story she’s recounting for Nadja, she sets it aside and continues to tell the story as she remembers it. This may sound like a thin theme – memory is contingent, obviously – but it’s baked so deeply into the foundation of this memoir that it manages to feel very new. Memories are rewritten so often and so engagingly in this book that by the end it feels remarkable that people are able to function as contiguous beings, responsible for our actions and accountable for our pasts, not least to our mothers, daughters and granddaughters.
Who is Nadja? A person fluent in many ways of being. Françoise, she writes, is “hard and tight as a metal coil, and I was shapelessness and mush”. Nadja is excellent at remembering, with a brilliant eye for the hilarious, disquieting and uncanny, as when she zeroes in on the strangeness of a primary school class wherein students were asked to list what they liked about the opposite sex; or when a high school boyfriend wrote a poem comparing her orgasm to a tsunami, which reads as excellent rather than silly. Nadja’s own life is what binds the stories of her family together, but for much of the book she deploys herself homoeopathically – an anecdote here, a line of dialogue there, drawing much of her power from her own scarcity.
But late in the text, when Nadja has been working on the book for several years, Françoise finds a draft that her daughter has accidentally left on the home computer. Françoise reports that although she recognises herself in the parts about her own childhood, this feeling leaves the manuscript as soon as Nadja is born. “For example,” she tells Nadja, “you say my lipstick was perfectly applied. But I never wear lipstick! You’re the one whose lipstick is perfectly applied.” This is true, Nadja realises: Françoise’s make-up practices are always centred on the eyes. And so the self, in this novelistic and outward-focused memoir, may not be so scarcely present after all. CR
Text, 384pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 6, 2016 as "Nadja Spiegelman, I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This ". Subscribe here.