LIVE from the NYPL: Art Spiegelman in Conversation with Paul Holdengräber

by Virgina Harabin

The woman sitting behind me had invited a friend, but she hadn’t thought to get him a ticket. Now, she is sorry because none are left. We’re all tense, excited, soaked from the cold rain and beginning to steam a little. I had made it upstream from Penn Station, eyes intact, despite all the umbrellas blooming above the heads of thousands of rushing midtown New Yorkers.

We are at the New York Library to see LIVE from the NYPL’s host Paul Holdengräber interview the graphic artist Art Spiegelman, contributing artist at the New Yorker and author of Maus, the renowned graphic novel. Tonight we are there to hear Spiegelman talk about the most recent book and artist he has taken under his wing, The Parade: An Artist’s Odyssey, by graphic artist Si Lewen. First published in 1957, the New York Times called The Parade “an eloquent and vigorous protest against war’s horror and futility.”

In summer of 2016, Spiegelman shepherded Lewen’s epic, wordless, graphic narrative of recurring war back into print with an innovative new design. Parade, printed as a folio of images, depicts war as Lewen experienced it over the past 90 years. Compelling images show the joyful parades Lewen witnessed as a child, marking the end of World War I and leading into the death marches of World War II and the Korean War.

As a buyer for an independent bookstore, Labyrinth Books in Princeton, New Jersey, it’s my pleasure to select books for the store. Every season we enjoy many fleeting excitements, but more rarely, there are enduring discoveries—those most anticipated, most cherished publications, books that renew, innovate, and some that bring back something that was lost. For me, one of those books is Parade.

Paul Holdengräber and Art Spiegelman by Virginia Harabin

Inside the Celeste Bartos Forum, Holdengräber and Spiegelman sit like old friends before a fire. Deliberate, gentle, lightly rasping, Holdengräber is so well prepared, he’s unworried about how the conversation might go. “Two ears, one mouth,” he says at one point, evoking a bit of maternal wisdom.

The ensuing conversation will take no straight course because Holdengräber and Spiegelman are actually listening and responding to each other. They explode in gentle chatter and then defer to one another. Good-natured digressions and interruptions abound. It’s hard to stay on one subject, but everywhere they go is a discovery.

It’s a little humbling to encounter Art Spiegelman in person. This gigantic talent—creator of genre-exploding narratives that have transformed storytelling in our time, a courageous voice in world debates about representation of the sacred among so many other questions—dwells inside a fragile man who, when prompted to describe himself to Holdengräber in seven words, chooses grumpy, sleepy, bashful, sickly, dopey, sneezy, and anxious.

Art Spiegelman by Virginia Harabin

Born in 1918, Si Lewen fled from Poland to Germany. In 1934, possessed of resourcefulness as well as luck, Si was one of the few to score entry into the US. Yet it was in the land of refuge that he was met with brutality when a Brooklyn cop, hostile to his accent, rowed him out onto a pond and smashed his skull with a nightstick. The pain and humiliation led Si to a suicide attempt. When the war broke out, Si joined the elite intelligence unit known as the Ritchie Boys. As such, Si was among the first Americans to enter Buchenwald. Si wrote that he had seen the world for what it was: “a slaughterhouse, a bordello, an insane asylum, run by butchers, pimps, and madmen …” He endured another breakdown, but when he returned to painting after convalescence, his pictures were devoid of black and full of translucent light. The beautiful paintings commanded high prices in the post-war art market.

Lewen, whom Spiegelman calls the world’s most God-fearing atheist, continued to be haunted, literally it seems, by visions, by ghosts—suffering, angry, and anguished, but also drunk, stupid, humorous.

In the latter part of his life, Lewen destroyed or intended to destroy much of his own work as part of a great refusal to participate in the buying and selling he came to find intolerable. Lewen’s work might be lost to us entirely without Spiegelman, whose own art has transformed our ability to see and appreciate the brilliance of what Lewen was doing all his life.

The Parade is somber to look at, and yet its beauty and pathos compel our attention to nearly unbearable witness, an epic march of humanity from the anguished past into the terrifying present.

With Spiegelman’s support, Se Lewen’s Parade, a monumental “multipytich”—a wordless epic march of innocent, ignorant patriots rushing to embrace war, leading to devastation, horrors, and pathos—has been edited into a brilliantly designed volume that achieves Lewen’s lifelong goal to create pictures that can “talk to each other.” At his first museum visit, young Si Lewen stood in the galleries and said how he wished the pictures were placed closer together so they could talk to each other. An essay by Spiegelman gives us an affectionate glimpse of the artist’s long and traumatic life. It’s an act of love and a profound act of witness.

Spiegelman has plenty of words and anecdotes. Preparing to show a five-minute video featuring the images that link together in Si Lewen’s epic narrative, Spiegelman tells us that the presentation has been modified.

“I was showing this in Lubbock, Texas,” he says. “And we had set it to music. I had some kind of technical issue and I asked for help. The tech guy was a Trump supporter and I guess he didn’t like me. I got on the mic and said, ‘Can we get some help?’”

“And this guy was just like, ‘Nope, nothing I can do!’

”I had to go on, so we showed the video in silence. And I think that’s better, actually.”

When the video finished, Holdengräber cradles the gorgeous bird of a book that spills out and spirals from his hands. “I can’t quite explain the tactile inebriation I feel.” Spiegelman smiles because the book was designed to fulfill a lifetime ambition.

Drawing on his experience marketing gum cards at point of sale, Speigelman set out to create a board exoskeleton for the book—a sleeve for the landscape format that allows the book to fit upright on a bookshelf with a readable spine. “For bookstores,” he explains. “So that bookstore, the ones that are left,” he says, with deliberate irony, “will like putting it on the shelf.”

Such thoughtful practicality in making a book that will last has greatly endeared Speigelman to the heart of this bookstore worker.

“While the book is supposedly dying, it’s possible to make much more beautiful books than ever,” he adds.

Before Lewen died at the age of 97 in June 2016, Spiegelman brought him a finished copy of the book, which he held in his sore, proud hands.

For more information about the LIVE from the NYPL Spring series, click here: LIVE from the NYPL.

Virginia Harabin is the General Manager and book buyer for Labyrinth Books in Princeton, New Jersey. She’s always at work on comix stories and memoirs, as well as radical dog training comix: Waggers of the World Unite!

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