Ever since Art Spiegelman’s stunning achievement in his Pulitzer Prize winning Maus, other writers with Holocaust stories to tell have been inspired by the creative freedom that the graphic narrative form affords, including an increasing number of women artists. Among the memorable examples of Holocaust fiction and memoirs by child survivors and others are Bernice Eisenstein’s I Was A Child of Holocaust Survivors (2006), Miriam Katin’s We Are On Our Own (2006) and Letting It Go (2013), and Ruto Modan’s The Property (2013).
Now the third generation is also having its say, most recently in Amy Kurzweil’s sparkling, daring and wildly idiosyncratic Flying Couch, an extraordinary tapestry woven from both painful and uproarious family stories, dreamscapes, and other surreal flights of fancy (such as sequences in which the patriarch Jacob, Freud, and Herzl appear before the young artist with their incompatible agendas) and poignant episodes from Amy’s own Bildungsroman.
Everything is large in this constantly gripping, beautifully illustrated and entertaining memoir, beginning with the evocative dedication “For the women who made me,” inscribed over smiling illustrations of two of the novel’s three stubborn and persistent protagonists: Kurzweil’s mother and grandmother. The third hero is, of course, Amy herself. The narrative scope is ambitiously expansive, imaginatively navigating between her grandmother Bubbe’s harrowing struggles in the Warsaw Ghetto and Polish countryside where she passes (barely) as a gentile, scenes from Amy’s vexing relationship with her psychotherapist mother, her sojourn in Israel and angst-filled days as a college student amid the bewildering politics of campus activism, and later as a struggling artist. Somehow this all coheres: the dizzying multiplicity of choices, lifestyles, and opportunities available to Amy form a sharp contrast to her grandmother’s tragically foreclosed horizons as a young person — especially evident in the variety of contemporary Judaisms available to Amy’s generation, when the denial of any Jewish faith was essential to Bubbe’s very survival. Kurzweil sensitively renders evocative moments of both unity and disunity between the generations. In that respect, Kurzweil’s portrayal of Bubbe may put some readers in mind of Vladek, Spiegelman’s prickly and exasperating father as portrayed in Maus; both figures underscore how the very traits that enable survival in unimaginable circumstances may prove alienating to others.
Kurzweil’s hilariously acerbic but consistently empathic portrayal of her mother’s and grandmother’s foibles — as well as her own — amounts to a winning blend of whimsy and somber notes. These portraits of three prickly and spirited women will undoubtedly enthrall anyone who was won over by Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast’s searing memoir about the aging and mortality of her parents. It is no small claim that Kurzweil’s fortunate readers will just as readily laugh out loud and be brought to tears in reading Flying Couch; nor is it any small feat to manage the difficult challenge Kurzweil undertakes in this work to juxtapose the past and present in such thoughtful and original ways.
Throughout the book, Kurzweil makes inventive use of hand-drawn maps and old family photographs to create a rich family portrait that subtly underscores how each woman has sought to create a sense of belonging and self. Flying Couch’s most affecting episodes interweave the voices of others, most memorably Bubbe’s poignant and agonizing memories of survival amidst true horror. In one touching interlude she recalls wandering in the woods, still a child and bereft of her family, during the months of her ordeal, wondering:
What am I? I would try to say a little bit of Yiddish words to myself, but I was so scared. I couldn’t do it. Even all alone like that, they were locked up inside me. I didn’t think the Jews existed anymore. I thought, I’m the only one.
Kurzweil proves a sophisticated artist whose imaginationis brimming with compassion as well as psychological observation and insight. Flying Couch is as profound a book on the transmission of traumatic memory through the generations as one could hope for. It is also an immensely charming coming-of-age story and family memoir whose warm humor will surely evoke recognition and delight readers across the generations.
And yes, even your grandmother can read it — particularly thanks Flying Couch’s oversized format and bold lettering.
Hear Amy Kurzweil speak about her work together with fellow graphic storytellers Eli Valley, Amy Kurzweil, and Rocket Chair Media at Ink Bleeds History: Reclaiming and Redrawing the Jewish Image in Comics Thursday, November 3, 2016 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Register online for free admission!
- Tahneer Oksman: Where Should the Story Begin? The Worlds of Holocaust Memoirs
- Comics and Graphic Literature Reading List
- Tahneer Oksman: Drawing a Room of Her Own
Ranen Omer-Sherman is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Louisville and editor of the forthcoming book Amos Oz: The Legacy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond.