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A graphic portrayal of an admirable woman

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The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth by Ken Krimstein (Bloomsbury)

The lives of some public figures are defined by a single act or event: John F. Kennedy’s assassination; Richard Nixon blubbering that he was not a crook; Andy Warhol’s off-the-cuff remark about everyone wanting their 15 minutes of fame.

For the eminent, and still influential, philosopher and political thinker Hannah Arendt, it was her attendance at the 1961 trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Israel, and the essays she contributed about it to The New Yorker, that came to define her. Her magazine instalments, titled “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” were among the first detailed, popularly read English-language accounts of the German destruction of European Jewish life.

Arendt’s portrayal of Eichmann in his glass booth – “medium-sized, slender, middle-aged, with receding hair, ill-fitting teeth and near-sighted eyes” – along with her account of survivor witnesses and the Israeli judges, became a singular historical document of its time.

Cartoonist Ken Krimstein’s graphic novel, The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth, is notable for the low-key presence of the best-known events in Arendt’s life.

Krimstein decided not to apply his considerable talent for caricature to Eichmann’s face. There is just one roughly sketched rendering of him, almost an unfinished portrait, that appears near the end of the book.

The face of Martin Heidegger, Arendt’s youthful mentor at the University of Marburg and her eventual lover, is redrawn and riffed on more than 50 times. The German philosopher was, in Krimstein’s telling, Arendt’s bête noire, a devil on her shoulder whose influence it took most of a lifetime to overthrow.

A quick Internet search reveals the rich array of photographs of Arendt that Krimstein relied on to create his graphic version of her life. His portrayal of her as a young girl with her mother, as a cigarette-smoking, Weimar-era bohemian and as a renowned thinker in postwar Manhattan, are familiar, but embellished with Krimstein’s own stylistic flourishes.

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The Three Escapes is distinguished on the page by its colour scheme. Most of its artwork is in greys and blacks, while many pages have a distinctive touch of green, which is applied to Arendt’s clothing. From her childhood in Koenigsberg, Prussia, to her glory days on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Arendt stands out against the inky grey world around her.

The artwork of The Three Escapes is its greatest success. Its subject’s life and ideas are presented with humour and variety, in a style reminiscent of the cartoons Krimstein contributes to The New Yorker.

Krimstein has a complicated historical tale to tell. Arendt’s escape from Nazi-run Berlin, her idiosyncratic relationship with men, her bond with the doomed Jewish-German writer Walter Benjamin and her uncompromising approach to her public intellectual’s life are presented with care.

Dedicated readers may notice an odd continuity error. Arendt, in a telephone call from Jerusalem, circa 1961, would not have referred to the events being discussed in the courtroom as the “Shoah.” That word had yet to gain currency. And it was not until her New Yorker pieces were published as a book in 1963 that they gained the provocative subtitle, “A Report on the Banality of Evil.”

A further challenge is Krimstein’s decision, after a few hundred lively, often funny pages, to conclude with a reconsideration of Arendt’s philosophical positions. Though this may be true to his subject’s late-in-life challenges, the graphic novel is not a genre that is quite up to the task.

The book’s list of concluding concerns is weighty and long: the “abyss” of the German genocide, the professional responsibilities of a philosopher, the dangers of totalitarian thinking, the notion that the jazz improvisations of John Coltrane parallel Arendt’s thought and individualism, and the demands of a post-Holocaust Zionist culture in Israel.

All of this and more comes roaring at the reader in the final pages of The Three Escapes. What comes across is the breadth of Arendt’s work, her activist commitment as a thinker and writer, and her willingness to confront the key questions and movements of postwar Jewish life.

Krimstein’s whimsically pencilled, green-tinted Arendt, striding across the page, conveys how little we know about the woman who took careful measure of the man in the glass booth.