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Hannah Arendt by Ken Krimstein

A woman reading a man reading Hannah Arendt

By and
Review | 14 minute read
Ken Krimstein, a renowned cartoonist, has dramatised the life and loves of Hannah Arendt. Lizzie Kaye, a commissioning editor of graphic books, reflects on his biography and its gender politics, while he explains what drew him to his central, female, subject

The written word has its limitations. Misunderstanding and misinterpretation are a fact of any attempt at communication. Once an author has laid down their words, in the order they feel most accurately reflects their thoughts, argument, or narrative arc, they must relinquish all control.

The reader takes over. What they choose to take from a text is beyond the authors control, and each reader will bring a lifetime of baggage to the task. There is no way to avoid this. No one reads the same book, despite the best efforts of the best writers. Reading the written word alone is not a collaborative act.

Reading a graphic novel can be.

Not always, of course. Some are subject to the very same limitations. However, there is an argument to be made that in our increasingly visual times, the graphic novel’s potential readership has finally evolved beyond their prejudices to find the value in the medium. That value has long been recognised by the best graphic novelists, who reject the apparent futility of trying to unify their readers through words alone, and instead aim for something simultaneously more personal and more universal.

They try for a multi-layered truth. They lead the reader through the panels and pages, directing their eyes where they wish and whispering in their ears what they want. It is much easier to read the same graphic novel as someone else. This is a good thing. This means that the medium can be used to explore ever more complex themes, ever more complicated lives. Lives that need contextualising, and humanising.

Ken Krimstein made a bold choice when he set out to present the life of Hannah Arendt as a graphic biography in The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth (Bloomsbury). A traditional cartoonist, Krimstein’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and Prospect magazine among others. He teaches advertising copywriting at DePaul University. He is used to short, sharp, punchy – image and text working quickly to capture attention and convey the message before the reader’s eye has wandered onwards. To have the luxury of over two hundred pages to fully unpack a life must have felt both utterly freeing, and completely overwhelming. I salute his dedication, and bravery. I questioned his sanity.

It must also be said that I bristled, slightly, that this woman should have a male biographer. The graphic novel has proven to be a more welcoming medium for women in recent years, but there is still an assumption that women produce autobiographical works, confessionals, memoirs. They are often beautiful and profound. They are not necessarily ambitious in that they don’t necessarily seek to give us grand narratives or big ideas (though, of course, there are exceptions. There are always exceptions.)

In this instance, I was a little… put out, shall we say. I was annoyed that a female creator could not have been found to act as biographer for this woman. A nonsensical irritation. Harder to put into words, and harder to look at squarely, was my even quieter annoyance that this ‘spot’ in the graphic novel landscape was being taken up by a male author. As though creation of art is a zero-sum game. As though a book this seemingly obscure had fleets of qualified women lining up to dedicate years of their life to the hard grind of producing an engaging and witty biography that also adequately explains complex political theory in layman’s terms. Occasionally, being a good feminist is terribly hard. Occasionally, the ridiculous occurs. It’s tricky.

The graphic biography is also a tricky thing. It works if the subject is well-known: Fidel Castro, for example, or Nick Cave. A recognisable face is a gift to an artist. A good likeness can legitimise a project and draw in a reader at first glance much more successfully than careful research, unfair though that might be. There are only a handful of images of Arendt that have survived, and even those have certainly not led to her features entering the collective consciousness.

Krimstein must begin from a position of disadvantage. He has to promise a lot, and it has to be good. He is asking a great deal of a reader. It is difficult to place who that might be, in fact. Is it the fans of political theory who are already familiar with Arendt’s work? Or is it the fan of the medium – the graphic novel collector seeking to add another literary title to their shelves, one that could sit alongside Feynman or Logicomix and add a little more gravitas to a maligned medium?

I confess myself the latter. I do not know Arendt’s work. I do not read political theory, rarely read philosophy, and do not have a great deal of interest in reading history. I could not begin to comment on the depth of Krimstein’s knowledge, or any bias or lack thereof he exhibits. What I can comment on is how good this graphic novel may be.

The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth is a good graphic novel. Flawed, both in content and execution in some places, but ultimately very, very good. To begin, as an object it is a delight. The paper is thick, luscious and off-white, gentle on the eyes and pleasing to touch. It feels weighty, it feels important, and yet it feels enticing. Inside, the only colour other than black is the green wash of Arendt’s dress. It is an unusual choice, the pop of colour an artist ordinarily reaches for might be red or blue. To see green is a departure, and apparently a fitting one, as Arendt was supposedly known to favour the colour. The sparing use of it draws the readers eye to the heroine on each page, a necessity, as it happens, not least because it helps mitigate against one of the aforementioned flaws…

Krimstein is clearly enamoured of his subject, not only the woman, but the world she inhabited. Arendt is one among many – great thinkers, artists and musicians appear on every other page. Perhaps this is to be expected. Arendt entered Marburg University in 1924, where she became a student of Martin Heidegger. It briefly seems as though she is to be eclipsed in her own life story by her association with this man, which Krimstein deftly avoids, using their relationship as a delicate thread that comes to an end in the final titular escape. Krimstein does, however, suffer a little from the breadth and apparent depth of his own knowledge, and perhaps his enthusiasm for the academic landscape of the time he was writing about.

Page upon page is littered with footnotes. While it is helpful to have the references spelt out, especially when the reader might need a primer in the names that influenced social, political and philosophical change, this does not make for a particularly good experience of sequential art.

A key component, and skill, of the comics artist is the ability to direct the reader’s eye, and therefore attention. Footnotes work in opposition to this. Where one or two, to explain a crucial word or incident are not only excusable but welcome, using them with the abandon that Krimstein does is distracting. The result is that although the reader is left vastly more educated with regards to the who’s and when’s of philosophical discourse in the twentieth century (and earlier – Aristotle gets a footnote) they have their attention pulled away from Arendt herself.

On a practical level, it makes reading the page hard work. Switching between fonts and font sizes is tiring, but Krimstein’s footnotes prove to be informative, sometimes funny, so the reader is disinclined to skip them. This may seem to be a rather pedantic criticism to level, but it speaks to a deeper concern – what is Krimstein attempting to achieve with this book?

To present Arendt as worthy of greater recognition is noble. Yet it takes the full two hundred pages of the book for a solid explanation of Arendt’s work to become clear. This could be largely due to the structure. Krimstein chooses to tell Arendt’s life story through three ‘escapes’, essentially creating a three-act play – a framework that might suit another medium better. The first is her escape from Germany before the outbreak of the Second World War. Leading up to this we learn a little of her childhood, her education, and her relationship and brief love affair with Heidegger. The second escape is from the Camp De Gurs, the internment camp in France where she was held as a foreign national during the war. Arendt simply walked out of the gates one day, and made her way to Portugal, and then on to New York. The third escape is not physical, and is much more subtle. Krimstein decides Arendt’s third escape is from the shadow Heidegger himself cast over her life, and it does not happen until much later.

This rankled. I was already frustrated with having to wade through the sea of footnotes to follow Arendt’s green dress across the pages. It was not lost on me that though it was an interesting story, thrilling in places, I was only catching glimpses of the woman whose mind proved to be so compelling that a host of brilliant men swooned. I wanted to see who she was. I did not want to see her as an object of desire.

In this respect, I am acutely aware that I am a woman, analysing the work of a man, who was giving voice to the story of a woman (using a medium notorious for being traditionally male-dominated). Krimstein does not sexualise her. He does not reduce her to be an object of desire. I saw his presentation of that aspect of her life as a distraction and that is perhaps my own failing in the reading of this work. I did not want her romantic life examined at all. I was still attempting to understand her intellectual one.

The issue here is that there is a degree of ambiguity in Krimstein’s intent. The enjoyment he has in laying out how many great minds were Arendt’s peers means that it is not entirely clear if he is attempting to tell the story of an era through an individual life, or the story of a life with regards to how it was influenced by an era. He achieves the former. I am not entirely certain he achieves the latter. Moments, especially a few in the second part of the book that took place during the lead up to World War Two, are startlingly clear-eyed.

Arendt was Jewish, but her knowledge of the Torah was negligible by her own admission, as Krimstein relates. Her escape from Germany and then again from occupied France is presented as more of an interruption to her intellectual life, and her years in exile in Paris were hardly wasted or suggested to be shrouded in fear. Of the events that took place during the war, it was the loss of her contemporary and friend, Walter Benjamin, that stays with the reader – Arendt was charged with carrying his unpublished manuscript out of Europe. She did so, reading it only when she learned of his death by suicide at the French–Spanish border. By that time, she was on a boat to New York, having acquired visas for herself, her husband and her mother, Martha.

The unsung heroine of this work, and ever-present in her daughter’s life, it seems, was Martha Arendt. I had so many questions about this woman. Her face is rendered by Krimstein as terribly sweet, a round curly head adorned with spectacles. Her charming avatar clearly belied a core of steel. She is referred to frequently by the Arendt character and apparently was her daughter’s staunchest supporter. Krimstein makes little mention of the pressures or discriminations Hannah Arendt might have faced as a woman in the male-dominated environments of university campuses and literary salons. It is not clear if this is a deliberate omission, or if it did not occur to him to do so.

It almost certainly would have come up had the writer of this biography been a woman, and that exploration of Arendt’s life would have been very interesting too. However, by not engaging with that line of questioning at all, Krimstein achieves something incredibly, and increasingly, rare. The reader can forget to consider that Hannah Arendt might have struggled due to her gender. Her personal battles and disappointments, her infatuation with Heidegger, are not presented as failings because she is a woman out of place in a man’s world, but as the normal mistakes made by a young person learning how the world works. This was a breath of fresh air to me, as well as a sharp shock at how much the pressures of womanhood preoccupy a supposedly modern mind (my own). It was a triumphant decision on Krimstein’s part, if that is what it was, and one I hope we see replicated to the extent that it becomes the norm as quickly as possible.

I cannot say that I finished this graphic novel with a solid understanding of Arendt’s work. What I can say is that I am left with the feeling that it can only be a failing on my part that I had no substantive knowledge of Arendt before opening this book. I am glad to have had her introduced to me, even more so using this medium.

The question of why I had no knowledge of her beforehand is perplexing. I do not consider myself poorly read, or badly educated. It could be that a focus on fiction to the exclusion of all else is to blame. It could also be that Arendt’s work has increasingly become topical again in our age, given the state of political discourse in the world.

Womens’ voices are louder than ever, and those that may have previously been drowned out are now actively being amplified. Krimstein was ahead of the curve in conceiving of this project. The book he has created is a thing of beauty, in many ways, and a work that truly is a celebration of an exceptional woman.


A COMIC OF HANNAH ARENDT? YOU’RE JOKING!

By Ken Krimstein

I came to Hannah Arendt with the average BBC Radio 3 listener’s knowledge of her:  something about ‘the banality of evil’; that she coined the term, ‘the origins of Totalitarianism’; and that ‘she certainly smoked a lot.’

But when I started actually reading her work, I was smitten. Starting with her ideas: ‘politics is far too important to be left to the politicians;’ ‘the new always appears in the guise of a miracle;’ ‘prepare for the worst; expect the best; and take what comes’. And yes, ‘the banality of evil’.

What’s more, I was consumed by one overriding question  – what was the life that led to thoughts like these?

So I did what a graphic novelist and cartoonist does.

I got out my pen and started drawing.

And the more I read her work, and histories of modern philosophy and political science, another question started to nag me: ‘Where’s Hannah?’

I was stunned. Her ideas on plurality, innovation, existence, art, were missing. She was missing. I watched a YouTube video of an interview on German television. When she’s asked, ‘Do you see your role among philosophers unusual because you are a woman?’ after taking a thoughtful drag on her cigarette, she says, ‘I’m afraid I have to protest. I don’t belong to the circle of philosophers.’

This was a woman with attitude. Who bit back. I was more obsessed than ever, and more driven than ever to show her life and her thinking, in pictures and words and actions.

I came across a photo. It shows a group of about eighty very distinguished-looking people posed in front of imposing university gates. Every single one of them is a man, except for, second seat in from the right in the first row, a lone woman. Not looking shy or coy or retreating.

You know who that woman is.

Perhaps, ultimately, that’s why I wrote my book. To get her ideas across. To get her life across. To get to hang out with her (which I did, up close and personal at my drawing board for two years). And now that the book is finished, as I find myself constantly reading and re-reading her work, I feel good knowing I’m going to be hanging out with her forever into the future.

‘The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth’ by Ken Krimstein is published by Bloomsbury. Order here

All images above by Ken Krimstein