The astounding life of a 20th-century original as told by a skillful cartoonist frolicking in long form.
This creative biography takes considerable liberties in retelling the story of Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), the German political theorist who fled the Nazis to Paris before settling in the United States and becoming the first female professor at Princeton. Krimstein (Communications/DePaul Univ.; Kvetch as Kvetch Can: Jewish Cartoons, 2010), who draws for the New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal, among others, ventriloquizes the writer’s thoughts and conversations, an approach that risks making her into a “Great Philosophers” finger puppet. However, he bases this narrative bricolage on well-regarded Arendt biographies and intellectual histories as well as her own writing. Moreover, the book relates the starkest moments in a tumultuous life without trivializing—e.g., Arendt’s arrest and detainment for researching Nazi propaganda and her time in a French work camp. Krimstein’s wry, expressive faces enliven the debates and lend poignancy to the turmoil that beset Arendt and her circle of intellectual refugee friends, including Walter Benjamin, who vouchsafed his final manuscript with Arendt just before his death. Krimstein shares his wonder at the richness of Arendt's networks in countless name-dropping cameos supported by lengthy but skimmable footnotes. Arendt’s coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trials in Jerusalem alienated her from her community of American Zionist supporters, and her infamous affair with her one-time professor and Nazi sympathizer Martin Heidegger, revealed after her death and illustrated here in moments of overt historical fiction, further damaged the popular reception of her work. This timely reimagining revives her distinctive existential spirit and dwells on her theory of the “abyss,” the rip in the fabric of humanity she attributed to totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. The irony remains that this book celebrates—even as it violates—Arendt’s arguments for keeping public and private lives separate. Perhaps the cartoons’ hasty, unfinished style acknowledges the unbridgeable distance between the author and the personalities he imaginatively inhabits.
A compelling performance with great pacing that makes abstruse political theory both intelligible and memorable.