(Part of this Review appears in The Jewish Chronicle)
Sarah Lightman has built up quite a reputation as an expert on Jewish women graphic artists, writing a PhD on the subject, curating exhibitions and lecturing around the world. Now, after many years in preparation, her own graphic novel The Book of Sarah has been published and at a packed Salon hosted by Nicola Beaumont at Persephone Books, Sarah came to speak about her work with celebrated playwright Julia Pascal.
Anyone expecting cartoon like characters, speech bubbles and lots of images on every page, will get a surprise from this graphic novel. As Lightman told us ‘This is not a normal comic book. I draw like an artist. It is transgressive of comics.’ For each page of the The Book of Sarah contains reproductions of her beautiful art works, mostly intricately realised pencil drawings as she explores her life in a highly original manner with captions underneath in a font based on her handwriting.
Early in the book, Lightman writes ‘Every year during my first three years at the Slade School of Art, I would read from that week’s portion of the Torah…I would mark down my questions and comments in the margins. And then I would travel on the tube to the Slade and show my drawings of my own life story.’ With siblings named Daniel and Esther, she questioned why both of their Biblical namesakes had books named after them, but her namesake, the matriarch Sarah did not. She was told ‘You have a whole section of the Torah named after you, and the Torah is holier than the Writings of the Prophets. But still she demanded a Book of Sarah.’ And this publication is the result. Most of the chapters reflect those in the Bible. Genesis tells of her family background and childhood, Exodus of her leaving London for New York, Bamidbar, the Hebrew title for the Book of Numbers which translates as ‘In the desert’ deals with her return from New York after a failed relationship.
Sarah shared some of the themes of the book with the Salon. She feels that she is following the example of some other great Jewish graphic novelists including Art Spiegelman who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning Maus and above all Charlotte Salomon, the German-Jewish artist who wrote of her life in Germany in the years leading up to the Second World War. Sarah identifies closely with Salomon as they were both Jewish, middle class, with professional parents and had a problematic relationship with a difficult man.
Judaism may be a matrilineal religion but it is still very patriarchal and in Jewish orthodoxy, women’s voices are forbidden and figurative images are prohibited by the second commandment. As a result Sarah wanted to share both her voice and her images. Since she had her son Harry, she also wanted to explore maternity in art – ‘I was art school trained so I knew a great deal of the predominance of the Madonna and Child and wanted to explore contemporary art about motherhood’ she explained. The book contains just a fraction of the drawings she has made. Over the years she has produced thousands of drawings and hundreds of sketchbooks. Her drawings take on average a day.
The book is an absolute joy to read. Lightman goes into surprisingly personal details about her life including her failed relationships and some truly terrible dates. As she writes ‘My drawing enables my catharsis but it is also a stick to beat myself with.’ Several pages are filled with drawings of plastic cups of water, filled to different levels which represent her meetings with her therapist. Under each glass are snippets of what she discussed in therapy. When she meets her husband Charlie, she confides in her anxieties about both her wedding and her fertility. When Harry is born, she alternates between recounting her love of her new son and the drawbacks of motherhood, including a very graphic image of her Caesarean scar. The drawings that accompany her musings include family portraits in a range of styles from realist to expressionist, the homes she has lived in and other key buildings in her life, covers of books that have inspired her and objects of importance to her, for example a particularly beautiful drawing of lace doilies inherited from her great-great-aunt accompanied by the reflection ‘I am just a stitch in time in my family’s intricately woven history.’ I found the more banal drawings perhaps the most moving, such as a succession of pages showing the foods she eats in moments of stress or the packet of Osem chocolate covered wafers that she bought for her dying grandmother to enjoy. The Book of Sarah ends on a positive note with a chapter called Revelations in which Lightman finds some sort of closure and prepares to give up her autobiographical drawings for painting. As Sarah shared with us ‘Now I am ready to paint’.
After the talk, most of those present snapped up a signed copy or two of The Book of Sarah. Thanks to Sarah, to her publisher Corinne Pearlman, herself a talented and very funny graphic novelist, to Julia Pascal for her insightful questions and to Nicola for hosting. We hope to bring another graphic novelist to the Salon in 2020.