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Maurice Sendak, King of All Wild Things

Page 4 of 6

"People who objected to Mickey bathing in milk and floating naked – every part of his body having asensuous experience... as if that's naughty. Why? Why are we all so screwed up, including me? But at least creatively I try to convey the memory of a time in life when it was a pleasure.

"I don't understand the destructive aspect. In my little cartoon, the baby eats the mother – on the surface, what could be more destructive? But in fact the child doesn't think of it as a destructive act, it's the most natural thing to him: if you have that much of the mother, have more!"

"Well," I interject, "someone could look at it another way: mother destroys child/child destroys mother."

"That's just mental maneuvering to me," Maurice replies. "I take from the image as much as it's necessary for me to use creatively. I'm not going to analyze it. Now I'm not against psychology or analysis on principle. I'm sure that the things I draw – little boys flying and falling – reveal something. In one sense it seems very obviously Freudian, as if coming out of my own analysis. People fear that analysis will castrate and dry up artists, but it's just the contrary, in my opinion: it gives wonderful clues and cues as to what you're doing. I don't think of what I'm creating in strict Freudian terms, but surely it's a result of the fact that a large part of my 20s was spent on the analyst's couch. And it enriched and deepened me and gave me confidence to express much that I might not have without it.

"Coming back to the fantasy sketch: the bird is in there because birds were my father's favorite fairy tale symbol. He used to tell stories of birds taking children away. And I think that they enter into a lot of my things because it's an image of his that has always appealed to my heart.

"Incidentally, I did another and earlier version of this sketch in the Fifties, and in that version the baby comes out of the fish, the mother is there – furious that the baby's been lost – turns the baby over on her knee and spanks him. And he, in his rage, this tiny baby in his little diaper, pulls away from her, pulls out a gun and shoots her dead.

"That sketch, shall we say, was unsynthesized. Whatever it was, it certainly was blatant, and I think that this later one is much better. The earlier version was done while my mother was living, and this one after she died. So, obviously, I've thought and rethought a lot about her during that interval."

"I was reading recently," I say, "that certain librarians were covering up Mickey's little penis in copies of Night Kitchen and that others had suggested that you draw in a little diaper on Mickey in later editions of the book. But take a look at these illustrations I brought up to show youfrom Jacques Stella's 17th-century Games and Pastimes of Childhood – all of them depicting naked little putti capering and frolicking."

"It's an amazing coincidence," Maurice exclaims. "I was given this book again recently because my new work is in part concerned with babies doing odd things, and I've been looking at the book for weeks. The illustrations are beautiful... and strange. There's an hallucinatory quality about them: they're just children playing games, but why are they all naked? Yet we often make a mistake of reading heavy, tedious, psychological overtones into things that in the 17th and 18th centuries weren't considered that way at all. I couldn't do that book today, I'd be thrown out of the country. But that book is a classic. Adults will take their kids to museums to see a lot of peckers in a row on Roman statues and say: That's art, dearie, and then come home and burn In the Night Kitchen. Where's the logic in that? Art in people's minds is desexualized, and that would make the great artists sick.

"In the illustrations I just completed for Randall Jarrell's Fly by Night – the last book he wrote for children before he died – I have an eight-year-old boy flying naked in a dream. I tried to draw the boy first with pajamas – he looked too much like Wee Willie Winkie. Then I tried him in underwear, and it looked like an ad for Fruit of the Loom. I tried him wrapped in sheets and blankets, but it looked too baroque. He had to be naked. But I know they're going to say it's typically me, arbitrarily making somebody nude. I had a picture showing a girl with her vagina in full view in The Light Princess, and nobody made a fuss about that, which makes me think that the whole world is male chauvinist – vaginas don't count."

"What's Fly by Night about?" I ask Maurice.

"It's a dream: the boy David dreams. Every night he dreams he floats. During the daytime he tries to remember that he can float at night, but he can't. When he wakes up he can't remember. And the entire story is about what happens to him in this one dream. He floats out of his house, over certain animals, and each of the animals has a little poem written by Jarrell – they're delicious poems – and yet they're much deeper, with a kind of funny, starved feeling in them.

"David meets the owl, floats into her nest, and she sings David and her baby a song about getting a little sister and being taken care of by a mother. For me, that's what the whole book is about – it may or may not have been for Randall. It's about being starved for a mother or for safety or protection or for some place where you can nest or land or be.

"It has a happy ending. David comes home, floats back into his bed, and when he wakes up, there's his mother who's made breakfast for him. He looks at her, she looks familiar – someone looks just like her. Of course it's the owl, he's losing all memory of his dream.

"I drew myself as a baby in it – you can see me in my mother's arms in the book's only double-spread picture. And I may have taken a very lopsided and fanciful view of the story, but what I read into it was a great hunger pain – that longing I once felt in Jarrell's The Animal Family – and I interpreted it as a looking-for-mama pain... Maybe it's my pain.

"Come back next week," Maurice says to me, "and I'll tell you the rest."

Mozart and The Man in the Moon

Maurice has three dogs: Agamemnon, a male shepherd; Erda, a female shepherd; and Io, a female retriever. "Zeus had a fling with Io," Maurice says, "and jealous Hera transformed her into a bull calf who was bitten by a gadfly throughout eternity. The minute I saw Io, she looked like a victim – blond and beautiful."

Aggie and Erda are forever immortalized in the dream sequence of Sendak's latest cartoon book, Some Swell Pup, or Are You Sure You Want a Dog? Written in collaboration with Matthew Margolis, director of the National Institute of Dog Training, the book is an echt-Sendak burlesque, telling a cautionary tale of two kids and how they learn to train and love their rambunctious new puppy – which ironically takes on the role of the stereotypical unruly child – with the guidance of a caftanned canine saint.

"I love this book," I say to Maurice the following week, having read Some Swell Pup in the interval. "How did it come about?"

"Matthew suggested the ideas about puppy rearing, and I found a group of scenes for them and refashioned his language. The rules had to be simplified and humorized because we wanted kids to enjoy it.

"I was looking for real crazy kids who could act out these little scenes, and so I chose the two I had first used some years back in a sequence of drawings for Family Circle magazine and who later appeared as the players of King Grisly-Beard. Matthew and I realized that these two would be perfect. She's an aggressive and hysterical yenta, and he's a passive and selfish kid. Their secret names, by the way, are Vernon and Shirley. She's really a Shirley, and he's a real vaserdiker gornisht type."

"It's certainly the wittiest tale about how to get gently and humanely socialized that I've ever read," I say. "Just compare it to the typical late-Georgian English stories for children whose 'message,' as the critic Gillian Avery once put it, was: 'Be punctual and diligent, obedient and dutiful, do not lie or thieve or blow up your sister, beware of mad dogs and gaming, and you will live to be a successful sugar planter and give your rivals a handsome funeral.' But Some Swell Pup is all about true human nature and relationships and patience and acceptance and love and light and... "

"... and orifices," Maurice adds.

"It's probably your most complete work."

"Jesus, I hope not," Maurice replies. "In terms of orifices it is. One reviewer said: 'There's all this fuss about whether the puppy is a girl or a boy, but we don't even see the anatomical truth.' The reviewer thought I'd gotten coy. But, I mean, how do you show a puppy's sex organ? You'd have to have a microscope to see it at that stage."

"I just saw another review, Maurice, in which the writer spends most of her time commenting on puppy poop."

"Naturally. What does she say?"

I read: "Sendak is up front about dog droppings, liberally sprinkling in piles and puddles and deliberately risking a flap similar to the one over frontal nudity in Night Kitchen."

"Here we go again," he sighs with resigned good humor.

Maurice invites me to drive with him to the veterinarian's to pick up Aggie. To cheer him up, I quote what I think is an appropriate little vignette that appears in Gustav Janouch's Conversations with Kafka. Janouch writes:

"Out of a house in the Jakobsgasse, where we had arrived in the course of our discussion, ran a small dog looking like a ball of wool, which crossed our path and disappeared round the corner of the Tempelgasse.

" 'A pretty little dog,' I said.

" 'A dog?' asked Kafka suspiciously, and slowly began to move again.

" 'A small, young dog. Didn't you see it?'

" 'I saw. But was it a dog?'

" 'It was a little poodle.'

" 'A poodle? It could be a dog, but it could also be a sign. We Jews often make tragic mistakes.' "

Maurice laughs so hard he almost has to stop driving. "It could be a dog, but it could also be a sign. What book is that?"

"Janouch was a teenager when he met Kafka. Kafka befriended him, and Janouch later wrote down and published their conversations, which are filled with wonderful statements such as: 'Art like prayer is a hand outstretched in the darkness, seeking for some touch of grace which will transform it into a hand that bestows gifts. Prayer means casting oneself into the miraculous rainbow that stretches between becoming and dying, to be utterly consumed in it, in order to bring its infinite radiance to bed in the frail little cradle of one's own existence... Life is as infinitely great and profound as the immensity of the stars above us, One can only look at it through the narrow keyhole of one's own personal existence. But through it one perceives more than one can see. So above all one must keep the keyhole clean.' "

"That's too much," Maurice says. "It's so wonderful it's like getting drunk. Whistle-clean keyholes... every metaphor describes his own work. You didn't know this, but one of my fantasy projects has always been to illustrate Kafka. For years I've been thinking about it, wondering whether I was old enough to do it – just as I waited until I thought I was old enough to do The Juniper Tree. He's one of the few writers who could express the act of creating so beautifully. I feel so close to him. The only difference is that he's a genius."

"I've noticed," I mention to Maurice, "that a lot of the theatrical performances that take place in your books – Higglety Pigglety Pop! and King Grisly-Beard especially – share certain characteristics with the Nature Theater of Oklahoma as Kafka describes it in Amerika."

"To put it midly," Maurice responds. "Where do you think I got it from? From there and from Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos – characters and an impresario looking for a performance. I love opera, theater, pantomime, ballet, and I've tried to express this love and appreciation in my books."

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