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Maurice Sendak, King of All Wild Things

Page 5 of 6

 

At the vets, Aggie seems to be feeling better, and when we arrive back at Maurice's, he happily greets Erda and Io, and off they go running around the grounds. Maurice keeps a watchful eye on them as we sit under the trees, and I ask him about the new picture book he's just started.

"This will be the last part of my trilogy that began with Wild Things and Night Kitchen. And of the three, this one will be the strangest. Wild Things now seems to me to be a very simple book – its simplicity is probably what made it successful, but I could never be that simple again. Night Kitchen I much prefer – it reverberates on double levels. But this third book will reverberate on triple levels. It's so dense already... I don't know what it means and I can't get beyond the first seven lines.

"But I'll get there, I feel it in me – like a woman having a baby, all that life churning on inside me. I feel it every day: it moves, stretches, yawns... it's getting ready to get born. It knows exactly what it is, only I don't know with my conscious mind, but every day I get a little clue: listen, dumdum, here's a word for you, see what you can make of it. So it throws it out and I catch it: oh, a word, fantastic! And then I do without for three days, and the unconscious says: this man's too much to believe, he walks, he thinks, sits, he doesn't do anything, he's a bore, throw him another word, otherwise he'll sit there forever and have a coronary... And one by one it throws me words.

"Is it the right time for a book? It's like getting pregnant when you've just gone crazy and you've found out your house has burned down. Externally I'm in turmoil, I didn't want to get pregnant now. When I write the book, it may be an abortion, but let's hope not. I'm definitely with life, as they say, sitting like a mother on a stump, thinking: Thank you, God, thank you."

"D.H. Lawrence," I interject, "used to describe the pregnant mother as feeling at one with the world."

"The maven on how women felt!" Maurice replies. "What does that mean? It sounds like being glued to something. I don't feel at one with the world, I never have. The only thing that's miraculous is the creative act, and I call it miraculous because I don't understand it. I don't understand, for example, how Mozart could write semitrivial but deliciously funny letters to Daddy at the very moment he was composing his sublime works. And when Daddy says: 'Look, Wolfgang, I don't want you messing around in Munich, you're there to get a job, I don't like your going out dancing every night – your mother's written to me all about it. Pull yourself together. You're not the type to do this kind of thing. Your loving father.' 'But Daddy, Daddy,' Mozart writes back, 'I just went out with Fraülein so-and-so, she's a nice girl, I had two dances, came home at eleven o'clock, I've been good, haven't been drinking wine, and on top of that I just wrote the horn concerto, two violin concertos and the famous Sinfonia Concertante. Isn't that enough for this week, Daddy? I'll try and be better.'

"Now of course I made that up, but that's the sound of it, and Mozart wrote those pieces that same week he was thinking those nothing thoughts and trying to get his boring father off his back. And while he was doing this, he was creating something that was completely beyond his father, beyond anyone's father, and beyond any of us 200 years later. That's the miracle.

"I've always loved Mozart. I read Alfred Einstein's wonderful book on him, and I've read a dozen books since then, although not one of them is up to that. But best of all is Mozart's letters. I'm only up to age 22, but it doesn't matter. Every letter is beautiful, no matter how trivial it is. And they're very scatological – not only Wolfgang's but sober Frau Mozart's as well: 'When you go to bed, shit well till it busts,' she writes to her husband. Now you know she's not a maniac. And Wolfgang writes something like: 'My darling, my quintessential sister, I kiss you, stuff your arse in your mouth tonight and bite with all your heart. Then shit and let it bust good.' It's so strange! What does it mean? Very conceivably one might think that Mozart was an and retentive, that he never got past the toilet-training stage... But it was the 18th century. And there's also that very Germanic quality of every day being based on the quality of the bowel movement."

"I seem to remember," I add, "that in one of his letters he writes: 'Do we live to shit, or shit to live?' That's very advanced existential humor."

"It's that combination of gravity and grace that I love so much in Mozart," Maurice says. "He's the ideal, and God knows I'm not like him. I'm not good-humored and I don't juggle the problems of life well.

"Recently I've been reading about Beethoven and his relationship with his nephew, Karl. When Karl said he wanted to go out, Beethoven suffered terribly: the child didn't want him all the time, unlike the music that was so compliant. Beethoven could be who he was, do what he did, and then try to apply the same grandiose, creative rules of art to everyday life. The dummy just couldn't accept the fact that it wasn't possible to force a little boy to love him the way he could force the Hammerklavier to appear on paper. Beethoven's special kind of love – 'I-hypnotize-you-into-total-love' – overlooked what did come from the child: affection, pleasure in having an extraordinary man named Beethoven as his uncle. But it wasn't enough for him.

"And yes, I do identify with Beethoven – it's like the Achilles' heel of the artist who lives on a grandiose plane, conjuring his art up, but failing in real life because his inflated ego can't be satisfied. I don't like Beethoven the man, but I have tremendous sympathy for him.

"I hope," Maurice says suddenly, "that you don't think of me as some kind of shlump."

"As you've been talking," I say to him, "I've been thinking of that early 19th-century Mother Goose illustration you praised so highly in one of your essays. It's an illustration that juxtaposes the curmudgeonly Man in the South slopping porridge over his head and the mysterious,- ambiguous and graceful Man in the Moon floating through the mist and clouds. This seems to be the Beethoven-Mozart split in your being, this one image suggesting the unity of personality. You've been talking about two composers, but you really seem to be talking about reality and imagination, heaviness and lightness."

"Music," Maurice replies, "is a metaphor for everything."

The Shape of Music

It is possible to see Sendak's books as falling into either the major or the minor key – in the musical sense. The major works consist of the color picture and cartoon books like Night Kitchen, Hector Protector or Some Swell Pup, which feature simple, broad, outlined drawings, often done with a Magic Marker. The minor works – his haunting illustrations for The Juniper Tree, Higglety Pigglety Pop!, Fly by Night, MacDonald's The Golden Key and The Light Princess – are distinguished by their elaborate pen-and-ink crosshatched style.

Sendak continually talks about the illustrator's task in musical terms. "To conceive musically for me means to quicken the life of the illustrated book," he wrote in his essay, "The Shape of Music." And he speaks of his favorite illustrators as if they were musicians.

The pictures of the Victorian artist Randolph Caldecott, Sendak writes, "abound in musical imagery; his characters are forever dancing and singing and playing instruments. More to the point is his refinement of a graphic counterpart to the musical form of theme and variations, his delightful compounding of a simple visual theme into a fantastically various interplay of images. In one of his greatest and most beautiful pictures – 'And the Dish ran away with the Spoon' from Hey Diddle Diddle – you see a cat playing his violin for objects in the kitchen (a flask, dishes, bowls) and, in the foreground, the dish running away with the spoon. You can almost hear the music coming from the back room as you observe the couple fleeing, obviously in love."

About the illustrations for La Fontaine's fable "The Wolf and the Lamb" by the late-19th-century artist M. Boutet de Monvel, Sendak writes: "The lamb performs, before meeting an unjust fate, a sequence of linear arabesques, a superb dance of death that painfully conveys and dramatically enlarges the fable's grim meaning. The eye follows from picture to picture the swift development of the story – the fatalistic 'folding up,' the quiet inevitability of the lamb's movements, ending in a dying-swan gesture of hopeless resignation. And then the limp, no longer living form hanging from the raging wolf's mouth. I think of these fine, softly colored and economically conceived drawings as a musical accompaniment to the La Fontaine fable, harmonic inventions that color and give fresh meaning in much the same way that a Hugo Wolf setting illuminates a Goethe poem."

Sendak admires the "tremendous vitality" of Wilhelm Busch ("Mickey in Night Kitchen gets baked, just like Max and Moritz"), the clarity and simplicity of the French artists Felix Valloton (especially his illustrations for Poil de Carotte) and Bonnard ("their simple lines, strokes, washes of color – it's that Mozart quality I don't have, my things are so heavy... like latkes and mashed potatoes"), and, most of all, the "terse, blocked images" of the English artist Arthur Hughes – "so graphically precise and unearthly. Hughes is one of the most important influences in my life, especially his illustrations for the fairy tales of George MacDonald.

"I love immaculate, rigid, antiquated forms where every bit of fat is cut off, so tight and perfect you couldn't stick a pin in it, but within which you can be as free as you want. And I'm not an innovator – that's not my talent. I've just taken what's there and tried to show what else you could do with it. Like the picturebook form, which requires an extraordinary condensation of feeling and words. It should last just a few minutes for the child, since most children have very short spans of interest. But I personally love the art of condensation, squeezing something big into its pure essence.

"I'm an artist who does books that are apparently more appropriate for children than for anyone else, for some odd reason. I never set out to do books for children – I do books for children, but I don't know why. And, to me, the greatest writers – like the greatest illustrators – for children are those who draw upon their child sources, their dream sources – they don't forget them. There's William Blake, George MacDonald, Dickens... that peculiar charm of being in a room in a Dickens novel, where the furniture is alive, the fire is alive, where saucepans are alive, where chairs move, where every inanimate object has a personality.

"There's Henry James, whom I would call a children's book writer, why not? He would have dropped dead if you had said that to him, but his all-absorbing interest in children and their relationships to adults creates some of his greatest stories. Just the way he allows children to stay up and see what the grown-ups are really doing. In What Maisie Knew, children are constantly mixing in the most deranged adult society, and they're permitted to view and morally judge their elders. It's like a fantasy come true. It's like Mickey not wanting to go to sleep in order to see what goes on in the Night Kitchen. James' children stay up at night, too. Maisie hardly says anything, but we all know what she knows, and we see her know it.

"Finally, there's Herman Melville. I wanted to write something that had the same title as a book by Melville, but I couldn't call it Moby Dick or The Confidence Man or Typee. It had to be something a little vaguer. Finally I hit on Pierre. I needed a rhyme for the name, and that's how I came up with Pierre's favorite line: 'I don't care.'

"It's the two levels of writing – one visible, one invisible – that fascinate me most about Melville. As far down as the whale goes in the water is as deep as Herman writes – even in his early works like Redburn, which is one of my favorite books. The young man coming to England for the first time... I swear, I'll never forget that walk he takes in the English countryside. There's a mystery there, a clue, a nut, a bolt, and if I put it together, I find me."

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