Monthly Archives: March 2014

Maurice Sendak’s Pierre

Maurice Sendak, Pierre (HarperCollins 1962)

20140309-072501.jpg I don’t generally blog about books I’ve re-read, but my blogging has been light-on recently as I’ve been reading mostly film scripts, which are exempt from my self-imposed task of writing about everything I read, so here’s a quick note on Maurice Sendak’s Pierre, which I re-read recently before wrapping it as a present.

Pierre: A cautionary tale in five chapters and a prologue was first published as a tiny book, cased with three others as The Nutshell Library. Our copies of those tiny books have long since disappeared after a huge amount of use and abuse. Besides Pierre, there are an alphabet book, Alligators All Around, a counting book, One Was Johnny, a book of the months, Chicken Soup with Rice. In case there’s anyone who doesn’t already know, Sendak was one of the 20th century’s greatest writers and illustrators for children, and though these books are in some ways very modest, absolutely obedient to the rules of their genres, each of them is a masterpiece. I have read them all aloud many many times to small co-readers and still love hem.

But Pierre has a special place. I think I first heard of it when my older brother took his eleven year old son on his knee and said,

Good morning, darling boy,
You are my only joy.

And when his son said, shockingly, ‘I don’t care,’ they both laughed.

And that’s the set-up: Pierre’s refrain is ‘I don’t care!’ Because it’s billed as a cautionary tale, the punitive saying ‘Don’t care was made to care’ can’t be far from an adult reader’s mind, as in the cautionary tales of Hilaire Belloc. For those who have so far been spared the delicious horrors of Belloc, let me mention ‘Jim, who ran away from his nurse and was eaten by a lion’. The title tells the whole story really – and then there’s this (punctuated as in the original):

His Mother, as She dried her eyes,
Said, ‘Well – it gives me no surprise,
He would not do as he was told!’
His Father, who was self-controlled,
Bade all the children round attend
To James’s miserable end,
And always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.

As a child I enjoyed Belloc’s tales of appalling retribution, confident that my own parents could never be that callous. And I enjoyed Roald Dahl’s even more gruesome variants when I read them to my children. But Sendak pushes the form beyond lip-smacking crime and punishment. Like Jim, Pierre is eaten by a lion as a direct consequence of his naughtiness. But whereas the father imagined by Catholic Belloc goes on to moralise, the Jewish Sendak’s parents, realising that their son is inside the lion, spring into action:

They rushed the lion into town.
The doctor shook him up and down
and when the lion gave a roar
Pierre fell out upon the floor.
He rubbed his eyes and scratched his head
and laughed because he wasn’t dead.

I may be idiotic, but that last couplet never fails to fill me with joy.

There’s a nice discussion of the whole Nutshell Library on the We Read It Like This blog, where there’s also an excellent reading.

Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane

Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Headline 2013)

1472200322 Neil Gaiman is a rock star among writers. He’s a brilliant user of social media, a generous participant in readings and signings, a glamorously nerdy co-star with his wife Amanda Palmer (whose ‘Vegemite (the Black Death)‘ he has described as the only love song she’s written for him). He reads with a sinister intonation that reminds one of Hammer horror movies. He has written brilliant comic books, most notably the Sandman epic, and his children’s books (Coraline, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, The Wolves in the Walls, The Graveyard Book) tend to become instant classics. He has written screenplays for a handful of movies and for episodes of Doctor Who. The wonderfully creepy Coraline has been made into a successfully creepy animated movie, and his novel for grown-ups American Gods is on its way to becoming a TV series.

Gaiman fandom is such a phenomenon that shortly after the publication of The Ocean at the End of the Lane a lane in his native Portsmouth had its name changed to ‘The Ocean at the End of the’ Lane. The Internet has a photo of Neil (as he’s known to his fans) unveiling the sign, looking chuffed

On top of all that, the book is excellent. It’s a fantasy tale of a small boy who tangles with a vast amorphous monster and stops it from destroying the universe, with the help of three mysterious women who live in the house at the end of the lane, right next to the pond that the youngest of them – actually an eleven year old girl rather than a woman, though she has been around for millennia – insists is really an ocean. There’s a strong sense, as in many of his books, of childhood as a time of huge moral and other challenges, when the stakes are very high and the possibilities for wonder are endless. The protagonist is six years old but it’s not a children’s book: all but the most committed young readers are likely to be deterred by the elliptical writing in the first few pages, in which the narrator, having just attended his father’s funeral, is drawn by a vague nostalgic impulse to drive down the lane near his childhood home. It looks to me like an excellent way out of the dilemma faced by people who write books for adults as well as children: how to signal clearly enough to prospective readers whether they are going to be happy in a given book.