Tag Archives: Maurice Sendak

Esme the critic

My mother, Esme, left school at 14 or 15 in the mid 1920s. She married my father when she was 19 and lived on a sugar-cane farm outside Innisfail in North Queensland for the next five decades. As her five children went off to boarding school and then spread out over Queensland and beyond, she wrote letters to each of us, weekly to start with and then less frequently but still with a shaming regularity. Mostly she kept us informed on one another’s doings and home-front developments. Occasionally she would comment on literary matters.

Here are some of her passing comments on the literary scene, which I find interesting in all sorts of ways:

17 December 1971: I’ve just finished reading Thomas Keneally’s The Fear & enjoyed it more than any book I’ve read for ages. So nice & clean & sort of old-fashioned.

7 March 1972: I’ve just read [Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s] Cancer Ward. It’s really absorbing but very frightening really. I’m sorry I’ve finished it really. … You’ll be pleased to hear A was reading [Germaine Greer’s] The Female Eunuch. I have to own that I burnt my copy. M & N said, ‘At least you could have passed it on to us.’ Perhaps I should have saved their money as curiosity will get the better of them I’m sure.

25 July 1972: I am reading a book of yours that MA found in her box. I’m not liking it as much as The Fear. It is [Thomas Keneally’s] Bring Larks & Heroes.

28 November 1972: Thank you so much for remembering my Birthday. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the books. I’ve started [the first book I worked on in my editing job with Currency Press, David Williamson’s] The Removalists. It’s nice & easy to read. [Later in the same letter:] Having read The Removalists I’m glad it was a gift from you Jon because from you it is meant as a shocker. [It wasn’t.] From anyone else I would have a sneaky feeling that he/she might imagine I liked that sort of talk. If he’d made it a story of police brutality without the four letter words I feel sure it would have been just as big a success or even bigger.  Anyhow now I’ve started the [Gerald] Durrell one [probably Catch Me a Colobus] & it is really my pick. I’ll be able to lend it around.

25 December 1972: It was only today I learned that it was you who gave [my nieces and nephews Maurice Sendak’s] Where the wild things are. I had made a note of it to buy for [another grandchild]. It is the most read & the most cherished book in their house & yet it looks ghastly really.

24 February 1973: Of course I have not burnt The Removalists, Jon. As a matter of fact I have a waiting list of about a dozen women, as ignorant as myself, wanting to learn all about life!! seeing that M & N & E & V think that I have no ears to hear with. ‘Surely you’ve heard such talk,’ even in the street. Well I haven’t. Actually I think [youngest daughter] Liza knows more than I do but I certainly don’t feel underprivileged because of my ignorance.

28 March 1973: We have watched some of Certain Women on your recommendation Jon. I missed the name of the writer last night (not being in the habit of reading all those names, though I do notice that the writer, who should be the most important, is never so). It was the ‘model’ girl & I think it could have been Keneally as he is sort of old fashioned. I thought the Williamson one was the most – real is the word I suppose. He certainly understands today’s youth, don’t you think?

8 April 1973: Our Repertory Group put on [Richard Beynon’s ] The Shifting Heart last week. Roslyn Watt played the Italian mother & she was perfect. Seniors must have to study it this year because the night Dad & I went there was a bus load from Tully & the night E & V went there were 2 bus loads from Cairns.

9 July 1973: Last week there was a play on TV, The Cherry Orchard Chekhov [an MTC production with Frank Thring, Googie Withers, Irene Inescort] & knowing how interested [oldest son] Michael is in plays (He was in a Chekhov once) & feeling it would give me some culture, we watched it right up to the end of the first act then turned the TV off. It was played to packed houses in Melbourne for ages so the ad said. I wonder if you watched it & don’t say you enjoyed it. To me it could have been Innisfail repertory doing it for the first time. Dad stayed home from Poker to see it too which made it worse.

1 August 1973: I see [Peter Bogdanovich’s] What’s Up Doc advertised at the pictures somewhere in Sydney. Do go & see it if you can. [I did.] It’s really a scream, Makes you laugh till it really hurts – just absolutely stupid but I’m sure you couldn’t help enjoying it.

23rd October 1973 (after a visit to Sydney): I managed to get a Sat Aust(ralian) with Katharine Brisbane [my boss at the time] write up of the play [probably Rex Cramphorn’s cutting-edge production The Marsh King’s Daughter, which she mentions in a later letter] & I agree with her and the more I think back on it the more I like it really. Then today I found Jock Veitch’s write up which is downright lousy – even saying he couldn’t hear. I feel like writing & telling him to go again & wear his glasses & take along his hearing aid.

4 February 1974: Poor Mr Solzhenitsyn is having a rough time. Have you read Cancer Ward, Jon? [I had.] It is the best I’ve read. It seems queer but I think Patrick White writes much like him, so simply. I’ve read only one of his, The Tree of Man, & really enjoyed it.

March 1974: Innisfail had Godspell during the week,  packed the Shire Hall. We didn’t go, we left it to the young. The [Marist] Bros all went & raved on about it – more an experience than a show etc. They took 45 boys along so deserved a free ticket.

31 July 1974 (reporting on a time in Brisbane): We went to see [my cousin G’s] production Fetch Me a Figleaf. There were 10 of us … G sat with us so we had to say all the right things. It was rather naughty but really entertaining all about gods & goddesses on Mt Olympus.

13 October 1974: Well! we were trapped into a bit of culture last night. If we’d been at home we’d have turned it off but we were babysitting so left it on & were really sorry it had to end. It was The Misanthrope, Moliere’s play. The man who did the translation [not named on IMDB] must be a marvel & all the players were lovely. It says ABC production but I can’t believe it was. It was too good.

7 March 1975: Have you seen a book Watership Down? It’s about rabbits, all about rabbits. I’ve just read it & loved it. [I still haven’t read it.]

22 June 1975: We’re all reading The Towering Inferno, actually it’s called The Tower. Dad’s on it at the moment and doesn’t even answer when spoken to. It’s really suspenseful.

Late September 1975, from Launceston: We went to see [Roman Polanski’s] Chinatown & thought it pretty ordinary. Being overheated didn’t help. I’d put on woollen sox & extra cardigan & shed everything except the sox as the theatre was heated.

And that – when she was 61 and I was 28 – is where I stopped carefully hoarding her letters.

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.

Maurice Sendak

About 1970, when I was in my mid 20s I asked my school-librarian housemate for advice on what to give my niece for Christmas. She suggested Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, and at a stroke she introduced me to a world of children’s literature that had been transformed since I was a child. I loved the book. So did my nieces and nephews, who named all the monsters after adults in their lives.

When I became a parent, I must have read the book, and In the Night Kitchen, and Higgledy Piggledy Pop and  The Sign on Rosie’s Door (which has the best last line ever) hundreds of times. Not to mention Pierre:

And when the lion gave a roar,
Pierre fell out upon the floor.
He rubbed his eyes and shook his head
and laughed because he wasn’t dead.

If only!

The moral of Pierre is: Care!

Dwight Garner has an excellent elegiac ‘appraisal’ of Sendak’s work, with lots of excellent links, here.

Love, Squalor and Seymour’s introductory exit

J D Salinger, For Esmé – With Love and Squalor (1953, New English Library 1978)

I read this at least partly because I wanted to learn more about the Glass family, particularly Seymour Glass’s suicide. The suicide is there, of course, in the first story in this collection, ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’, also Salinger’s first published story. It’s a good story, full of charm and then of shocking enigma, but there’s nothing to indicate that the author would still be probing the repercussions for the Glass family a decade later (not to mention possible further Glass Family fictions yet to be discovered … I live in hope). Boo Boo, the older of the two girls in the family, makes an appearance in ‘Down at the Dinghy’. And Buddy, the family’s self-appointed chronicler who is in danger of vanishing into his own parentheses in ‘Seymour: An Introduction’, plays a central role in the title story (at least, I assume Staff-Sergeant X is Buddy, even though I may be the only person in the world to have done so). In each of these stories, the adult Glass has a conversation with a child, and these playfully smart-alecky conversations are what lift the book above standard albeit ultra-sophisticated New Yorker fare. Boo Boo could be a forerunner of the mother in Maurice Sendak’s sublime The Sign on Rosie’s Door.  Buddy’s conversation with thirteen-year-old Esmé and her follow-up letter are surely meant to be read in counterpoint to Seymour’s chat with the little girl Sybil. The latter is either a farewell to all things lovely or a cryptic explanation of his suicide, while the former has a deeply healing effect: one brother dies, the other lives. (Incidentally, I doubt if either of these stories could have been written nowadays: in the late 40s the general reader wasn’t expected to see every man as a potential child-rapist.)

Two non-Glass stories stand out for me, both with child protagonists: ‘The Laughing Man’ and ‘Teddy’. ‘Teddy’ is genuinely shocking.

Incidentally, it occurs to me that my lack of enthusiasm for The Hurt Locker may have something to do with the fact that I saw it in the middle of reading this book. It was awfully hard to see the movie as anything other than an adrenaline pumper with pretensions when I had Staff-Sergeant (Buddy?) X’s shaking hands fresh in my mind.