Great new summer reading for all, from one of my favorite authors and dog lovers!
V.F. Portrait: Maurice Sendak
The most celebrated living creator of picture books, Maurice Sendak has resurfaced, at 83, with Bumble-Ardy. He says he’s demented, but Dave Eggers finds that Sendak’s uncompromising vision still makes perfect sense.
Bumble-Ardy is the first book Maurice Sendak has both written and illustrated in 30 years. I called him the other day to talk about it, and we were both surprised it had been that long. “Jesus,” he said. “What have I been doing?” We went through a list. He designed operas here and abroad, illustrated dozens of books—by Tony Kushner and Herman Melville and Shakespeare, among many others—and had a best-seller just a few years ago, in Mommy?, a pop-up book about a boy looking for his mother in a haunted mansion.
But in terms of a book completely his own, Bumble-Ardy is the first since 1981’s Outside Over There. Not that he wants to make a big deal out of it. “People from New York have been calling, to see if I’m still alive. When I answer the phone, you can hear the disappointment in their voice.”
Sendak’s sense of humor is pitch-black and ribald, though this fact, and the baroque essence of his work, is often lost on readers now that his books have become canonical. “A woman came up to me the other day and said, ‘You’re the kiddie-book man!’ I wanted to kill her.” He hates to be thought of as safe or his work as classic, and he won’t tolerate overpraise. “My work is not great, but it’s respectable. I have no false illusions.”
He’s wrong, of course. Sendak is the best-known, and by most measures simply the best, living creator of picture books, and in the stretch of years since his most prolific period—when he made In the Night Kitchen, Where the Wild Things Are, Kenny’s Window, The Sign on Rosie’s Door, and the “Nutshell Library”—his work has only grown in stature. No one has been more uncompromising, more idiosyncratic, and more in touch with the unhinged and chiaroscuro subconscious of a child.
And why this new book, at age 83? Giuseppe Verdi had something to do with it. “His glory was in his 80s,” Sendak says. “A new librettist, Arrigo Boito, came into his life, and he said, ‘Look, Verdi, you can compose better than you’ve done.’ The two operas they collaborated on, Otello and Falstaff, are brilliant.” Sendak took comfort, too, in the composer’s famously difficult disposition. “Verdi was malcontent and brooding, and that made me feel better. You can’t write masterpieces in your 80s and be happy too.”
Bumble-Ardy has a characteristically grim beginning. The young protagonist, a pig, suffers through the first eight years of his life without his family recognizing, let alone celebrating, his birthday. Then his parents are eaten, leaving him alone in the world. Would it be fair to say that childhood neglect and parental disappearance are favorite Sendak themes? “That’s all I’ve ever written about. As a kid, all I thought about was death. But you can’t tell your parents that.”
Bumble-Ardy goes to live with his aunt Adeline, and when she fails to throw him a party on his ninth birthday, he throws one for himself. Like all Sendakian rumpuses, it gets out of hand, and for 10 pages we’re treated to the most bizarre tableau of celebrants, all in costume: pigs dressed as monsters, pigs dressed as cowboys and Indians, pigs dressed as old ladies painted garishly. As with any Sendak book, the pictures are full of references and echoes. One pig is reading a newspaper that says, WE READ BANNED BOOKS. A sheriff’s yellow badge calls back to the Warsaw Ghetto. Messages are written in Hebrew, Italian, Russian. One placard, held by a yellow pig in overalls, asks, WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
“This is obviously the work of a man who has dementia,” Sendak says. “But I’m very happy with it.” And why a pig at the heart of the story? “I have no idea. Maybe we should ask my shrink. No, actually, let’s not.”