A Portrait of the Illustrator for Children
As a Middle-Aged Man
Interview by Hank Nuwer
Life’s grim realities serve as creative fodder for Brooklyn-born Maurice Sendak, America’s best-known writer/illustrator of children’s books, who more recently has begun designing sets for England’s Glyndebourne Opera House and the New York City Opera. The haunting worries of childhood become major themes in his best-known works, Where the Wild Things Are, Outside Over There, and In the Night Kitchen.
Sendak is interviewed on a muggy August afternoon at his rural Connecticut home, a substantial structure with black nineteenth-century wooden hearse shutters gracing the windows. The house is ornamented with vintage Mickey Mouse images, plush toy representations of characters from his own pages, and enough books to give a man not only solace, but comfort.
The artist seems irritable and phlegmatic at first meeting, no doubt a reaction to finding his workspace invaded by an interviewer. Later, hunched over a drawing board, however, he arms noticeably when conversation embraces literary and artistic concerns. He proves a more than cordial host ultimately; dispensing personal insights and philosophies the way other might serve refreshments.
NUWER: Now that you are a financial success, why do you still work?
SENDAK: I essentially work to please myself. What other reason can there be when there’s nothing to prove anymore? But you also have to have high standards. Just to please yourself isn’t sufficient.
NUWER: Are you careful to send out only your best work?
SENDAK: I’m very cautious. You have to be moral and ethical and worry about all that crap. If you’re in vogue or the mode at a particular time, people will take anything of yours, unfortunately. You’re the one who has to be discreet and moral—and, as a matter of fact, I am. I don’t want to sound like Pollyanna John Ethical, but I believe if you despoil yourself—if you use yourself for the wrong reason—then whatever’s been working for you is going to go bad. Maybe it’s a childish fantasy, maybe it’s genuine, but I think there is some intricately balanced “something” within you that will only maintain itself if you keep yourself clean. I don’t believe in giving in to bad things, and I’m as tempted by bad things as anybody.
NUWER: Is this a good time for you?
SENDAK: It’s a good time; it’s an astonishing good time.
NUWER: If you’re in a strong position you can control it. I’m in a strong position right now. I suppose the minute I step down the rung I lose that power; that’s how it goes. My artistry has given me this power personally, but in the world that power comes from success: how many books you sell, what your statistics are, your stature. There can be many vipers around, and there are; nevertheless, they will let me do what I want because I’ve proven myself. I will use my power to make everything better, because until you lose that power—which you will, eventually—that’s all you can do with power. I don’t know what else power means; tell me if you know. It means you can force the books to look better, force the printer, for the binder. Insist! Insist until they do it even if they hate your guts. “Ah, right,” they’ll say, “he’s popular; he sells.”
NUWER: Do you feel cynical?
SENDAK: I don’t feel cynical, just practical. You can’t expect people to know what you do or understand what you do. Most of them admire you because you’ve made it. You use that to further your own aesthetic principles. You hope that, given time, the book will mean more to them.
NUWER: Is writing more laborious than drawing?
SENDAK: Not more laborious, more difficult, and in a sense more interesting than drawing because it is more difficult. Drawing for me is automatic. I feel like a walking Polaroid camera. I take it so for granted that I underrate it.
NUWER: How do you conjure up ideas for your tales?
SENDAK: I don’t get a great many ideas. I don’t work in terms of plot like other writers do. Something else must turn me on. Like I was listening to a tape of a never-before-translated play by Heinrich von Kleist broadcast on BBC that some friends from England sent me. That kind of thing stimulates me tremendously, tremendously, and I want to write. I want to write just like he wrote: in this case, where a dream has this incredible penetrating action, where a dream becomes insanity. It obviously touches something that is dormant in me that is totally unconscious. It’s like throwing a picture up to the top of my brain where it triggers consciousness; then I begin to write.
NUWER: Could you talk about your friendship with poet Marianne Moore?
SENDAK: Marianne Moore was a friend in her last years. She lived on the same street that I lived in the Village [Greenwich], just two houses down. She was old then. I’d see her in grocery stores and I’d go bonkers. There was that famous hat, the cape, everything! I didn’t know what to do. I can’t [sic] go up to her and say, “Oh you’re Marianne Moore, right?” Big deal! But then I go this phone call from a woman and she said, “This is Marianne Moore.” I didn’t say anything, so she said, “Are you the man who wrote Pierre?” I said, “Yes,” and she said, “I think that’s so devilishly clever: Pierre, Pierre! I don’t care. Ha, ha, ha, ha!”
NUWER: What was your reaction?
SENDAK: I was very cool because I did not, for one minute, believe this was Marianne Moore. I said some snotty thing like “Real cute, whoever you are!” I put it aside as one of my asinine friends doing this to me who knew I was dying to meet her. Finally, I went up to her after many months in the Jefferson Market. I said to her, “You are Marianne Moore.” Then I said who I am and she answered, “Yes, you’re that rude man on the telephone!” It had been her, and we became friends.
NUWER: What was your friendship like?
SENDAK: Shortly after I met her, she has the first of many strokes that finally killed her. I became the kind of friend who came up and read to her. From her I learned a lot about publishing, and the better things, too. We had a different relationship than if we had met sooner on a professional basis. I became a visiting pal who just sat and spent time with her. Amazingly few people did—only a few close friends—and I saw her right up to the time she died. I remember her apartment all a-clutter with this picture of Puss ‘n’ Boots, but she wanted him—oh, what’s the word—“tricky.” “Don’t make him nice,” she said. “Make him tricky.” So I made her a very tricky Puss ‘n’ Boots all dressed up in a sort of Dumas costume with a string of rats on his shoulder. She loved it and propped it up on the side of her bed. It was nice, but it was sad…sad. But she never complained. She was a tough woman—with a sour tongue, but funny, never bitchy, and always clever. I love gossip, but only a few people do it well. She was one of them.
NUWER: Did you like growing up?
SENDAK: No. I didn’t like growing up. I mean the process. I hated school, hated the confinement of city street life. I remember nice things, but they mostly had to do with going to the movies.
Speaking for myself, I felt thirty very badly, and I felt forty very badly, but I was a very unhappy young man. My twenties were disastrous, my thirties were monotonous and unproductive to a large degree, and at thirty-nine I was really unhealthy and both my parents were dying. It was a time when all that stuff that has to happen to you happens to you finally. So I have very bad, negative feelings about that time of my life. To me, this is the best time. I’ve stopped counting years. I don’t care anymore—I really don’t—about how old I am.
Also I’m very lucky because I’ve been successful. I take for granted a certain amount of success that a lot of people in their fifties maybe don’t have, and then they get paralyzed by that fact. I’ve contributed, I’ve done, and it’s valuable. I know that much contribute to my own sense of well being, at least mentally. But also I feel a kind of youthfulness, which I was incapable of feeling then, and maybe which no young person feels. Maybe it’s all American bullshit which says you have to feel this way at twenty, this way at thirty, and so on. I see young people who are in a total state of misery about being young, while I really feel better than I’ve ever felt. Which doesn’t mean I don’t suffer from my depressions and my anxiety attacks. I do. For most of my life, I have been a notoriously unhappy man. And I’m not now.
NUWER: How do you feel about death?
SENDAK: I can look now at Erda’s—my dog’s—dying, and say, now that is something that is going to happen. They’re all going to die; I’m going to die. I can’t explain, but there’s some kind of amalgamation that has occurred which didn’t occur when I was young, but it’s had its effect on me. Maybe it as a middle-aged man’s thing—but its effect is to make me feel the youth now that I didn’t feel then. I feel much more vigorous and curious and interested and even jovial about thing than I ever before felt in my life. So what does that say about age? I don’t know.
NUWER: You’ve built your own world here. You seem to have done everything worth doing. You’re now designing opera sets.
SENDAK: Yep, it’s done, and yet at the same time I have a sense that it can be undone. That I can give it up without that extraordinary fear of pain and loss that it would have once meant to me.
I’ve gone into another career in my early fifties. I’ll go back to books, of course, but, in fact, I have started a new career. I didn’t think, “Oh, major step, mid-life.” I didn’t think of al those words that annoy me so much. The urge to do comes not from a sense of maturity; it comes out of a sense of youthfulness. And why not? What am I saving it for? If you’re going to try it, try it. You’re not afraid of failing; you’ve failed before. You’ve gotten bad criticism that you hated, but you’re not afraid of it. It’s not mortal, fatal.
That’s what it is. It’s imagining what young people are supposed to feel that I’m only feeling now. It’s almost a devil-may-care feeling. Despite what you see here, the load, this house and possessions and position and all that. There is that feeling, and I’m delighted with it. Really. Being Jewish, I used to dread having good feelings, because that’s when Jehovah really gives it to you. I don’t feel that, either, because I don’t worry about Him anymore.
NUWER: Do you miss the human contact you had while teaching?
SENDAK: I taught for a long time in New York, and I love teaching. I love having young people around. I’ve never had children; I’m never going to have children. The students became my ersatz kids. Watching them, criticizing them and loving them, they become my family. Some of them are enormously gifted and I am devoted to doing whatever I can to further their careers—in the correct sense, no so that they clamber up the ladder to success, but that they cultivate what I hope they agree are the proper things in them that make them unique as artists so they don’t get fucked up or corrupt or bored along the way. That’s all.
NUWER: Do you ever see yourself retiring in this life?
SENDAK: Yeah. But I would like to retire in a very particular way. In the spring I was reading Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. I tried it before, and I couldn’t make it. But with the new translation, I’m going to make it this time. But what really prompted me to read Proust was not Proust but Rousseau. I was reading his Confessions.
Certain books, I’ve always felt, were too hard to read—it’s as though I’m always ten years old. There are certain grown-up books that I can’t read no matter how old I get, because I feel like I’m ten.
There’s a wonderful chapter by Rousseau, which, by sheer coincidence, he wrote when he was fifty-three years old. He said he wants to retire, but [paraphrasing] let me explain to you what retirement is. I would like to retire by becoming a child but not in a sentimental sense. You start things are you do them for as long as they entertain you, and to be completed, and then you do something else: a sequence of interests, none of which have to be completed, to be published, to be announced, to be exhibited, to be performed, nothing. Just the pleasure of doing it. He equated it to the frenetic interest that a six-year-old has. It excited me. What a lovely concept of retirement. He saw himself as a child again in a vital way being free from the adult burdens of completing your work and getting it in on time. He said, your career, etcetera—fuck all that.
NUWER: People need titles—possessions and titles. And titles seem meaningless.
SENDAK: Titles are totally meaningless. But at the same time, sometimes you have to stick with something until finally…I mean, I can only reach the point where I could do a book like Outside Over There without having pedantically nailed in all the years pervious to it. And I guess everybody’s life is different. You may perfectly be able and best be able to express yourself by nailing in a lot of years doing a particular thing. There’s no way I could. I had to be established to be free enough to say things I couldn’t when I was young. It’s interesting. Everybody’s freedom is different.
My students got worried when they were in their twenties about what they should do with their careers. What Thoreau said was perfectly true: You have no right even thinking about what you should do until you’re in your thirties. Only then are you reasonable enough to preserve your freedom; you’re not reasonable in your twenties. His own measure of life was to do exactly what he pleased. I’ve never been able to live up to the things in him that I justly admire such as it is just as important to sit outside on your porch and stare as it is to read an important book or to write an important paper. I believe that, but I can’t do it. That leisure, which I’m totally incapable of having, of allowing—just doing nothing—is sonorous with the universe. It’s so compelling, useful, and healthy. I’ve tried, but my life has been so much the worker and that I find it very hard. I believe it, as I read these people, but I don’t know how to do it.
NUWER: Do you think that children like to deal directly with the idea of dying and death?
SENDAK: I don’t think they can like it. But I think if it’s appropriate to whatever’s out here—such as someone dying in your family—to me it’s immeasurably more healthy to be direct and honest with them. Children are very pragmatic creatures. Some friends of mine are getting divorced, and they’re upset about it. Long, good marriage. They are concerned about their child—how’s he going to take it? And the father said the first thing that a child wanted to know is would he still be going to the ball game next week? And who would be giving him his allowance? They seem like unfeeling questions. But if you know children, you know that the effect of what’s happening is sinking in deeply, but he’s asking the prosaic things, because children have to take care of themselves. He has to know because he can’t go by himself. And I think it’s that quality that deceives people into thinking children don’t comprehend these major things. An event such as this stuns the imagination, and the only things they can come up with quickly are the everyday things.
NUWER: Have you talked with children about any of the drawings in your last book, Outside Over There, for their reaction to the goblins?
SENDAK: No. I don’t’ go out of my way to.
NUWER: What is a Maurice Sendak?
SENDAK: A determination, probably, in some way to uncover or find out as much of myself that is me and that has been me from childhood, and find out as much as possible before I die. To grow spiritually as a person, creatively as an artist, because spiritual and creative merge into one which is useful. I spend most of my time trying to figure myself out, though no longer for vainglorious reasons, but for aesthetic reasons. I just want to know.
Art is an exploration of yourself. If it’s good art, then it’s also and exploration for other people. If it’s poor art, you’re just playing and you haven’t added to that work that makes it meaningful for other people. Art becomes the expression, the metaphor for a lot of internal musings.
Outside Over There is a wonderful book, though it’s vainglorious, maybe, to say that, but I know its intense, internal musings that have preoccupied me for years also affect other people. All that means is that what affects me affects everybody. We’re all in the same boat. Artists somehow think more about the boat they’re in and can express it better than most people can.
NUWER: Adults also react very strongly to your work, in an emotional sense, and in an intellectual sense.
SENDAK: I never consciously set out to do books just for children; I’m out to do books that express myself. I’m no longer a child, so I have to express things that belong to grown-up people. If you find it in there, it should be in there. There are books strictly for kids, such as how to make a paper airplane or how to dress a doll, but that’s not my theme. My theme is living. I use a metaphor of children’s imagery and the form of a children’s book to express complicated, sophisticated adult feelings. I’ve never been able to demarcate that line which says here you’re a kid and there you’re a grown-up. When does that magic moment begin? I’m fifty-three and still coping with problems that were very real in my life when I was three.
There’s a kind of emperor’s new clothes to being a grown-up. I once dreamed that a grown-up knew everything and was smart. Well, you find out you don’t know everything and you’re not smart. Only you have logic on your side, reason on your side, and experience on your side—three great aids you don’t’ have as a child.
NUWER: Do you find the experiences of your middle years are adding to your art?
SENDAK: I’m a very late-blooming artist. Thank God. It’s the one thing you hope for—that you don’t dry up but rather you open up, however painfully, because there’s a price you pay for opening up, no matter what the age, especially in middle age. But the achievement or the plus is that creatively you blossom. I’m reaching things that I have earned because I allowed myself the pain of looking at them. Internal things have now contributed to my store of themes and images as an artist. It was worth plunging in and taking a risk.
NUWER: Did you have a problem collaborating? Did you want to change some of those words?
SENDAK: Only when the book was poor, and when I found I was stuck with a piece of writing that was not for me, and then I had to do pictures to really almost overcome the weaknesses of the book. And that’s really not the kind of work I like to do. I’ve been more fortunate in working with people who knew exactly what they were doing. Excellent, gifted writers. I love collaborating. I do less of it now, probably because I prefer working on my own things. And, too, there is a great dearth of original writing being done in America today. I see manuscripts all the time, but I don’t see any that I want to illustrate. And I’m not going to illustrate anything at this point in my life that isn’t worth doing; I don’t have to. So if I do a book, it must be something that excites me and makes my life wonderful during the time I’m doing it. And it will reflect in my work. Otherwise, it’s just a book to make money, kill time.
NUWER: Does your life revolve around your art?
SENDAK: Yes. I’d say almost entirely. I was watching a television show about a monastery in Massachusetts-Trappist monks. They were talking about doubts-sometimes very startling doubts-about God, and giving rationalizations for being there, and describing the life they led, which I thought somehow appealed-the simply life, the getting up, the singing, the chanting, the praying. It’s not all that bad. I mean, they’ve given their lives to God, or Jesus, or whatever. But how are we so different? In the sense that we give our lives to art, which is what you have devoted yourself to. You lead the same, almost tedious and regular, life that they so. And you’re just as much a monk-in a sense-as they are. But I was struck by the fact that I did, and that I was a devotional person. Whatever is religious in me I have turned to art, and this is the thing I believe in.
NUWER: May I ask what you’re working on?
SENDAK: I’m working on sets and costumes for an opera, which is to be performed in Glyndebourne, which is beautiful, gorgeous opera house in England, two hours south of London. I grew up with Glybdebourne recordings of the Mozart operas. For my generation, that was Mozart. Glyndebourne Mozart was Mozart as it should be done. And now in retrospect, even though the recordings are very dated, I’d say the performances are still some of the best the world has ever seen. So now, doing a Glyndebourne opera is very exciting. The opera I’m doing now…I’m sort of playing with it now, trying to make sense of it, trying to apply my illustrative brain to a libretto. Charming, but full of loopholes. Trying to build form and logic into a plot, which is rather formless and logicless. I’m doing the storyboard here, trying to figure out the logistics on the panels and then have fun with it. But it must have form, roots-it’s hard. I keep doing these drawings until I understand it and know what I want to do with it.
NUWER: So this is kind of an exercise to get to the next point?
SENDAK: Exactly. The next point is developing workable drawings, which these are not. They’re just for me. But I can’t do workable drawings until I have seen a sheet get to there, and move that to there, and how that works, and how that works. I’ve got to lay it all out. This is a very pedantic, detailed rendering of the entire actions of the opera. When I’m done with it, I’ll feel secure enough to do drawings. Also, I really love doing it. I’ve been having fun with it. You want it to be very raunchy because it is a raunchy opera, and I think people tend to-when they perform Oranges-tend to move away from that. You know, sort of a puritanical attitude. A lot of the humor in the thing, a lot of the wit, depends upon one coming out and saying it’s a sexy enterprise. Let’s do it that way. Why should opera be so endlessly, tediously treated like some antiquated art that is totally sexless? I mean, you know, we have Tosca, and we know what Tosca does for a living. We want to have fun with this. But before we can have fun with it, we want to understand it.
NUWER: You also want to challenge audiences; it seems, in the books and with something such as this, even if they strike back.
SENDAK: But it shouldn’t be done just to be bawdy.
NUWER: But that’s part of the entertainment, just like in a Shakespearean play.
SENDAK: Exactly. You hear of Shakespeare, the Great Hallowed Name, but, my God, how bawdy he is. How outrageous he is. He’s more outrageous than we ever dared to get. And his suggestions, if you were really to examine and follow through with some of them, how just shocking! But that’s Elizabethan.
NUWER: And yet today, if you go to a Shakespeare play…
SENDAK: That’s right. And if it were suggested that that’s what was meant, it would probably shock people. They would say you misinterpreted it. They refuse to admit that’s what he meant.
NUWER: He was aiming for the groundlings.
SENDAK: Yes. He was a healthy man.
You always run the risk that your audience many not like what you are doing, but you don’t want them to go to sleep. To me opera is one of the most beautiful forms ever invented. It’s not a form to come to just because you have a subscription or because it’s the thing to do. For lots of people opera is a snob form of art. For Mozart it was eighteenth-century vaudeville, it was show biz. To bring some of that element of liveliness back into the great classics not only would be a surprise, but would give pleasure to a lot of people who don’t expect it to happen, on stage. A lot of people don’t ever expect to enjoy themselves at the opera.
NUWER: Do you feel this outpouring of effort makes you feel healthier?
SENDAK: Yeah. If it’s genuine. I’m a very scrupulous man. I’m always worried whether I’m diddling with an idea of genuinely expressing it. You can do all torts of things if your intentions are well thought out. I worry a lot. I’m as capable of making an error as anybody else. There are works I’ve done that I would rather not have done. But you have to take that risk. You can’t always be right.
NUWER: How did you find this place?
SENDAK: I literally stumbled onto it. I was looking for houses, and was very close to giving up. I loved this place on sight. I didn’t get it very easily-I had to fight for it. It’s late eighteenth century, a plain, simple soapbox, very small. I know none of the history of the people of that time. In the early twentieth century, a couple bought it. He worked for Mayor LaGuardia and was a landscape artist. I was very lucky because he laid this whole thing out. It’s beautifully laid out, professionally laid out. He and his sons built the pump house and did a lot of beautiful stuff. They lived here almost their entire lives. Their children grew up here, and married, and he died here, and the old lady sold the house. Those people bought it in the late 1940s, early ‘50s. And they added onto it, some good things, some bad things.
The old lady came to see me. She drove up to the house in a long black car with a giant photograph book under her arm and just walked into the house. She hadn’t come earlier because the previous owners had painted the shutters green and she said, “Anyone who painted shutters green is someone I don’t know. But when I came by and saw the shutters were black, I decided that the old owners had moved, and I came by the show the new tenant these pictures.”
NUWER: Do you take long walks around here?
SENDAK: Yep. Me and the dogs do about five miles a day. One of the reasons for buying this house it that at thirty-nine I had a coronary, and the doctor gave me then the typical coronary advice: Get out of New York. No one knows exactly what caused a coronary, so why not blame New York? I was ready to get out, anyway. So I moved to the country, exercised, and got into good physical shape; I’d been in poor physical shape previously. Now I cannot do without my calisthenics and my walk. And one of the sad things as my dogs grow older is that they can’t keep up with me. I remember when I couldn’t keep up with them. And I’m always aware of that change. I miss the energy coming out of them.
NUWER: Do you have a set time for working?
SENDAK: Yes. It’s through the afternoon, anywhere from one until about four-thirty, and then I stop for another dog walk. I have a long dog walk in the morning. That’s the big walk. The morning is just for exercising and walking. And then at four-thirty the brief walk with them, about a half hour. Then they get fed. Then I take a nap about an hour. And I read for about an hour. Then I go back to work.
NUWER: Can you work in any sort of place?
SENDAK: No. I find I don’t want to work in New York anymore. I can’t or don’t want to-I don’t know which.
NUWER: Do you read critical appraisals of your work? Or are you immune to them now?
SENDAK: I read them, but I’m reasonably immune to them. I mean I hate a bad review, but I don’t stay up all night thinking about it. I just condemn that person for being extraordinarily stupid and that’s the end of it.
NUWER: Does your vintage Mickey Mouse collection trigger creative thoughts?
SENDAK: Yes. That’s why I collect. I’m not a collector who collects just for collecting. Things have to refer back or give me some turn-on in my work. For instance, all the Mickey Mouse things started in the late ‘60s when I was doing In the Night Kitchen. I needed things from my childhood, and the Mickey Mouse things were my favorite. They helped me kind of taste that time and time again. The whole collection was really a means of turning me on to my book. All my collections, including my book collection, are always things that I can use in some way. They give me back something…like talismans. I don’t collect them to invest or just collect. I have too much junk in my life anyway. Even the lucky things-that’s all they are-wonderful junk.
NUWER: If I see any Mickey Mouses, I’ll send you one.
SENDAK: They’ve got to be vintage. A woman I met at a party in Philadelphia said would I be interesting in her Mickey Rocker. I thought I wouldn’t, because she seemed to young to have a rocker that would have been of interest to me; she could only have been in her thirties. It turned out she was talking about a rocker that had been given to her aunt. Boy, did I get interested. She was talking vintage.
NUWER: Did you get it?
SENDAK: I’m working on it.
NUWER: Do your possessions take hold of you or hold you back?
SENDAK: I worry about them. You have to care for them. Yes, they do, indeed, take over more than you’d like them to. There would be something good in not having them, because you have to look after books, you have to look after paper. This is burdensome.
Things of mine, when I’m no longer in this world, I intend to leave in my will that they be auctioned off again. I don’t want to leave them to anybody because I had so much fun getting them, I’d like them all dispersed. They don’t “belong” to anybody; you don’t “own” those things. You just have possession of them during that brief time you’re here. You just have possession of them during that brief time you’re here. In that sense you’re taking care of them for anyone who is ever going to have them.
It’s easy to understand how the Indians felt. I mean somebody comes up and says, “How many trees do you have?” In a sense you could almost think the trees are tolerating your presence. It’s funny to think of owning trees, owning land. It’s a funny idea. Somehow you think that if you said, “I own a tree,” that the tree would never forgive you, and it would take vengeance every time you passed it for having the audacity to think you possessed it.
NUWER: Do you believe in heroes?
SENDAK: Yeah. Not many. The order of their priority is Mozart, Kleist, Melville. They’re the core group.
Mozart and Kleist are both so diametrically opposed, and, yet, I know what links them together. Kleist stands for total destruction, this great big desperate need to find out why there’s a reason for living, and then, NOT to find it. He collapsed under it. The work is all a hysterical plea. It’s all so wonderful and touching, but he never succeeds. All of Kleist’s work is there as imbalance in Nature, but in Mozart, there is the most quintessential perfect balance. There is suffering and everything you expect a grown man would have experienced in life, and, yet, in a way no other creature has done it. They are the pluses and minuses in my personal algebra.
NUWER: And Melville?
SENDAK: Melville is somehow more on the side of Kleist. He is a more comprehensible Kleist, a readable Kleist, a more lovable Kleist. In a way it’s simplistic to say so, but Mozart and Kleist represent to sides of my own life. It’s the Mozart that I want and lean towards. I want to believe in balance, that you can put all these things into your life and subdue them in you work. But then there’s another part that says any moment you may die. Any moment it may fall apart. Any moment this thing you have created is merely a surface image like a piece of glass that like a Kleist character, you will go crashing through. That’s a part of how I feel, too. That’s how quickly we can lose everything. Between listening to Mozart’s Jupiter symphony and reading a Kleist play is the wink of an eye.
NUWER: The quickness of an accident—you could lose your fingers.
SENDAK (nodding): Kleist’s world is all about the gratuitousness of life. There’s his wonderful short story called “The Earthquake in Chile.” I don’t have the whole plot, but very quickly: There is a man who is going to be hanged for a crime in prison. There’s a woman who’s going to be burned at the stake or something dreadful is going to be done to her because she’s had a child our of wedlock. Both are going to happen at the same time. Anthe earthquake in Chile occurs—this famous earthquake. The whole town is destroyed, arbitrarily. And he gets out of prison, and she gets away from the people. They meet in the rubble. They escape. Marvelous scenes of the masses of people rushing through the destroyed city. The river is on fire. They get across in a boat. Then they go to a church at the end—I’m condensing it hopelessly. In the church they thank God for their safety. And in the church they are recognized by other people in the town as the infamous woman and the criminal. And they are horribly stoned to death. So they die anyway. And that to me is the quintessential Kleist—twist upon twist. It’s something that—unfortunately—I savor in a story, because that’s what I think life is really like.
I look to Mozart as God, as a teacher I want to save me from this perilous vision, and the result at my age is that both reside within me at equal times. I alternate between the two. I believe in the Mozart one, because the Mozart incorporates the Kleist. That’s what gives him the edge over Kleist. If Mozart had not seen the Kleist vision, he would have been less great, but he has, and within that he still got it all there. Kleist couldn’t see the Mozart, just couldn’t. Both personal visions are an amalgamation; I don’t know if I can separate them.
There is a sense of perilousness in life—the way a house is robbed, or the way an earthquake in Chile occurs, or a flood in Louisiana, or whatever you want. I love with a great sense of the gratuitousness that happens in life. Of nature’s forces, of the lack of any ability we have to do anything about these things.
The great philosophers or religious people resigned themselves and said such is life; this, too, is the rhythm of life. It’s not an exception. It’s not an eccentric thing. You mustn’t make more of it than it is. It’s a procedure of life.
This view is an accruing of everything you were, always. I had an intensely sharp sense of death as a child, which came simply form the maladroitness of my parents in dealing with me when I was critically ill as a child. So I’ve always had this perilous sense of my own life, that my time would run out, that it could be snatched away from me when I was a child and helpless. Whatever is to protect you from that kind of attack? That is me more than anything else. Life is almost borrowed time (slight laugh), that when something is good it’s almost a miracle. That is more normally is disastrous. I’ve tried very hard to reshape that thinking, because it’s unbearable to live with it. I’ve had to incorporate other modes of thinking to keep myself going.
NUWER: Do you owe much to any particular philosopher?
SENDAK: No, I can’t take anything in a book that isn’t by a fictional writer. If it’s by a philosopher, I reject it outhand. If it’s by Melville I’ll buy it. It’s got to be that kind of artist who teaches me. I can’t be taught by a Schopenhauer or a Kant. I can’t. Don’t ask me why. I just can’t. I can’t read things like that. But I trust artists. I don’t trust philosophers. Of course, anyone could say, “But what a mistake you’re making. They happen to be artists, too.’ Possibly. Maybe they’re just too hard to read and boring.
NUWER: When did you start reading Melville?
SENDAK: In my twenties. I started with Moby-Dick for all the obvious reasons. I thought it was a great classic to read. And in fact it really hit an imaginary chord at that stage in my life. And when I fall in love with a writer, I have to read everything. And then I went through, for a long period of years, all of Melville. I’ve since gone through them again, and I love all of them. And the only one that has stumped me is Mardi. I just did volume one. And I did that one only about four years ago. I could not make myself go on to the next one. I couldn’t stand it any more.
NUWER: I couldn’t stand The Confidence Man.
SENDAK: Oh, The Confidence Man was wonderful. I loved that!
NUWER: I read that at age twenty.
SENDAK: Too young. Too young. It’s way too young.
NUWER: Do you remember, in Moby-Dick, the character Bulkington?
SENDAK: Oh, of course. Of course. Brave, good Bulkington.
NUWER: Do you think he was a mistake?
NUWER: –I do. I think Melville might have gotten rid of him because Bulkington wouldn’t have backed down the way Starbuck did.
SENDAK: He does get rid of him a completely arbitrary way, doesn’t he? “The Lee Shore.” That’s such a chapter, isn’t it? Wow! “The Lee Shore.”
NUWER: “O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of the ocean-perishing—straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!”
SENDAK: Yes. That’s the end of him. Well, from a technical point of view, it’s an error. But then there are no errors in that book. There just ain’t none. I mean he [Bulkington] was just there for that. If only because he had to do “The Lee Shore,” and that’s all it was worth…listen, I’m too in love with that book to be critical. I can’t worry about whether Bulkington made sense or not. I would have died without Bulkington. And Bulkington was one of his typical male fantasy heroes. Melville is full of men like Jack Chase—superman, heroes. He loved male imagery like that. It’s very peculiar.
NUWER: That might account for Melville’s falling out with Hawthorne.
SENDAK: Well, so much has been made of whether what we’re talking about is repressed homosexuality that reappears over and over and over again in Melville. And maybe that’s so. It really makes no difference particularly. I think it only makes a difference if we infer anything like that in the relationship with Hawthorne. And I don’t think you can. The nineteenth century thing was so different from the twentieth century.
NUWER: Melville strikes me as a man’s man. I think it was just pure friendship with Hawthorne.
SENDAK: It’s really hard to know. Impossible to know. Do you remember that strange chapter in Melville of touching hands in the sperm? That is so bizarre.
NUWER: Touching in the ambergris, yes. Also there’s the bed incident where the harpooner Queequeq drapes his leg over Ishmael as if they were married.
SENDAK: There is an awful lot of that. It’s just that one is tempted not to think so because everyone so quickly does it.
Buy, you know, when you think of Melville’s career—and Melville was an extremely successful writer, up until his masterpiece, Moby-Dick—it was not a successful book. But nevertheless, everything that made him a genius went into Moby-Dick. Everything. Typee. Redburn. Omoo. All of them are sketches for Moby-Dick. Then he does Moby-Dick, and you know that he achieved a kind of immense balance and comprehension that is awesome in that book. But then the thing that scares me is that Pierre, the book that come right after that, is—yes, it’s a motionless book, but it’s a great and ingenious work of art. But that’s beside the point. I’m not sitting here as a critic of Melville…but he lost the balance. People say the book is a vindictive diatribe against all his critics. Bullshit! He might have been mad and hurt—He must have been mad and hurt. But he wouldn’t have spent that much time on a book being just mad and hurt. He lost something vital. And Pierre is to me all about having lost. How did he lose it? That scares me.
NUWER: Right around that time he was looking to Hawthorne for inspiration. Hawthorne totally rejected his work. And I think that did have some awful effect on Melville.
SENDAK: Of course it had an effect. It’s the reason I hate Hawthorne with all my heart. I’ll never forgive Hawthorne for Herman. It’s alike…I’ll take that up with him someday. I’ll never forgive him for having so misunderstood. Mrs. Hawthorne understood better. Her journals have intuitive little things about what this poor man needed from her husband and how incapable her husband was of giving. I mean, you can’t blame Hawthorne for being incapable. That’s silly. But it’s true. But I still can’t believe that was enough to do it. That Herman Melville could have constructed everything—his whole balance of life—on this man. And that the withdrawal of that man, however cold and abrupt he was, could have meant this…maybe it did. Maybe I just am afraid to think it was that. I’m afraid. And why am I afraid? Because I identify. I go back to what I just said that between Moby-Dick and Pierre he lost everything. And that’s how quickly we can all lose everything.
NUWER: Do you have any beliefs in otherworldly things—spirits around the house, etcetera?
NUWER: What are your beliefs in afterlife?
NUWER: Death? Blackness? Void?
SENDAK: Yes. It doesn’t frighten me at all. I think if you’re lucky enough to have lived long enough, and be old enough, it seems to me the gift of death is oblivion. It’s weary to be alive. It’s a chore. It’s a happy chore, a good chore, but you have to be aware that it’s an effort. To live any kind of reasonable, balanced life means you have to put a lot of energy into being reasonable and balanced. Right? It’s not an automatic thing, because as human beings, we are neither reasonable nor balanced automatically. We have to learn to be that way. And I would think that when you’re old, you must be weary of the effort. And you must wish to just not do anything. And, I mean, death is lovely for bringing oblivion. For being the wished-for peach that you’ve earned. It’s terrible if it happens before you reach that stage. But the idea of another life—Mama mia!—once is enough. Unlike Jacqueline Susann.
NUWER: Do you believe in taking your own life, if it’s going badly?
SENDAK: Yes. But you’ve got to be sure it’s going badly. For irreversible reasons. Yes, I do. I think that’s the logical thing to do. I think you’ve got to be logical. But I don’t know how many people can know for sure that it’s irreversible. Terminally ill people do know, and have every reason to take charge of their own fates. I worry about state of depression, which would feel as bad as terminal illness. Taking your life at that point is very questionable.
NUWER: People change?
SENDAK: yes. They get through it. But I know how hard it is. Many people have been through it. I have. Nowhere to the degree other people have, and I know people who have taken their lives in the midst o fit, and I understand.
NUWER: Do you seek out the company of other people, or do you find at this point you enjoy being alone?
SENDAK: I prefer being alone. I have good friends, but I prefer, in all truth, being alone. I like being alone with my books, with my music. It gets bad sometimes when I can’t stand my own presence, I can’t stand my own thinking of myself and my repetitive and tiresome thoughts. Then I have friends. They come up here, I go to them. I take breaks, which are normal and healthy. You get away from yourself. But in the end I’m always happier when I come back here again.
Copyright by Hank Henry Nuwer (Hank Nuwer)
* * *