Maurice Sendak, who died today, was always someone I respected more than loved.
I was 13 when Where the Wild Things Are was published, so too old to come to it as a child. My son liked it fine, but it wasn’t up there at the top of the list of read-it-AGAINs with Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day, or the weird Swedish fairytale about Princess Ingeborg.
|My grandson as Max, stirring up
a wild rumpus with a sleepy dog
That was fine with me. I don’t have trouble with the anarchic spirit of childhood Sendak’s work evoked, but wild things scare me–maybe because my own childhood was so peopled with them, even if their wildness was emotionally rather than physically threatening. In the Night Kitchen, though a pretty disturbing book in lots of ways, was less of a problem for some reason. (The childhood nudity that gets that book banned from library shelves was not a stopper, since my son attended The Last Unreformed Hippie Preschool in Hollywood, where clothing was as optional for toddlers as it had been for Woodstock attendees.) I was fascinated by the evolution of Brundibar, from Sendak and Tony Kushner’s storybook based on the children’s opera originally performed in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia through their revival of the opera itself. I knew that Sendak had described the focus of his life’s work as “the struggle to survive childhood,” a struggle I honor but don’t feel comfortable cuddling up to, wild thing that it is.
So it took me by surprise, this afternoon, when I was brought to sobbing by a replay of Sendak’s last Fresh Air conversation with Terry Gross. I was driving, and only caught the end, in which Sendak makes some very personal observations about belief, loss, and death–a good 15 minutes, during which he is himself audibly weeping. I had to pull over. Talking with Gross about the death of loved ones, Sendak says he doesn’t believe there’s anything after death, so when someone dies, that’s it, they’re gone forever. And he loves them so much, and the emptiness is so great. Faced with this inevitability, Sendak (like Christopher Hitchens before him) forcibly maintains his lifelong atheism. But then he says, “Still, part of me believes I will see my brother [Jack, a frequent colaborator on children's books, who died in 1995] again . . . in some dream state.” I had to pull over, because I was crying so hard myself.
I think this man of very great imagination and very little faith might be (like Hitchens) in for a surprise. It doesn’t matter that he thought he didn’t believe; he loved, and that works. It doesn’t matter that the person he loved longest in his life, next to his brother, was another man, Sendak’s partner of 50 years who predeceased him; not that it’s anybody’s business, as even Mark Shea said this past week, but Sendak himself said their relationship was less about “being gay” than about sharing the pleasures of good books and good music–the blessing of comfortable intimacy that marks all good marriages in the end anyway. It speaks well of Sendak that if he was an idolator, he counted among his gods Melville, Dickinson, and Mozart. And in his conversation with Terry Gross, he described what he has come to see as his version of religion simply: “I am in love with the world.” The Creator of the world takes that as a compliment, I bet.
Here’s my prayer. God of Surprises, let Maurice and his brother and his partner and his parents and his family members lost in the Holocaust (but never lost to You) and Herman and Emily and Wolfgang Amadeus be kicking up a joyful rumpus, not in some dream state but in the place where all the wild things–beyond our imaginings, beyond what eye has seen or ear heard–are reunited, now and always.